Craig Venter (of Human Genome fame) has a vision of future energy production that is very different from industry veterans. He believes we can design microorganisms that can 'grow energy' by capturing carbon emissions from coal plants or converting sunlight and water into hydrogen. Venter believes in the molecular power of biology and recognizes that there are fewer ideas more powerful (and controversial) than human beings harnessing and improving upon biological systems.
What happened? Researchers at JCVI, a not-for-profit genomic research organization, have published a paper describing a significant advance in genome assembly in which the team can now assemble the whole bacterial genome (582,970 base pair), Mycoplasma genitalium, in one step from 25 fragments of DNA —adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T).
Why is this important to the future of energy? Today we use naturally occuring species of algae that can 'eat carbon' to produce biofuels, or bacteria that take sunlight to effortlessly split water yielding hydrogen. These bioenergy solutions are in Pilot and First Stage of commercial energy production.
But in the near future, we are likely to design our own microorganisms to be even more efficient at the molecular level. We can create microbes with very specific functions related to the fixing of emissions or production of energy. This Future of 'Synthetic biology' sounds strange and probably frightening, but it is also closer than most people might imagine.
What to watch - The Conversation over Synthetic Biology
Call it 'clean coal' or 'cleaner coal' -- the idea is still the same. Stop carbon from binding with oxygen (CO2) and floating up into the atmosphere.
How do you do it? 1) Think like an engineer Sequester the carbon by pumping it underground
2) Design new plants Capture energy via 'gasification' (instead of combustion)
3) Think like a biologist Retrofit coal plants with bioreactors that pull emissions into tanks of carbon-fixing algae and bacteria that bind carbon with hydrogen to form useful forms of energy (hydrocarbon chains biofuels)
Of the three carbon strategies, bioenergy (algae/bacteria) has the most potential as a 'game-changing' solution. But it is also the hardest to talk about since systems are not tested commercially.
The Battle Ahead We should not kid ourselves about the dynamics of this coal conversation. It is likely to get ugly as industry and activists try to demonize each other and paint their own version of 'reality'. There are no simple, short term quick fixes. What could happen depends on how the fight evolves around the focus of:
- emotions vs science - coal energy inside the United States vs China - present day challenges or exploring and enabling future solutions - engineeing solutions, or biosolutions - compromise, regulatory frameworks, or lawsuits
The Players- Industry, Activitists, and Entrepreneurs
What Happened? Responding to the US government's request that they provide plans for what they would do with government loans, the Big Three automanufacturers presented their plans. Here's an overview of what they're asking.
The Big Three automakers all describe a 'perfect storm':
- sales down 30% or so from last year due to downturn in economy - credit markets frozen so they can't offer credit to car buyers, accelerating the decrease in sales. - All in various stages of transition to new technology (smaller vehicles, electric vehicles, more fuel efficient gas engines & drive trains, etc.)
'Help us through this rough patch,' they all seem to be saying, 'and we'll help you by not tanking the economy even further.' GM is the most direct in articulating the threat. "A failure by GM will likely trigger catastrophic damage to the U.S. economy..." while Chrysler goes into detail why a bailout is preferable to bankruptcy. Ford's the most upbeat. "We note that Ford is in a different situation from our competitors, in that we believe our Company has the necessary liquidity to weather this current economic downturn – assuming that it is of limited duration."
What if you could charge your portable device simply by having it move around in your pocket while you walk?
Texas A&M Professor Tahir Cagin believes that piezeoelectric materials, that convert motion into electric currents could be closer to applied applications thanks to their recent design breakthrough. (Not Image shown)
Professor Cagin and partners from the University of Houston are using piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size – in this case, around 21 nanometers in thickness.
"When materials are brought down to the nanoscale dimension, their properties for some performance characteristics dramatically change," said Cagin who is a past recipient of the prestigious Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. "One such example is with piezoelectric materials. We have demonstrated that when you go to a particular length scale – between 20 and 23 nanometers – you actually improve the energy-harvesting capacity by 100 percent.
"We're studying basic laws of nature such as physics and we're trying to apply that in terms of developing better engineering materials, better performing engineering materials. We're looking at chemical constitutions and physical compositions. And then we're looking at how to manipulate these structures so that we can improve the performance of these materials."
"Even the disturbances in the form of sound waves such as pressure waves in gases, liquids and solids may be harvested for powering nano- and micro devices of the future if these materials are processed and manufactured appropriately for this purpose," Cagin said.
Why is this important to the future? Micro power systems are in high demand for portable gadgets and sensors like RFID tags used on products in 'smart supply chain' logistics. While batteries and micro fuel cells might be required for higher demand applications, piezeoelectric systems could find a role in the world of micro-power.
The way to improve fuel cells, energy storage devices and solar cells is to evolve our ability to control the way molecules and photons flow through materials and lead to other reactions. We do not need to overcome the Laws of Physics, just improve the design of materials at the molecular level.
What happened? Cornell University researchers have designed platinum nanoparticles that automatically assemble into complex, ordered patterns and can be used for efficient and low cost catalysts in fuel cells and other micro-fabrication processes.
