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The Race for Solar

Winners for NREL's 24th Solar and Lithium Ion Car Races

May 18th 2014

Tesla Car

Indy-500-style checkered flags, high-tech neoprene rubber tracks, and of course, sponsor decals graced the site of today's Junior Solar Sprint and Lithium Ion Battery car competitions for Colorado's middle schoolers. Nearly 300 students on 74 teams from 21 Colorado schools converged on Dakota Ridge High School to vie for a spot in the final races using solar and lithium ion battery powered vehicles they designed and built themselves.

"We went for lightweight and aerodynamic," Matthew Heitmann with the team from Calhan Middle School. "I'm coming back next year for sure, it's fun."

Each year, the Energy Department's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and other local sponsors host the races to show middle-school students that science, engineering, and design can be rewarding and to encourage them toward careers in STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and math. The batteries used in the competition are supplied by the DOE and teams purchase authorized solar panels, then design and build the rest of their cars themselves. Solar and lithium ion battery power are highlighted at the competition since they are important research focuses for NREL and DOE. Read more ..

The Race for Natural Gas

Iran Says Ready To Supply Natural Gas To Europe

May 15th 2014

Gas well fire

Good diplomats find opportunities in crises, and Iran's policymakers seem to be following the rule.

Amid rising tensions between the European Union and Moscow over Ukraine, Iranian oil officials have repeatedly said Tehran is ready to supply natural gas to Europe, which currently gets 30 percent of its gas imports from Russia.

The offer by Iran, which has the world's second largest natural-gas reserves after Russia, might seem surprising when the EU currently bans the import of Iranian natural gas as part of sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.

But Iran may hope the energy offer will add incentives for lifting the international sanctions as Tehran and world powers hold talks in Vienna this week aimed at solving the nuclear crisis.

Ghoncheh Tazimi, a scholar at SOAS in London, says "Iran's case has been somewhat strengthened with the Ukraine crisis" because Tehran is "able to shape the future energy market" and help Europe diversify away from Russia. She adds, Iran knows that "energy has always been Russia's bargaining chip and is Europe's Achilles heel." Read more ..

The Race for Batteries

Dual Carbon Battery Charges 20x Faster Than Lithium-Ion Batteries

May 14th 2014


Japanese start-up Power Japan Plus has launched a new battery technology that claims to offer a more sustainable, safer, longer-lasting and cost-effective battery technology with an energy density comparable to a lithium ion battery.

The Ryden dual carbon battery makes use of novel chemistry that sees both the anode and the cathode made of carbon.

Power Japan Plus is a materials engineering company for a new class of carbon material that balances economics, performance and sustainability in a world of constrained resources, said Dou Kani, CEO of Power Japan Plus. The Ryden dual carbon battery is the energy storage breakthrough needed to bring green technology like electric vehicles to mass market. The Ryden battery claims to balance a breadth of consumer demands previously unattainable by single battery chemistry, including performance, cost, reliability, safety and sustainability. Read more ..

Broken Government

US Energy Efficiency Bill Falls to Congressional Dysfunction

May 13th 2014


A bill with strong bipartisan support to make the United States more energy efficient has been blocked in the Senate. The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act failed to get the three-fifths backing required to proceed to a final vote, becoming the latest victim of partisan warfare on Capitol Hill.

The idea is simple: the U.S. government, as well as homes and businesses across America, should use energy more frugally. Pro-environment Democrats like the bill’s potential to reduce greenhouse gases. Fiscally minded Republicans like the bill’s long term potential to reduce government expenditures on power and fuel. Members of both parties applaud the bill’s potential to boost American jobs. The bill has the backing of environmental and business groups alike. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, summed it up this way: Read more ..

The Race for Power Security

The Largest Electrical Networks Are Not the Best

transformer farm

In 1928, the British biologist and geneticist John Haldane wrote the essay “On being the right size” in which he stated that “For every type of animal there is a most convenient size, and a large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form”. The application of Haldane’s Principle spread to fields like physiology and paleontology, and there was speculation that it could be used with institutions and social organizations, as well. And that is precisely what these researchers have done with social infrastructures as complex as electrical networks. In light of Haldane’s comments, the scientists wondered if the expansion of these networks should continue or if, on the contrary, there is an optimum adequate size for their correct functioning. The answer is yes, according to the results of the power network model that these UC3M scientists, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Iowa State University (both in the USA), used in the study, which was recently published in the journal Chaos. Read more ..

