In his bold speech calling to transform the energy industry, Al Gore forgot to say one of the most important words of the 21st century – biology. He forgot to mention that if we wanted to ‘grow’ energy, carbon could become a profitable feedstock rather than an economic and environmental liability.
Gore is now calling on America to launch a major Apollo-style program to ‘decarbonize’ the electricity sector by 2018 using renewables, geothermal and carbon sequestration efforts. He imagines a world beyond ‘fossil fuels’, but might be overlooking our greatest potential investment in the energy sector – tapping biological systems that ‘eat’ carbon and ‘grow’ energy resources such as biofuels (for transportation) and hydrogen (for electricity generation).
What is possible by 2018? Within a decade we could transform the role of carbon into a profitable feedstock for clean, abundant energy by tapping the power of biology.
The phrase ‘fossil fuels’ is misleading. Coal and oil are not ancient bones or animal matter, rather they are ancient plant life and microorganisms that locked up hydrogen and carbon molecules using the power of the sun. Coal and oil are bioenergy resources. And rather than extract ancient bioenergy from the ground, we can grow the same hydrocarbon chains ourselves without adding new carbon to the atmosphere. (cont.)
This Future Fiction piece was cross-posted from the
TechnoTraveller, the Tokyo company that was making furor on the
stock markets for the last months has recalled all of its 12
million Electro-suits after a teenager was found dead in a Tokyo
park. The unfortunate youngster’s solar electro-suit, while powering his
laptop, cell phone, iZune and Thermo-sweater malfunctioned and
directed all the sun-powered energy to the Thermo-sweater. Built-in
feedback systems that should have prevented such an event did not
work appropriately and the Thermo-sweater function will from now on
be disabled in the product, a TechnoTraveller spokesperson declared
in a company press bulletin.
The company’s hot selling item was the driving force behind
TechnoTraveller’s dethroning of Google as Wall Street’s darling
finding a need for cheap power on the road to fuel all electronic
portable devices and warming people in cold climates by using
high-efficient solar fuel cells weaved into a suit. TechnoTraveller
stocks plummeted by more than 55%. The press bulletin further
stated that although the recall will decrease profits and losing
the Thermo-sweater feature will impact sales, there is no need for
panic by shareholders and the future of solar clothing is still
looking bright. The Tokyo coroner performing the autopsy is still
trying to establish whether the cause of death was sixth-degree
burns or electrocution.
Because they are investing in the future design of catalysts!
And their strategy is to innovate at the nanoscale.
The Beginning of Nano
Physicist Richard Feynman is often credited with launching the
‘nanoscale’ era of engineering with his famous lecture ‘Plenty of
Room at the Bottom’ at Caltech in 1959. Feynman
described our future ability to manipulate individual atoms and
eventually create complex mechanical structures made of the
Fifty years after Feynman’s lecture, researchers and startups
are making significant progress in designing nanoscale structured
materials that will have an enormous impact on all aspects of the
energy industry from production, to storage to end use
What is disruptive about catalysts?
Simply put, catalysts help us get more output with less energy
input. Catalysts speed up the reaction of photo-, chemical and
electrochemical changes in everything from batteries, fuel cells,
and solar cells, to the refining of coal, gasoline, diesel, and
natural gas, and the production of hydrogen and biofuels. Catalysts
also help to reduce the energy required to create plastics,
biomaterials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.
The rules of the energy industry game are being re-written by
companies designing synthetic metal and carbon-based catalysts that
change our notions of what is possible in the years ahead. Other
companies are attempting to harness, or mimic, naturally occurring
bio-catalysts that gracefully manipulate energy in all living
things from algae/bacteria to plants to human beings.
Catalysts are the silent work horses of our modern world but you
seldom, if ever, hear or see the word mentioned in mainstream
conversations about energy. Yet they hold the key to unlocking
human potential without draining the planet’s resources. Catalysts
can help realize the vision of a world powered by cheap, abundant,
clean energy. (Continued)
What if we could print low cost solar panels on pieces of plastic and integrate this energy collecting material into buildings, infrastructure and product casings?
This is the future of thin film solar.
While traditional (rigid silicon substrate) solar panels are a relatively mature platform, we have not yet hit our stride in advancing the efficiencies of thin film solar.
Thin-film, or organic solar is attractive because it is low cost, flexible and can be integrated into existing materials and products. These systems can also be designed to tap broader sections of the light spectrum. Relatively low efficiencies mean that thin film solar will never be capable of providing a majority of our energy needs, but it is certainly part of a broader strategy of new distributed power generation.
