Researchers from Northeastern University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have improved the efficiency of clustered nanotubes used in solar cells to produce hydrogen by splitting water molecules.
By layering potassium on the surface of the nanotubes made of titanium dioxide and carbon, the photocatalyst can split hydrogen gas from water using ‘about one-third the electrical energy to produce the same amount of hydrogen as an equivalent array of potassium-free nanotubes.’
Rethinking the Possibilities at the Nanoscale Energy is about manipulating the interactions of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, metals, biological enzymes and sunlight.
When we design core enabling energy systems (e.g. catalysts, membranes, cathodes/anodes, et al) at the nanoscale (billionth of a meter) we find performance that is fundamentally different from the same systems designed at the 'microscale' (millionth of a meter).
Because smaller is better when it comes to manipulating molecules and light, the research teams used ‘tightly packed arrays of titania nanotubes’ with carbon that ‘helps titania absorb light in the visible spectrum.’ Arranging catalysts in the form of nanoscale-sized tubes increases the surface area of the catalyst which in turn increases the reactive area for splitting oxygen and hydrogen.
Let’s start with Steven Colbert who asked Eric Roston- Is carbon the ‘Al Qaeda’ of elements?
What is The Carbon Age?
An accessible story of carbon across the ages – from its universal origins to the first biochemical bonds formed with hydrogen, to its combustion in our gasoline gas tank, and a bright future with new nanoscale applications. Roston tells the story of carbon through the lenses of physical cosmology, geochemistry, biology, engineering, energy science, and above all else- how this element has shaped human societies.
Why read it?
I always speak highly of this book! But be prepared. The subtitle ‘How Life’s Core Element Has Becomes Civilization’s Greatest Threat’ is misleading. This is not a book about a crisis. Is not anti-carbon. Roston is not trying to shock you. He is trying to reach your head, not your heart. Roston does not avoid the seriousness of climate change, but does not fall back on simple strategies that avoid the complexities of carbon science.
Roston’s voice and perspective on carbon is fresh. He is incredibly balanced in his delivery, and the undertones of how the carbon age story ends are optimistic. But the first step in addressing the challenges of this Industrial Age’s massive release of carbon into the atmosphere is to understand how it got there- and why chemical bonds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are so important to society. All this is delivered in under 250 pages!
[Continue – on my reaction to ‘The Carbon Age’ and the importance of chemical energy, time and biology.]
How might storing electricity in the form of solid hydrogen change the future landscape of energy? We believe it could change the performance of mobile power, lower the cost of renewable energy production, and change the nature of refueling your car by ‘swapping out’ boxes of fuel.
Hydrogen & Electricity = ‘Hydricity’
Electricity powers the future. Look beyond the transportation sector of liquid fuels, and most devices and machines run on electrons. Today, we understand the important role of electricity in our world, and tomorrow we might understand its sister companion – hydrogen.
Hydrogen might be the most misunderstood and misrepresented piece of the future energy landscape. Devotees often overstate it as the savior of Planet Earth, and staunch critics underestimate its short term challenges for longer term potential in energy systems and materials science.
A ‘Hydrogen economy’ is an economy driven by electricity. The hydrogen is merely a way of storing electron power via chemical bonds of hydrogen. So hydrogen and electricity are one in the same thing. Ballard Power Founder Geoffrey Ballad has coined the phrase ‘hydricity’ to help people understand the balance of these electrons carriers.
Fuel cells capture energy released when coated membranes strip apart those hydrogen-hydrogen bonds and merge it with oxygen to get water. This is a much more efficient (and cleaner) process when compared to blowing up carbon-hydrogen bonds via combustion. But it is also harder and more expensive (at least today!).
Advances in Hydrogen Storage
The two challenges for hydrogen are production and storage. For now we’ll focus on an emerging platform for high density, low cost and safe storage systems based on ‘solid’ hydrogen.
News from Argonne National Laboratory on ‘crystal sponges’
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.
By the fall of 2008, every major automanufacturer from GM to Nissan to Tata--and a few startups such as Tesla and Aptera--had announced production model plans for all manner of electric vehicles, from all electrc vehicles, to plug-in hybrid electrics, to fuel cell vehicles, with deliveries to consumers starting in 2010. 2008 could well be known as the nail in the coffin for the bulky combustion engine which has plagued the auto industry with its manufacturing and design liabilities, and association with volatile oil markets.
