What if Barack Obama said in his first State of the Union address: 'America must invest in high surface area materials...' ?
Most people would be puzzled. Some minds would probably close down after hearing something slightly intimidating and 'scientific'.
Why surface area? Why not say 'invest in better batteries, cleaning up fossil fuels, solar and hydrogen'?
Energy is about Interactions Surface area enables better interactions between light, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, metals, and bio enzymes. (At least, that's the short answer.)
The real road to a 'New Energy Economy' is paved at the nanoscale of material science.
What types of applications can we expect?
1) High surface area materials - Trap Molecules & Light Imagine being able to 'trap' harmful molecules that are byproducts of coal or oil. Or solar cells that hold photons longer to produce more energy!
2) Solid state storage of energy - High Density Packets Imagine billions of people buying high density 'packets' of energy at retail stores. We 'refill' instead of 'plugging into' wall sockets. Or electric vehicles that can be refilled by swapping out 'bricks' of energy in the form of solid Hydrogen.
The Evolution of MOFs Chemical Engineering & News is reporting on progress in a very promising class of high surface area materials that can absorb hydrogen and carbon: Metal Organic Frameworks or MOFs.
MOFs are highly ordered interconnected 'lego' like structures that have open pores that can selectively absorb molecules. It is a 'sponge' with the highest surface area of all known materials- estimated at several football fields per gram.
The problem? Clogged pores.
Now, a team led by UCLA's Professor Omar M. Yaghi, who synthesized MOFs in mid 1990s at Michigan, has developed a technique using supercritical fluids that essentially clean out the material leading to a vast network of open holes.
What to do next? Somebody tell Barack Obama to make Molecular Surface Area a National Priority
MIT Technology Review is reporting on a breakthrough in manufacturing thin, dense films of carbon nanotubes that could improve electrodes used in 'super' batteries and capacitors used in portable devices, 'smart grids' and electric vehicles.
Energy Storage: Batteries, Fuel cells & CapacitorsBatteries and fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity in a controlled circuit. Capacitors hold electrons as a physical 'charge' and are used in applications that require rapid discharge of energy. All of these energy storage devices are going to evolve in the coming Era of Nanoscale Engineering.
How do you talk about the Future of Energy? The MIT breakthrough demonstrates the enormous potential of nanoscale design of material components that facilitate energy reactions. It would be a mistake to merely extrapolate our current energy technologies forward based on the disruptive nature of nanoscale energy systems.
The MIT breakthrough highlights two fundamental areas to focus our conversation:
New Properties at Nanoscale Carbon The electrical and chemical properties of carbon (and other molecules) change when you shift design from the 'microscale' (millionth of meter) to the 'nanoscale' (billionth of a meter). In recent years, researchers have demonstrated an incredible capacity for carbon nanotubes to capture photons, store electricity and hold hydrogen. Likewise, the performance of metals (e.g. platinum, zinc, nickel) changes dramatically at the nanoscale.
The Institute will focus on global energy and climate issues by expanding the number of faculty and graduate research positions across the entire spectrum of energy science and engineering from photovoltaics to carbon sequestration.
The center is the result of a team of funders led by energy Executive Jay Precourt, who donated $50 million, and a $40 million gift from Thomas Steyer and Kat Taylor who supported the creation of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy.
Stanford intends to expand global partnerships but it is clearly a big win for the State of California as it attempts to build a 'cleantech' hub of talent, IP, and companies involved in the 21st century energy systems.
EV startup Miles Automotive has announced plans to outsource manufacturing of its California-bound electric vehicles to a China-based assembly factory.
Auto analysts continue to speculate about plans by Detroit-based companies to partner with Asian manufacturers. And yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on BYD's plans to produce EVs for global markets based on a lower barrier to manufacturing.
More than ever before, the road to electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors seems destined to pass through Asia.
And it is time to challenge common assumptions about EVs?
Will EVs be a Domestic or Global Industry? It is commonly assumed that electric vehicles would bring non-OPEC countries more 'independence'. Instead it seems clear that the age of EVs will pull them further into the global economy of 'interdependence'. Electric vehicles propulsion systems and storage systems (batteries, fuel cells and capacitors) are likely to emerge from a global value chain that spans from Asia to Europe to Americas. Will Early Adopter Markets Emerge from within Europe/California or Asia?
