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The Race for Alt Fuels

UCLA Researchers Use Electricity and Carbon Dioxide to Generate Butanol

March 30th 2012

Ralstonia Eutropha

Imagine being able to use electricity to power your car—your existing car, not an electric vehicle. Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have for the first time demonstrated a method for converting carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel—isobutanol—using electricity.

Today, electrical energy generated by various methods is still difficult to store efficiently. Chemical batteries, hydraulic pumping, and water splitting suffer from low energy-density storage or incompatibility with current transportation infrastructure.

In a study published March 30 in the journal Science, James Liao, UCLA’s Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering, and his team report a method for storing electrical energy as chemical energy in higher alcohols, which can be used as liquid transportation fuels.

“The current way to store electricity is with lithium ion batteries, in which the density is low, but when you store it in liquid fuel, the density could actually be very high,” Liao said. “In addition, we have the potential to use electricity as transportation fuel without needing to change current infrastructure.” Read more ..

Broken Energy Policy

Obama Administration Made Loan to Solyndra while Insiders Foresaw Failure

March 29th 2012

Obama and Solyndra officials
President Obama meeting with Solyndra officials

On August 20, 2009, an Energy Department staffer examining a pending loan to a California clean energy start-up came to a startling conclusion: The company would run out of money by September 2011.

As part of the 2009 job-creating stimulus, the government has committed nearly $40 billion to clean energy projects. The first loan guarantee went to Solyndra Inc., a California solar firm backed by an Obama fundraiser. But instead of picking a winner, the government backed a loser. The firm failed, putting more than 1,000 people out of work and taxpayers on the hook for $535 million. Among questions now: Did the White House unduly influence the process? Did the Energy Department rush its first commitment, ignoring warning signs about the company's viability? Will this failed project cost Obama?

The Department of Energy was fully aware of the risks in backing Solyndra Inc., a start-up company that pocketed a half-billion dollar DOE loan but never turned a penny in profit before shutting its doors, concludes a former FBI agent hired to examine the company’s books. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Shell Closer to Drilling Along Alaska Coastal Waters

March 28th 2012

Oil Barrels 400px

The Interior Department on Wednesday green-lighted a plan that brings Shell closer to drilling in waters off the coast of Alaska this summer. The department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) announced that it has approved Shell’s oil spill response plan for exploration in the Beaufort Sea, which is located in arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast. Interior said it subjected the plan to additional scrutiny based on a series of beefed-up safety and environmental standards put in place in the aftermath of the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexcio oil spill.
We have conducted an exhaustive review of Shell’s response plan for the Beaufort Sea,” BSEE Director James Watson said in a news release. “Our focus moving forward will be to hold Shell accountable and to follow-up with exercises, reviews and inspections to ensure that all personnel and equipment are positioned and ready.” Shell called approval of the plan a “major milestone” in its longtime efforts to drill in the Arctic.

The Race for Alt Energy

Liquid-like Materials Could Pave Way for New Thermoelectric Devices

March 27th 2012

Warwick golden electrode

In the continual quest for better thermoelectric materials — which convert heat into electricity and vice versa — researchers have identified a liquid-like compound whose properties give it the potential to be even more efficient than traditional thermoelectrics.

The researchers studied a material made from copper and selenium. Although it is physically a solid, it exhibits liquid-like behaviors due to the way its copper atoms flow through the selenium's crystal lattice. "It's like a wet sponge," explains Jeff Snyder, a faculty associate in applied physics and materials science in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a member of the research team. "If you have a sponge with very fine pores in it, it looks and acts like a solid. But inside, the water molecules are diffusing just as fast as they would if they were a regular liquid. That's how I imagine this material works. It has a solid framework of selenium atoms, but the copper atoms are diffusing around as fast as they would in a liquid." Read more ..

The Race For Wind

Real-World Wind Turbine Performance and Just-in-Time Predictive Maintenance Software Studied

March 26th 2012

Click to select Image

The production of wind-derived renewable energy is growing, and so, it’s important to help wind farm owners operate at higher efficiencies with lower costs.

In fact, figures from the World Wind Energy Association report that installed global capacity for wind-energy production was approximately 240,000 megawatts of power in 2011, up nearly ten fold since 2001.

That growth, which is expected to continue, will increase demand to facilitate plant efficiency and lowered operational costs along with just-in-time turbine maintenance among wind farms. And to that end, University of Cincinnati researchers have been conducting real-world tests of new predictive software that does just that – increases efficiency and lowers costs when it comes to commercial wind-turbine operations. The test results, which analyze two years’ worth of operating and environmental data from a commercial wind turbine, have just been published in the Journal of Renewable Energy, along with information on the predictive maintenance software. Read more ..