The Race for Ethanol

Corn-Based Ethanol Hits a Figurative Wall

May 11th 2014

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When U.S. drivers fill their tanks with ethanol, they are essentially buying fermented corn grown by American farmers.

A 2007 law requires gasoline makers to add increasing amounts of the biofuel to the U.S. fuel supply. With petroleum-based fuels contributing to climate change, advocates have backed plant-based biofuels as a greener source of energy. However, rising costs and competition for resources have led some regulators to propose a reduction in the ethanol requirement.

Ethanol boom

The 2007 law sparked an ethanol boom that has boosted rural economies. Another benefit, according to Bob Dinneen, head of the ethanol trade group the Renewable Fuels Association, is that corn absorbs the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as it grows. “We are produced from agricultural crops and residues that are taking carbon out of the air, something petroleum can’t claim,” Dinneen said.

But ethanol has a flock of critics. Poultry and other meat producers say their animals are now competing with ethanol for the corn supply. That has raised corn prices and costs for raising livestock. Read more ..

The Battle for Ukraine

Why The Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute Is Making Europe Worried

May 8th 2014

Keystone Pipeline

The European Union gets about one-third of its natural gas from Russia, and about half of that gas arrives in Europe via pipelines passing through Ukraine. Moscow is threatening to cut off natural-gas deliveries to Ukraine unless Kyiv promptly pays its outstanding bills. And that means the EU could potentially be caught in the cross fire. 

Here are five things to know about the situation.

Why Should The EU Worry

One reason is empty natural-gas storage facilities in western Ukraine. Summer is when Ukraine usually fills its giant storage facilities with Russian gas to provide for peak usage periods during the winter, when the real-time gas flow from Russia is not enough to meet local demand.

But there is no guarantee the tanks will be filled this summer as Kyiv and Moscow quarrel over gas prices. That is troubling because if Ukraine's winter tanks are not full, there is a danger it might compensate for winter shortages by siphoning off Russian natural gas intended for Europe. Read more ..

The Race for Clean Electricity

Discovery Offers New Possibilities for Clean Energy Research

May 7th 2014

transformer farm

University of Houston physicists have discovered a new thermoelectric material offering high performance at temperatures ranging from room temperature up to 300 degrees Celsius, or about 573 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This new material is better than the traditional material, Bismuth telluride, and can be used for waste heat conversion into electricity much more efficiently," said Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics at UH.

Ren, who is also principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, said the work could be important for clean energy research and commercialization at temperatures of about 300 degrees Celsius.

Bismuth telluride has been the standard thermoelectric material since the 1950s and is used primarily for cooling, although it can also be used at temperatures up to 250 C, or 482 F, for power generation, with limited efficiency. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Stained-Glass See-Through Solar Cells are a Beautiful Development

May 6th 2014

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Colorful, see-through solar cells invented at the University of Michigan could one day be used to make stained-glass windows, decorations and even shades that turn the sun's energy into electricity.

The cells, believed to be the first semi-transparent, colored photovoltaics, have the potential to vastly broaden the use of the energy source, says Jay Guo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, mechanical engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering at U-M. Guo is lead author of a paper about the work newly published online in Scientific Reports. See video here. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Getting the Lead Out of Promising New Solar Cells

May 5th 2014

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Northwestern University researchers are the first to develop a new solar cell with good efficiency that uses tin instead of lead perovskite as the harvester of light. The low-cost, environmentally friendly solar cell can be made easily using "bench" chemistry -- no fancy equipment or hazardous materials.

"This is a breakthrough in taking the lead out of a very promising type of solar cell, called a perovskite," said Mercouri G. Kanatzidis, an inorganic chemist with expertise in dealing with tin. "Tin is a very viable material, and we have shown the material does work as an efficient solar cell."

Kanatzidis, who led the research, is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The new solar cell uses a structure called a perovskite but with tin instead of lead as the light-absorbing material. Lead perovskite has achieved 15 percent efficiency, and tin perovskite should be able to match -- and possibly surpass -- that. Perovskite solar cells are being touted as the "next big thing in photovoltaics" and have reenergized the field. Read more ..

