Michigan-based ECD Ovonic solar subsidiary Uni-Solar has signed a multi-year agreement with an Italian steel and metal materials company to build solar rooftop materials used in onsite power generation. Marcegaglia expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film solar metal roofing products to the market in 2010. [Image shown from Spain factory installation]
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Energy entrepreneurs are thinking beyond power generation via large, expensive centralized power plants. The alternative is expanding the world’s capacity for ‘distributed power generation’ based on low cost solar, micro-wind, fuel cells, and micro turbines. These systems could soon provide a small percentage of power generation, but enough to reduce demand on power plants during ‘peak power demand’ periods, and lower our threat of grid failure by storing and producing energy at the local level. Why not tap square footage of rooftops?
Thin film solar based on plastic substrates are less efficient than traditional glass-based photovoltaic panels, but they are much cheaper and more durable. By layering, or ‘printing’, thin film solar modules onto rooftop materials we can bring solar power to buildings around the world at a low cost.
Kevin Kelly (of Whole Earth Catalog and Wired fame) spoke at the recent O’Reilly Web 2.0 Summit November 5-7, 2008. His brief talk explores the evolution of today’s web towards more semantic capabilities of linking smart data (rather than websites and documents), infrastructure based on cloud computing (moving from machines to databases) and more transparent social web experiences (expand functional benefits from sharing).
What is our future augmented relationship to the web? ‘Extreme Dependence’ and ‘Extended Self‘
The U.S. DOESavannah River National Laboratory has received an award for its patent-pending BioTiger™ biocatalyst that is capable of cleaning up polluted environments and enhancing recovery efforts from non-conventional hydrocarbon deposits such as Canada’s oil tar sands.
Biocatalysts coming of age The BioTiger catalyst started eight years ago when researchers applied micro-based solutions to cleaning up a century-old Polish waste lagoon filled with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals.
More recent efforts to expand applications of the catalyst found that it can be applied directly to cleaning up surface areas covered with oil residues on concrete slabs and building foundations.
BioTiger™ has also been shown to increase oil recovery from non-conventional hydrocarbon supplies without added chemicals. Researchers believe that an enhanced oil recovery from tar sands and oil shales could maximize capacity and minimize environmental impact in an otherwise energy intensive and dirty processes.
India researchers at Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory have created a low cost fuel cell membrane that appears competitive to the current industry standard membrane- DuPont’sNafion. Nafion (Image shown) is a fluorocarbon based membrane with tremendous performance properties that support the complex electrochemical processes of hydrogen-oxygen reactions inside fuel cells. But it is expensive!
Researchers around the world are working to reduce the costs of fluorocarbon based membranes and also develop alternative hydrocarbon based membranes that would be a fraction of the cost. Based on this story, India researchers may have developed such a low cost electrolyte used in the MEA (membrane electrode assembly) or the heart of a fuel cell.
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity and heat. They could help the world move beyond inefficient and dirty ‘combustion energy’ systems by finding applications in portable devices, distributed power generation and electric vehicles. Rather than blow up chemical bonds, we can use the high efficiency (and relatively) clean process of electrochemical energy conversion.
Unfortunately, fuel cells have been the victim of the technology Hype Cycle. They failed to meet early expectations (circa Dotcom Boom) and have been targeted by skeptics around the world. But these promising electrochemical devices are not dead yet, and we should expect to see significant steps towards commercialization in the years.
The key to commercialization is lowering the cost and improving performance of membranes. The electrolyte of a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells (used in portable and transportation applications) generally accounts for 75% of the total unit cost. While Nafion provides thermal and mechanical stability, it is expensive.
We expect algae to become a mainstream energy buzz word in 2009 as more people become aware of this promising form of energy conversion. But first, leaders must close the great disconnect around the conversation of ‘biofuels’ and the future of bioenergy. The general public is lagging behind in the conversation by the near-term political distraction of corn derived ethanol, while policy makers, researchers and entrepreneurs are already moving forward on next generation biofuels derived from non-food crops like Jatropha and microbes like algae and biofuels. More forward looking bioenergy advocates argue that next generation biofuels will soon make corn irrelevant. Now they must begin the public awareness campaign to bring the public and policy makers into the future.
The idea of bioenergy is simple. Tap power of biology to convert carbon into useful forms of energy. How? By following Mother Nature. Most forms of energy arrived via biology. Coal is ancient ferns and biomass, oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow seas. Both bio systems used the power of sunlight to combine carbon with hydrogen (from water) to form complex hydrocarbon chains. The modern Industrial world is based on capturing energy from blowing up those chemical bonds. Rather than extract ancient bioenergy, the 21st century might be about ‘growing energy’ using those same biological principles.
Focusing on Algae-derived biofuels
The idea of carbon eatingalgae derived biofuels continues to gain momentum around bioenergy researchers and investors. Last month business leaders, investors, and researchers gathered in Seattle, WA for the 2nd Annual Algae Biomass Summit sponsored by The Algal Biomass Organization.
Renewable Energy.com has a short recap of the event including a look at featured speakers and presence of the wider biofuels industry leaders. The number of attendees doubled to 700 from the inaugural conference of 350 people. And the profile of investor star power was raised as cleantech investor Vinod Khosla delivered the event’s keynote.
If things continue to expand, carbon eating ‘algae’ could become a big story in 2009 as investors continue to pump money into startups trying to scale low cost systems.
Mark your calendars! The business case for ‘smart infrastructure’ has been made by one of the world’s biggest companies. On November 6th, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano delivered a speech (text / video) at the New York Council on Foreign Relations. Palmisano highlighted ‘Big Blue’s vision of a ‘Smart Planet’ and the tremendous near term opportunities in building out the global smart infrastructures for energy, water, information, and transportation of people and goods.
