Most new technology platforms must walk up the stages of the 'Hype Cycle', and confront our tendency to overestimate short-term change, but underestimate the long term potential.
Fuel cells are this decade's poster child for failing to meet expectations of the Hype Cycle. But there are positive signs of progress.
PC World is reporting that Toshiba plans to release its first commercial version of a Direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) battery recharger by the end of the first business quarter.
Micro Fuel cells help you unplug Micro power applications are widely considered to be the first market application for fuel cells. Dozens of startups and incumbent energy companies are developing micro methanol fuel cells as portable power solutions that help us 'unplug everything'.
Rather than carry around a charger+cord, you could carry a small fuel cell to recharge. Of course the idea of a fuel cell battery recharger is still a strange concept to consumers, and could remain an early adopter niche product.
The inevitable step for micro fuel cells is to replace batteries entirely. To arrive at this future, hardware makers must integrate MFCs into products, and consumers must be able to buy small fuel cartridges (e.g. liquid methanol, solid hydrogen) on every retail shelf. Until that day, the 'recharger' concept is the industry's best option.
Batteries & Fuel cells are like Peanut Butter and Jelly, not Oil and Water
The world economy would be better off to move beyond combustion conversion towards more efficient, non-mechanical, and modular electrochemical conversion devices like fuel cells. (This doesn't require pure hydrogen, since you can still use hydrocarbon fuels.)
But I admit that diesel engines are not going away anytime soon, so efforts to improve efficiency for industrial applications could move us further down the road.
Now scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have created the first three-dimensional simulation that fully resolves flame features, such as chemical composition, temperature profile and flow characteristics in diesel engines. Their efforts could lead to new lower temperature engine designs that are more efficent.
3D Models / 120 Terabytes of Data Reveals Combustion Process Unfolding
[Note: Sadly, this is a Production chart focused on alternative 'decline rates', and does not include Global Demand forecasts. Only know that there is a gap in any scenario!]
The upside of 'Peak Oil Production' is that it might be a more effective message than Climate Change in spurring dramatic changes to our transportation sector. The worst case 'peak production' scenario is that it might remain marginalized among mainstream audiences and political leaders just long enough to really matter. What if confusion reigns?
People might confuse the idea of 'running out of oil' (not true) with the reality that global production is not keeping up with increasing demand. People might place misguided hope into potential 'solutions' like solar or nuclear that have nothing to do with liquid fuel markets. You cannot put electricity into a gas tank!
Why Data Has Replaced 'Assumptions' & Why 'Peak and Plateau' Matters
Although fuel cell electric vehicles are still transitioning towards commercialization, the off-grid performance benefits of these electrochemical devices might soon reinforce critical pieces of our transportation infrastructure.
Smart Fuel Cell, a German-based company, has shipped thousands of their commercial fuel cell products and also totes multiple awards for its innovative methods. While most associate fuel cells with automobiles, SFC will also reliably power remote traffic systems with their EFOY Pro Series of fuel cells. Since normal batteries can only power warning blinkers for two days and solar cells/generators are too unreliable, EFOY Pro series fuel cells need no maintenance and are an off-grid power that will run, hypothetically, forever, as long as it has a fuel source. The cell’s tough case can handle rough weather, even temperatures between -4° F and +113 ° F. One 28-litre M28 fuel cell could operate the blinker for 50 days and they have a guaranteed lifetime of 5,000 operating hours or 30 months.
The Munich North Autobahn Authorities are already using the EFOY Pro Series fuel cells. If these cells become commonplace, then remote, off-the-grid traffic systems will not only be more reliable, they will cost less to maintain and will be available for usage even in disaster-struck areas whose power-lines are down.
After airing a special on the future of electric cars CBS 60 Minutes had energy pundits glued to the screen again with Charlie Rose leading an interview with Billionaire Texan T Boone Pickens. Pickens has generated international media attention with his ‘Pickens Plan’ to rearrange the US energy mix emphasizing natural gas and wind in a complicated scheme to wean the US off ‘foreign oil’. What is not entirely clear is how the utilities will respond to the challenges of wind power (without effective storage to manage intermittent power generation), and how Pickens expects free market driven companies to avoid buying ‘foreign’ natural gas if prices are lower than US domestic supplies.