The Race for Hydrogen

Nuclear Can Fuel the Hydrogen Economy

March 26th 2012

Davis Bessee nuke plant Ohio

The long-sought technology for enabling the fabled "hydrogen economy" — an era based on hydrogen fuel that replaces gasoline, diesel and other fossil fuels, easing concerns about foreign oil and air pollution — has been available for decades and could begin commercial production of hydrogen in this decade, a scientist reported here today.

Speaking at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society, Ibrahim Khamis, Ph.D., described how heat from existing nuclear plants could be used in the more economical production of hydrogen, with future plants custom-built for hydrogen production. He is with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria.

"There is rapidly growing interest around the world in hydrogen production using nuclear power plants as heat sources," Khamis said. "Hydrogen production using nuclear energy could reduce dependence on oil for fueling motor vehicles and the use of coal for generating electricity. In doing so, hydrogen could have a beneficial impact on global warming, since burning hydrogen releases only water vapor and no carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. There is a dramatic reduction in pollution." Read more ..

The Road's Edge

Congressional Debate over Gasoline Prices Complicates Case Against Highway Bill

March 25th 2012

Broken Road

The political debate over gas prices appears to be complicating Democratic efforts to compare the standoff over federal transportation spending to last year’s shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

With gas prices on the rise, some Republican strategists think voters might welcome at least a temporary 18.4 cent-per-gallon break on the cost of filling up their gas tanks.

“A stalled highway bill could cause short-term relief from gas price pain for millions of Americans who aren't thinking about the ramifications,” former Senate Republican Conference Chief of Staff Ron Bonjean said in an email.

Few people in Washington are arguing that Congress should eliminate the gas tax altogether. But if lawmakers do not agree on at least a temporary extension that is what would happen on March 31 until lawmakers end their logjam.

Most observers expect the impasse will end before it gets to that point. But in the run up to the deadline, Democrats have been raising the specter of an interruption and blaming Republicans for the possibility. Democrats argue that a gas tax interruption would be worse than the temporarily shutdown of the FAA in 2011 because the gas tax generates $100 million per day for the federal government, which is used to fund transportation projects across the country. The FAA shutdown, which lasted two weeks, was projected to have cost the federal government $30 million per day in lost sales taxes on airline ticket purchases. Read more ..

Edge of Architecture

Integrated Responsive Building Envelopes Provide Greener Future for Buildings

March 23rd 2012

smart exterior building panels
Prototype responsive envelope system for interior walls

Within the "envelopes" of commercial and residential buildings rests the promise of major, new energy efficiencies in the built-environment, according to University of Michigan researchers.

A team of U-M architects, civil engineers and materials and environmental scientists will embark this fall on a two-year collaborative project they call Integrated Responsive Building Envelopes (IRBE). Together they will explore the potential of intelligent building exteriors, or envelopes, that are capable of monitoring weather, daylight and occupant use to manage heating, cooling and lighting in dynamic ways that protect the environment and promote energy efficiency.

"We're exploring the interface between a building's external environment and the shelter it provides, and exploring the adaptation of that interface to better control the flow of energy," said Jerome Lynch, a principal investigator on the project and an associate professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "We are working to mitigate the total energy consumption of buildings and their environmental impact, while enhancing their comfort and aesthetic appeal." Read more ..

The Race for Wind

Wind Energy Potential in India Much Greater than Previously Believed

March 21st 2012

Wind Farm

A new assessment of wind energy in India by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has found that the potential for on-shore wind energy deployment is far higher than the official estimates— about 20 times and up to 30 times greater than the current government estimate of 102 gigawatts.

This landmark finding may have significant impact on India’s renewable energy strategy as it attempts to cope with a massive and chronic shortage of electricity. “The main importance of this study, why it’s groundbreaking, is that wind is one of the most cost-effective and mature renewable energy sources commercially available in India, with an installed capacity of 15 GW and rising rapidly,” says Berkeley Lab scientist Amol Phadke, the lead author of the report.  Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Oil Execs to Obama: Partial Keystone Pipeline Approval isn’t Enough

March 21st 2012


Top executives with Oklahoma-based oil-and-gas companies are greeting President Obama’s upcoming visit with a push for approval of the entire Keystone XL pipeline, not just the Oklahoma-to-Texas portion that the White House is pledging to expedite.

That message is part of a broader open letter to Obama from the heads of four prominent independent oil-and-gas companies: Continental Resources (whose CEO is heading Mitt Romney’s energy advisory team), Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, and Sandridge Energy.