The Race for EVs

Tesla's Chinese Gigafactory Lithium Battery Plan faces Environmental Concerns

May 5th 2014

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Ironically one potential wrinkle in Tesla’s $5 billion Gigafactory lithium-ion battery strategic plans could turn out to be an environmental one.

Saving the environment of the planet is supposed to be one of the key reasons why people should be switching to battery-powered electric vehicles in the future. The argument goes that battery-powered EVs cause less pollution than their petrol-powered rivals but as western societys more environmentally conscious citizens consider whether to switch to so-called eco-friendly EVs we now realize that damaging forms of air and water pollution are blighting large tracts of China. Unfortunately a contributory factor in the Chinese pollution syndrome is caused by a vital constituent of EV batteries namely graphite. Read more ..

The Race for Natural Gas

EU Urges Russia, Ukraine to Settle Energy Dispute

May 4th 2014

Oil Pipes2

Russia's confrontation with the West over the growing unrest in eastern Ukraine could lead to another energy crisis in the European countries that are dependent on Russian energy.  Europe gets about one-third of its gas supplies from Russia, and about half of it is dispatched through Ukraine.  Europeans are increasingly looking into alternative sources of energy to reduce their reliance on Russia.  Meanwhile, the EU is mediating a deal between Russia and Ukraine that would secure a steady gas supply for next winter.

The Ukrainian military effort to regain cities under pro-Russian rebel control has not gone as well as the government in Kyiv expected.  Acting President Oleksander Turchynov said the military has had to act with restraint in order to spare civilians.

"I would like to underline that the operation did not progress as quickly as hoped for, and was complicated by the fact that terrorist bases are situated in heavily populated cities, and that they were hiding behind citizens, hiding behind hostages and firing from apartment blocks," he said. Read more ..

The Coal Problem

DOL Cuts Miner's Coal-Dust Exposure

April 30th 2014

Coal miner

The Labor Department announced Wednesday that it is finalizing a long-delayed rule to cut the amount of coal dust to which miners can be exposed.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rule will reduce coal-dust exposure limits by a quarter for underground mines and improve requirements for air sampling and monitoring in an attempt to reduce respiratory disease. It will take advantage of new technology to provide real-time monitoring of dust levels, which would allow miners and supervisors to avoid periods of high coal dust.

“Today we advance a very basic principle: you shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement. “But that's been the fate of more than 76,000 miners who have died at least in part because of black lung since 1968.”

In a notice scheduled to be published May 1 in the Federal Register, MSHA said chronic coal-dust exposure causes lung diseases such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, emphysema, silicosis and chronic bronchitis, together known as black lung. “These diseases are debilitating and can result in disability and premature death,” the safety group said. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iranians Go Online To Vent Anger After Cut In Gasoline Subsidies

April 26th 2014

Gas Station line

Iranians have gone online to vent their frustration at the government after it slashed state subsidies on gasoline, a move that has seen the price at the pump skyrocket by up to 75 percent.

The dramatic price hikes, which took effect at midnight on April 25, are expected to test President Hassan Rohani’s support among a population fed up with stubborn inflation, rising costs, and high unemployment.

Observers see it as a risky move. There were riots at some gas stations in 2007 when fuel rationing was imposed for the first time. While there have been reports of no violence or protests after the latest price hikes, police have been put on alert. Iranians on social networking sites have criticized the government’s move, part of a second phase of government plans to remove energy subsidies and revive the country’s flatlining, sanctions-hit economy. Read more ..

India on Edge

Shocking Connections between Indian Politics and Electrical Grid

April 24th 2014

About a third of India's electricity is lost each year. It just never gets billed. Some is stolen or disappears because of technical problems. It's enough power to light up all of Italy for a year. The problem gets especially bad during elections when electricity is used to win votes, a new University of Michigan study shows. The research focused on state elections in Uttar Pradesh—the country's largest state—and found that power losses increased by three percentage points just before the polls.