What happened? MIT researchers are rethinking how light can be manipulated within solar cells. They have applied an antireflection coating, a novel combination of multi-layered reflective coatings and a tightly spaced array of lines to the backs of ultrathin silicon films to boost the cells' output by as much as 50 percent. [No official statement has been released on original vs improved efficiency level.]
The coatings on the back of the solar cell force the light to bounce around longer inside the thin silicon layer, giving it time to deposit its energy and produce an electric current. "Without these coatings, light would just be reflected back out into the surrounding air" said Peter Bermel, an MIT postdoctoral physics researcher.
"It's critical to ensure that any light that enters the layer travels through a long path in the silicon," Bermel said. "The issue is how far does light have to travel [in the silicon] before there's a high probability of being absorbed" and knocking loose electrons to produce an electric current.
Why is this important to the future? Depending on the range of its applications, this type of breakthrough could transform solar efficiencies for traditional crystalline (glass substrate) solar cells as well as thin film (carbon substrate) solar.
While we invest in commercializing solar energy systems, we must not turn our backs on funding basic science that can yield fundamental breakthroughs. "The simulated performance was remarkably better than any other structure, promising, for 2-micrometer-thick films, a 50 percent efficiency increase in conversion of sunlight to electricity," said Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, who directed the project.
2008 was a big year in energy and one that we could very well look back upon as the platform to the not so distant future of energy. Much has happened. To help you make sense of it all, we here at The Energy Roadmap have sifted through our bookmarks, Google Notebooks, back of the napkin lists, Twitter searches, interview transcripts, and RSS feeds to come up with the top 10 energy stories that will have an impact on our culture, society, and lives.
Researchers at US Los Alamos National Laboratory (LLNL) have confirmed a unique energy phenomena known as 'carrier multiplication' via nanoscale sized semiconductor crystals that could improve the efficiency of solar cells by squeezing more energy out of inbound photons.
Traditional solar cells absorb a photon of light that releases an electron to generate an electrical current. Any excess energy from the photon reaction is wasted as heat or vibration. The notion of 'carrier multiplciation' rests on the idea that we can get multiple electrons released from a single photon by forcing electrons into a more confined space.
This idea was observed several years ago, but has been criticized as a phantom phenomena via a process known as 'photoionization. Now a research team led by Victor Klimov has confirmed that semiconductor crystals designed at the nanoscale (billionth of a meter) can channel this excess photon energy into a group of tightly packed electrons, leading to a more efficient solar cell.
The team did not release statements about commercialization or scalable efficiencies. “Researchers still have a lot of work to do,” Klimov cautioned. “One important challenge is to figure out how to design a material in which the energetic cost to create an extra electron can approach the limit defined by a semiconductor band gap. Such a material could raise the fundamental power conversion limit of a solar cell from 31 percent to above 40 percent.”
The Clinton Foundation has announced a plan to help the City of Los Angeles retrofit 140,000 street lamps with more efficient white-light LEDs that offer longer lifetime, lower energy use and less 'light polllution' that restricts night sky views.
The Outdoor Lighting Program of the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) will be the largest LED street lighting retrofit project ever undertaken by a city to date. The City expects to reduce its electricity use by approximately 40,500 tons a year equal to taking '6,700 passenger vehicles off the road every year.' The Foundation expects the city to save save a total of $48 million over a seven year period, and reduce carbon emissions by 197,000 tons.
A National Model for Saving Electricity & Night Sky Views?
The future where buildings integrate energy generation systems like 'thin film' solar rooftops might be closer than you think.
Instead of designing expensive, bulky and ugly glass based solar panels, solar start ups are pushing down costs of plastic-substrate based 'thin film' solar cells that resemble today's roof shingles. The field also includes 'Big Chemistry' players like Dow and DuPont who hope to drop the costs of advanced solar materials.
PV Tech is reporting on the continued push by Dow Chemical to expand mainstream construction use power-generating roof shingles by 2011. Dow has already committed more than $3 billion towards polysilicon production that will help lower the global costs of solar cells.