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.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a unique super-'hydrophobic' (water repelling) surface coating that 'boosts the light absorption of silicon photovoltaic cells both by trapping light in three-dimensional structures, and by making the surfaces self-cleaning allowing rain or dew to wash away the dust and dirt that can accumulate on photovoltaic arrays'.
The 'self cleaning' design mimics the water repelling surface of a lotus leaf, 'which uses surface roughness at two different size scales to create high contact angles that encourage water from rain or (desert dew) condensation to bead up and run off. As the water runs off, it carries with it any surface dust or dirt – which also doesn't adhere because of the unique surface properties'.
"The more sunlight that goes into the photovoltaic cells and the less that reflects back, the higher the efficiency can be," said C.P. Wong, Regents' professor in Georgia Tech's School of Materials Science and Engineering. "Our simulations show that we can potentially increase the final efficiency of the cells by as much as two percent with this surface structure."
"A normal silicon surface reflects a lot of the light that comes in, but by doing this texturing, the reflection is reduced to less than five percent," said Dennis Hess, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. "As much as 10 percent of the light that hits the cells is scattered because of dust and dirt of the surface. If you can keep the cells clean, in principle you can increase the efficiency. Even if you only improve this by a few percent, that could make a big difference."
Reasearchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have developed an innovative method for assessing the metabolism of biofuel producing bacteria, that could help to speed up future research efforts in this emerging field of bioenergy.
Typical metabolic studies for newly discovered bacteria can take 'months or even years to complete' using traditional methods. The new method being tested by JBEI researchers is based on in vitro enzyme assays and a unique metabolic flux analysis that could complete metabolic studies in several weeks.
Taking a Lesson from Mother Nature Learning to Manipuate Chemical Bonds, Not Just Blow Up Our Reserves Mother Nature does not have batteries to store the energy from the sun, it has chemical bonds. To assemble these bonds nature turns to plants, bacteria and algae that grab photons from the sun, carbon from the air and hydrogen from water to assemble carbon-hydrogen chains that humans eventually blow up for energy.
Every time you eat a piece of food (plant or meat) you are chewing up sunlight stored by Mother Nature. Every time you drive your car, you are blowing up carbon-hydrogen chemical bonds formed by ancient algae (diatoms). And the electricity that powers your lights? That electron energy likely started as a photon captured by an ancient fern that became coal used in your lcoal power plant.
Our economy already runs on (ancient) 'bioenergy', so why not look towards the future for creating new vast reserves by growing energy?
How Biology Can Teach Us Methods of Growing Energy By Binding Carbon with Hydrogen
The combined company will have ‘approximately 7.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent (boe) of proved (developed and undeveloped) and probable reserves, on top of an estimated contingent resource base of approximately 19 billion boe.It will also have significant refining capacity of 433,000 barrels per day (b/d) and a strong Canadian retail brand in Suncor.'
Preempting the Inevitable Contraction of the Hydrocarbon Sector Energy analysts expect a wave of mergers as companies find it difficult to grow reserve assets through traditional exploration and development. Cash rich companies might find it easier to expand reserve totals by acquisition.
Future sucess might also be based on an ability to develop non-conventional resources like carbon-heavy 'tar sands' and deep water reserves. So for Canada's leading energy companies it was important to merge before being acquired.
According to Suncor CEO Rick George "The combined portfolio boasts the largest oil sands resource position, a strong Canadian downstream brand, solid conventional exploration and production assets, and low-cost production from Canada's east coast and internationally."
Metals, like platinum, palladium and nickel, play a key role as catatysts that change the quality of reactions of gases like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Designing catalysts at the nanoscale (billionth of a meter) will help to improve interactions within fuel cells that convert chemical energy into electricity. But achieving precise control over nano-sized particles has been difficult.
Now Brown University researchers have designed fuel cell catalysts using palladium nanoparticles that have about 40 percent greater active surface area, and ‘remain intact four times longer’.
The innovations? A New Binding Agent & Surface Area The researchers have learned how to bind the 4.5 nanometer sized metal pieces to a carbon support platform using weak binding amino ligands that keep the nanoparticles separate. After they are set, the ligand links are ‘washed away’ without negatively changing the catalysts.
“This approach is very novel. It works,” said Vismadeb Mazumder, a graduate researcher who joined chemistry professor Shouheng Sun “It’s two times as active, meaning you need half the energy to catalyze. And it’s four times as stable. It just works better.”
Decades ago IBM earned the nickname 'Big Blue' for the color of its corporate logo and mainframes (*), but maybe it was really a sneak peak at its role in digitizing Planet Earth?
