Fancy putting a bit of the aquatic in your gas tank? Go to California. A new kind of biodiesel, containing 20-percent algae-based fuel, went on sale at gas stations in the San Francisco Bay area last week as part of a one-month pilot program. The fuel emits 10 percent fewer hydrocarbons, 30 percent fewer particulates, and 20 percent less carbon monoxide than other biodiesels according to its producer, Solazyme, reports Yale Environment 360. This is the first time that an algae-based fuel has made it into cars.
For years, solar energy researchers have tried to imitate the success of photosynthesis by building devices like an artificial leaf and a solar cell that hijacks chemistry of photosynthetic bacteria. Now researchers at MIT have come up with an innovative technique that also happens to be very cheap: all you need is some “stabilizing powder” and plant waste. Mowed your lawn lately?
The stabilizing powder is a mix of safe, easily attainable chemicals that preserves photosystem I, a protein complex that captures light energy in plant cells. (In contrast, the newest photovoltaic cells in solar panels require metals that are rare or toxic.) The powder is mixed with plant matter such as grass clippings and crushed, and the resulting green goo is spread onto glass or metal substrate. Hook up wires to capture the electric current and that’s your solar panel.
The efficiency of these solar panels is only 0.1%, compared to the 15 to 18% efficiency of solar panels out in the market right now. Lead researcher Andrew Mershin says the technology still needs to improve 10-fold to become practical. After all, being able to power only one lightbulb with a whole house covered in solar panels isn’t much help. But the great advantage of all this is that it’s easy and
dirt grass cheap. Because the barrier to entry is so low, anyone would be able to order a bag of chemicals and make their own solar panel. Mershin hopes home tinkerers experiment with the cells and find new ways to make improvements.
Correction, February 6: We eliminated a reference to mulch in the headline: mulch is low in chlorophyll, so it wouldn’t actually work for these plant-powered solar cells.
It’s such a fertile time in the green technology sector, solar power plants may soon begin reproducing.
Using two resources that the Sahara has plenty of, sun and sand, the Sahara Solar Breeder Project hopes to build factories that will refine the sand’s silica into silicon. That silicon will be used to build solar panels, which will power more silica-refining and solar panel factories, which will be able to build more solar panels, and on and on and on.
The potential for exponential growth allows for some extreme optimism: The project’s leaders say they could build enough power stations to meet half of the world’s energy needs by 2050. Project leader Hideomi Koinuma believes the project is key to solving the world’s energy crisis, saying:
“If we can use desert sand to make a substance that provides energy, this will be the key to solving the energy problem. This is probably doable. Moreover, the energy we continually receive from the Sun is 10,000 times the energy currently used by mankind. So if we can utilize 0.01% of it skillfully, we won’t have a shortage of energy, but a surplus.” [DigInfo TV]
Hit the break for a video about the project.
Devices that use the wasted mechanical energy from clothing movements or even a heartbeat seem far out, if not just a bit creepy, but new advances in nanogenerators are making such energy-scavenging electronics possible.
Now researchers at Georgia Tech have made the first nanowire-based generators that can harvest sufficient mechanical energy to power small devices, including light-emitting diodes and a liquid-crystal display. [Technology Review]
The new generators use materials that have a particularly odd property: They collect a charge and drive a current when flexed (this is called piezoelectricity). The problem in using these materials for energy-harvesting applications has been that the materials that were sufficiently efficient at driving a current were too rigid, and those that were flexible enough weren’t very efficient.
The British government announced yesterday that it’s scrapping a huge and controversial tidal power project that would have cost up to $48 billion to build, and could have provided clean energy for up to 5 percent of the United Kingdom. It was just too expensive, the government said.
“Other low-carbon options represent a better deal for taxpayers and consumers,” Chris Huhne, secretary of state for energy, said today in a written statement to Parliament in London. The decision, along with separate moves to spur nuclear power, mark out the government’s strategy to replace a quarter of the nation’s electric power stations by 2020. [BusinessWeek]
The project called for harnessing the tidal energy of the Severn, Britain’s longest river, where the river meets the ocean. The Severn estuary has the second largest tidal range in the world (after Canada’s Bay of Fundy), making it seem a natural fit for tidal power. But the project stalled as objections were raised to the five leading proposals. Three options called for enormous dams, or barrages, to be built across the waterway, which environmental groups objected to. Those environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth and a birding group, greeted the news of the project’s cancellation with delight.
