Researchers 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.
The 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!
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
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.
MIT'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?
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!
General 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!)
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
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'.
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."
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 Timesfront 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.
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!
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!
Coal is the world's fastest growing source of energy, and at the center of the debate over advancing our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions even as we attempt to meet the demands of a global doubling of energy consumption in the decades ahead.
'Clean' vs 'Cleaner' While one side of the debate spectrum ridicules the concept of 'Clean Coal', the other side is pushing forward down the road to 'Cleaner' ways to convert coal energy into electricity that goes far beyond today's 'coal fire' combustion power plants.
Via a process known as 'gasification' we can remove much of the carbon from coal to create a cleaner hydrogen-rich synthetic gas (syngas). Industrial scale fuel cells can then convert this syngas chemical energy into electricity. The challenge is scaling up fuel cells to meet the challenge!
The milestone marks a key step towards non-combustion based conversion using 'low-cost Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) technology for coal-based power plants and other power generation applications' using carbon heavy feedstocks such as syngas, natural gas and biofuels.
Integrated gasification fuel cell plants are expected 'to achieve an overall operating efficiency of greater than 50 percent—15 percentage points higher than today’s average U.S.-based coal-fired power plant—while separating at least 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions for capture and environmentally secure storage.'
The US Department of Energy hoopes to have a a 250-kilowatt to 1-megawatt fuel cell module demonstration by 2012; a 5-megawatt proof-of-concept fuel cell system to demonstrate system integration, heat recovery turbines, and power electronics by 2015; and then a full-scale demonstration of a 250- to 500-megawatt integrated gasification fuel cell power plant by 2020.