There is tremendous growth ahead around 'instrumenting' ecosystems and built environments with sensors, and creating the software systems to make sense of what's actually happening on the planet.
How long before the mainstream world catches onto the idea of a 'Digital Gaia'? How long before companies like IBM, Cisco, Johnson Controls and Honeywell can fully instrument the world and create massive computer simulations that give birth to a mirror world Digital Earth image that suddenly seems alive because we humans can measure it and visualize the changes? I imagine we'll see changes within a decade or two.
This week IBM unveiled its new Strategic Water Management Solutions to help governments, water utilities, and companies monitor and manage water more effectively. IBM also released its Global Innovations Outlook devoted to Water [PDF]. Below is a video clip higlighting Big Blue's SmartBay sensor system, which monitors wave conditions, marine life and pollution levels in and around Galway Bay, Ireland
Announcement #2 Novel Water Desalination Membrane [Including Video]
Can you get 1 billion people to turn off their lights at the same time?* Maybe.
It's a powerful idea that seems to be gaining momentum city by city. The World Wildlife Fund is asking individuals, businesses, governments and organizations around the world to turn off their lights for one hour Earth Hour to make a global statement of concern about climate change and to demonstrate commitment to finding solutions.
Last year, an estimated 15 million people in cities around the world voluntarily turned off their lights, and organizers hope for a billion in 2009 to raise awareness about the link between our energy consumption and environmental impact.
What's after Consuming Green? 'Continue reading below' for my take on the need to balance these 'consuming green' efforts with a global strategy centered on industry level change based on new energy science.
Rethinking the Problem: Think Small, not Big Our current 'crisis' around energy and climate change has less to do with our relationship with the Planet, than it does our relationship with molecules.
To change our footprint on the Planet, we have to change our relationship with nature at the molecular level.
We are still living in an Industrial Age where we extract carbon-hydrogen bonds assembled by ancient plants and algae to power our world and to make plastic-based products. To stay within the Planet's carrying capacity, we have to change this relationship with molecules.
This is the next, yet to be written, chapter: The Nanoscale Era of Materials Engineering.
Industrial Age Part Two: Green Chemistry Why be hopeful? Scientists continue to move us closer to a new era of Industrial manufacturing based on a vision of 'Green Chemisty' in which we create the basic components used in making materials, energy, food and pharmaceuticals using more sustainable practices, often without the use of petroleum based feedstocks. Now we have another step forward.
“Using platinum clusters, we have devised a way to catalyze propane not only in a more environmentally friendly way, but also using far less energy than previous methods,” said Argonne scientist Stefan Vajda.
Researchers believe that this 'new class of catalysts may lead to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly synthesis strategies and the possible replacement of petrochemical feedstocks by abundant small alkanes.'
(Alkane? There's another funny word. But honestly, it's just a different arrangement of carbon and hydrogen! Whether you say 'ethelyne', 'human being' or 'breathing' it is just another funny way of saying carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.)
Human beings have mastered the brute-force era of ‘energy by engineering’ where we’ve pulled stored energy from the Earth locked up as coal, oil and natural gas. But we are just beginning to achieve a more Zen-like ability to manipulate molecules that we harness and store ourselves.
Energy is about the interaction of molecules. And the way human beings can create cleaner energy interactions is by designing materials at the nanoscale to achieve unprecedented performance. Surface area is a key piece to this puzzle.
One Gram = One Football Field = How many molecules? Now, imagine holding a material in your hand that was made up of tiny nano-sized ‘cages’ that could hold gas molecules like hydrogen and carbon. Now imagine a gram of this material having the surface area of a football field. How many hydrogen or carbon molecules could you fit in that space? We don't yet know what practical storage systems might yield. This is a big question for energy researchers.
A research team led by University of Michigan’s Adam Matzger has created a novel nanoporous material known as UMCM-2 (University of Michigan Crystalline Material-2) that could claim the world record for surface area with more than 5,000 square meters per gram.
"Surface area is an important, intrinsic property that can affect the behavior of materials in processes ranging from the activity of catalysts to water detoxification to purification of hydrocarbons," Matzger said. That means we can design high surface area materials to scrub carbon leaving cleaner hydrogen bonds, or desalinate water using less energy.
Until recently the threshold for surface area was 3,000 square meters per gram. Then in 2004, a U-M team that included Matzger reported development of a material known as MOF-177 (metal-organic frameworks) that has the surface area of a football field.
"Pushing beyond that point has been difficult," Matzger said, but apparently not impossible using a new method of coordination copolymerization. If it's hard to get your head around, just think: Building Legos wth Molecules! That's a Big Idea!