Palmisano echoed a vision described by visionaries and futurists long ago of a ‘digital planet’. Now we might expect broader endorsements for ‘smart infrastructure’ by mainstream business and policy leaders especially in the US under the incoming Obama Adminstration. We can also build more reliable forecasts and roadmaps based on expectations for investments and application of technologies that improve the flow of traffic (without adding more lanes), more efficient energy grids, wider access to clean water and food, improved personal safety, and more secure information flows around financial, governance, and healthcare information.
Quotes from Palmisano’s address: What’s making this possible? First, our world is becoming instrumented
“There will likely be 4 billion mobile phone subscribers by the end of this year… and 30 billion Radio Frequency Identification tags produced globally within two years. Sensors are being embedded across entire ecosystems—supply-chains, healthcare networks, cities… even natural systems like rivers.“
Second, our world is becoming interconnected
“Very soon there will be 2 billion people on the Internet. But in an instrumented world, systems and objects can now “speak” to one another, too. Think about the prospect of a trillion connected and intelligent things—cars, appliances, cameras, roadways, pipelines… even pharmaceuticals and livestock.“
Third, all things are becoming intelligent
“New computing models can handle the proliferation of end-user devices, sensors and actuators and connect them with back-end systems. Combined with advanced analytics, those supercomputers can turn mountains of data into intelligence that can be translated into action, making our systems, processes and infrastructures more efficient, more productive and responsive—in a word, smarter.“
Gasgoo.com is reporting talks between General Motors Executives and leaders from China’s State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) to extend the countries electricity grid to support the first wave of electric vehicles.
Why is this important to the future of energy
Electric vehicles powered by a combination of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors – are coming to the world market! First generation electric motor vehicles are expected to be powered by batteries, followed by next generation hydrogen fuel cells. Both forms of electron energy require investments in infrastructure and energy storage systems. GM has made its intentions very clear to kill the combustion engine and move towards a new lower cost manufacturing platform of electric motors. The company is planning to build its extended range electric vehicle Chevrolet Volt in 2011 and hopes that China might become a major growth market for its post combustion engine vehicles.
Read more: The Energy Roadmap.com – Electric Vehicle Infrastructure
The key to moving beyond the era of liquid fuels and the combustion engine is to accelerate development of energy storage systems and infrastructure for supporting electric vehicles. We have posts on recent investments into energy storage and electric utilities by Warren Buffet and China’s BYD, France’s GDF, Hawaii’s HEKO utility, Denmark, Australia, and Israel. But according to a recent McKinsey & Co report it is China that holds the greatest potential for transforming the global auto industry in this era of electric vehicles.
University of South Florida researchers have developed the tiniest solar cells ever built. The solar cells provide power to the team’s microeletromechanical system (MEMS) used to detect chemicals in lakes. The sensing device includes 20 tiny solar cells each about a quarter the size of a lowercase “o” in a standard 12-point font. [Sample MEMS image shown is NOT actual device]
Why is it important to the future of energy?
In the future we will need ways to power tiny sensors that detect changes in the world based on light, chemicals, temperature, noise, motion, et al. Micro power systems integrated into sensors are a foundation piece to ‘smart infrastructure’ used in applications ranging from energy, to security and environmental detection systems. Sensors embedded into everyday objects, as well as natural and built environments are likely to change the world in the next 50 years, as much as microprocessors changed our lives over the last 50 years.
The assembled device is also important for the future of ‘organic’ (carbon-based) solar cells that differ from traditional ‘silicon’ solar panels printed on glass substrates. Organic solar cells can be suspended in liquids and assembled using low cost ‘ink jet’ printers and, in theory, ‘printed’ on any surface. So we can imagine turning a rooftop or parking lots surface into a light collecting material.
What to watch: An Energy Roadmap for Micro power and Sensors
This fabrication could be significant for micro (millionth of meter) and nanoscale (billionth of meter) energy systems powered by light. The technique might also accelerate development of organic solar cells. But there will be competition from other viable power sources, with better energy densities, including nanoscale designed batteries, fuel cells and piezoelectric devices that convert motion into electrical pulses.
Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have figured out a previously unknown phenomena of electron pairings used in high-temperature superconductor materials that could carry electrical current across great distances with minimal loss.
Could coal emerge as the biggest energy story of 2009? We think so!
Coal is likely to become President elect Barack Obama’s first great energy policy challenge- as evidenced by the coal industry’s ‘Congratulations’ ad on CNN.com
Why coal? Big Story for 2009: Problems with ‘Big Grid’
As prices at the pump drop in response to the global economic slowdown, we can (sadly) anticipate less media and public attention to the long term challenges of oil. Fortunately we have a problem of equal magnitude- an aging, some say failing, electric utility grid run by large enterprises who are already rethinking their changing role in the next century.
There is a short list of big issues for ‘Big Grid’ – building a 21st Century ‘Smart Grid’ around software and storage, integrating utility scale renewables (solar, wind, biomass waste), addressing regulatory challenges of carbon emissions, and working with private sector entrepreneurs who are advancing technologies that could disrupt long-held pricing structures and operating principles of our antiquated grid.
Today, we cannot talk about the future of utility grid energy or global energy and climate issues without confronting the challenges of coal. ‘Clean Coal’ refers to various methods of capturing energy from coal while reducing the amount of pollutants. Critics argue that coal can never been ‘clean’, while supporters of ‘cleaner’ coal argue that we must develop cost effective strategies that can reduce the impact of coal being burned in the US, China and around the world.