Top Energy Science Breakthroughs in 2008: Batteries, Fuel Cells and Capacitors

December 24 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: Beyond   Rating: 7 Hot

A123 Battery

 

Let's think beyond simply trying to find new ways to produce more energy, and focus on ways of storing energy.  Why?  Because this expands ways for us to produce more energy!  Confused? 

Solar and wind alone are a hard sell to utility providers because of intermittent production when the sun isn't shining or wind doesn't blow.  Add utility scale storage to solar and wind farms, and you have a more valuable proposition.

Battery powered cars sound great, but not if we have to plug in our vehicles every 50 or 100 miles. Or what about a new iPhone with a battery that cannot last the entire day. 

We have written dozens of posts on energy storage and believe it deserves much more attention from the media and policy leaders.   2009 could be a turning point for awareness around the importance of enabling next generation batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.

List of 20+ Energy Breakthroughs in Batteries, Fuel cells, and Capacitors

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Top Energy Stories of 2008: #3 The Obama Election

December 16 2008 / by joelg
Category: Technology   Year: 2008   Rating: 5 Hot

By Joel Greenberg

Barack Obama's energy platform included goals for renewable energy, higher automoative gas mileage standards, support for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and targets for energy efficiency of homes...and that's just to start.  With the recent announcement of Nobel laureate and now former head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, Obama's administration can be the catalyst that makes alternative energy markets viable.

Will the Obama administration be successful in making the energy changes he promised in the election?

Obama's Energy Plan

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The Top 10 Energy Stories of 2008

December 16 2008 / by joelg
Category: Energy   Year: 2008   Rating: 6 Hot

Top 10 Energy Stories of Year 2008 By Joel Greenberg and the Staff of The Energy Roadmap

2008 was a big year in energy and one that we could very well look back upon as the platform to the not so distant future of energy.  Much has happened.  To help you make sense of it all, we here at The Energy Roadmap have sifted through our bookmarks, Google Notebooks, back of the napkin lists, Twitter searches, interview transcripts, and RSS feeds to come up with the top 10 energy stories that will have an impact on our culture, society, and lives.

 

Top Energy Stories of 2008

#1  Story of the Year:
Electrification of the Passenger Car

#2   The Year of Scientific Breakthroughs

#3   The Obama Election

#4   From $147 to $50: The Price of Oil

#5   The Dying Gasp of Corn Ethanol

#6   The Clean Coal Lobby Breaks Through the Clutter...and Gets a Response

#7   Geeks Go Green

#8   The Rise of Local Initiatives

#9   Infrastructure Gains Attention

#10 Emerging Energy Missionaries & Visionaries

 

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Energy Story of 2008: #1 Electrification of the Passenger Car

December 15 2008 / by joelg
Category: Energy   Year: 2008   Rating: 4 Hot

By the fall of 2008, every major automanufacturer from GM to Nissan to Tata--and a few startups such as Tesla and Aptera--had announced production model plans for all manner of electric vehicles, from all electrc vehicles, to plug-in hybrid electrics, to fuel cell vehicles, with deliveries to consumers starting in 2010.  2008 could well be known as the nail in the coffin for the bulky combustion engine which has plagued the auto industry with its manufacturing and design liabilities, and association with volatile oil markets.

How quickly might the world re-tool the global auto industry to build new vehicle chassis based on electric motors and advanced energy storage systems?

Every Auto Manufacturer has Announced Electric Vehicles

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#2   The Year of Scientific Breakthroughs

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Swiss team designs low cost, low maintenance wave power system

December 09 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2020   Rating: 3 Hot

ocean powerWhile solar power is often described as the world's great untapped clean source of energy, ocean power deserves as much attention. In fact, it deserves a lot of attention given the expectation that the world will double energy consumption in the decades ahead. And the reality that most of the world's population lives close to an ocean.

Futures oriented energy engineers dream of capturing the steady kinetic and thermal of energy. Unlike solar and wind, ocean energy provides near 24/7 potential utilization.

A Low Mainteance Linear Generator?
Now a Swiss team from Upsalla University has developed and tested a novel system.  For nearly three years, a wave power plant has stood on the bottom of the ocean a couple of kilometers off the west coast of Sweden, near Lysekil. Rafael Waters, from the Uppsala University Division of Electricity, designed and built the facility as part of his doctoral project.

The team's 'linear generator' generates electricity with the slow up and down movements of the waves. An ordinary generator transforms rotation energy to electricity, and it needs to turn at about 1500 rpm to be efficient.  (Images)

“This means that a wave energy station with an ordinary generator needs energy transmission systems such as gearboxes or hydraulic systems and other complicated details that wear out and require much more maintenance than a linear generator,” says Rafael Waters. “Our generator has functioned without any trouble every time we started it up over the years, even though it has received no maintenance and has sometimes stood still for months.”

