Lucky for us the sun is a wonderful source of clean energy. Its
rays can be harnessed and transformed into electricity using
semi-conductor-based solar cells that power homes, buildings, and
even transportation. Researchers have spent decades trying to
refine this process.
Recently, MIT researchers have made a
significant mark in this endeavor. Associate Professor Marc A.
Baldo, leader of the project, and a team of four graduate students
of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,
have constructed a cost-efficient solar concentrator device based
on a failed 1970s model that uses glass and dye. In practical
terms, the concentrator device is a high-efficiency window.
Currently, solar concentrators on the market track the sun’s
rays using large mobile mirrors that are both expensive to arrange
and to maintain. Furthermore, Baldo explains, the solar cells that
house these concentrators must be cooled, thus the entire assembly
Baldo’s new solar concentrator increases the amount of usable
energy by a factor of 40, all while cutting costs by reducing the
amount of solar cell, which because its base is silicon is rather
The device consists of glass coated with a mixture of relatively
inexpensive dyes that absorbs the light and re-emits it on a new
wavelength into the glass to be collected by the solar cells, which
are located on the edges of the glass.
Baldo says the 1970s model failed in two ways: the collected
light was absorbed before it reached the edges of the glass and the
dyes were unstable.
Using optical techniques developed for lasers and other diodes,
the MIT engineers found the perfect ratio
of dyes that would allow the light that is absorbed and emitted to
travel a longer distance before reaching the solar cells.
Most of us have read about peak oil production in which the ability to extract oil reaches a growth plateau and fails to keep pace with accelerating demand. The result could be managing a ‘peak and plateau’ scenario as we gradually shift away from oil, or a ‘peak and collapse’ scenario as the world economy stumbles and cannot adjust to a more rapid decline in production.
But what about the implications of ‘peak oil demand’ from energy consumers? And how might it change the future of the transportation industry?
This notion of ‘peak demand’ is supported by a new report from leading energy-sector forecast firm CERA titled ‘Dawn of a New Age: Global Energy Scenarios for Strategic Decision Making- The Energy Future to 2030’.
CERA suggests that because of high energy costs the US could reach ‘peak gasoline demand’ in the next ten to fifteen years, and possibly plateau as early as 2010. As our vehicles become more efficient and we change behavior, our demand for gasoline will plateau.
CERA’s forecast of ‘peak demand’ is a game changing concept because it shows the transportation industry the ceiling of its growth opportunities in the world’s largest economy. It also forces drastic changes to enable more growth around a new platform as we electrify the world’s transportation sector.
If peak production is our biggest challenge, ‘peak demand’ might be our best incentive for innovation! (Continued)
What does the future of energy look like in the 21st century? Which elements will remain the same? Which emerging technologies might reinvent how we look at energy? Most importantly, how quickly might things change?
Dear Future Blogger Readers,
In case you haven’t already clicked on the new button in our right-hand column, MemeBox.com, Your Forum for the Future, is proud to point you in the direction of The Energy Roadmap. Edited by energy industry futurist Garry Golden (who we’re thrilled to have officially join the MemeBox team), the new blog/site focuses on the most disruptive ideas poised to transform the energy industry over the next decade and beyond.
“The Energy Roadmap aims to bridge the gap between emerging energy technology and deeply rooted accelerating change,” says MemeBox CEO Jeff Hilford, “Garry’s professional background in energy and futures studies will open up new conversations on the future of energy. We are very pleased to add his unique voice to the mix.”
The sheer scale of the energy industry means that most changes will happen gradually, but the sector is not immune to the power of disruptive technologies, accelerating change and entrepreneurial business models. The Energy Roadmap seeks to place these dynamics into the proper context around some of the biggest ideas shaping the future:
- Role of carbon pricing schemes
- Impact of nanoscale materials science and engineering
- Role of biology in energy production and carbon utilization (e.g. algae biofuels)
- Energy storage and distributed power generation (e.g. micro-power, on-site power generation)
- Role of software and power management systems for ‘smart grids’
- Evolution of the Hydrocarbon Industry (coal, petroleum and natural gas)
- Next generation renewables, nuclear, wave, geothermal, and beyond
- Reducing energy intensity of industrial processes (e.g. chemicals, agriculture, materials manufacturing)
- Growing influence of venture capital and energy entrepreneurs
“Energy has become synonymous with the future,” points out Garry Golden, Editor of The Energy Roadmap, “Global demand for energy will double in only a few decades. Incremental improvements will simply not be enough to meet increasing expectations for clean and abundant energy. And we expect disruptive energy systems to emerge from the convergence of new science, technology and business models. The Energy Roadmap is the first blog explicitly devoted to this structured debate about the future of energy.