It comes ahead of Obama’s Thursday visit to Cushing, Okla., where he’s expected to tout plans to expedite federal permits for the southern part of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone project.

But the administration in January rejected a cross-border permit for the bigger portion that would carry crude from Alberta’s tar sands projects (and some oil from production in North Dakota and Montana) to Gulf Coast refineries. It has invited TransCanada to reapply.

“Approval of the entire Keystone XL pipeline should happen now—not after the election. Yes, we are pleased TransCanada decided to build a critical section of the project from Cushing to the Gulf Coast. We note that this section doesn't require State Department approval. However, America's greatest benefit will come when we can transport oil from our best energy partner, Canada, and oil-rich North Dakota and Montana,” states the letter, published in The Oklahoman.

The letter is part of a wider clash between the White House and oil-and-gas companies that allege administration policies are too restrictive. Read more ..

The Defense Edge

Obama Prepares for War with Sweeping Executive Order

March 20th 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

Last Friday, March 16, President Barack Obama may have quietly placed the United States on a war preparedness footing, perhaps in anticipation of an outbreak of war between Israel, the West, and Iran. A newly-propounded Executive Order, titled "National Defense Resources Preparedness," renews and updates the president's power to take control of all civil energy supplies, including oil and natural gas, control and restrict all civil transportation, which is almost 97 percent dependent upon oil; and even provides the option to re-enable a draft in order to achieve both the military and non-military demands of the country, according to a simple reading of the text. The Executive Order was published on the White House website.

The timing of the Order -- with little fanfare -- could not be explained. Opinions among the very first bloggers on the purpose of the unexpected Executive Order run the gamut from the confused to the absurd. None focus on the obvious sudden need for such a pronouncement: oil and its potential for imminent interruption. If Iran was struck by Israel or the West, or if Iran thought it might be struck, the Tehran regime has promised it would block the Strait of Hormuz, which would obstruct some 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil, some twenty percent of the global supply, and about 20 percent of America's daily needs. Moreover, Tehran has promised military retaliation against any nation it feels has harmed it. The United States is at the top of the list. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

German Picked To Head South Stream Project

March 20th 2012

Keystone Pipeline
Typical pipeline construction

Gazprom chief Aleksei Miller has nominated the former mayor of Hamburg, Henning Voscherau, to head the board of the Russia-backed South Stream pipeline project.

Miller on March 19 cited Voscherau's "experience in working with international organizations dealing with legal regulation" and said his "weighty authority will make him a considerable contribution to the successful and timely implementation of the South Stream project." After serving as the first mayor of Hamburg, Voscherau is also a former president of Germany's upper house of parliament. The South Stream natural-gas pipeline aims to carry some 63 billion cubic meters of Russian gas across southeastern Europe to points in Italy and Austria. Miller said that construction of the pipeline is due to start this December with operation set to start in December 2015. Voscherau, 70, is not the first high-ranking former German official to receive a post with Gazprom. Read more ..

Broken Government

Audit Cites Risk in DOE Loan Program

March 17th 2012

A new audit of the Department of Energy’s $34 billion loan guarantee program said the agency doesn’t always follows its own rules in awarding the highly coveted funding, creating risk in an effort already hindered by breakdowns. The audit by the Government Accountability Office carries fresh relevance amid the bankruptcies of two of the first three firms to land the government’s green energy funding: Solyndra Inc. and Beacon Power Corp. “What we found was problems in how they followed their process and in some cases deviated from the process without a clear explanation why,” Frank Rusco, the GAO auditor who wrote the report, said in an interview. “This has gotten the program in trouble in the past and certainly raises questions that are hard for them to answer.” The GAO report, the latest to spotlight vulnerabilities in the way DOE awards public money, details just how selective the loan pool is.

Of 460 applicants, the GAO found, the Energy Department awarded loan guarantees to 7 percent and committed to 2 percent more.  To date, the investigative arm of Congress said, the department has issued $15 billion in guarantees and committed to $15 billion more. The GAO scrutinized 13 winning applications in detail. Of those, it found, the Energy Department did not follow its written procedures at least once in 11 of the 13 cases. Read more ..

The Race for Alternative Energy

A Fragrant New Biofuel

March 15th 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

A class of chemical compounds best known today for fragrance and flavor may one day provide the clean, green and renewable fuel with which truck and auto drivers fill their tanks. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria to generate significant quantities of methyl ketone compounds from glucose. In subsequent tests, these methyl ketones yielded high cetane numbers – a diesel fuel rating comparable to the octane number for gasoline – making them strong candidates for the production of advanced biofuels. “Our findings add to the list of naturally occurring chemical compounds that could serve as biofuels, which means more flexibility and options for the biofuels industry,” says Harry Beller, a JBEI microbiologist who led this study. “We’re especially encouraged by our finding that it is possible to increase the methyl ketone titer production of E. coli more than 4,000-fold with a relatively small number of genetic modifications.”