Future plans for the wave power array

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Flying on Jatropha Biofuel

December 10 2008 / by amisampat
Category: Transportation   Year: 2009   Rating: 5 Hot

240_jatropha_plantation3.jpg

By Ami Sampat

What Happened?
Continental Airlines and Boeing are preparing for the first flight of a plane run partially on next generation biofuels, which will leave on January 7 from Houston, Texas. Continental and Boeing's joint venture will be the first American plane to use jatropha as a biofuel. This biofuels milestone follows Virgin Atlantic's earlier test run, using coconut oil and babassu oil.

Why is this important?
Biofuels would not only help reduce the airline industry's carbon emissions but it could also be a more stable source of fuel.

The January 7th flight is going to be fueled by a 50/50 blend of traditional jet fuel and biofuels derived from algae and jatropha fuel. Jatropha is a shrub (non-food crop) grown on marginal lands.  Its oil-rich seeds can be used to make biofuels. The first commercial scale Jatropha operations are now being tested in India,  China, Indonesia, Malaysia and West Africa

What's Next?
Provided the test run goes well next month, this could open doors for the airline business and biofuel producers looking to capture a part of the aviation biofuel market.

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MIT announces breakthrough in fusion, but Holy Grail of energy 'still decades away'

December 04 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: Beyond   Rating: 7 Hot

MIT Fusion

MIT researchers are keeping hope alive in the long quest for fusion energy.  Researchers have advanced our ability to harnesses one of the most complicated forms of energy science in the universe, but add a word of caution that real scalable reactors could still be 'decades away' as all eyes now focus on the ITER in France.

Fusion systems could generate enormous amounts of energy by tapping the same types of reactions found within stars.  It has long been considered a 'holy grail' category within the energy sector because it produces no emissions or real waste, and its fuel sources are abundant.

MIT's Alcator C-Mod reactor has been in operation since 1993 and has the highest magnetic field and the highest plasma pressure of any fusion reactor in the world. It is also the largest fusion reactor operated by any university. [Image from MIT Fusion Movie]

Now MIT researchers believe they may have solved one of the most challenging problems how to propel the hot plasma (an electrically charged gas) around inside the donut-shaped reactor chamber so that the chamber doesn't lose its heat of millions of degrees to the cooler vessel walls.

"There's been a lot of progress," says physicist Earl Marmar, division head of the Alcator Project at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). "We're learning a lot more about the details of how these things work."

The Power of Radio waves
Physicist Yijun Lin and principal research scientist John Rice now describe a very efficient method for using radio-frequency waves to push the plasma around inside the vessel, not only keeping it from losing heat to the walls but also preventing internal turbulence that can reduce the efficiency of fusion reactions.

"That's very important," Marmar says, because presently used techniques to push the plasma will not work in future, higher-power reactors such as the planned ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) now under construction in France, and so new methods must be found. "People have been trying to do this for decades."

France holds Key to Future of Fusion

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Texas A&M researchers advance self powered (piezeoelectric) devices

December 02 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Technology   Year: 2019   Rating: 7 Hot

nanotitaniumtubeWhat if you could charge your portable device simply by having it move around in your pocket while you walk?

Texas A&M Professor Tahir Cagin believes that piezeoelectric materials, that convert motion into electric currents could be closer to applied applications thanks to their recent design breakthrough. (Not Image shown)

Professor Cagin and partners from the University of Houston are using piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size – in this case, around 21 nanometers in thickness.

"When materials are brought down to the nanoscale dimension, their properties for some performance characteristics dramatically change," said Cagin who is a past recipient of the prestigious Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. "One such example is with piezoelectric materials. We have demonstrated that when you go to a particular length scale – between 20 and 23 nanometers – you actually improve the energy-harvesting capacity by 100 percent.

"We're studying basic laws of nature such as physics and we're trying to apply that in terms of developing better engineering materials, better performing engineering materials. We're looking at chemical constitutions and physical compositions. And then we're looking at how to manipulate these structures so that we can improve the performance of these materials."

"Even the disturbances in the form of sound waves such as pressure waves in gases, liquids and solids may be harvested for powering nano- and micro devices of the future if these materials are processed and manufactured appropriately for this purpose," Cagin said.

Why is this important to the future?
Micro power systems are in high demand for portable gadgets and sensors like RFID tags used on products in 'smart supply chain' logistics.  While batteries and micro fuel cells might be required for higher demand applications, piezeoelectric systems could find a role in the world of micro-power. 

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Another US startup producing thin film solar panels used for rooftops

December 01 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2011   Rating: 8 Hot

Leslie Science CenterThe US manufacturing base appears to be more than capable of expanding production of a very promising form of solar technology that can be integrated into building materials like rooftops.

Thin film solar (right side of roof image) based on plastic material foundations are less efficient than traditional glass-based photovoltaic panels (leftside of image), but they are much cheaper and more durable. By layering, or ‘printing’, thin film solar modules into common building and rooftop materials we can generate solar power onsite even on cloudy days. 

While large utilities look to solar thermal and traditional glass based solar panels to produce large amounts of electricity, building designers and consumers are waiting for plastic based thin film solar that can be integrated into rooftops without the risk (and design issues) associated with fragile and bulky glass units.

We have covered a number of stories (below) on thin film solar startups in the US who are building megawatt scale thin film production plants in the next 18 months.