"Our paper offers a political explanation on electricity loss and why it persists in plain sight," said Brian Min, assistant professor of political science. "In short, elected political leaders benefit at the polls when their constituents receive more electricity." The study highlights two big challenges in the world's most populous democracy: rampant corruption and wobbly infrastructure. Both are frequently blamed for the recent slowdown in India's economy—a major issue in the general elections that wrap up May 12. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Oil Spill Clean Up in U.S. Arctic Waters Requires Increased Infrastructure to Use Full Range of Response Methods

April 23rd 2014

Alaska oil drilling

A changing climate is increasing the accessibility of U.S. Arctic waters to commercial activities such as shipping, oil and gas development, and tourism, raising concern about the risk of oil spills.  A new report from the National Research Council says that a full suite of proven oil response tools is needed to address potential oil spills in U.S. Arctic waters, but not all of them are readily available.  While much is known about both oil behavior and response technologies in ice-covered environments, there are areas where additional research would enable more informed decisions about the most effective response strategies for different Arctic spill situations, the report adds.

The Arctic poses several challenges to oil spill response, including extreme weather and environmental settings, limited operations and communications infrastructure, a vast geographic area, and vulnerable species, ecosystems, and cultures.  The report finds that there is a need to validate current and emerging oil spill response technologies under these real-world conditions, and recommends that carefully controlled field experiments that release oil in the U.S. Arctic be conducted as part of a long-term, collaborative Arctic oil spill research and development program that spans local, state, and federal levels. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Nanoreporters Tell 'Sour' Oil from 'Sweet'

April 22nd 2014

oil pump

Scientists at Rice University have created a nanoscale detector that checks for and reports on the presence of hydrogen sulfide in crude oil and natural gas while they’re still in the ground.

The nanoreporter is based on nanometer-sized carbon material developed by a consortium of Rice labs led by chemist James Tour and is the subject of a new paper published this month in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Limited exposure to hydrogen sulfide causes sore throats, shortness of breath and dizziness, according to the researchers. The human nose quickly becomes desensitized to hydrogen sulfide, leading to an inability to detect higher concentrations. That can be fatal, they said.

On the flip side, hydrogen sulfide is also a biologically important signaling molecule in processes that include pain and inflammation. Tour said chemists have synthesized fluorescent probes to detect it in the body. The Rice team capitalized on that work by using the probes to create downhole detectors for oil fields. Read more ..

The Race for Bio-Fuel

Doubts Cast on Climate Benefits of Bio-Fuels from Corn Residue

April 21st 2014

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Using corn crop residue to make ethanol and other biofuels reduces soil carbon and can generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The findings by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln team of researchers cast doubt on whether corn residue can be used to meet federal mandates to ramp up ethanol production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Corn stover -- the stalks, leaves and cobs in cornfields after harvest -- has been considered a ready resource for cellulosic ethanol production. The U.S. Department of Energy has provided more than $1 billion in federal funds to support research to develop cellulosic biofuels, including ethanol made from corn stover. While the cellulosic biofuel production process has yet to be extensively commercialized, several private companies are developing specialized biorefineries capable of converting tough corn fibers into fuel. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Keystone Decision Pushed Back

April 19th 2014

Keystone pipe

The Obama administration on Friday extended its review period for the Keystone XL pipeline, potentially delaying a decision on the project until after the midterm elections.

With just 14 days left in a 90-day review, State Department officials said they were stopping the clock due to litigation in Nebraska over the pipeline's proposed route.

State declined to provide a specific timeline for restarting the review process, effectively putting the project in limbo.

The delay could disarm a political land-mine for President Obama, who had found himself caught between rival factions of his Democratic base.

While Keystone has significant support from industry groups and some labor unions, it is staunchly opposed by environmentalists, who say its approval would be a betrayal and a stain on the president's climate change legacy.

Those dynamics made the Keystone decision a lose-lose situation for the White House, with any decision bound to alienate core supporters that Democrats need to turn out this fall.

The pipeline is a project of the developer TransCanada and would carry oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

A senior State Department official said that while the agency is essentially freezing the review process to wait for more information on the situation in Nebraska, it may start the clock back up before the state's supreme court makes a ruling. Read more ..

The Coal Problem

In Picturesque Thailand, Coal Plant Draws Protests

April 17th 2014

coal fired power plant

Environmental activists in Thailand are protesting plans to reopen an 800-megawatt coal plant in a coastal region, Krabi, that is popular with eco-tourists. The controversy pits Thailand’s growing energy needs against its image as a seaside paradise.

Along the southwestern coast, tourism is big business, worth more than $40 million a year.