Before we start asking when we might see thin film on the shelves at Home Depot or integrated into familiar product designs, the first step is to understand why thin film is different from traditional solar.
The following five video clips help to describe the future potential of thin film solar.
Nanosolar (Palo Alto-San Jose, CA) has long been considered a leading innovator in the field of organic photovoltaics or thin film solar.
An amazing concept coming out of the Design Incubation Centre is the Touch Hear. In effect, a computer is implanted, glued or bonded onto a fingertip and ear which could then decipher foreign languages, look up definitions of unknown vocabulary, and even tell you how to pronounce the words correctly.
“By touching a word or phrase in a particular piece of reading material, the user can listen to its related information, like its pronunciation or its meaning.”
Consider it a dictionary/Wikipedia/Babel Fish all at the tip of your finger.
If something this powerful can be put into your fingertips, what else could the future possibly cram in there?
Cell Phone — Something I’ve always thought about is implanting a cellphone into the hand. The pinky finger would be the mic, the thumb the speaker, and the dial pad on the palm of your hand. Would it look silly? Heck yes, but at least you’ll just look crazy as opposed to the bluetooth headsets that make you look like a Star Trek villain). Of course the radiation of having a phone implanted into your hand (especially when you have to re-charge it or replace a broken part) might be a little on the invasive side. But that’s the cost of progress!
Projector — Besides the fact that you could endlessly pester any teacher of yours by shooting a laser light from your fingertips, you could also project other images or even movies. Granted you’d have to keep your hand perfectly still if you plan on avoiding the wrath of your fellow theater goers. By hooking it into the mind we could possibly see our thoughts projected onto the wall as well, great for when you’re trying to explain an object to someone who just can’t picture it. The only problem would be controlling your mind so well that the passing supermodel doesn’t interfere with your presentation on black holes. Whoops, that’s embarrassing.
Last week bloggers across the web from sites dealing with energy, the environment, tech gadgets, mainstream business and policy pushed up MIT’s press release of a major breakthrough in ‘solar-hydrogen energy storage.’
Engadget asked is the energy crisis solved?, Treehugger mirrored MIT’s spin of this Giant Leap and blog Comment sections were flooded with posts ranging from curiosity and praise to flames from skeptics.
The announcement came from the lab of MIT’s Daniel Nocera with work from Post-doc Matthew Kanan. The breakthrough was a low-cost catalyst able to use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.
The twist? The catalyst is made of cheap, earth-abundant materials (cobalt-phosphates), works at room temperature and is designed for a low scale production ‘energy appliance’ units (not major centralized power plants).
Why the excitement?
It is a cost breakthrough for distributed hydrogen production and an advance from basic science to engineering for oxygen. The MIT approach also hints at how small energy appliances could become someday. And the media is reporting on the importance of energy ‘storage’.
MIT’s ‘giant leap’ was the most hyped story of the week and also likely the least understood.
So why is energy storage potentially disruptive for the future of the energy sector? (Continued)
There are many that see huge potential in windmill farms, solar fields and huge geothermal operations. And there is huge potential. Energy is a resource we seemingly cannot live without and can never get enough of. In fact, electricity may as well rank up there with water in level of importance.
But the problem facing the average consumer is that even if these huge projects are undertaken, they are still dependent on a large company for their energy needs. They are subject to rate hikes, unfair charges, and development costs the company undertakes.
How can the average person release themselves from the shackles of energy addiction?
Solar panels are a good start, but for many the idea of keeping track of battery fluid levels, the cost of the panels themselves, as well as winter months without Sun keeps floating in the back of their heads. Installing a windmill in their backyard is also out of the question, unless of course you have acres to spare and don’t mind the occasional malfunction.
One genre of products that have the potential to take the consumer market by storm is the micro wind turbine.
Thin-film- solar startup XsunX, Inc. is moving forward on building out
its 25 megawatt thin film photovoltaic (TFPV) solar module
manufacturing plant in Oregon. A recent company press release describes the companies efforts to align material resources with low cost manufacturing process for its 90,000 square foot facility. The company expects to begin commercial production in early 2009.
Last week we reported on the opening of the first 1 Gigawatt capacity thin film solar plant operated by Konarka. (Konarka image shown) XsunX now appears to be on track to add to real production capacity for the thin film solar market.
Energy forecasters believe that growth of thin film solar could soon surge around its advantages over traditional glass-based solar panels.