FueCellMarkets is reporting on a $30 million Phase II contract to expand testing of Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) coal syngas power generation. This type of stationary fuel cell converts coal derived gas via electrochemical processes to produce electricity and heat. The result of this scalable non-combustion method is higher efficiency and signficantly lower carbon emissions.
Advancing Global Carbon Solutions Coal is not going away anytime soon. In fact, its global market share is growing as the primary source of energy for electricity generation.
Cheaper solar and wind does not, by default, mean less coal in a world economy expected to double energy production in the decades ahead. Coal is already embedded into global power grids, and it is not going to disappear overnight.
If we expect to address carbon emissions, we have to do more than develop alternatives. We need scalable carbon solutions that move us beyond the age of combustion conversion and harmful release of emissions.
While coal will never be 'clean', there are cleaner ways of converting it that result in significantly less carbon emissions. We have written extensively about algae, but fuel cells offer another path forward.
Fuel Cells, Coal Gas, & a Post Combustion Era of Energy Conversion
We have heard from a number of readers asking about the future of geothermal energy. So here is a solid '101' primer video lecture (short lecture, extended Q&A) by MIT Professor James Tester. Tester was Chair of a panel study report on the Future of Enhanced Geothermal Energy [PDF] released in 2007.
Related Geothermal posts on The Energy Roadmap.com
The closer the human mind gets to understanding and controlling quantum behavior of light and molecules, the more likely we are to enable an era of cheap abundant energy.
Now, thanks to work by a research team led by University of Toronto's Greg Scholes and Elisabetta Collini, we are a step closer to understanding (and controlling) how light moves along long carbon-based molecular chains to create an electrical charge.
Organic Electronics - Thin Film solar & OLEDs Their research could lead to advances in the emerging field of 'organic' electronics (carbon based electronics) that support thin film solar cells and batteries, and flexible transparent OLED display screens.
The group has focused on 'conjugated polymers' as a promising candidate for building efficient organic solar cells. These long chains repeat the same molecule patterns and can be maniuplated to mimic the properties of traditional silicon based semiconductors.
When these materials absorb light, the energy moves along the molecular chain ('polymer') ending in an electrical charge.
"One of the biggest obstacles to organic solar cells is that it is difficult to control what happens after light is absorbed: whether the desired property is transmitting energy, storing information or emitting light," Collini explained. "Our experiment suggests it is possible to achieve control using quantum effects, even under relatively normal conditions."
Humans being creating Quantum-mechanical mechanisms
European researchers at Fraunhofer ISE have achieved another record efficiency of 41.1% in the conversion of sunlight into electricity using a ‘multi-junction’ class of solar cells.
The cells are made out of gallium-based materials suited for the solar spectrum that reaches the surface of the Earth. The team managed to increase the regions of the material that are electrically active to attain the high efficiencies.
Prof. Eicke R. Weber, Director of Fraunhofer ISE emphasizes, “This is an especially good example of how the control of crystal defects in semiconductors can lead to a breakthrough in technology.”
Fraunhofer ISE is working with Azur Space and Concentrix Solar GmbH to commercialize their technology. “The high efficiencies of our solar cells are the most effective way to reduce the electricity generation costs for concentrating PV systems,” says Dr. Andreas Bett, Department Head at Fraunhofer ISE. “We want that photovoltaics becomes competitive with conventional methods of electricity production as soon as possible. With our new efficiency results, we have moved a big step further towards achieving this goal!”
Bloomberg is reporting that Toyota plans to sell a 'limited' line of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to consumers by 2015 or maybe sooner.
Toyota's fuel cell integration strategy (along with Honda, Kia and GM) suggests that the auto industry is looking ahead towards next generation electric drive vehicles that go beyond battery platforms.
Fuel cells vs Batteries? Or both? A very profound transition is happening in our world. The 'electrification of the auto industry' has started, but it will take decades to complete.
The tricky part? 'Electric' refers to the motor.
What delivers electrons to those electric motors is more open to debate.