Beller directs the Biofuels Pathways department for JBEI’s Fuels Synthesis Division, and also is a senior scientist with the Earth Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). He is the corresponding author of a paper describing this work titled “Engineering of Bacterial Methyl Ketone Synthesis for Biofuels,” which was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Co-authoring this paper were Ee-Been Goh, who is the first author on the paper, plus Edward Baidoo and Jay Keasling. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Bright is the New Black: New York City Roofs Go Cool

March 14th 2012

Click to select Image
credit: Kris Arnold

On the hottest day of the New York City summer in 2011, a white roof covering was measured at 42 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the traditional black roof it was being compared to, according to a study including NASA scientists that details the first scientific results from the city’s unprecedented effort to brighten rooftops and reduce its urban heat island effect.

The dark, sunlight-absorbing surfaces of some New York City roofs reached 170 degrees Fahrenheit on July 22, 2011, a day that set a city record for electricity usage during the peak of a heat wave. But in the largest discrepancy of that day, a white roofing material was measured at about 42 degrees cooler. The white roof being tested was a low-cost covering promoted as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030.

On average through the summer of 2011, the pilot white roof surface reduced peak rooftop temperature compared to a typical black roof by 43 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the study, which was the first long-term effort in New York to test how specific white roof materials held up and performed over several years. Read more ..

Edge of Geopolitics

America is Becoming a Natural Gas Exporter and Geopolitical Player in Asia

March 13th 2012

Fracking gas well

The United States has significantly increased its natural gas production since 2005, largely because of advancements in extraction technology. These technological improvements are relatively new, so their exact long-term impact on U.S. production is currently unclear. However, in the short term, this increased production has caused domestic prices to decrease substantially.

To remain profitable, U.S. companies are making plans to begin exports in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which could lead the United States to become a net exporter of natural gas in the next few years. With prices for natural gas higher in East Asia and Europe, the United States can use these exports as an effective economic and political tool. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Solar Panels Derived From CERN Technology for Massive Swiss Array

March 13th 2012

Solar panels

At Geneva International Airport SRB Energy has delivered the first of the solar panels that will form one of the largest solar energy systems of Switzerland. Ultimately, some 300 high-temperature solar thermal panels will cover a surface of 1 200 square meters on the roof of the airport’s main terminal building. The panels, which will be used to keep the buildings warm during the winter and cool in the summer, are derived from vacuum technology developed at CERN for particle accelerators.

“We are delighted that Geneva International Airport has opted for this technology,” said Cristoforo Benvenuti, the inventor of the panels, who has been working on vacuum technology at CERN since the 1970s. “The panels emerged from vacuum technologies that were developed for fundamental physics purposes, and it is highly gratifying to see them put to use for renewable energy.”  Read more ..

The Race for Nuclear

Uncertainty Reigns over How Nuclear Fuel Behaves Under Stress

March 12th 2012

Fukushima plant worker

One year ago on March 11, an earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami triggered a month-long partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the crisis, advocates and opponents of nuclear power are squaring off in a fight over the lessons U.S. regulators should learn from the disaster.

But both sides are making policy recommendations without a full accounting of the facts. The most definitive, independent study of the disaster isn’t due to be released for months.

In one corner, and at one press conference this week, advocates at the industry-funded Nuclear Energy Institute were eager to highlight the “diverse and flexible” response operators of America’s 104 reactors are taking to improve their disaster preparedness. NEI is touting the $100 million the industry is investing in some 300 additional emergency pumps, generators, and batteries that it says could be used to keep the pools that spent fuel rods are kept in from overheating like they did in Japan. Read more ..

The Race for Nuclear

U.S. Nuclear Regulators Tighten Up, One Year after Fukushima Disaster

March 12th 2012

Davis Bessee nuke plant Ohio
Davis-Bessee nuclear power plant. Oak Harbor, Ohio.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko hopes to speed up safety reforms planned after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant after acknowledging recently that the five-year schedule had slipped.

“That’s something that we really need to focus on and figure out if there aren’t ways we can accelerate that work and really get it all done within five years,” Jaczko said in an interview broadcast on March 11, the one-year anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.

