• Northeastern Researchers Use Coated Nanotubes to Improve Splitting of Water Into Hydrogen and Oxygen

    April 25 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    Northeastern splitting hydrogen from waterResearchers from Northeastern University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have improved the efficiency of clustered nanotubes used in solar cells to produce hydrogen by splitting water molecules.

    By layering potassium on the surface of the nanotubes made of titanium dioxide and carbon, the photocatalyst can split hydrogen gas from water using ‘about one-third the electrical energy to produce the same amount of hydrogen as an equivalent array of potassium-free nanotubes.’

    Rethinking the Possibilities at the Nanoscale
    Energy is about manipulating the interactions of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, metals, biological enzymes and sunlight.

    When we design core enabling energy systems (e.g. catalysts, membranes, cathodes/anodes, et al) at the nanoscale (billionth of a meter) we find performance that is fundamentally different from the same systems designed at the 'microscale' (millionth of a meter). 

    Because smaller is better when it comes to manipulating molecules and light, the research teams used ‘tightly packed arrays of titania nanotubes’ with carbon that ‘helps titania absorb light in the visible spectrum.’ Arranging catalysts in the form of nanoscale-sized tubes increases the surface area of the catalyst which in turn increases the reactive area for splitting oxygen and hydrogen.

    Hydrogen - Moving Beyond Hype and Skepticism


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  • Oregon Researchers Use Nano-shells of Algae to Trap Photons and Improve Solar Cell Efficiency

    April 19 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    Oregon Diatom SolarThe Future of Energy will be based on our ability to elegantly control the interactions of light, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals.  And for all our engineering prowress of extracting and blowing up ancient bio-energy reserves (coal/oil), there is still so much to learn about basic energy systems from Mother Nature.

    Laying Down Algae Shells for Solar Panels
    Researchers from Oregon State University and Portland State University have developed a new way to make “dye-sensitized” solar cells using a 'bottom up' biological assembly processes over traditional silicon chemical engineering.

    The teams are working with a type of solar cell that generates energy when 'photons bounce around like they were in a pinball machine, striking these dyes and producing electricity.'

    Rather than build the solar cells using traditional technqiues, the team is tapping the outer shells of single-celled algae, known as diatoms, to improve the electrical output. (Diatoms are believed to be the ancient bio-source of petroleum.)

    The team placed the algae on a transparent conductive glass surface, and then (removed) the living organic material, leaving behind the tiny skeletons of the diatoms to form a template that is integrated with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide to complete the solar cell design.

    Biology's Nanostructured Shells & Bouncing Photons?
    “Conventional thin-film, photo-synthesizing dyes also take photons from sunlight and transfer it to titanium dioxide, creating electricity,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor of chemical engineering “But in this system the photons bounce around more inside the pores of the diatom shell, making it more efficient.”

    The research team is still not clear how the process works, but 'the tiny holes in diatom shells appear to increase the interaction between photons and the dye to promote the conversion of light to electricity... potentially with a triple output of electricity.' 

    According to the team, this is the 'first reported study of using a living organism to controllably fabricate semiconductor TiO2 nanostructures by a bottom-up self-assembly process.'  So, chalk up another early win for advanced bio-energy manufacturing strategies!



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  • US Energy Secretary Steven Chu Announces $41 Million for Fuel Cells (Stationary, Micro-Power and Transportation)

    April 16 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    stationary fuel cell

    US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced $41 million to support the 'immediate deployment of nearly 1,000 fuel cell systems for emergency backup power and material handling applications (e.g., forklifts) that have emerged as key early markets in which fuel cells can compete with conventional power technologies.  Additional systems will be used to accelerate the demonstration of stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power in the larger residential and commercial markets.'

    The funds will also support micro-power applications being advanced by innovative startups like Jadoo, Plug Power, Nuvera, MTI, PolyFuel, and Delphi Automotive (auxillary power systems for trucks!).

    Fuel Cells (Power Stations) vs Batteries (Storage)
    Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity without having to be 'plugged into' the grid.  As 'refuelable' power generators, they offer some key advantages to a pure energy storage offering of batteries (e.g. Batteries depend on 'grid access', while fuel cells need fuel and serve as a portable/stationary power station.  You just need to add fuel!)

    US Energy Visionaries Sense Global Opportunity
    The key to advancing fuel cells is to lower the costs of nanostructured catalysts (that release electric charges) and membranes (allow positive ions to pass) used in all applications (e.g. stationary, portable).  It is a materials science strategy based on nanoscale science and engineering. 

    While the battery supply chain has long been established, there is a unique opportunity for the US to leap frog into more commercially diverse applications based on fuel cell systems used in everything from distributed power, micro-power, transportation and utility scale power generation.

    More posts on Fuel cells at The Energy Roadmap.com

  • [Video] An Inside Look at the University of Texas-Austin Algae Species Collection

    April 14 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    The Future of Algae has been a hot topic among energy and cleantech bloggers, but it is still way off the radar of mainstream media.  This Wall Street Journal video looks at one of the world's leading catalogs and wholesalers (US$75 per tube) of algae species based at the University of Texas-Austin.

