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2007's Best: Energy
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

A Carbon-Negative Fuel

"Impossible!" you say. "Even wind and solar have carbon emissions from their manufacturing, and biofuels are carbon neutral at best. How can a fuel be carbon negative?" But listen to people working on gasification and terra preta, and you'll have something new to think about.

...Gasification and terra preta as a means of sequestering carbon is far cheaper than injecting CO2 into mine shafts, but it's still not cheap. Biopact calculated that "under a basic scenario sequestering biochar from biofuels produced by pyrolysis would be competitive when carbon prices reach US$37 (carbon currently fetches €21.55 on the European market, that is $30.5, and prices are expected to increase strongly in the near future)."

However, "[T]he great advantage of biochar is the fact that the technique can be applied world-wide on agricultual soils, and even by rural communities in the developing world because it is relatively low tech." In fact, the guts of Jim Mason's Mechabolic was mostly built with scrap steel tanks and whatever miscellaneous piping was handy, with nothing but a couple welders and some power tools -- nothing a well-equipped farm mechanic wouldn't have.


Blaine's The Future in a Tiny Sphere: A Conversation with Yoshinobu Tsujikawa, an interview with the folks behind spherical solar cells

Japan leads the world in solar power technology. Japan not only produces half the total solar cells made in the world, it also exports 30% of these cells, with expected demand for 20% increases per year. The Japanese government pushes renewable energy policies that have resulted in the installation of more than 100,000 residential solar power systems by 2004, as well as a projection of 5 GW of solar generation capacity by 2010. Japan even plans to launch a solar satellite by 2040, which will deliver energy to the earth via low-intensity microwaves. The satellite will absorb the sun’s energy 24 hours a day, unobstructed by clouds, and generate one million kilowatts per second – equal to the output of a nuclear power plant.

Now a Kyoto-based company, Kyosemi, is redesigning the future of photovoltaics themselves. Conventional photovoltaic technology is based on harnessing the sun's rays within a flat substrate, typically comprised by single or poly-crystalline silicon material. This arrangement is easy to design and manufacture; the only problem is that the efficacy of this technology relies on its position relative to the sun. Traditional but expensive solutions to this challenge involve motorized frames that follow the sun’s path throughout the day, requiring energy and maintenance in order to work properly.

Kyosemi’s solution is based on an entirely different geometry. Their innovative new Sphelar® is a matrix of tiny, spherical-shaped solar cells. The spheres are designed to absorb sunlight at any angle, and therefore do not require motorization for tracking the sun. Based on their geometry, Sphelar cells even optimize the use of reflected and indirect light, and have been shown to convert energy with close to 20% efficiency – beyond most flat photovoltaic technologies. Its flexible disposition also makes Sphelar appropriate for applications at a variety of scales, including mobile electronic devices.


Biomimetic Solar Cells

The "Graetzel cell" uses a thin coating of ruthenium and organic bipyridine molecules for light absorption, kicking electrons up into higher orbits but not quite all the way to being free electrons. This coating sits on a framework of titanium dioxide nano-crystals that carry the electrons away. A separate electrode replenishes the coating with more electrons (so it can absorb more photons), with the electrons carried from the electrode to the coating by a liquid electrolyte of dissolved iodine in which the entire coated framework sits.

These cells are not very efficient yet. However, they're far cheaper than silicon solar cells, because even though they are not manufactured in a biomimetic way (like Morse's cells), they also do not require the high vacuum and plasma and other difficulties of traditional PV manufacturing. We've mentioned before that the company Konarka has been selling these cells by the roll as "Power Plastic" since 2002, and have even made PV fabric. Power Plastic is currently about 3-5 percent efficient according to Machine Design, but they are hoping to jump to 20 percent efficiency by combining Graetzel cell technology with organic solar cells. Maybe at some point they'll combine their devices with the templating methods used by Morse to create PV cells that not only work more like plant leaves, but are made more like them as well.


Josie's Renewable Energy in Antarctica: a Green Option for a White Continent

Antarctica is one of the most vulnerable parts of our planet to environmental change. And yet, paradoxically, electricity at New Zealand’s Scott Base is produced by two fossil-fuel powered generators, using 380 000 litres of aviation fuel annually. Hardly an ideal choice for sustaining the needs of scientists studying pristine natural systems and climate change impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts warming of a greater magnitude in polar regions than elsewhere in the world and studies by the British Antarctic Survey show that 87 per cent of glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated in the last 50 years. The dramatic break-up of the Larson B ice shelf in 2002 may be a sign of things to come. If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt completely, the probability of which is difficult to predict, global sea levels would rise by around 6 metres (20 feet).

In this context, New Zealand researchers have been investigating ways to decrease fossil fuel use and reduce energy costs through renewable energy generation at Scott Base. Although CO2 emissions from Antarctica are negligible on a global scale, human impact in some areas is a cause for concern. A high proportion of Antarctica’s limited ice-free land is currently used for research stations, making these fragile ecosystems particularly vulnerable.


David and Chad's Oil From Algae

New companies, new methods, and a changing landscape indicate that biofuel from algae is poised to play a larger role.

Unlike crops that are currently being using for oil production such as soy, palm, corn and jatropha, some strains of algae contain as much as 50% oil. Once algae is grown, harvested and pressed to extract the oil, the remaining residue can be processed into ethanol, or burned directly in a power plant. The oil can then be processed into biodiesel using the ethanol (or methanol from another source). The National Renewable Energy Lab also believes jet fuel from certain strains of algae is possible.