“The challenge with metals is that their high surface energies cause the particles to cluster,” explains , led by Professor Uli Wiesner who led the team. “This tendency to aggregate makes it difficult to coax metal particles into lining up in an orderly fashion, which is a critical step in forming ordered materials.”
Instead of relying on the traditional (and imprecise) ‘heat it and beat it’ approach” to structuring metals, Professor Wiesner, Scott C. Warren, and their coworkers prepared their materials through self-assembly of block copolymers and stabilized platinum nanoparticles. This ‘bottom up’ approach can lower costs and improve the precision of material design.
Why is this important to the future of energy? We need breakthroughs in materials science that make energy systems cost effective and clean. Nanoscale science (billionth of a meter) and engineering is the platform of future innovation.
Fuel cell costs are based on two main factors: the cost of membranes (MEAs) that enable the reactions and manufacturing techniques to build the device. The way forward is to reduce the amount of precious metal catalysts needed in membranes, and also lower the cost of manufacturing materials around self-assembly. These metallic structures developed by the Cornell team could take us further down the road towards lower cost energy systems that go beyond traditional combustion energy conversion.
On November 20th California took a major step towards building out the state’s “green” infrastructure to support the electrification of the auto fleet towards vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. State and local leaders gathered in San Francisco to announce a new public partnership with ‘mobility operator’ Better Place.
Better Place has big plans for California and has estimated that the network investment in the Bay Area alone will total $1 billion when the system is fully deployed.
We have featured several stories on Better Place and CEO Shai Agassi [Video Interview] to highlight the company’s vision for changing the business model for how cars are fueled. Better Place is moving quickly and has already negotiated infrastructure projects within Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Hawaii. Adding California to their list could be the tipping point. Not just for Better Place, but for how we think about fueling our vehicles with batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
The simplest translation of Shai Agassi’s disruptive vision?
To expand adoption of electric vehicles we must lower barriers for consumers and rethink our notions of infrastructure in a way that goes beyond the model of paying at the corner gas station pump.
Consumers should buy the car, but not the energy storage device (battery, fuel cell or capacitor). Remove the cost and risk of owning energy storage systems that might be improved in the next six months or a year. Instead consumers would subscribe to an energy infrastructure provider who offers a ‘pay per mile’ (e.g. mobile phone minutes) plan.
Drivers could recharge at a local station, or (pay attention!!) pull up to a station to ‘swap out’ an old battery (or solid block of hydrogen, other fuel cartridge) for a new container. It is this ‘swap out’ model that holds the greatest disruptive potential.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities believe they have found a unique species of bacteria, Geobacter sulfurreducens, that can convert wastewater organic compounds into electricity using a low cost carbon (graphite) electrode.
“Other species of bacteria may produce just as many electrons as they oxidize available fuels, but their cell membranes act like an insulator for electron transport,” said Daniel Bond, a microbiologist at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “With Geobacter, it’s the difference between a rickety one-land bridge and a modern 12-lane highway. The electrons pass easily through internal membranes and cell walls and hop onto the electrode.” As each “hop” requires them to travel about 10 Angstroms.
Geobacter has proteins that guide electrons all the way to the electrode. “This makes Geobacter unique in comparison to other bacteria,” Bond said. “Because of the distances involved, we know that multiple proteins are involved, which adds to the complexity and why we can’t just clone a gene into E. coli to do this.”
Why is this important to the future of energy?
While traditional batteries and fuel cells often use expensive precious-metal catalysts (e.g. platinum) to strip electrons off the fuel source to generate electricity, microbial fuel cells use biological agents to do the heavy work.
A microbial fuel cell based on Geobacter would require only an inexpensive form of carbon (graphite) to help the bacteria transfer electrons onto the surface of electrodes. This novel design of microbial fuel cells could be scaled to efficiently convert waste organic matter (e.g. sewage, food waste) to electricity.
[2008 Los Angeles Auto Show] Honda has revealed the FC Sport design study model- a three-seat sports car concept hydrogen powered electric car based on Honda’s V Flow fuel cell technology already deployed in the Honda Fuel Cell (FCX) Clarity sedan.
The lightweight sports car design has an ultra-low center of gravity, powerful electric motor performance and zero-emissions. The design study concept is inspired by supercar levels of performance through low weight and a high-performance, electrically driven fuel cell powertrain.
Hydrogen cars are electric cars!
While many journalists and bloggers are getting this story wrong and asking is the future ‘battery or fuel cell’- – the answer is both. Hydrogen fuel cell cars ARE electric powered cars! Hydrogen converted in a fuel cell produces electricity to power electric motors.
Pure battery vehicles are based on first generation energy storage systems. But cars are not iPods and next generation high performance electric vehicles- will combine batteries, fuel cells and capacitors! Not one device rules them all, and Honda understands this engineering reality!
Their strategy: transform the US manufacturing base and build ourselves into a climate solutions economy.