Despite rapid development, Krabi, a coastal province, is still recognized as a green tourism zone and its wetlands are included on an international conservation list.

To meet rising demand for electricity, authorities are planning to restart a local power plant, which will bring ships hauling coal near parks and beaches popular with tourists. Near the power plant’s location in Krabi town, fisherman Manit Bootpheaw remembers the health problems from the 90's when it was last active. Read more ..

The Race for Batteries

Battery Design: Key To Improving Wearable Medical Devices

April 15th 2014

Eyeball Surveillance

Google has recently celebrated 15 years since its launch. While still in its teens, Google has dramatically changed the way most people see and use the internet and has become an integral part of daily life. In similar ways, new technologies which were the reserve of Sci-fi less than ten years ago are currently being developed for both consumer markets and the professional world. What Google has done for the internet, wearable and implantable technologies may well do for medicine.

According to a piece of research published by IMS in 2012, the wearable technology market is expected to reach $6 billion by 2016. IMS defines wearable technologies as products that are worn on the user's body for an extended period of time, contain advanced circuitry, as well as wireless connectivity, that can process data.

The medical field is one of the leading professional sectors when it comes to investments in research and product design. Portable devices such as nebulisers or infusion pumps and wearable devices like endoscopy recorders or blood pressure and glucose monitors are only a few of the technologies which are now available to the public. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Report Offers Grim Predictions For South Texas Air Quality Amid Eagle Ford Oil Boom

April 14th 2014

Oil Barrels

What might the oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas look like in 2018?

A newly released but largely unnoticed study commissioned by the state of Texas makes some striking projections:

***The number of wells drilled in the 20,000-square-mile region could quadruple, from about 8,000 today to 32,000.
***Oil production could leap from 363 million barrels per year to as much as 761 million.
***Airborne releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could increase 281 percent during the peak ozone season compared to 2012 emissions. VOCs, commonly found at oil and gas production sites, can cause respiratory and neurological problems. Some, like benzene, can cause cancer.
***Nitrogen oxides — which react with VOCs in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog — could increase 69 percent during the peak ozone season. Read more ..

Ukraine on Edge

EU Gas Supply Jeopardized as Pro-Russian Militants Threaten Ukraine Sovereignty

April 13th 2014

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Ukraine's acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook message on April 13 that Ukrainian security forces have launched an "antiterrorist operation" in the eastern city of Slovyansk where on the previous day separatists, aligned with Russia, seized the city hall and Ukrainian Security Service headquarters. Avakov characterized the attack as an “act of aggression” by Russia.

Avakov wrote that "forces from all the security units of the country have been brought in." Slovyansk is one of several Ukrainian cities where pro-Russian militants bearing automatic weapons on April 12 stormed police stations. Military helicopters were spotted flying over Slovyansk early on April 13.

With covered faces, armed men wearing mismatched military clothing and gear have seized government buildings in Slovyansk, which is only 90 kilometres from the Russian border. Hundreds of pistols have been seized from police headquarters in Slovyansk and presumably now being distributed to Russian sympathizers in the region. Armed pro-Russian militants have spread out in Slovyansk. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Democrats Face Labor Unrest over Keystone Pipeline Delays

April 11th 2014

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A top building trades union is launching a midterm-election assault on House Democrats who oppose construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

A letter distributed Friday by the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) to the districts of 27 House Democrats calls for union members to make sure their representative "feels the power and the fury of LIUNA this November."

Their crime: signing a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last month urging him to reject Keystone, which would carry oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

"Your member of Congress is trying to destroy job opportunities for our LIUNA brothers and sisters," said the letter signed by Terry O'Sullivan, the general president of LIUNA. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Panasonic Solar Cell Cracks 25 Percent Conversion Barrier

April 11th 2014

Solar Building

Panasonic Corporation is claiming to be the first organization in the world to break through the 25% conversion efficiency barrier for practical size solar cells at the research level. The company claims it has achieved a conversion efficiency of 25.6% for a solar cell area of 143.7 cm with the company's HIT solar cells.

The previous record for the conversion efficiency of crystalline silicon-based solar cells of a practical size (100 cm and over) was 24.7%, which was announced by Panasonic in February 2013 (cell area: 101.8 cm). The new record is also an improvement of 0.6 points compared with the previous record for small area crystalline silicon-based solar cells (cell area: 4 cm) of 25.0%.