    Despite the hype, algae is more history than science fiction.  In fact it is already the world's dominate source of energy.  Petroleum is just chemical energy stored in the form of hydrogen-carbon bonds that were assembled by ancient sea-living microbes (diatoms).  So, oil is in essence the result of ancient algae growth!

    So instead of extracting reserves of oil, we can 'grow energy' using efficient biochemical pathways of algae (and bacteria) that eat carbon and, then using the power of light, bind it with hydrogen to produce bio-oil that can be used as a source of energy (via engine or fuel cell) or as a feedstock for biomaterials. 

    Related Algae and Bioenergy Posts on The Energy Roadmap.com

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  • Virus Built Batteries? MIT Advances Bio-Industrial Manufacturing Technique to Assemble Electrodes

    April 12 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    MIT Virus BacteriophageMIT's Biomolecular Materials Group has advanced a technique of using 'genetically engineered viruses that first coat themselves with iron phosphate, then grab hold of carbon nanotubes to create a network of highly conductive material.'

    This advanced 'bio-industrial' manufacturing process, which uses biological agents to assemble molecules, could help to evolve key energy material components (e.g. cathodes, anodes, membranes) used in batteries, fuel cells, solar cells and organic electronics (e.g. OLEDs). 

    Professors Angela Belcher and Michael Strano led the breakthrough bio-engineering work which can now use bacteriophage 'to build both the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium-ion battery.'   While the prototype was based on a typical 'coin cell battery', the team believes it can be adapted for 'thin film' organic electronic applications.

    Energy = Interactions
    Energy and Materials Science is about manipulating the assembly and interaction of molecules like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals.

    Today we are at the beginning of new eras of nanoscale materials science and bio-industrial processes that are certain to change the cost and efficiency equations within alternative energy and biomaterials.  And we have a lot to learn about molecular assembly from Mother Nature's genetically driven virus/bacteria and plants. After all, the energy released from breaking the carbon-hydrogen bonds of coal (ancient ferns) and oil (ancient diatoms) was originally assembled by biology (with some help from geological pressures!).  So why not tap this bio-industrial potential for building future energy components?


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  • [Video] GM Segway PUMA Cruising Through Brooklyn & New York City

    April 07 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Transportation

    GM & Segway are hoping to commercialize a new category of smart micro-vehicles for urban environments by 2012 (See previous post).  I love the application of Segway software, but am skeptical of a 'plug in' battery version. 

    I'm not sure how many wall sockets are accessible to urban dwellers who don't have garages!  So I love the idea, but think the real potential is the 'access' business model.  Let's keep the PUMA owned and operated by mobility service companies, not urban dwellers themselves!


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  • GM & Segway Unveil Personal Urban Mobility Vehicle, Demonstrate Disruptive Power of Software & Mobility as Service

    April 07 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Transportation

    GM PUMA BrooklynGeneral Motors and Segway unveiled a new type of small electric motor vehicle with advanced software that could shift how we look at mobility as a service.

    In an effort to appeal to digitally connected urban audiences, GM describes Project P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) as a low-cost mobility platform that 'enables design creativity, fashion, fun and social networking.' This protoype model travels up to 35 miles per hour (56 kph), with a range up to 35 miles (56 km) between recharges (though it's not clear how urban residents will access wall sockets!)

    'Smart' is the Real Revolution
    The greatest opportunities to transform the human mobility experience in the next century are likely to emerge from ‘smarter software’, not cleaner energy systems.  It seems clear that the combustion engine will eventually struggle to keep cost and design competitive against the lowering 'manufacturing footprint' of electric motors powered by the integration of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.  The real question is: Can human drivers keep up with changes ahead in software of 'smart cars'.

    Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication systems that relay alerts and information to drivers to reduce congestion and prevent collisions are already being integrated into luxury vehicles. But within a decade or two we can expect low cost vehicles embedded with sensors and ‘situation awareness’ detection systems that make cars 'smarter' than drivers.

    Access and Ownership (and Potential Chaos)
    A compelling vision of Personal Urban Vehicles is the emergence of personal 'mobility as service' companies that connect outer hubs with urban destination points (offices, retail, recreation, et al).  In addition to owning personal vehicles, we can imagine paying for 'access' to fleets of vehicles that we don't have to park.  (Of course, adding fleets of small vehicles could mean chaos in urban areas for pedestrians! Not to mention pushback from the Cabbies in New York!)

    More Images and Related Posts on The Future of Auto Industry


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  • Energy Efficiency Grants: Coming to Your State Soon

    April 06 2009 / by amisampat
    Category: Energy

    240_EnergyHog_AdultHomePg_08.jpgBy Ami Sampat

    $3.2 million dollars budgeted by the Obama administration as a part of the economic stimulus package is close to hitting your neighborhood.