“Nobody wants to be dealing with the lessons learned from Fukushima in six years from now, seven years from now, in eight years from now, there will be other things that come up, other issues that need to be identified and dealt with, and if we are still working on the Fukushima things, it will make it all that much more challenging to deal with these other issues,” he told Platts Energy Week TV. Read more ..

The Water's Edge

Five Technologies to Make Desalination More Efficient

March 11th 2012

Ocean scene

People who live in Mideastern coastal cities might understand the despair expressed in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water every where, and nor any drop to drink.”

The poem details the effects of saltwater and thirst on marooned sailors. The ancient mariner hangs an albatross around his neck as an act of atonement for killing this bird, which his shipmates considered to be a good omen. He would not have known that the albatross has desalination glands behind its eyes. These glands concentrate salt and channel it away onto the beak. Some seabirds then sneeze the salt away.

Undrinkable saltwater stretches beyond the horizon from Alexandria, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the Mideast. Fortunately, humans are now able to remove salt from seawater. Israel will soon use desalination for 75 percent of its water supply. But all existing methods are energy intensive and can have significant environmental side effects. The energy cost of desalination is so high that it can be cheaper to transport fresh water hundreds of miles even when there is a great sea on your doorstep. Libya, for example, has plans to purchase fresh water which will be shipped from the Manavgat river in Turkey. Read more ..

Japan After the Meltdown

Preparing for Unanticipated Nuclear Accidents--the Fukushima Lesson

March 11th 2012

Fukushima Worker

A year after the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, scientists and engineers remain largely in the dark when it comes to fundamental knowledge about how nuclear fuels behave under extreme conditions, according to a University of Michigan nuclear waste expert and his colleagues.

In a review article in this week's edition of the journal Science, U-M's Rodney Ewing and two colleagues call for an ambitious, long-term national research program to study how nuclear fuels behave under the extreme conditions present during core-melt events like those that occurred at Fukushima following the March 11, 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

Three of the plant's six boiling-water reactors suffered partial core-melt events that involved tremendously high temperatures and powerful radiation fields, as well as interaction between seawater and nuclear fuel. Many tons of seawater were used to cool the overheated reactors and nearby spent-fuel storage ponds, and direct discharge of contaminated seawater to the ocean and groundwater occurred through approximately April 8. Read more ..

The Race for Nuclear Energy

Possible Nuclear Weapons Cuts Worry Republican Lawmakers

March 11th 2012

Ballitic Missile

Ever wondered who the nuclear defense community suports in Congress? Wonder no more. In mid-February, a group of House Republicans sent a letter to President Barack Obama expressing “deep concern” about possible future cuts to the strategic nuclear arsenal reportedly being considered by the administration. Some of the options — including two that would at least halve the arsenal’s current size — would by many accounts undermine the rationale for spending billions of dollars on new strategic bombers, missiles and submarines over the next decade. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Berkeley Researchers Develop Tools for Identifying Effective Carbon Capture Technologies

March 11th 2012

Smokestack pollution

Approximately 45 percent of electricity used in the United States is produced by coal-burning power plants that spew carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. To reduce this effect, many researchers are searching for porous materials to filter out the CO2 generated by these plants before it reaches the atmosphere, a process commonly known as carbon capture. But identifying these materials is easier said than done.

“There are a number of porous substances—including crystalline porous materials, such as zeolites, and metal-organic frameworks—that could be used to capture carbon dioxide from power plant emissions,” says Maciej Haranczyk, a scientist in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (Berkeley Lab) Computational Research Division. Read more ..

The Race for EVs

New Software Applications Offer Advances for Electric Vehicles

March 10th 2012

Electric plug and car

Industry observers opine that while there may have been a dip in discussion about electric vehicles, as evidenced by the recent Geneva Motor Show where e-cars did not take center stage, much in contrast to the past few years. However, behind the stages, the industry is feverishly working on the design of electric vehicles. Recently, a research project has been launched that addresses the software architecture for electric cars.

Siemens Corporate Technology researchers are working with partners to develop new information and communications technology (ICT) for future electric cars. In vehicles built with this new technology, the driver assistance, safety, and infotainment features will mostly be installed as software instead of being managed in separate control units. Read more ..

Energy vs Environment

Fukushima Disaster Anniversary Finds US Nuclear Regulation Debate Still Hot

March 9th 2012

Rad monitor Japan

One year ago on Sunday, an earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami triggered a month-long partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the crisis, advocates and opponents of nuclear power are squaring off in a fight over the lessons U.S. regulators should learn from the disaster.