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.
There are only a few energy companies in the world that have generated as much attention and skepticism as BlackLight Power Inc. The company has demonstrated a controllable, scalable energy system the cannot be explained by conventional scientific paradigms of combustion or nuclear reactions.
Simply put the company has devised a way to capture the chemical energy from the electrons of hydrogen atoms as they transition to lower-energy levels. It is not combustion-based or nuclear but releases tremendous amounts of energy. [Flash video of process]
While the claims have, not surprisingly, generated a lot of criticism and doubt, Black Power has now confirmed successful independent replication and validation.
The validation of its 1,000 watt and 50,000 watt reactors was led by Rowan University’s Dr. Peter Jansson which conducted 55 tests of the prototypes, including controls and calibrations, during a nine-month study. Results indicated that energy generation was proportional to the total amount of solid fuel, and only one percent of the one million joules of the energy released could be accounted for by previously known chemistry. According to Dr. Jansson “Our experiments on the BlackLight technology have demonstrated that within the range of measurement errors the significant energy generated, which is 100 times the energy that could be attributed to measurement error, cannot be explained by other known sources like combustion or nuclear energy.”
Could carbon-eating algae change how we produce liquid fuels by 2020? Can we ‘grow’ energy rather than pull it out of the ground? A British energy R&D firm believes the answer is yes.
UK-based Carbon Trust, which works to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy, has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with an ambitious mission: to commercialize the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil based oil by 2020.
Carbon Trust’s multi-million pound investment will be led through its Advanced Bioenergy Accelerator and focused on microalgae that can be cultivated and manipulated to produce high yields of oil using carbon-rich feedstocks.
This effort is another signal that the long-term future of bioenergy is more likely to tap the power of microbes (algae/bacteria) rather than plant based resources like corn, soy and palm oil.
Carbon Trust’s initial forecasts suggest that algae-based biofuels could replace over 70 billion litres of fossil derived fuels used worldwide annually in road transport and aviation by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of over £15 billion.
Algae fuels? A Future inspired by the Past
The Industrial Revolution has been based on capturing energy released from breaking chemical bonds of carbon and hydrogen. We blew up coal’s chemical bonds to for steam engines, then gasoline inside internal combustion engines and repurposed coal for large centralized electric power plants. Now the 21st century could be partly shaped by closing that carbon-hydrogen loop using molecular systems within biology?
Ironically this future vision of energy is inspired by the past! Coal is ancient biomass- likely ferns. And oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both are made of complex chains of hydrogen and carbon assembled by Mother Nature’s molecular machines of algae and bacteria. As long as chemical bonds drive the economy, we need to figure out a way to keep carbon in the energy loop by binding it with hydrogen, not oxygen. This UK algae challenge is an important step in closing that cycle in the 21st Century.
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.
Algae and bacteria can be used to capture energy from carbon-rich waste streams from coal plants, agricultural farms, food processing facilities, wastewater treatment plants and - yes, catfish farms.
Arizona-based PetroSun Biofuels (Subsidiary of PetroSun) has announced plans to integrate algae systems with catfish farm ponds for commercial algae-to-biofuel operations. PetroSun Biofuels is quickly becoming a biofuel startup with global reach. It already operates an open algae biofuel farm in Texas, has licensed its technology outside of the US, and is working to launch operations in China.
PetroSun BioFuels and Biomass Partners have identified up to 80,000 acres of catfish ponds within the state of Mississippi that hold the potential for commercial algae bioenergy systems. Based on PetroSun's annual potential production rate of 2,000 gallons per acre, the existing 80,000 acres of ponds would produce 160 million gallons of algal oil annually for conversion to biodiesel. The remaining algae biomass (e.g. fatty acids) could be processed into ethanol, animal feed, fertilizer and other biomaterial products.
PetroSun is working to secure land surface rights and existing farm ponds located in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas but has not yet announced dates for planned production facilities.
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.