The popular assumption today is that batteries will power the future of cars. But the reality is more sobering. Energy storage solutions that are appropriate for the auto industry are not likely to emerge from anything that exists on the commercial market today.
Cars are not iPods, and the cost of building 'plug in' station infrastructure is likely to be prohibitive, if not totally inconvenient to consumers. Fuel cells and capacitors offer superior cost / size and performance advantages. And more convenient infrastructure options such as rapid refill or 'swap out' boxes (e.g. solid hydrogen).
While eco-bloggers are excited over batteries, the long view is more cloudy. Automakers are hedging their bets on energy storage solutions, and it appears the the 'hype' phase of battery powered cars might be short lived.
Related posts on the Auto Industry at The Energy Roadmap.com
There is a saying in the energy industry that 'the cheapest power plant is the one you don't have to build'.
The alternative to focusing on the 'supply' side of finding new sources of clean electricity, is to reduce the demand side of energy use.
There are many ways to be more efficient through better products (e.g. light bulbs, refrigeration), services (e.g. Smart Grid managment) and integration of new energy systems (e.g. energy storage, onsite power generation). And there are hundreds of companies that provide energy management solutions to homes and commercial businesses. But until recently we have not had an updated industry level forecast of how much energy could be saved given the right leadership and regulatory framework for utilities.
Looking ahead to 2030 A new study from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) suggests that efficiency gains could reduce the rate of growth for US electricity consumption by 22% between 2008 and 2030. 'The potential energy savings in 2030 would be 236 billion kilowatt hours, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of 14 New York Cities.'
The EPRI study uses a growth rate baseline of 1.07% based on projections set by the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2008 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO 2008).
EPRI believes that with strong political leadership and regulatory changes electricity consumption in the U.S. residential, commercial, and industrial sectors could be reduced to an annual rate of 0.83% between 2008 through 2030. Under the most 'ideal' conditions that rate could be lowered to 0.68% per year.
Read more: Assessment of Achievable Savings Potential From Energy Efficiency and Demand Response in the U.S (Executive Summary)
Beyond the occassional post (or two), I have avoided 'Peak Oil' production issues because of its association with those who must always (and only) describe the future in apocalyptic terms.
But based on the IEA World Energy Outlook 2008 report, it has become clear that energy leaders have been using poor data of oil field decline rates (based on a lack of transparency) to support inaccurate forecasts.
Whether peak production has already happened, or will happen in 15 years is irrelevant since we are not prepared for either transition. So it is time to explore implications regarding the world's use of coal, nuclear energy, tar sands, and oil shale. (For those focused on Climate Change, the replacements for oil are not good news for carbon emissions.)
I do not believe that Peak Oil will destroy our civilization, but it certainly has the potential to make us humble, and to serve as 'the' catalyst for evolving our policies from a resource extraction to resource creation paradigm.
The following 40 minute interview is dated (January 2008) but gives a solid overview of peak oil's core issues: field decline rates, discovery rates, production time and costs and lack of real liquid fuel alternatives. [A more current hard edged interview by George Monbiot w/ Dr Fatih Birol: Link to video]
One of the biggest business opportunities of the next few decades will be enabling the convergence of Energy and Information systems to lower costs and improve efficiencies.
Companies such as Johnson Controls and IBM have been very vocal about their vision of a 'smart infrastructure' future. And there are a number of 'Smart Grid' startups offering utility-scale and building/home energy management solutions.
Cisco: 'Smarter' Energy Networks Cisco Systems is widely associated with the hardware 'backbone' (e.g. routers) of the Internet, but the company is expanding into new web-based services like video collaboration and energy management.
Cisco has a very simple vision of the future of energy efficiency: If it is on the 'network', then we can make it more efficient. Why is this important? Because within a decade or two most everything that produces and consumes power will be integrated into an information (web) network.
The company has announced its new Cisco EnergyWise [PDF] technology platform that will help its customers reduce energy consumption of Internet Protocol (IP) devices such as phones, computers, and digital access points. The next step for Cisco will be offering software solutions to help manage building systems (lighting, air conditioning and heating).
The offering puts Cisco in a strong position to compete in a fully 'embedded' world where all objects and devices are on the web and energy is never wasted.