Georgia Tech researcher Manos Tentzeris holding
up one of his inkjet-printed antennas.
What’s the News: With all of the electronics cluttering our daily lives, the air is abuzz with ambient electromagnetic energy from sources like cell phone networks, radio and television transmitters, and satellite communications systems. Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have devised a simple, cheap way to harness that wasted energy: capturing it with inkjet-printed antennas and storing it in batteries.
What’s the News: President Obama gave a major address outlining his plan for U.S. energy security yesterday. His major goal is quite ambitious: to cut American oil imports by one-third by 2025. And towards that goal, he listed a number of initiatives that many news organizations see as a rehashing of old ideas, however good they might be. According to The Economist, “it is hard to see his recycled list of proposals as anything more than a reassurance to the environmentally minded, and to Americans fretting about rising fuel prices, that the president feels their pain.”
What’s the News: This week, scientists say that they’ve passed a chemistry milestone by creating the world’s first practical photosynthesis device. The playing-card-sized photosynthetic gadget uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to produce energy, and is reputedly 10 times more efficient than a natural leaf. Researchers say they expect it to revolutionize power storage, especially in remote areas that don’t currently have electricity. “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” says lead researcher Daniel Nocera, who’s presenting this research at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society this week.
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Reference: Daniel Nocera et al. 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. March 27-31, 2011 Anaheim, California, USA
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Schwen
What’s the News: In a much-ignored speech last week (not ignored by Grist), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) argued that the U.S. could become less vulnerable to spiking oil prices if we used less of it (surprise!). The crux of the talk was a graph he showed of our country’s estimated petroleum imports, and specifically, the significant change inprojection between 2008 and 2011 (blue and red lines above). Our now-declining gas and oil imports are in part a result of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
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Not So Fast: Some green-tech writers think the EIA’s predictions are more fiction than fact. According to Chris Nelder at Green Chip Stocks, the EIA’s predictions often “present a picture of the future that looks like a continuation of the best parts of the past, with none of the bad parts.” The assumption that our oil imports will keep on declining hinges partly on technologies that haven’t been invented yet and the hope that all the policies included in the Energy Act come to fruition. The only thing you can’t argue against is that petroleum demands right now are much lower than we had expected, thanks in due part to the Energy Act. What’s more, the economy has largely sputtered since 2008, which tends to tamp down demand for energy. The graph might be more valuable if it showed oil consumption per unit of economic activity.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “We’re not running out of oil. We’re running out of easy oil.” One place where oil is hard (and heavy) is below the Californian ground, where extractors must blast the sludgy petroleum with steam to get it flowing. Most such operations use natural gas to make the steam, but one startup has turned to an unusual partner for oil mining—solar energy—to try to make the business more efficient.
How? Greenhouses full of mirrors.
GlassPoint, a company based in Fremont, California, wants to use solar thermal energy to cook up some steam. Unlike photovoltaic solar, which converts the sun’s radiation directly into electricity, solar thermal projects trap and focus the sun’s heat. Those projects typically involve using the heat to turn turbines and create electricity, but this design is simpler.
GlassPoint’s system is cheaper because it doesn’t need the turbines, and because it has redesigned its mirrors and pipes to pump out steam that’s 250 °C to 300 °C (whereas the steam required to drive turbines must be 350 °C to 400 °C). [Technology Review]
Over the last two years (and perhaps as long as four), hackers probably based in China have been targeting several huge multinational energy companies and using long-established techniques to extract information. That’s according to the computer security firm McAfee, which helped some of the companies fight back against the ongoing wave of attacks it has dubbed “Night Dragon.”
“We have confirmed that five companies have been attacked,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, McAfee’s vice president for threat research. He said he suspected that at least a dozen companies might have been affected by the team of computer hackers seemingly based in Beijing and who appeared to work during standard business hours there. “These people seemed to be more like company worker bees rather than free-spirited computer hackers,” he said. “These attacks were bold, even brazen, and they left behind a trail of evidence.” [The New York Times]
In a blog post about the attacks, McAfee CTO George Kurtz notes that the hackers took advantage of techniques that have been around for more than a decade. In fact, he says, their simplicity helped them to evade security software.
During the last two years — and up to four years — the hackers had access to the computer networks, focusing on financial documents related to oil and gas field exploration and bidding contracts, said Alperovitch. They also copied proprietary industrial processes. “That information is tremendously sensitive and would be worth a huge amount of money to competitors,” said Alperovitch. [Reuters]
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.
After decades of development, Iran’s first nuclear power plant is close to operational. This week the country’s TV service announced that engineers have begun loading the fuel rods into the core of the Bushehr plant in southern Iran.
The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant has been under construction since before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was first contracted to a company that later became German industrial giant Siemens; more recently work was done with the help of Russia’s state-owned atomic energy company. [Los Angeles Times]
The plant’s 1000-megawatt capacity is comparable to the power put out by many of the nuclear plants scattered across the United States.
How to make natural gas? Flush the toilet, and wait three weeks. At least that’s the plan for homes involved in the Didcot Renewable Gas Project, which will be recycling residents’ waste into renewable natural gas, aka “biogas“.
Gearóid Lane, managing director of communities and new energy at British Gas, said: “This renewable gas project is a real milestone in Britain’s energy history, and will help customers and the environment alike. Renewable gas has the potential to make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s energy needs. Gas from sewage is just one part of a bigger project, which will see us using brewery and food waste and farm slurry to generate gas to heat homes.” [The Guardian]
The renewable gas won’t smell bad or function any differently than the gas already being provided to customers’ homes. This isn’t the first biogas plant in the U.K. or the world, but it is the first facility whose biogas is made directly from human waste and transferred back to those humans’ homes. Most of the other plants run off of agricultural and food waste.
The plant is just a test project, able to provide gas to about 200 homes. But the British government is hopeful that more such projects will help the country reach its goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020. Said Martin Baggs, chief executive of the utility company Thames Water:
“Every sewage works in Britain is a potential source of local renewable gas waiting to be put to use.” [BBC News]
Japan doesn’t have much oil, leaving the island nation heavily depended upon imports. What it does have, though, is natural gas—far under the sea in methane hydrate formations. The country said this week that it is going after those deposits, drilling test wells next year with the intention of beginning extraction before the decade is out.
What makes methane hydrate unique is that it is a seemingly frozen and yet flammable material. Formed in cold, high-pressure environments, it is found throughout the world’s oceans as well as under the frozen ground of countries with high latitudes. While global estimates vary considerably, the U.S. Department of Energy says, the energy content of methane occurring in hydrate form is “immense, possibly exceeding the combined energy content of all other known fossil fuels.” [UPI]
No one has yet pursued hydrates in a major commercial way, so their enormous potential sits untapped. Japan succeeded with a test well in Canada two years ago, and now aims to test near its home shores.