How quickly might the world re-tool the global auto industry to build new vehicle chassis based on electric motors and advanced energy storage systems?
Continue Reading other Top Energy Stories from 2008
Top Gear recently test drove the Honda Clarity in Los Angeles and proclaimed with certainty that this car will be the most important one in 100 years. The reason? It runs on Hydrogen.
It looks like a normal car, drives like a normal car, fills up like a normal car, and its only by-product is water. They also go on to say how the car may never have to be serviced since the engine has only one moving part. It's crazy to think how much people are investing in hybrid or electric technologies (meaning plug-in cars) when a hydrogen-powered car will obliterate them all in the coming decade.
Now if we could just find an incredibly cheap way of making Hydrogen at home from air we'd be set.
There is an echo chamber of cynicism around the topic of corn ethanol. Unless you are a corn farmer or part of the ethanol lobby, evergyone agrees that this is not a sustainable path.
So the world is moving forward. The conversation is now focused on next generation bioenergy solutions that avoid the problems of 'crop' based biofuels.
The US government has placed a ceiling on future growth for corn derived fuels, and now the Obama administration has announced up to $25 million in funding for research and development of technologies and processes to produce biofuels, bioenergy, and high-value biobased products.
The money will fund projects related to: Feedstocks development; Biofuels and biobased products development; and Biofuels development analysis.
What is happening? 'Biology' is coming of age as a driver of industrial and energy applications.
Why 'Bioenergy'has more to do with Bio-Industrialism than Farming
Thin film solar is a low cost alternative to traditional glass based solar panels. 'Thin film' photovoltaic cells can be inkjet printed onto plastic sheets via a 'roll to roll' machine. These long plastic sheets can then be integrated into building materials like commercial and residential rooftops.
Startups are now scaling up production volumes, but the first phase of commercial growth for thin film depends on strategic partnerships with rooftop materials and construction companies.
ECD Ovonics transforming 'Rust Belt' to a 'Green Belt' Thin-film solar is a new energy technology platform that can be produced at low cost in many regions around the world. American energy visionaries imagine transforming the industrial Midwest 'Rust Belt' into a manufacturing hub for new cleantech materials.
Now Michigan-based ECD Ovonics has signed a contract with Carlisle Construction Materials to provide its Uni-Solar thin film for use in commercial roofing systems. The agreement is good news for Michigan economic developers. ECD is the world's leading producer of thin film solar, and has had previous partnerships with Italian steel and metal materials company Marcegaglia which expects to introduce the low cost, durable thin film solar metal roofing products to the market in 2010.
President Obama is close to naming the ‘Car Czar’ who will oversee a large portion of the federal auto loans and consult on the looming transformation of the US auto industry. Let's hope this person doesn't try to build a better buggy whip.
Most ideas out on the table are incremental (e.g. ‘better mileage’), or short-sighted (e.g. plug in batteries?) and fail to inspire disruptive changes that reflect a 21st century version of the transportation sector.
Here are Ten Ideas for the US Car Czar:
1) Lower the US Auto Industry I.C.E. 'Manufacturing Footprint' The problem isn't oil, it's the cost complexities of building mechanical engines. Declare the Internal Combustion Engine ‘Dead’ by 2025 (When more than 50% of new vehicles will be powered by electric motors) Have automakers share combustion engine plants and suppliers during the transition.
2) Accelerate the Electricification of the World's Auto Fleet At the same time expand the US manufacturing base around the 'next' generation platform for mobility: Electric Drive systems based on high performance motors, drive by wire systems, software and various energy storage devices.
3) Explain ‘Electrification’ clearly to the public ‘Electric’ refers to the motor, not just the battery. Next generation 'electric' vehicles will integrate batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. Fuel cells produce electricity. A hydrogen powered car is an electric car. Let’s stop the confusion and battle between technologies. Cars are not iPods, and will need various systems to function. This is a multi-decade long transition. Don't pick short-term winners.
4) Go Global - Expand our ties to Asian Manufacturers & Markets Electric cars are not designed to be built as one unit, in one country. They are assembled systems of systems that can be constantly upgraded via a global value chain. The line of 'new' car vs 'old' car blurs when we shift to modular electric platforms. And all the real growth will happen outside of the US! 'Detroit' must participate in this global supply chain and be in a position to sell 21st century vehicle systems to Asian markets. (Hint: The high value auto industrial base will revolve around polymers, software and sensors, not metal frames.)