“Until now, there was no tangible evidence of what the jobs are, how they are created and what it means for U.S. workers. We are providing that here,” said Gary Gereffi, a Duke professor of sociology and lead author of the report. “We don’t guess where the jobs are; we name them. Our report uses value chains to show that clean technology jobs are also real economy jobs.”
Duke researchers assessed five (near term) carbon-reducing technologies with potential for future green job creation: LED lighting, high-performance windows, auxiliary power units for long-haul trucks, concentrating (thermal) solar power, and Super Soil Systems (a new method for treating hog wastes).
Why is this important to the future of energy
While the Duke team has highlighted near term opportunities, we cannot help but take a longer view of ‘green collar’ industries around the emerging era of nanoscale materials science and engineering. There is likely greater growth opportunities around jobs that do not currently exist, and in industries (e.g. thin film solar) that are currently not a part of the US economy.
Nanoscale materials (nanotubes & nanoparticles) integrated into materials manufacturing processes can change the fundamental performance of old commodities like wood, glass, plastic, ceramics, metals and steel.
Applying ‘nanoscale’ science to traditional materials is a game changer for the manufacturing world, and the US is ideally situated to bring value added products related to biotech, health sciences, agriculture, carbon solutions, sensors and embedded objects, robotics, transportation, smart grids, energy storage and distributed power systems, bioenergy and electric vehicles.
So instead of relying solely on activists who urge us to ‘consume ourselves’ into a green economy, we might turn to scientists and engineers who can actually ‘build it’ by extracting value from the application of nanoscale engineering.
A group of researchers from Boston College and MIT have created a new catalyst that could reduce the negative environmental impact of hydrocarbon or ‘petrochemical’ derived materials found in everyday products.
[Don’t run away! Big words, but simple concepts!]
The new catalyst is used in a very common and energy intensive process known as olefin metathesis. Just think of olefins as simple carbon and hydrogen packets (image of ethylene) that are used to make more complex chains that form the backbone of materials used in everything from cleaner fuels, soaps, bags, to pharmaceuticals. The process, ‘metathesis’, simply means transforming the order of AB + CD into AD +BC
How does a simple packet of hydrogen and carbon vary so much in
different industry applications? In the most simple terms – the difference between a ‘good’ compound for people and the Earth, from a ‘bad’ compound is the use of additives (other elements) and the shape of the molecule chain (polymers). These variations make materials more or less reactive to things like light, water, and heat. It also makes it more or less soluble, biodegradable or toxic. The goal is to create compounds that break down into non-toxic elements that do not harm ecosystems. The more precise we are in building key polymer materials, the less harmful waste we produce.
Why is this important to the future?Another step towards ‘greener’ hydrocarbon materials
The BC/MIT catalyst will help to reduce the waste and hazardous by products of this massive industrial chemical reaction as we try to make chemistry more ‘green’ and environmentally friendly.
“In order for chemists to gain access to molecules that can enhance the quality of human life, we need reliable, highly efficient, selective and environmentally friendly chemical reactions,” said Amir Hoveyda, Professor and Chemistry Department chairman at BC. “Discovering catalysts that promote these transformations is one of the great challenges of modern chemistry.”
Big Plans are susceptible to changes in the world around us, and even bold visionaries can have wrong assumptions about the future.
After blanketing the media landscape over the summer with The Pickens Plan, T Boone Pickens has announced that he is slowing down his plans to build a massive wind farm in West Texas. Pickens’ $2 billion order of GE wind turbines has not been affected, but scaling up of the project is likely to happen more slowly than originally hoped.
A changing world or wrong assumptions?
Pickens has certainly felt the pains of shifts in the market where money is now in short supply and the global economic slowdown has battered his energy intensive hedge fund. But there have always been flaws to his core assumptions that support the vision that have somehow escaped widespread critical thought or media scrutiny. Pickens deserves credit for his willingness to advance the energy conversation in the US, but it does not free his Plan from closer examination:
#1 Utilities won’t evolve without regulatory changes
#2 Wind needs storage to evolve
#3 Natural Gas is a globally integrated industry, no breaking ‘foreign’ dependency there!
#4 The Auto Industry’s problem is not oil, it’s the combustion engine.
#5 Building transmission lines in my backyard or ranch?! It’ll cost you!
#1 Utilities won’t evolve without regulatory changes
MemeBox’s Garry Golden, Editor of The Energy Roadmap, just meme-blasted the minds of morning commuters across the country with his analysis of the near-term future of transportation and suggestions for our new President-elect. [Podcast of Interview]
Appearing on PRI’sThe Takeaway with John Hockenberry, Golden was asked how he would advise Congress and the upcoming Obama administration on the proposed U.S. multi-billion dollar auto industry bailout. He responded by unequivocally advocating the avoidance of “any further investments into the old combustion engine model” arguing that the country needs to quickly move past hybrids by leap-frogging “to an all-electric platform.”
Garry pointed out that “the electric vehicle is … going global quickly”, thus opening a market window to countries like China who are developing competencies in areas such as battery production. So it’s now incumbent upon U.S. companies like GM to successfully adapt to the new conditions, possibly by building out the new electrically powered chassis that will serve as platform for new transport structures.