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]
After mashing up rock and algae chunks known as stromatolites, researchers have found a new type of chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that takes in light and provides energy for photosynthesis. Unlike its known cousins, this chlorophyll uses infrared light–that’s a surprise to some researchers, who doubted that lower frequency infrared had enough energy to split water for photosynthesis’s oxygen-creation.
“Nobody thought that oxygen-generating organisms were capable of using infrared light… ,” says Samuel Beale, a molecular biologist at Brown University whose work centers in part on chlorophylls [but who was not involved with the study]. “I think what they found here is a new modification of chlorophyll that shows the flexibility of photosynthetic organisms to use whatever light is available.” [Scientific American]
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].
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Image: Martin LaMonica at CNET
On May 18, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) says, it will launch into space a “solar yacht” called Ikaros—the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun (named, of course, in honor of Icarus in Greek mythology). JAXA plans to control the path of Ikaros by changing the angle at which sunlight particles bounce off the silver-coloured sail [AFP].
Actually, the solar sail is a dual-purpose system, taking advantage of both the pressure and the energy of sunlight. The sail, which is less than the thickness of a human hair and 66 feet in diagonal distance, will catch the actual force of sunlight for propulsion as a sailboat’s sail catches the wind. But the solar sail is also covered in thin-film solar cells to generate electricity. And if you can make electricity, you can use it to ionize gas and emit it at high pressure, which is the propulsion systems most satellites use.
Potential velocity using a solar sailor has been theorized to be extremely high. “Eventually you’ll have these missions lasting many years, reaching speeds approaching 100,000 mph, getting out of the solar system in five years instead of 25 years,” said Louis D. Frieman, the Executive Director of the Planetary Society [Clean Technica]. The society has toyed around with its own solar sail.
For now, though, JAXA has a six-month test mission planned for Ikaros. If it works, they want to send a solar sail-powered mission to Jupiter and then the Trojan asteroids. That voyage would employ both the force of the sun and ion propulsion, and the Japanese are brimming with confidence: “Unlike the mythical Icarus, this Ikaros will not crash,” Yuichi Tsuda, an assistant professor at JAXA, said today [BusinessWeek].
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