5) Software Side of Car Experience The single greatest opportunity for the next century might be the ‘software’ side of the automobile experience. Smarter vehicles embedded with sensors and ‘situation awareness’ systems, customized driving experiences based on ‘drive by wire’, and mobility services (e.g. OnStar). The US can compete in this new growth market and benefit by getting 'more flow' out of our current roadway system as we make drivers and cars smarter. (PS - Mass Transit could use some software to create service transparency)
Read on: 6) Build next generation energy systems; 7) Reinvent the Wheel; 8) Fleet only for Plug-ins; 9) Shift Revenue streams to After Market 10) New 'types' of vehicle & service
Oil Supply Crunch ahead The world's leading authority on oil markets is warning that these days of cheap ($40 barrel) oil are just a mirage and that the world is likely to experience 'an oil supply crunch' next year (2010) as markets begin to recover.
Reuters reports on IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka describing a potential short-term reality: "Currently the demand is very low due to the very bad economic situation, but when the economy starts growing, recovery comes again in 2010 and then onward, we may have another serious supply crunch if capital investment is not coming."
The Real Problem with Oil - No Alternative Oil's biggest problem is 'lack of substiitutability'. There is no other 'reserve' of liquid fuel that can compare to the energy locked up inside the hydrogen-carbon bonds of oil.
If we talk about using oil as gasoline for the transportation sector there is no commercially viable alternative that offers the same volume and performance. Even 'Next Generation' biofuels from algae and cellulose-eating bacteria cannot provide the scale to fill even a tiny gap in global oil production vs demand.
People who push 'solar', 'wind' or 'nuclear' (which produce electricity) as an 'alternative to oil' simply do not understand the combustion engine. You cannot put electricity inside your gas tank. We must either produce massive amounts of liquid fuel substitutes, or take a bolder step to kill the combustion engine.
Is the world ready to confront the real problem? The Combustion Engine
Metals, like platinum, palladium and nickel, play a key role as catatysts that change the quality of reactions of gases like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Designing catalysts at the nanoscale (billionth of a meter) will help to improve interactions within fuel cells that convert chemical energy into electricity. But achieving precise control over nano-sized particles has been difficult.
Now Brown University researchers have designed fuel cell catalysts using palladium nanoparticles that have about 40 percent greater active surface area, and ‘remain intact four times longer’.
The innovations? A New Binding Agent & Surface Area The researchers have learned how to bind the 4.5 nanometer sized metal pieces to a carbon support platform using weak binding amino ligands that keep the nanoparticles separate. After they are set, the ligand links are ‘washed away’ without negatively changing the catalysts.
“This approach is very novel. It works,” said Vismadeb Mazumder, a graduate researcher who joined chemistry professor Shouheng Sun “It’s two times as active, meaning you need half the energy to catalyze. And it’s four times as stable. It just works better.”
US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced $41 million to support the 'immediate deployment of nearly 1,000 fuel cell systems for emergency backup power and material handling applications (e.g., forklifts) that have emerged as key early markets in which fuel cells can compete with conventional power technologies. Additional systems will be used to accelerate the demonstration of stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power in the larger residential and commercial markets.'
The funds will also support micro-power applications being advanced by innovative startups like Jadoo, Plug Power, Nuvera, MTI, PolyFuel, and Delphi Automotive (auxillary power systems for trucks!).
Fuel Cells (Power Stations) vs Batteries (Storage) Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity without having to be 'plugged into' the grid. As 'refuelable' power generators, they offer some key advantages to a pure energy storage offering of batteries (e.g. Batteries depend on 'grid access', while fuel cells need fuel and serve as a portable/stationary power station. You just need to add fuel!)
US Energy Visionaries Sense Global Opportunity The key to advancing fuel cells is to lower the costs of nanostructured catalysts (that release electric charges) and membranes (allow positive ions to pass) used in all applications (e.g. stationary, portable). It is a materials science strategy based on nanoscale science and engineering.
While the battery supply chain has long been established, there is a unique opportunity for the US to leap frog into more commercially diverse applications based on fuel cell systems used in everything from distributed power, micro-power, transportation and utility scale power generation.
More posts on Fuel cells at The Energy Roadmap.com