Algae needs just a few simple things to kick-start a happy, oil-bearing life: water, sunlight and nutrients. While these might seem abundant and easy to come by, scientists and engineers who have been working in this area wish it were only that easy.


Warren's The World’s Largest Solar Energy Farm

Fresno, California sits at the south end of one of the sunniest and hottest valleys in North America, the San Joaquin. The San Joaquin Air District is also one of the most polluted in the nation, with asthma rates many times higher than the rest of the nation and numerous air quality action days every summer causing significant health and business impacts.

Upon this tableau, the city of about a half million residents along with 11 surrounding communities and two counties announced last week they would together be developing the largest solar facility in the world. It will be more than seven times the size of the earth’s largest solar energy farm, now in Germany.


Sarah's Solar in a Box

Despite good intentions and high ideals, we are all prone to inertia when it comes to breaking out of old habits. Unless the alternative brings personal benefit and added convenience, we're likely to stick with what we know. This is part of the obstacle to widespread adoption of renewable energy, given that paying the energy company and flipping a switch is the easiest and most familiar way to bring power inside. Companies who give customers the option to funnel their money towards renewables manage to provide that alternative without asking for a change of behavior, but getting on-site renewable energy requires a great deal more effort.

A few companies have begun addressing this problem by developing systems which subtract the burden and learning curve from the equation, leaving the consumer with nothing but the desired end result. A few months ago we mentioned Citizenre, a service that rents, delivers, installs, repairs and removes solar panels for homeowners. More recently we learned about ReadySolar's "Solar in a Box" -- a user-friendly prefab system that makes residential solar easy.


Mindy's Corn Ethanol and the Great Dust Bowl

The current corn ethanol meltdown -- a dual economic and environmental problem -- is history repeating itself.

The parallels between the events leading up to the Great Dust Bowl and today's ethanol mess are unnerving. Each is revealing on what can go wrong when long-term sustainability measures are not taken Into account and how poorly-conceived government subsidies can thwart the best of good intentions.

The origins of the Great Dust Bowl began nearly a century ago when the government exhorted settlers to take their dreams west to the Great Plains. Backed by zero interest loans, free train rides and price guarantees, hundreds of thousands flocked to Texas and Oklahoma to cast their lot as wheat farmers. In less than 10 years, millions of acres of native grassland were plowed under and transformed into vast carpets of gold-tinted wheat. And gold it was: farmers were guaranteed $2 for every bushel they produced. The slogan at that time -- "Health, Wealth and Opportunity" -- was as accurate as it was optimistic.

Of course, nobody remembered then that the Great Plains had once been listed on U.S. maps as the Great American Desert, or that American explorer Stephen Long once described the dry, windswept region as "almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence."

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Comments

"Corn Ethanol is not the answer. Much higher octane Ethanol will be produced by Plasma Waste Converters, also by Plasma Coal Gasification.


Posted by: Don on 1 Jan 08

"Corn Ethanol is not the answer. Much higher octane Ethanol will be produced by Plasma Waste Converters, also by Plasma Coal Gasification.


Posted by: Don on 1 Jan 08

"Corn Ethanol is not the answer. Much higher octane Ethanol will be produced by Plasma Waste Converters, also by Plasma Coal Gasification.


Posted by: Don on 1 Jan 08

There is a new world wide web emerging right before our eyes. It is a global energy network and, like the internet, it will change our culture, society and how we do business. More importantly, it will alter how we use, transform and exchange energy.

For more information, see http://www.terrawatts.com


Posted by: Michael on 1 Jan 08

Good and comprehensive article.
But as of now, one has to wait till a feasible solution is seen in many areas mentioned by you.


Posted by: Prabhakar on 1 Jan 08

Good and comprehensive article.
But as of now, one has to wait till a feasible solution is seen in many areas mentioned by you.


Posted by: Prabhakar on 1 Jan 08

My first nomination is massmegawatts.com. They produce vastly inefficient and wind-wasting wind turbines. They can produce half the kilowatts as a real turbine, at 1/4 the price. So put up two turbines. They compete with Niagara Falls and possibly with geothermal for the cheapest electricity on the planet, they don't kill bats, and they can be installed all over the place.


Posted by: Paul K on 3 Jan 08

How many wind turbines are needed to make up for shutting down one nuclear plant?
I have worked on both types of plants - a wind turbine puts out about 1.1 megawatts; a nuclear plant closer to 1100 MW.
As far as PV (photovoltaic or solar), these grids aren't even in the ball park of a wind turbine. And you need VATS of concentrated acid to make one solar panel - do you want that stuff in your back yard?
I admire the hope to eliminate evil power plants. But the way to do that is to be educated - not in journalism, but in SCIENCE.
Patrick


Posted by: Patrick on 5 Jan 08

How many wind turbines are needed to make up for shutting down one nuclear plant?
I have worked on both types of plants - a wind turbine puts out about 1.1 megawatts; a nuclear plant closer to 1100 MW.
As far as PV (photovoltaic or solar), these grids aren't even in the ball park of a wind turbine. And you need VATS of concentrated acid to make one solar panel - do you want that stuff in your back yard?
I admire the hope to eliminate evil power plants. But the way to do that is to be educated - not in journalism, but in SCIENCE.
Patrick


Posted by: Patrick on 5 Jan 08

I looked at the Mass Megawatts wind power website - looks like the perfect idea for Massholes!
Liver free or die, Ted Kennedy


Posted by: Joe Kennedy on 5 Jan 08



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