But both sides are making policy recommendations without a full accounting of the facts. The most definitive, independent study of the disaster isn’t due to be released for months. In one corner, and at one press conference this week, advocates at the industry-funded Nuclear Energy Institute were eager to highlight the “diverse and flexible” response operators of America’s 104 reactors are taking to improve their disaster preparedness. NEI is touting the $100 million the industry is investing in some 300 additional emergency pumps, generators, and batteries that it says could be used to keep the pools that spent fuel rods are kept in from overheating like they did in Japan. Read more ..

The Race for Alt Energy

Integrating Protection with Isolation in Home Renewable Energy Systems

March 5th 2012

Solar/Wind-to-house diagram
Home alternative energy system with connections needing isolation (in red)

Home energy systems based on renewable sources such as solar and wind power are becoming more popular among consumers and gaining increasing support from governmental bodies. Such systems, however, need fault protection in order to achieve the product lifetime that consumers demand as well as isolation to ensure consumer safety. Integrating the two capabilities can help simplify system design as well as lower cost.

The typical renewable energy system has multiple parts operating in different voltage domains. At one end of the system are the power sources, such as solar panels, wind turbine generators, and batteries. The primary power sources—solar panels and wind generators—typically include some form of power conditioning. Read more ..

Edge of Bio-Fuel

Leaf-Cutter Ants Munch their Way towards Bio-Fuel Breakthrough

March 3rd 2012

leaf-cutter ants
Credit: Y. Gelber

Leafcutter ants, the tiny red dots known for carrying green leaves as they march through tropical forests, are also talented farmers that cultivate gardens of fungi and bacteria. Ants eat fungi from the so-called fungal gardens, but the bacteria's role has been unclear until now.
New research shows the bacteria help decompose the leaves and play a major role in turning the leaves into nutrients that may be important for both ants and fungi. "This research provides some of the first tangible details about the fascinating symbiotic relationship between leafcutter ants, fungi and bacteria," said Kristin Burnum, a bioanalytical chemist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Burnum is a co-author on the paper and led the study's protein analysis. "Understanding how bacteria turn plant matter into a source of energy in ant fungal gardens could also help improve biofuel production." The gardens in question are initially sowed by the ants, which bring leaf pieces into their underground nests. From the leaves grow the fungus Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, traditionally thought of as the ants' food. The relationship between leafcutter ants and fungi has been known since 1874, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that scientists started to also identify bacteria in the underground gardens. Read more ..

The Edge of Energy

Energy Squeeze

March 2nd 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

A polymer is a mesh of chains, which slowly break over time due to the pressure from ordinary wear and tear. When a polymer is squeezed, the pressure breaks chemical bonds and produces free radicals: ions with unpaired electrons, full of untapped energy. These molecules are responsible for aging, DNA damage and cancer in the human body.

In a new study, Northwestern University scientists turned to squeezed polymers and free radicals in a search for new energy sources. They found incredible promise but also some real problems. Their report is published by the journal Angewandte Chemie.

The researchers demonstrated that radicals from compressed polymers generate significant amounts of energy that can be used to power chemical reactions in water. This energy has typically been unused but now can be harnessed when polymers are under stress in ordinary circumstances -- as in shoe soles, car tires or when compacting plastic bags. Read more ..

The Race for EVs

E-Car Adjusts Its Shape According to Situation

March 2nd 2012


Researchers of the DFKI Robotics Innovation Centre in Bremen have developed a smart electric car with flexible morphology that can change its shape according to the current needs. The prototype has been built in the scope of a project "New mobility in rural spaces" which among other topics explores innovative technologies associated to electromobility.

The EO smart connecting car disposes of a flexible undercarriage which enables multiple vehicles to be connected to a single "road train". When the undercarriage is folded together, the driver cabin is automatically moved into a vertical position. Thus, the vehicle reduces its overall length by about half a meter to a total of about 2 meters. Conversely, its height grows from 1.60 meters to about 2 meters. This change in shape facilitates the formation of so called road trains: Shorter vehicles result in a shorter, more agile train. "If multiple vehicles have to travel over the same distance, they can effectively connect to each other and increase energy efficiency", explained Fank Kirchner, head of the DFKI Robotics Innovation Center. "Data and energy are carried over among the vehicles and only the front vehicle steers the train." Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Delayed Diesel Study Finally Released

March 2nd 2012

Diesel Smog

A much-anticipated government study of more than 12,000 miners — whose publication was delayed by litigation from a group of mining companies — has found that exposure to diesel engine exhaust significantly increases the risk of lung cancer.

For the most heavily exposed miners, the risk of dying from lung cancer was three times higher than it was for those exposed to low doses. For non-smokers, the risk was seven times higher.