Panasonic claimed the achievement of the record was made possible by further development of the company's proprietary heterojunction technology to realize the high conversion efficiency and superior high temperature properties of the company's HIT solar cells as well as adopting a back-contact solar cell structure, with the electrodes on the back of the solar cell, which allows the more efficient utilization of sunlight. Read more ..

The Race for Batteries

Nanotechnology Smartphone Battery Fully Charges In 30 Seconds

April 10th 2014

Smart phone running voice recogniton

Privately owned Israeli startup, StoreDot Ltd has unveiled a ground-breaking battery capable of charging your smartphone and other devices in just 30 seconds.

At Microsoft’s Think Next symposium in Tel Aviv, StoreDot demonstrated the prototype of its ultra-fast-charge battery for the first time. StoreDot specializes in technology that is inspired by natural processes, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly. The company produces “nanodots” derived from bio-organic material that, due to their size, have both increased electrode capacitance and electrolyte performance, resulting in batteries that can be fully charged in minutes rather than hours.

These multifunctional nanodots are chemically synthesized bio-organic peptide molecules that change the rules of mobile device capabilities. These nanocrystals are made from peptides, short chains of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Read more ..

The Race for AltFuel

The Bio-Fuel Potential of Bio-Engineered Poplar Trees

April 9th 2014

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What began 20 years ago as an innovation to improve paper industry processes and dairy forage digestibility may now open the door to a much more energy- and cost-efficient way to convert biomass into fuel.

The research, which appears in the current issue of Science, focuses on enhancing poplar trees so they can break down more easily, improving their viability as a biofuel. The long-term efforts and teamwork involved to find this solution can be described as a rare, top-down approach to engineering plants for digestibility, said Curtis Wilkerson, Michigan State University plant biologist and the lead author.

“By designing poplars for deconstruction, we can improve the degradability of a very useful biomass product,” said Wilkerson, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center scientist. “Poplars are dense, easy to store and they flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel.” Read more ..

The Race for Biofuel

Make Ethanol Without Corn or Other Plants

April 9th 2014

Pond Scum

Stanford University scientists have found a new, highly efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas. This promising discovery could provide an eco-friendly alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops, say the scientists. Their results are published in the April 9 advanced online edition of the journal Nature.

"We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure – a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction," said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the Nature study.

Most ethanol today is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel. But growing crops for biofuel requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water. In some parts of the United States, it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which, in turn, yields about 3 gallons of ethanol. Read more ..

The Power Grid Problem

Is the Power Grid Too Big

April 8th 2014

transformer farm

Some 90 years ago, British polymath J.B.S. Haldane proposed that for every animal there is an optimal size -- one which allows it to make best use of its environment and the physical laws that govern its activities, whether hiding, hunting, hoofing or hibernating. Today, three researchers are asking whether there is a "right" size for another type of huge beast: the U.S. power grid.

David Newman, a physicist at the University of Alaska, believes that smaller grids would reduce the likelihood of severe outages, such as the 2003 Northeast blackout that cut power to 50 million people in the United States and Canada for up to two days.

Newman and co-authors Benjamin Carreras, of BACV Solutions in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Ian Dobson of Iowa State University make their case in the journal Chaos, which is produced by AIP Publishing. Their investigation began 20 years ago, when Newman and Carreras were studying why stable fusion plasmas turned unstable so quickly. They modeled the problem by comparing the plasma to a sandpile. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Remote South Africa Village Gets Electricity for First Time -- in 2014

April 7th 2014

Sunrise or Sunset

South Africa is the African continent's most advanced nation -- yet an estimated 3 million of its residents live without electricity. The government says it's working to improve its infrastructure to reach those people -- many of them in remote areas -- but it is simultaneously struggling to provide enough power for its growing urban population. In a remote South African village - actually called "armpit" in the local language -  electricity is available for the first time in 2014.

Wilson Tshitande has lived in the remote village of Gwakwani for as long as he can remember. He boasts that he knows every stick, every rock and every plant in this settlement of less than 100 people. But one thing the 70-year-old never thought he would see has finally come to this village in South Africa's largely rural Limpopo province: electricity.