While thin film’s performance (by energy conversion efficiency) is lower than traditional solar panels, it has a cost advantages per-watt because of its lower materials and manufacturing ‘roll to roll’ costs. Thin film can also be integrated into more products and building materials, and sold over retail shelves at Home Depot, Walmart and Tesco.
If XsunX and Konarka (Image) stay on course, soon solar panels will be produced on the same types of ‘reels’ that spit out newspapers using inkjet printing processes.
In an attempt to show I’m not entirely in the tank for any particular nuclear energy provider, I direct your attention to the following. Via Jerry Pournelle’s Current Mail link for Tuesday (10/14/08) comes notice of this NRC map of new nuclear power stations in the construction approval process.
I note that Texas has four such new plants already. Given the depressing quantities demanded on my electric utility bill this just-ended atypically cool summer, and in anticipation of the amounts no doubt to be claimed during the upcoming winter, I can only encourage more and faster, please.
Most energy analysts see solar energy (via thermal, traditional photovoltaics and thin film) at the beginning of its commercial growth curve. Yet there is still much that we do not know about the fundamentals of solar energy conversions that can produce electricity, heat, hydrogen and synthetic fuels. Developing a 21st century roadmap for the future of solar energy requires us to first recognize the need for funding basic research in science and then explore the disruptive potential of breakthroughs in applied engineering.
Funding basic and applied research in Solar Photoconversion
The US Department of Energy’s Center for Revolutionary Solar Photoconversion is launching 12 novel solar research projects totaling more than $1.1 million in its inaugural round of research and development funding.
CRSP, the newest research center of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, is dedicated to the basic and applied research necessary to create revolutionary new solar energy technologies as well as education and training opportunities.
According to NREL Senior Research Fellow and CRSP Scientific Director Arthur Nozik, the 12 CRSP projects “represent the leading edge of research into both new ways to generate electricity and liquid and gaseous fuels directly from the sun and improving our approaches toward these goals.”
The 12 selected solar projects are:
- Integrated Electrical and Optical Characterization of Silicon Thin Films – NREL and CSM, $99,818
- Redox-Tunable Polymers for OPV active layers – NREL and CSU, $100,000
- Group IV Nanowire Photovoltaics – Colorado School of Mines, $100,000
- InVitro Evolution of RNA-Inorganic Catalysts for the Conversion of CO2 to Alcohols – CU, $100,000
Many people will say that pursuing aspace-based solar powerenergy campaign is too ambitious, that there are more immediate solutions to get us through our economic/energy crisis until a time when spaced-aged, science fiction-inspired future tech can be safely explored further. They might say that we already have a head start with nuclear, oil and coal, as well as other greener alternatives like wind, water and Earthbound solar. They would be dead wrong.The truth is...
The US Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded its $1 million top prize for the Wearable Power Prize competition to the team of DuPont/Smart Fuel Cell (SFC) based on a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC)system.
Announced in July 2007, the US Department of Defense Research & Engineering 2008 Prize challenged energy companies to develop a lightweight, wearable power systems capable of producing 20 watts average power for 96 hours and weighed less than 4 kilograms. The prize conclude in October 2008 with the following awards:
$1 million First Place DuPont / SFC Smart Fuel Cell – the prize confirms DuPont’s ability to help transform energy systems through basic science and applied materials. DuPont is already a major contributor to next generation energy materials used in solar cells, fuel cells, and biomaterials. Smart Fuel Cell is also a leading company in fuel cell power systems.
$500,000 Second Place Adaptive Materials based on its propane-powered solid oxide fuel cells. According to the team’s press release they lost by weight of 28 grams!
$250,000 Third Place
Little is known or published about third place winner Jenny 600S system of Middleburg, Virginia. [We are investigating!!]
Why portable power?
The US military’s efforts are clear – reduce the weight of energy systems for soldiers carrying an increasingly diverse array of electronic equipment from GPS devices, communication devices to vision glasses. The military is also looking for high density systems to power tiny field sensors, urban surveillance robots and unmanned aerial and mobile vehicles (UAVs).
Portable power is equally disruptive for non-military applications. Effective electron storage systems could lower the costs of electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors; reinforce national electricity grids; and improve performance and reliability of distributed power systems in urban and rural settings. The science and technologies behind this prize are certain to go well beyond military applications.
The US military has a number of contests that push innovation. The most disruptive is its Grand Challenge for fully autonomous vehicles. But in the world of energy, the next logical step beyond portable power storage will be on site power generation! So we’re imagining small appliances that can take any material and convert raw inputs into usable forms of electricity, hydrogen or liquid fuels.