“[T]he findings suggest that the risks may extend to other workers exposed to diesel exhaust in the United States and abroad, and to people living in urban areas where diesel exhaust levels are elevated,” Joseph Fraumeni Jr., director of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, said in a press release Friday morning. Read more ..

Turkey and Israel

Turkey’s Possible Threat to Israel’s New Gas Riches

February 29th 2012

netanyahu and christofias
Israeli PM Netanyahu and Cypriot President Demetris Christofias

On Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently visited Cyprus, only three months after a similar trip by President Shimon Peres.

The state visits followed a series of ministerial-level meetings to discuss the development of newly discovered offshore natural gas fields and a range of associated diplomatic and security complexities relating to neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. Both Israel and Cyprus have found enough gas in their maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to satisfy domestic demand for many years, with additional quantities available for export, but managing regional diplomatic tension over these resources may prove tricky. Netanyahu’s trip to Cyprus, the first by an Israeli prime minister, reflects increasing cooperation between the two countries over natural gas resources but will likely heighten tensions with Turkey. Read more ..

The Race for Smart Grid

Will Smart Sockets Change the Economics of Efficiency?

February 28th 2012

Light Bulb

Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission said this to a group of science writers in 1954: “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter…” While this comment is often given as an example of overly-optimistic technological predictions, electricity is incredibly inexpensive.  Just look at how much is wasted illuminating the night sky.

Would Strauss have ever imagined that people would be able to afford the energy required to make it snow in Dubai?  Or that the hundreds of megawatt-hours used to remove salt from seawater would cost less than fresh water?

Sony intends to solve this “too cheap to meter” problem by lowering the cost of metering small amounts of electricity and by making it possible to measure electricity usage for individuals and their devices with smart sockets. Read more ..

The Race for Fuel

Green Fuel versus Black Gold

February 26th 2012

Biofuel field

A life cycle assessment of growing crops for fuel as opposed to refining and using fossil fuels has revealed that substitution of gasoline by bioethanol converted from energy crops has considerable potential for rendering our society more sustainable, according to a Japanese study published in the International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy.

Kiyotada Hayashi of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organisation in Tsukuba and colleagues explain how biomass derived from sugarcane, sugar beet and other crops, has emerged as one of the most promising renewable energy sources. Some observers suggest that it makes an excellent substitute for oil-derived fuels and it is being used widely in certain parts of the world already. However, there are concerns about land use and the overall life-cycle impact on raising fuel crops and the energy required to process and exploit biomass compared with fossil fuels. The Japanese team has now put to rest some of those concerns in a life cycle assessment of energy crop production for bioethanol in Japan.

The team hoped to clarify the potential of biomass utilisation while taking into account the cumulative fossil energy demand and climate change impact. They looked at two scenarios: one in which cultivation technologies improves and breeding of new crop varieties is made possible. The second scenario looked at how the establishment of regional biomass utilisation systems that used biomass resources from various industries might function mutually and effectively and again reduce fossil fuel demand and reduce carbon emissions. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Oil Sands Pollution Comparable to a Large Power Plant

February 23rd 2012

Oil sand

It takes a lot of energy to extract heavy, viscous and valuable bitumen from Canada's oil sands and refine it into crude oil. Companies mine some of the sands with multi-story excavators, separate out the bitumen, and process it further to ease the flow of the crude oil down pipelines. About 1.8 million barrels of oil per day in 2010 were produced from the bitumen of the Canadian oil sands—and the production of those fossil fuels requires the burning of fossil fuels. In the first look at the overall effect of air pollution from the excavation of oil sands, also called tar sands, in Alberta, Canada, scientists used satellites to measure nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emitted from the industry. In an area 30 kilometers (19 miles) by 50 kilometers (31 miles) around the mines, they found elevated levels of these pollutants. "For both gasses, the levels are comparable to what satellites see over a large power plant—or for nitrogen dioxide, comparable to what they see over some medium-sized cities," said Chris McLinden, a research scientist with Environment Canada, the country's environmental agency. "It stands out above what's around it, out in the wilderness, but one thing we wanted to try to do was put it in context." Read more ..

Electricity Edge

US Companies Look to Invest in African Electricity Generation

February 23rd 2012

electric power lines

U.S. companies are looking to invest in projects to boost electricity in Africa, which has long been one of the biggest impediments to broader economic growth on the continent. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Fitzgerald says an energy trade mission to Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Mozambique showed vast potential for American firms to invest in African energy projects. In Nigeria, Fitzgerald says U.S. firms will be among those who bid on the privatization of power plants and power distribution networks. Bids are due by June for contracts expected to be announced by October in a country where estimated demand tops 10,000 Megawatts but regular supply is less than 4,000 Megawatts. “Thirty-nine hundred Megawatts is a woefully small amount, and the Nigerian government realizes to promote - certainly to diversify the economy - to bring the manufacturers back on line they need to boost power," said Fitzgerald.

