After a week of off-and-on technical trouble, I can finally finish up on the recent spate of positive news about technological progress. I will begin with the battery theme I left off with. Long lasting batteries with high energy density are needed in order to move an “electric economy” forward. They are especially needed for storage of intermittent alternative energy sources and for transportation. One big limitation of current electric vehicles is that the do not travel far before needing a re-charge. Many people are working on better battery technologies including MIT which has created better lithium-air technology in the lab. Now it just needs to be tested for real-world application (which is usually where most inventions fail). If lithium air does not work out then perhaps layers of graphene could wind up in the super-batteries of the future. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has created a prototype graphene layer battery that can deliver 5 amps per gram. Another way to skin the (battery) cat is to distribute the “juice” around the application (laptop, cars, phones) with several “hybrid” batteries that make the use of ultracapacitor design principles. A company called loxus is doing just that. By focusing on delivering the power where and when it is needed, instead of using a centralized battery source, many current limitations of batteries can be overcome.
Developments in the lab are nice to read about but what is really exciting is when a product makes it out of the lab and is nearly ready for the market. Nexeon in England has been working on lithium batteries with silicon anodes for over 5 years now. Their battery product is claimed to have twice the capacity as current lithium batteries, which is amazing. They have recently received an additional 65 million dollars to build a manufacturing plant.
In solar technology research continues at a fast pace. One popular area of research is in the use of quantum dots (sometimes called artificial atoms). University of Toronto scientists have used colloidal quantum dots to tailor the absorption properties of solar panels and should lead to at least small efficiency gains if it can be commercialized.
The University of Minnesota plans to increase the efficiency of dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC) by making light bounce around a bit more within a solar cell. The longer the light remains in the cell, the more likely it will interact with the material and generate electricity. Their method could improve DSSC efficiency by 26%.
Perhaps they will be buying some of their dye material from DuPont in the near future because Du Pont just bought the start-up company Innovalight. Innovalight has developed a solar panel dye that can increase efficiency of some cells from 18 percent to 19 percent (which is significant in the solar industry).
Another company getting farther into the alternative energy scene is GE. They recently invested in the company esolar, which makes solar thermal power plants. The idea here (which has been taken up by other companies such a Seimens) is that solar thermal plants can be combined with natural gas plants to make them more efficient. Natural gas is a cleaner source of fossil fuel to begin with and the addition of solar thermal could boost the efficiency of such plants up to 70%.
Speaking of hybrid systems, I was surprised to read that solar fuel cell hybrid systems for the home could end up being more efficient that other modes of alternative energy usage. This particular system has solar panels that create hydrogen by heating methanol and water and then running it through a catalytic reaction to produce hydrogen.
It is nice to see DuPont buying up Innovalight and GE investing in esolar because the news out of the Venture Capital world is not as bright as a couple of years ago. Apparently, VCs are backing out of clean energy investments a bit. The main reason they have been re-focusing their efforts toward more prosaic companies and away from the “dreamers” is that governments around the world are going broke. Without the backing of government money, clean energy start-ups are much more risky. Only the best technology and ideas will get VC money now. It doesn’t help that the price of oil has come down a bit lately. A higher price of oil is bad for the health of the economy but it sure drives a greater development of alternative energy solutions.
Outside of the solar/battery/device realm, other alternative energy developments continue to be encouraging. This vertical wind turbine design – using more turbines in a smaller space could squeeze a bit more efficiency out of the wind. Hopefully this design would be more friendly with winged animals and not blow up their lungs like the huge rotary turbines that dot the landscape right now.
In the biofuel sphere, researchers have devised a way to use bacteria to make butanol at a rate 10 times faster than current methods. Biofuel might never be a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels but if we (taxpayers) are going to continue “investing” in biofuels, then this type of butanol production would be much more favorable than grain ethanol.
Another revolution that many people do not realize is going on but could transform our world in a much more fundamental way (and probably very positive for the environment) is 3D printing. More and more companies are using 3D printers to create more than prototypes. This type of design and manufacture process has the potential to be much more efficient than traditional methods that start with a solid block of material and chips/etches/drills away excess material.
So to tie this off with what I began over a week ago, even though many macro economic and social trends show a likelihood of a worse recession in the near future, remember that progress continues, so even if we have set-backs in the next year or two, we can still look forward to a brighter future.
Have a nice Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on August 15, 2011