A huge offshore wind energy project took a leap forward today with the announcement that Google and the investment firm Good Energies are backing the mammoth underwater transmission lines that would carry clean electricity up and down the East Coast. The $5 billion dollar project would allow for wind farms to spring up all along the mid-Atlantic continental shelf.
Google and Good Energies will both be 37.5 percent equity partners in the clean energy infrastructure project; the Japanese industrial, energy, and investment firm Marubeni will take a 15 percent share. The project, proposed by a Maryland-based company called Trans-Elect, would set up a 350-mile long energy-carrying backbone from Virginia to northern New Jersey, first allowing the transfer of the south’s cheap electricity to the northern states, and later providing critical infrastructure for future offshore wind projects.
The AWC backbone is critical to more rapidly scaling up offshore wind because without it, offshore wind developers would be forced to build individual radial transmission lines from each offshore wind project to the shore, requiring additional time consuming permitting and environmental studies and making balancing the grid more difficult. [Official Google Blog].
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In Washington D.C. today, the X-Prize foundation doled out $10 million in prize money for the Automotive X-Prize, its competition begun in 2008 to build cars that break 100 miles per gallon (or equivalent) and still resemble usable commercial vehicles. They raced at Michigan International Speedway; they underwent inspection by Consumer Reports and the Department of Energy. This morning’s winnings were divvied up among three teams:
1. Edison 2’s “Very Light Car”
Runs on: E85 ethanol
So named for weighing just more than 800 pounds—featherweight for a car—the vehicle from Edison 2 of Charlottesville, Virginia, took home the biggest slice of the prize money by winning the “mainstream” category.
In the “Mainstream” class, which offered the biggest cash prize, vehicles were required to have four wheels, seat four people and have a driving range of at least 200 miles. In other words, they had to offer the bare basics of a typical car [CNN].
The Very Light Car stayed light because it didn’t offer much more than that, though lead leader Oliver Kuttner says they did manage to squeeze in heater and basic ventilation.
Faced with the sun’s damaging rays, new biological solar cells can repair themselves, regaining their maximum efficiency when some competitors might fade. In their current form these biological solar cells, made with a bacterium’s photosynthesis hub and carbon nanotubes, only reach a small fraction of the efficiency seen in the best traditional solar cells. But their ability to reinvent themselves by shedding damaged proteins and reassembling to regain their maximum efficiency could be a useful feature for future solar cells.
The researchers, who published their work in Nature Chemistry, used a bacterium’s natural light collection center to generate solar power, used proteins and lipids to make supporting disc forms, and employed conducting carbon nanotubes to channel away electric current. This set of materials chemically clumps together, making the cells self-assembling.
The spontaneous assembly occurs thanks to the chemical properties of the ingredients and their tendency to combine in the most energetically comfortable positions. The scaffolding protein wraps around the lipid, forming a little disc with the photosynthetic reaction center perched on top. These discs line up along the carbon nanotube, which has pores that electrons from the reaction center can pass through. [Science News]
California’s aggressive energy rules require its utilities to hit an ambitious target: 20 percent of their electricity should come from renewable sources by the end of this year. They’re not going to make it. But because of the drive for renewables, they are close to building some of the biggest solar power projects in the country—including one that would be the biggest ever.
The Beacon Solar Energy Project received the seal of approval from the California Energy Commission (CEC) this week. Beacon will be a 250-megawatt plant built north of Los Angeles near Mojave, California, and would cover more than 2,000 acres.
Beacon is solar thermal: Rather than converting sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic cells, solar thermal projects use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun, creating steam to turn turbines.
California hasn’t issued a license for this kind of big “solar thermal” power plant in about 20 years. But in the coming months, the energy commission will vote on eight other, large-scale solar projects that the state needs to meet its renewable energy goals. [San Francisco Chronicle]
The goal: 80 days, 18,000 miles, no emissions.
Yesterday, the Zero Race electric car world tour began in front of the United Nations Palace in Geneva, Switzerland. Four teams–from Australia, Switzerland, Germany, and South Korea–won’t actually race one another to cross a finish line. Instead, spectators and experts will determine the winner based on reliability, energy efficiency, safety, design, and practicality, as the tour is meant to show the feasibility of electric vehicles.
The race organizer Louis Palmer won the European Solar Prize after driving a solar-powered vehicle around the world in 2008. He says in a press release that the “race” is against climate change and disappearing fuel.
“Petrol is running out, and the climate crisis is coming… and we are all running against time.” [Zero Race]