    The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant will use the money to fund and promote the use of home energy audits, energy efficiency upgrades, replacement for outdated appliances, and so on. The Department of Energy describes main goal of the grant as to "support energy audits and energy efficiency retrofits in residential and commercial buildings, the development and implementation of advanced building codes and inspections, and the creation of financial incentive programs for energy efficiency improvements."

    The grant will also help transportation services work on efficiently using energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to also work on energy efficient stop lights and street lights, while also adding renewable energy installments to government buildings.

    As noted by the Department of Energy, the economic stimulus money will benefit homeowners by $6,500 in home improvements related to energy conservation.

    The programs created by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant are different for each state and city. There are a few criterion cities and states must undergo before they can actually receive the funding. Firstly, cities with a population over 35,000 are eligible for funding. Secondly, states and cities must apply. The applications are due on May 26 and June 25, respectively. Lastly, the state and city governments must have a plan on where to use the money within eighteen months of receiving the grant. If after eighteen months, no solid plan is set in place, then the money is lost.

    To see how the money will help your state, visit energy.gov/recovery.

  • UK Researchers Advance Room Temperature Superconductivity Using Carbon 'Buckyballs'

    April 05 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Energy

    quantum wire carbon nanotubeScientists at the University of Liverpool and Durham University have developed a new carbon nanotube material that might evolve as a room temperature superconductor used to transmit electricity with no resistance or energy loss.

    The use of football-shaped 'Carbon 60' fullerene molecules, or 'Bucky Balls', could change how we look at the quantum flow of electricity over long distance transmission lines as well as within medical equipment and 'molecular electronics'.

    The idea of carbon-based electron transmission was widely promoted by carbon fullerene co-founder Rick Smalley (d. 2005) more than a decade ago as the 'quantum armchair wire'.  The UK-based research suggests nanostructured carbon materials could evolve as room temperature superconductors.

    Shape Matters: Carbon Buckyballs 'Squeezing' Electrons 
    Liverpool Professor Matt Rosseinsky explains: "Superconductivity is a phenomenon we are still trying to understand and particularly how it functions at high temperatures. Superconductors have a very complex atomic structure and are full of disorder. We made a material in powder form that was a non-conductor at room temperature and had a much simpler atomic structure, to allow us to control how freely electrons moved and test how we could manipulate the material to super-conduct."

    Professor Kosmas Prassides, from Durham University, said: "At room pressure the electrons in the material were too far apart to super-conduct and so we 'squeezed' them together using equipment that increases the pressure inside the structure. We found that the change in the material was instantaneous – altering from a non-conductor to a superconductor. This allowed us to see the exact atomic structure at the point at which superconductivity occurred."


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  • Chinese Automaker SAIC, Taps US-based Battery Startup A123 for Coming Electric and Hybrid Vehicles

    April 03 2009 / by Garry Golden
    Category: Technology

    A123 battery carThe Wall Street Journal is reporting that Chinese car maker SAIC is planning to use lithium ion battery technology from promising startup A123 Systems of Watertown, MA.

    This is not game-changing news, but certainly worth noting since expectations are that Asian energy storage manufacturers (not US-based) are likely to dominate the first generation battery-power vehicles.

    This news arrived close to a NY Times front page article covering China's aspirations to lead the world in electric vehicles by 2011.

    It is an obvious win for A123 Systems, which was passed up by General Motors for Korea's LG last Fall, for GM's Volt battery pack.  But it is still unclear how the battle over energy storage will play out in the long term.

    EVs are Going Global and Batteries are Not the End Game!
    We have written for months about the globalization of the electric vehicle age, and the role Asia is likely  to play in the decades-long transition to electric vehicles powered by a combination of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors.

    Today's lithium ion battery batteries are better thanks to nanostructured components and membranes, but I'm doubtful that they will be the only power system in next generation electric vehicles.  

    Fuel cells and capacitors will eventually have their day as pieces to the complex engineering puzzle of powering cars. So let's not waste too much money extending 20th century wall socket cords to 21st century vehicles!  We should decouple transportation fueling from the grid, not add excess strain to an aging grid with no storage mechanism!

    The real opportunity for Asian automakers might be becoming the first company who can crack the 'low end' disruptive potential of electric vehicles and their lower 'manufacturing footprint' in terms of capital costs.

    How Should US Automakers Respond?
    I am a big fan of A123 Systems, but would rather see their nano-enhanced products used in non-automotive applications.  Let's get Li-ion batteries right for laptops before we head into automotive applications! 

    I've advocated for the US to 'go global' in its push for electric platforms and avoid competing in the battery market, and instead focusing on next generation fuel cells and solid hydrogen storage.  Beyond power systems the real money is likely to come from 'smart vehicle' software control systems, and electric wheel based motors.  

    So congratulations to A123 Systems, but let's not race to the bottom of commoditizing batteries!  Focus on the next generation systems!

    Related posts on the Future of Electric Vehicles:

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