In Ghana, Fitzgerald says many U.S. firms are interested in offshore oil and natural gas, especially if Ghana and Ivory Coast resolve differences over the location of their maritime border. “It is an exciting time to be in the energy sector in Ghana," he said. "And I think what you are seeing is very much of a commitment on the part of the Ghanian government to embrace private sector companies to come in and do the work. You are going to see employment levels increasing and reaching record heights. Part and parcel of that you will also see education improving, health sector clinics improving.” Read more ..

The Race for Biofuel

‘Mini-Cellulose’ Molecule May be Key to Maximizing Biofuel Production

February 18th 2012

MMP-9 (enzyme)

A team of chemical engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has discovered a small molecule that behaves the same as cellulose when it is converted to biofuel. Studying this ‘mini-cellulose’ molecule reveals for the first time the chemical reactions that take place in wood and prairie grasses during high-temperature conversion to biofuel. The new technical discovery was reported in the January 2012 issue of the journal Energy & Environmental Science and highlighted in Nature Chemistry.

The "mini-cellulose" molecule, called α-cyclodextrin, solves one of the major roadblocks confronting high-temperature biofuels processes such as pyrolysis or gasification. The complex chemical reactions that take place as wood is rapidly heated and breaks down to vapors are unknown. And current technology doesn’t allow the use of computer models to track the chemical reactions taking place, because the molecules in wood are too large and the reactions far too complicated. Read more ..

The Race for Batteries

Sandia National Laboratories Researchers Find Energy Storage “Solutions” in MetILs

February 18th 2012


Sandia researchers have developed a new family of liquid salt electrolytes, known as MetILs, that could lead to batteries able to cost-effectively store three times more energy than today’s batteries.

The research, published in Dalton Transactions, might lead to devices that can help economically and reliably incorporate large-scale intermittent renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, into the nation’s electric grid.

The grid was designed for steady power sources, making fluctuating electricity from intermittent renewable energy difficult to accommodate. Better energy storage techniques help even out the flow of such fluctuating sources, and Sandia researchers are studying new ways to develop a more flexible, cost-effective and reliable electric grid with improved energy storage. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

European Research Project to Boost Solar Cell Efficiency

February 14th 2012

Technology - Solar Cells

A three-year European research project aims to push solar-cell efficiency towards 25 percent and reduce power conversion losses by 20 percent.

The project is set to meet Europe’s 2020 climate targets and general energy policies.

The ERG program is set to improve the efficiency of solar cells, devise innovative harvesting techniques, reduce power-conversion losses, and enhance energy-management strategies.

European researchers will focus on the design and development of innovative solar cells that includes printable dye-sensitized solar cells as a low-cost alternative to silicon solutions. Read more ..

The Race for Alt Energy

Researchers Develop Method to Examine Batteries—from the Inside

February 13th 2012

Energy Topics - batteries

There is an ever-increasing need for advanced batteries for portable electronics, such as phones, cameras, and music players, but also to power electric vehicles and to facilitate the distribution and storage of energy derived from renewable energy sources. But, once a battery fails, there are no corrective measures—how do you look inside a battery without destroying it?

Now, researchers at Cambridge University, Stony Brook University, and New York University have developed methodology, based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to do just that. Their technique, which is described in the journal Nature Materials, also creates the possibility of improving battery performance and safety by serving as a diagnostic of its internal workings. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

In Wake of Solyndra, Energy Department Needs Better Risk Management

February 11th 2012

America Themes - US Department of Energy BLDG
U.S. DOE Building

An outside consultant hired by the White House to assess the Department of Energy’s hot-button green energy loan program suggests the agency hire a “chief risk officer” to better track companies backed by taxpayer-funded loans.

“To enhance the independence of the oversight function, DOE should create a new Risk Management department,” wrote Herbert Allison, the independent consultant. That conclusion is among the core recommendations detailed in the 75-page report, just released.

The report was intended to help resolve concerns triggered by the political backlash over the Obama administration’s failed $535 million investment in upstart solar firm Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy last fall.

But the review never directly addresses Solyndra’s failure, or another DOE-backed green energy venture that went bankrupt, Beacon Power Corp. Allison, a longtime official in the public and private sectors who most recently served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability, writes that he “did not evaluate the loans to Solyndra and Beacon” because those companies have already failed. He also notes that his review was less exhaustive than it could have been because it was put on a 60-day fast track by the White House.


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