Despite increasing worry about what our energy consumption is doing to the planet, we’re also increasingly tied to power-hungry electronic devices. To keep reliable, renewable energy flowing, some suggest, we must give the power grid a makeover. And one method that could change it is a breath of fresh air. Danielle Fong and her company, LightSail Energy, want to store renewable energy in tanks of compressed air. Because wind and solar can be unpredictable energy sources, the ability to save any surplus for a windless or cloudy day makes them more reliable.
Caleb Garling has written about Fong’s unusual method of storing power for Wired’s World’s Most Wired feature.
A geothermal plant in Iceland
Iceland’s gigantic energy reserves, generated from renewable sources like geothermal vents, are all dressed up with nowhere to go—it’s too expensive to get power from the chilly island to anywhere else. But transporting data to and from the island is a different story. Iceland is starting to attract companies that build giant server farms, lured by the cheap electricity and the possibility of being able to market “green” power.
Coming to a desert far, far away from you?
What’s the News: Server farms are the Hummers of the information age: they use a substantial 1.5% of the world’s electricity, and that number’s growing fast. But by sticking them out in the middle of sunny, windy nowhere, computer scientists posit, we could make use of renewable energy that’s otherwise too far from civilization to be used.
What’s the News: Scientists have created the first rechargeable battery that uses seawater and freshwater to generate electricity. If installed into every ocean-discharging river in the world (that’s not a realistic scenario—just a frame of reference), the process could produce 2 terawatts, or about 13% of worldwide electricity use. As the researchers write, this battery is “simple to fabricate and could contribute significantly to renewable energy in the future.”
How the Heck:
What’s the Context:
Not So Fast:
Next Up: Noting the limited supply of freshwater on Earth, lead author Yi Cui says that “we need to study using sewage water … If we can use sewage water, this will sell really well.”
Reference: Fabio La Mantia et al. “Batteries for Efficient Energy Extraction from a Water Salinity Difference.” Nano Letters. doi: 10.1021/nl200500s
Image: Nano Letters
We humans are great at making ethanol from grains. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years to make beer and liquor, and our expertise is one reason that corn ethanol has been the biofuel of choice so far. But the biofuels of the future, experts say, will come not from the starch in corn but from the cellulose in grasses and other abundant green plants. There’s just one problem: We’re not good at breaking down the tough structure of cellulose to get at the sugars inside.
But cows are.
Cows, like termites and leafcutter ants, love to eat tough plant material, and host bacteria with the molecular machinery to do so in their guts. Scientists, in their attempts to get better at breaking down cellulose, have tried to copy nature by studying the enzymes that allow those grass-eating animals to do their thing. And now researchers say they have found a treasure trove of new microbe-produced enzymes inside a cow that could help them in their quest.
In a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science, researchers described how they incubated bags of switchgrass inside cow rumens and from that found 27,755 “candidate genes” with the potential for efficiently breaking down plant cellulose into usable sugar that can then become ethanol. [MSNBC]
Eddy Rubin and his team executed this chemical excursion by surgically opening a hole into the first of the cow’s four stomachs.
Last night, in the third State of the Union Address of Obama’s presidency, he began by extolling the need for the country to compete with other rising nations for the jobs of the future (and using some version of his new catchphrase multiple times). The President hit many notes that have science and technology advocates smiling this morning, including his call to turn around yesterday’s sobering statistics about the lack of science proficiency of American students.
The world has changed, Obama told Congress, and the US will only retain its competitive edge over nations like China and India if it invests in a skilled workforce and cutting-edge science and technology: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” [New Scientist]
Obama went on to urge parents to get their kids’ priorities straight, and uttered the line that may have tickled science geeks the most:
We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.
The President also called for more funding for biomedical, renewable energy, and other research to launch a wave of innovation. Obama deemed this our “Sputnik moment,” comparing it to the moment in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite and the U.S. raced to catch up to and then surpass Soviet space science.