In the local Venda language, the name "Gwakwani" literally means "armpit."  It's so named because it's wedged under the nearest river and other important landmarks.  But perhaps, residents say, the village's modesty has also led to their being overlooked in their request for electricity. Read more ..

The Automotive Edge

Cooperative Systems Beat Driver Assistance

April 7th 2014

Traffic Jam

The average driver spends about an entire week per year caught up in traffic congestions. Increasingly the vehicles are equipped with electronic systems aiming at keeping the traffic flowing or finding alternative routes. Cooperative systems are better suited for this task, finds Frost & Sullivan.

Cooperative systems include vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications; both applications combined are called vehicle-to-x (V2X) communications. One of the core elements of these systems is the cooperative wireless ad-hoc network established between other vehicles and infrastructure, based on a modified version of the WiFi standard which itself has been baptized Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC). Current planning provides for system enhancements based on infrared communications and global satellite navigation systems (GNSS) as well as new solutions based mobile telecommunications networks, in particular LTE. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Coast Guard Report Criticizes Shell's Judgment in Arctic Drilling

April 6th 2014

Alaska oil drilling

Poor judgement and an effort to avoid millions in taxes caused Royal Dutch Shell's Arctic rig to run aground in 2012, according to a new U.S. Coast Guard report.

The Coast Guard blamed Shell's "poor assessment and management of risks" associated with towing a heavy-duty drilling rig across Alaskan waters during winter.

The single most significant factor contributing to the grounding of the Kulluk oil drilling rig, the report said, was the decision to move the vessel "during the winter in the unique and challenging operating environment of Alaska." Shell spent billions of dollars in oil and gas exploration and drilling efforts across Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic ocean.

The report, released Thursday afternoon, also states Shell rushed to move its rig to avoid state taxes in Alaska, which further led to complications. When the rig lost control a containment dome used to cap spills suffered damage, which prompted the Interior Department to review Shell's operations. Read more ..

Ukraine on Edge

Russia Duns Ukraine for $11 Billion Gas Bill

April 5th 2014

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Ukraine's Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has accused Russia of "economic aggression" and threatened to sue Russia over recent price hikes for natural-gas supplies. "Russia was unable to seize Ukraine by means of military aggression. Now they are implementing plans to seize Ukraine through economic aggression," Yatsenyuk told a government meeting on April 5. "Political pressure is unacceptable," he continued. "We do not accept the price of $500."

Yatsenyuk's comments come after Russia twice this last week raised the price of natural-gas for Ukraine, taking the cost for Ukraine from $285.5 per 1,000 cubic meters at the start of this last week to $485.5 by the end of the week. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Energy Breakthrough Uses Sun to Create Solar Energy Materials

April 4th 2014

the sun

In a recent advance in solar energy, researchers have discovered a way to tap the sun not only as a source of power, but also to directly produce the solar energy materials that make this possible.

This breakthrough by chemical engineers at Oregon State University could soon reduce the cost of solar energy, speed production processes, use environmentally benign materials, and make the sun almost a “one-stop shop” that produces both the materials for solar devices and the eternal energy to power them.

The findings were just published in RSC Advances, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in work supported by the National Science Foundation. “This approach should work and is very environmentally conscious,” said Chih-Hung Chang, a professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University, and lead author on the study.

“Several aspects of this system should continue to reduce the cost of solar energy, and when widely used, our carbon footprint,” Chang said. “It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource, and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact.” Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Kerr-McGee to Pay Record Toxic Waste Settlement

April 3rd 2014

Sunoco Philadelphia refinery

An oil and gas company has agreed to pay $5.15 billion to settle claims that for decades it left toxic waste in dozens of U.S. communities — and that it tried to dodge liability "in a corporate shell game."

Officials said Thursday that Kerr-McGee Corp.'s payout is the largest environmental contamination settlement in the Department of Justice's history.

For 85 years, Kerr-McGee contaminated dozens sites around the country with perchlorate, uranium, creosote, thorium and other toxins, before its 2006 acquisition by Anadarko Petroleum Corp., department officials said at a Thursday news conference. Kerr-McGee spun off its operations that were responsible for the cleanup.

“Kerr-McGee’s businesses all over this country left significant, lasting environmental damage in their wake,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told reporters. “It tried to shed its responsibility for this environmental damage and stick the United States taxpayers with the huge cleanup bill.” Read more ..