Now EPV SOLAR has announced that its new 30,000 square foot, 20 MW production facility in Robbinsville, NJ, is producing and shipping production quantities of its thin-film amorphous silicon solar modules. EPV already operates a 30 MW plant in Senftenberg, Germany. 

The next step for thin film producers will be to expand partnerships with building materials and construction firms able to get products to market.  Last month Michigan-based ECD Ovonic solar subsidiary Uni-Solar has signed a multi-year agreement with an Italian steel and metal materials company to build solar rooftop materials used in onsite power generation. Marcegaglia expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film.  

While it is too early to expect thin film solar panels on the shelves of Home Depot and Lowes, that day might be much closer than you think!

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PetroSun designs algae-to-biofuel systems for catfish farms

December 01 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2012   Rating: 6 Hot

Algae FarmAlgae and bacteria can be used to capture energy from carbon-rich waste streams from coal plants, agricultural farms, food processing facilities, wastewater treatment plants and - yes, catfish farms.

Arizona-based PetroSun Biofuels (Subsidiary of PetroSun) has announced plans to integrate algae systems with catfish farm ponds for commercial algae-to-biofuel operations. PetroSun Biofuels is quickly becoming a biofuel startup with global reach.  It already operates an open algae biofuel farm in Texas, has licensed its technology outside of the US, and is working to launch operations in China.

PetroSun BioFuels and Biomass Partners have identified up to 80,000 acres of catfish ponds within the state of Mississippi that hold the potential for commercial algae bioenergy systems.   Based on PetroSun's annual potential production rate of 2,000 gallons per acre, the existing 80,000 acres of ponds would produce 160 million gallons of algal oil annually for conversion to biodiesel. The remaining algae biomass (e.g. fatty acids) could be processed into ethanol, animal feed, fertilizer and other biomaterial products.

PetroSun is working to secure land surface rights and existing farm ponds located in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas but has not yet announced dates for planned production facilities.

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Solar cell efficiency improved by 50% with anti-reflection coating (MIT Researchers)

November 26 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2016   Rating: 6 Hot

What happened? MIT OLED
MIT researchers are rethinking how light can be manipulated within solar cells.  They have applied an antireflection coating, a novel combination of multi-layered reflective coatings and a tightly spaced array of lines to the backs of ultrathin silicon films to boost the cells' output by as much as 50 percent.  [No official statement has been released on original vs improved efficiency level.]  

The coatings on the back of the solar cell force the light to bounce around longer inside the thin silicon layer, giving it time to deposit its energy and produce an electric current. "Without these coatings, light would just be reflected back out into the surrounding air" said Peter Bermel, an MIT postdoctoral physics researcher.

"It's critical to ensure that any light that enters the layer travels through a long path in the silicon," Bermel said. "The issue is how far does light have to travel [in the silicon] before there's a high probability of being absorbed" and knocking loose electrons to produce an electric current.

Why is this important to the future?
Depending on the range of its applications, this type of breakthrough could transform solar efficiencies for traditional crystalline (glass substrate) solar cells as well as thin film (carbon substrate) solar. 

While we invest in commercializing solar energy systems, we must not turn our backs on funding basic science that can yield fundamental breakthroughs.   "The simulated performance was remarkably better than any other structure, promising, for 2-micrometer-thick films, a 50 percent efficiency increase in conversion of sunlight to electricity," said Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, who directed the project.

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Self-assembled metal nanostructures improve fuel cell performance

November 25 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2018   Rating: 4 Hot

The way to improve fuel cells, energy storage devices and solar cells is to evolve our ability to control the way molecules and photons flow through materials and lead to other reactions. We do not need to overcome the Laws of Physics, just improve the design of materials at the molecular level.

What happened?
Cornell University researchers have designed platinum nanoparticles that automatically assemble into complex, ordered patterns and can be used for efficient and low cost catalysts in fuel cells and other micro-fabrication processes.

“The challenge with metals is that their high surface energies cause the particles to cluster,” explains , led by Professor Uli Wiesner who led the team. “This tendency to aggregate makes it difficult to coax metal particles into lining up in an orderly fashion, which is a critical step in forming ordered materials.”

Instead of relying on the traditional (and imprecise) ‘heat it and beat it’ approach” to structuring metals, Professor Wiesner, Scott C. Warren, and their coworkers prepared their materials through self-assembly of block copolymers and stabilized platinum nanoparticles. This ‘bottom up’ approach can lower costs and improve the precision of material design.

Why is this important to the future of energy?
We need breakthroughs in materials science that make energy systems cost effective and clean. Nanoscale science (billionth of a meter) and engineering is the platform of future innovation.

Fuel cell costs are based on two main factors: the cost of membranes (MEAs) that enable the reactions and manufacturing techniques to build the device. The way forward is to reduce the amount of precious metal catalysts needed in membranes, and also lower the cost of manufacturing materials around self-assembly. These metallic structures developed by the Cornell team could take us further down the road towards lower cost energy systems that go beyond traditional combustion energy conversion.

Related research:

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