Who needs big silicon panels? MIT scientists just coated paper with solar cells, reportedly the first team to ever do that. Vladimir Bulovic, director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center, unveiled them this week, and said the design was being submitted for peer review.
The printed solar cells, which Bulovic showed at a press conference Tuesday, are still in the research phase and are years from being commercialized. However, the technique, in which paper is coated with organic semiconductor material using a process similar to an inkjet printer, is a promising way to lower the weight of solar panels. “If you could use a staple gun to install a solar panel, there could be a lot of value,” Bulovic said [CNN].
Right now the solar cells on paper get just 1 to 2 percent efficiency at converting sunlight to electricity (some cells have achieved 40 percent or more in lab trials). But they carry the advantages of being flexible, and Bulovic says he could potentially use a number of different materials, not just the carbon-based dye used in these first attempts. And they’re tunable:
MIT is focusing much of its effort on quantum dots, or tiny crystals that are only a few nanometers in size. A human hair is about 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers thick. By using different materials and sizes, researchers can fine-tune the colors of light that quantum dots can absorb, a way of isolating good candidates for quantum dot solar cells [CNN].
Bulovic gives the standard warning about new technologies—it could be a decade before it’s ready for commercial development.
And once it is? There’s no telling how it could revolutionize the home solar industry, which currently relies on pricey professional installers to set up panels [Inhabitat].
DISCOVER: Sun Catcher Promises Cheaper Solar Power
80beats: Glitter-Sized Solar Cells Could Be Woven into Your Power Tie
80beats: Self-Assembling Solar Panels Use the Vinaigrette Principle
Image: Martin LaMonica at CNET
Lately we’ve been covering the doings of DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad scientist wing that conducts kooky scavenger hunts and loses hypersonic gliders. But today the focus is on the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—an agency President Obama created last year to foster research on creative alternative energy projects rather than futuristic weaponry. ARPA-E, which is part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, announced this week grants totaling $106 million.
The first of the three groups of projects funded by the ARPA-E uses microorganisms to create liquid fuels.
Most of the leading fourth-generation biofuel companies that utilize bio-chemical approaches are modifying the genetic structure of the organism to transform a sugar substrate and secrete either pure “drop in” fuels like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel, or gasoline substitutes like ethanol or biobutanol [Greentech Media].
The microorganisms in the liquid-fuel experiments need electricity to produce fuel, but many of the researchers are devising ways to use solar energy as the power source so the projects can use renewable fuels to create renewable fuels.
Imagine a day in the future when you can charge your cell phone using your sneakers, or charge a touch-screen device merely by rolling up the flexible screen. New devices that take advantage of the piezoelectric effect–the tendency of some materials to generate an electrical potential when they’re mechanically stressed–are taking us one step closer to that reality.
Ville Kaajakari of the Louisiana Tech University harnessed this effect by developing a tiny generator that can be embedded in a shoe sole. The tiny smart device is part of “MEMS” or “micro electro mechanical systems,” which combine computer chips with micro-components to generate electricity [EarthTechling]. Each time the sneaker-wearer goes for a stroll, the compression action would power up the circuits in the generator and produce tiny bits of usable voltage. “This technology could benefit, for example, hikers that need emergency location devices or beacons,” said Kaajakari. “For more general use, you can use it to power portable devices without wasteful batteries” [Clean Technica].
For now, the amount of energy produced is very small, but the generator could theoretically be used to power sensors, GPS units or portable devices that don’t require a large amount of energy [Clean Technica]. The scientist hopes that the technology can be developed further to charge common devices like mobile phones.
The Obama administration reaffirmed its commitment to clean energy sources today by giving the green light to the controversial Cape Wind project, clearing the way for 130 wind turbines to be built off the coast of Cape Cod. The wind farm will be built in Nantucket Sound, and aims to harness the steady breezes blowing along the East coast to produce clean, albeit expensive energy.
The project had been delayed for almost a year due to opposition from local Native American tribes. Two Wampanoag tribes said the turbines, which will stand more than 400 feet above the ocean surface, would disturb spiritual sun greetings and possibly ancestral artifacts and burial grounds on the seabed, which was once exposed land before the sea level rose thousands of years ago [Boston Globe]. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who approved the project, assured the tribes that he had ordered modifications to lessen the turbines’ impact. He also said that the approval would require Cape Wind to conduct additional marine archaeological surveys and take other steps to reduce the project’s visual impact [Boston Globe]. If not held back by any other legal hurdles, construction could begin later this year.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet burns through more fuel than any other aircraft in the United States Navy, whose pilots have flown more than 400 of the jets. But with the week of Earth Day upon us, the Navy is trying to use the jet to show it can mend its fuel-guzzling ways. Tomorrow the “Green Hornet,” an F/A-18 running on a half-petroleum, half-biofuel blend, will make a test flight from Maryland.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has set a target that half of naval energy consumption will come from alternative sources by 2020. A “Great Green Fleet,” to sail by 2016, will include nuclear ships, as well as surface combatants with hybrid electric power systems using biofuel and biofuel-powered aircraft [National Geographic]. Before we can talk about ambitious deployment targets, however, the Navy has to prove that its “green” fighter has got what it takes, and so the experimental F/A-18 will try to break the sound barrier.
