I know I just covered some solar energy news yesterday but when the news is good, I just have to keep it rolling. If you have been surfing around some science and technology websites today you are guaranteed to run across this story about a "BIG" solar breakthrough. Here is another one of the many stories covering the same information. The interesting thing about this story is that it is not really a solar energy breakthrough, it is a breakthrough in the electrolysis of water. It is a breakthrough in energy storage. One of the big hurdles in adopting alternative energy such as solar and wind is storing it for use later when the wind is not blowing or the sun not shining. People have been working on better batteries for storing electricity, or liquid salt, or even underground caverns. Well, how about storing the energy as hydrogen and oxygen gas. So what is the big breakthrough? Apparently, adding a patented cobalt phosphate formulation to water makes the process of electrolysis nearly 100% efficient. Electrolysis separates water into hydrogen and oxygen. Using a fuel cell, a person can recombine the gases to produce electricity. Combining solar panels with an electrolysis unit (using the new formulation) would allow the excess electricity generated during the day to be stored (as hydrogen and oxygen gas) and then used at night. The same set-up would help with wind turbines or any type alternative energy that is periodic in nature. The cobalt phosphate formulation is claimed to be non-toxic as well.
Given this news, another story has been less noticed but is just as important. Storage is nice, but what about solar efficiency? Solar panels could produce more electricity if they could absorb more of the electromagnetic spectrum. Right now, even the most advanced and and efficient solar panels (42% efficient) only absorb visible light. What about other wavelengths of light such as infrared or ultraviolet? Spanish researchers have created a new material that can absorb infrared and turn it into electricity. This work is still very preliminary, but the theoretical efficiency of the new material is 63%! Wow!
Another type of storage that I mentioned earlier is batteries. Unfortunately, they are not as efficient as the proposed electrolysis option and they are fairly expensive. Thankfully, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin are working on making cheaper lithium ion batteries. Having cheaper batteries would bring the cost of electric cars down into the range that more of us could afford.
If we can achieve higher solar efficiency and store energy more efficiently, then the price of solar power should continue to come down. Something else that would help is if the price of the raw materials (like polysilicon) would come down. In that regard, there is some good news as well. International Finance Corp. is investing 75 million in a new Russian polysilicon operation – Nitol Solar.
As you can see from the above articles, materials science is a big deal, and there is another story out today about a material that will help generate more efficiency in the future. Michigan State University researchers have developed a new type of plastic that is lighter, stiffer, and stronger. Making cars or airplanes out of lighter materials increases the fuel economy. Wind turbines would also be slightly more efficient with lighter plastic blades. As long as the material is cheap it could filter into many areas of the economy.
The weekend is looking better. There is only a slight chance of thunderstorms through early afternoon today and another slight chance on Sunday. Otherwise it will be warm, but not too hot. High temps should be in the low to mid 80s today and Saturday and then jump into the middle and upper 80s on Sunday. The warmest and most humid day in the outlook will be Monday. High temps could hit 90 in much of the area, but officially I am only forecasting upper 80s for Wausau. A cold front will move into the area late Monday bringing a chance of thunderstorms as well as a bit of a cooldown by the middle of next week. High temps on Wednesday will only be around 80 and late next week high temps might only reach the 70s.
I can’t remember if I covered the unveiling of White Knight Two earlier this week (it has been a long week). So here are a couple of stories: Story 1 and Story 2 with pictures. Hopefully this represents another significant step toward private space flight and exploration.
Phoenix has finally returned some evidence of water on Mars. The thermal analyzer was able to detect water in a sample of soil. Of course, the rovers turned up evidence of past water, just not a direct observation of water. The Phoenix lander’s mission has also been officially extended.
Speaking of liquids, the Cassini spacecraft has confirmed the presence of liquid lakes on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. These are not water lakes. The temperature on Titan is waaaaay too cold for liquid water. These lakes are likely made of ethane.
Have a great weekend! Meteorologist Justin Loew
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This post was written by jloew on August 1, 2008