The Race for EVs

Tesla Battery Fires Caused by Road Debris

April 2nd 2014

Electric Car

Three Tesla Model S cars destroyed by fire after running over road debris did not represent a "defect trend" is the conclusion of a US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report. In December 2013 German safety officials also cleared Tesla of blame, saying "no manufacturer-related defects could be found."

A report produced by the NHTSA concluded that sudden fires starting in the bank of 7,000 batteries that power Tesla Model S sports sedans were the result of road debris that punctured the aluminum shield protecting the cars' battery packs, not a design or manufacturing defect.

The NHTSA has accepted Tesla's explanation that, under the right conditions, it is possible for objects passing under the car to get snagged on the leading edge of the plate protecting the batteries, then spike sharply upward if the opposite end digs into the pavement. Read more ..

The Race for Batteries

Cheap, Better-Performing Lithium-Ion Batteries

March 31st 2014


USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor Chongwu Zhou and his research team have developed a silicon anode and a sulfur-based cathode with low fabrication cost and high electrode performance for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries

Researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have improved the performance and capacity of lithium batteries by developing better-performing, cheaper materials for use in anodes and cathodes (negative and positive electrodes, respectively).

Lithium-ion batteries are a popular type of rechargeable battery commonly found in portable electronics and electric or hybrid cars. Traditionally, lithium-ion batteries contain a graphite anode, but silicon has recently emerged as a promising anode substitute because it is the second most abundant element on earth and has a theoretical capacity of 3600 milliamp hours per gram (mAh/g), almost 10 times the capacity of graphite. The capacity of a lithium-ion battery is determined by how many lithium ions can be stored in the cathode and anode. Using silicon in the anode increases the battery's capacity dramatically because one silicon atom can bond up to 3.75 lithium ions, whereas with a graphite anode six carbon atoms are needed for every lithium atom. Read more ..

The Race for Renewables

Dem Senator Expects Renewable Credits to be Extended

March 30th 2014

Smoky hill wind farm

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told a meeting of renewable energy officials Friday that the tax credits that incentivize renewable energy production and investment, which expired at the end of last year, are likely to be renewed.

“I think that there’s highly likely to be an extension,” Whitehouse said at an event hosted by the American Council on Renewable Energy, referring to the production tax credit and the investment tax credit. He added that long-term extensions of the credits are not likely unless they’re part of a large tax reform measure.

“There’s very strong bipartisan support for it,” he told industry representatives. “I’m relatively optimistic. It doesn’t mean that you guys shouldn’t be all in to make sure it happens.” Whitehouse is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Read more ..

The Race for Nuclear

Africa Looks to Nuclear Power to Light Up Continent

March 29th 2014

Nuclear Reactors

At least three African nations are looking to add nuclear power to their grid. Kenya and Nigeria want to establish nuclear energy, and South Africa, the only sub-Saharan nation with nuclear facilities, is looking to expand its capabilities. Until now, African nations have relied on age-old forms of energy generation: Hydropower and coal among them. But those sources have taken a social and environmental toll, displacing communities. But does Africa have the means to turn on nuclear power?

A NASA space flight over a darkened continent illuminated a fact that many Africans already know. The World Bank says fewer than 10 percent of African households have access to electricity. That, in turn, hampers industry and development on the world's poorest continent. This dire need for power has pushed many African nations to consider nuclear energy - increasingly popular in developing and developed nations such as  the U.S., India and China. Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Revolutionary Solar Cells Double as Lasers

March 28th 2014

Click to select Image

Commercial silicon-based solar cells - such as those seen on the roofs of houses across the country - operate at about 20% efficiency for converting the Sun's rays into electrical energy. It's taken over 20 years to achieve that rate of efficiency.

A relatively new type of solar cell based on a perovskite material - named for scientist Lev Perovski, who first discovered materials with this structure in the Ural Mountains in the 19th century - was recently pioneered by an Oxford research team led by Professor Henry Snaith.

Perovskite solar cells, the source of huge excitement in the research community, already lie just a fraction behind commercial silicon, having reached a remarkable 17% efficiency after a mere two years of research - transforming prospects for cheap large-area solar energy generation. Read more ..

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