In the hot desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finding fresh drinking water has always been a great challenge. For decades now, the state has been providing clean water by converting millions of gallons of seawater via desalination plants that remove salts and minerals from the water. Now the country plans to use one of its most abundant resources to counter its fresh-water shortage: sunshine [Technology Review].
Working on a joint project with IBM, Saudi Arabia’s national research group King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has announced that it will open the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant by 2012 in the city of Al-Khafji. The pilot plant will not just supply 30,000 cubic meters of clean water per day to 100,000 people, but will also reduce operating costs in the long run by harvesting energy from sunshine. Saudi Arabia, the top desalinated water producer in the world, uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its plants, according to Arab News [Technology Review].
This time, Solar Impulse has really taken to the skies.
When we last left Swiss adventurer and around-the-world ballooning enthusiast Bertrand Piccard, he and his team were celebrating their first test flight of their solar-powered plane in December. However, those tests were really just “flea hop” tests to get the plane a couple feet off the ground. This time, though, Solar Impulse has completed a two-hour true test flight, a big step toward Piccard’s goal of flying the solar plane around the world.
At a military airport in the Swiss countryside, the “Solar Impulse” plane lifted off after only a short acceleration on the runway, reaching a speed no faster than 45 kph (28 mph). It slowly gained altitude above the green and beige fields, and disappeared eventually into the horizon as villagers watched from the nearest hills [AP]. Piccard says the test proved his plane—which weighs about as much as a car and runs on 12,000 solar cells with lithium batteries and electric engines as emergency backup—can not only fly, but fly straight. Since the plane will be flying without a drop of liquid fuel, he says, it must stay on its planned trajectory and conserve energy.
When it comes to generating clean energy, the strong offshore winds that blow in from the ocean are a great source. But while these sea breezes are often stronger than land winds, they’re not consistent; instead their force tends to ebb and flow like the tides. Wind turbines that use offshore winds to produce energy can therefore have a tough time maintaining a steady supply of power, but now scientists from the University of Delaware have proposed a novel idea on how to keep the power supply steady.
In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Willet Kempton and his team suggest that by connecting offshore wind farms in a long network running along the entire Eastern Seaboard, power fluctuations could be cut down, as electricity from interconnected farms would be easier to manage and more valuable than from wind at a single location [BusinessWeek]. The researchers suggest that by creating a 1,550-mile-long network of wind turbines, the network could provide power from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
Scotland is getting ready to capitalize on something the country has plenty of: fierce, stormy waves.
About 750,000 Scottish homes expect to be powered by ocean technology by 2020, as the Scottish Government announced that 10 wave and tide power schemes capable of generating up to 1.2GW in total would be built around the Orkney islands and on the Pentland Firth on the northern coast of the Scottish mainland [Guardian]. The 10 projects will comprise the world’s first commercial-scale wave and tidal power scheme. With this project, Scotland plans to produce the same amount of clean energy as a small nuclear power station, and hopes to start on a path to becoming the “Saudi Arabia of marine energy.”
Some of the strongest tidal currents in the world race around UK shores and there’s some of the highest energy in the waves that roll in from the Atlantic. And while wave power is, to an extent, dependent on the weather, tidal power has the tremendous advantage of being totally predictable [Channel 4].
It will cost about $7.6 billion in total to install and maintain the structures used to generate power from the strong waves and tides, and to transmit the energy back to land. The bulk of the work will be done by three major power firms: E.ON, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) Renewables, which already operates the UK’s largest hydro schemes, and Scottish Power Renewables, a heavy investor in windfarms, in joint ventures with four of the UK’s leading marine energy firms [Guardian].
Click through the photo gallery to see the wave and tidal devices that will soon get their try-outs in the cold, turbulent waters off the Scottish coast.
Image: flickr / jack_spellingbacon
Carbon nanotubes have shown the potential to help us take better x-ray images, make cheaper hydrogen fuel cells, and replace silicon in computer chips. Add another possibility onto the pile: MIT researchers report this week in Nature Materials that they’ve used carbon nanotubes to create thermopower waves, a system they say could put out 100 times more energy than a lithium-ion battery.
Michael Strano’s team coated the tubes, which are only billionths of a meter across, with a fuel. This fuel was then ignited at one end of the nanotube using either a laser beam or a high-voltage spark, and the result was a fast-moving thermal wave traveling along the length of the carbon nanotube like a flame speeding along the length of a lit fuse [Environmental News Service]. That wave travels 10,000 times the typical speed of this chemical reaction, and the heat blasts electrons down the tubes. Voila, electric current.
This previously unknown phenomenon opens up an entirely new area of energy research, Strano says, and the technology’s potential applications are exciting. Strano envisions thermopower waves that could enable ultra-small electronic devices, no larger than a grain of rice, perhaps a sensor or treatment device that could be injected into the body. Or they might be used in “environmental sensors that could be scattered like dust in the air,” he says [Environmental News Service].