Now a message for the YOUNG people. Introduce your teen or young adult to something about energy which they can understand: a YouTube version of the "Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison. Epic Rap Battles of History" expertly done in only 2 minutes, with surprisingly accurate historical facts rapped in two-part harmony and subtitles for the older folks who can't understand the words of rap! (If you are older than 40, turn down the volume on your computer.)
Out next Conference on Future Energy (www.futurenergy.org ) at the University of Maryland is moving along. Your abstract submission (with or without a final paper) is still invited by email. We look forward to having a few name speakers, like perhaps Harold White from NASA, who is designing a warp drive to distort spacetime, as reported in the April issue of Popular Science. It will be held July 11-13, 2013 and will not involve the usual Elsevier Publications due to extenuating circumstances this year. However, all of the admission and publication prices are much lower than usual, with all submitted papers going into the Proceedings of the Natural Philosophy Alliance, available online after the conference. Details about the very reasonable publication costs ($10 per page to start) are online.
This month we feature with Story #1 a graphene supercapacitor with about double the capacity (276 F/g) of the best ultracap on the market today and even higher with micro versions. With the help of a laser, an accident happened where lots of chemicals fell from the shelves above in perfect order and ... I'm exaggerating of course. But a scientific accident is actually the main part of story.
Story #2 centers on the little known progress in Metal-Air batteries that simply use zinc and oxygen in a rechargeable battery. Fluidic Energy reformulated the zinc design so it is reuseable and stable as it finally goes to market. The most attractive part of the light weight battery is that it is expected to be even cheaper than the cheapest lead-acid batteries available today.
Story #3 is great news for the United States, as it takes the lead in one of the world's largest solar thermal power plants this year. With about 370 megawatts of solar thermal power, BrightSource is a utility-scale plant, which leads us into Story #4 since California is committed to delivering a third of its power with renewables by 2020. As a result of such legislation, California is now the country's leader in green technology with an increase in 5,000 jobs, lots of venture capital investments and a 26% increase in patent applications as a result.
Story #5 may be a controversial report due to the nature of the energy source. However, molten-salt nuclear reactors are purported to be one of the safest (no meltdown problem) and having the lowest radioactive waste of any available nuclear reactor (kilograms of waste compared to metric tons per year). Demonstrated here in the US in the 1960s for six years, the resurgence from MIT hopes to build a modern version soon as China plans to do.
Batteries are terrible. Compared to many other methods of storing energy, especially fossil fuels, batteries aren't very energy dense-that is, a 1-pound battery stores far less energy than is contained in a pound of gasoline. That wouldn't be so bad if the energy in a battery were easy to replenish-your Tesla might still go only a couple hundred miles on a single charge, but if you could fully recharge it in five minutes rather than several hours, the low capacity wouldn't bother you as much.
Scientists have spent decades trying to create the perfect battery-a battery with great energy density or, at least, one that doesn't take so long to charge. If we could somehow make this perfect battery, pretty much every gadget you use, from your phone to your laptop to your future electric car, would be amazing, or just less annoying than they are today. The perfect battery might also help with some other important stuff: climate change, oil wars, pollution, etc.
One approach for improving the battery is to forget about the battery and instead improve capacitors. A capacitor, like a battery, is a device that stores electrical energy. But capacitors charge and discharge their energy an order of magnitude faster than batteries. So if your phone contained a capacitor rather than a battery, you'd charge it up in a few seconds rather than an hour. But capacitors have a big downside-they're even less energy dense than batteries. You can't run a phone off a capacitor unless you wanted a phone bigger than a breadbox.
But what if you could make a dense capacitor, one that stored a lot of energy but also charged and discharged very quickly? Over the past few years, researchers at several companies and institutions around the world have been racing to do just that. They're in hot pursuit of the perfect "supercapacitor," a kind of capacitor that stores energy usingcarbon electrodes that are immersed in an electrolyte solution. Until recently, though, supercapacitors have been expensive to produce, and their energy densities have fallen far short of what's theoretically possible. One of the most promising ways of creating supercaps uses graphene-a much-celebrated substance composed of a one-atom layer of carbon-but producing graphene cheaply at scale has proved elusive.
Then something unexpectedly amazing happened. Maher El-Kady, a graduate student in chemist Richard Kaner's lab at UCLA, wondered what would happen if he placed a sheet of graphite oxide-an abundant carbon compound-under a laser. And not just any laser, but a really inexpensive one, something that millions of people around the world already have-a DVD burner containing a technology called LightScribe, which is used for etching labels and designs on your mixtapes. As El-Kady, Kamer, and their colleagues described in a paper published last year in Science, the simple trick produced very high-quality sheets of graphene, very quickly, and at low cost.
El-Kady's DVD-burning experiment has been characterized as a scientific "accident," but that description obscures the more interesting story behind it. "Nothing in science is actually an accident-it only looks like that way when you look back," Kaner says. For many years, students in Kaner's lab had been experimenting with subjecting various polymers to lasers, including those found in LightScribe drives. El-Kady's idea of subjecting graphite oxide to the LightScribe was just a lucky continuation of that work. He saw some other students in the lab playing with the laser, so he decided to take a crack at it too. "The appeal of this technique is that anybody could do this-it's really simple," says Kaner. "You take a piece of plastic, buy some graphite oxide, stick it in your CD drive and turn it into graphene." Even more exciting, the technique "makes the most efficient carbon-based supercapacitors that have been made to date."
How efficient? Kaner points out that the theoretical upper limit for the efficiency of graphene-based capacitors is 550 Farads per gram (a measure of energy storage). Other academic researchers have created supercaps that can store as much as 150 F/g, and Kaner suspects that commercial companies may have done even better. But Kaner and El-Kady's DVD-laser-produced graphene supercaps go far beyond anything else that has been reported so far. In their Science paper, they reported hitting capacitance rates of up to 276 F/g, close to double what had been previously reported. In another paper published last month in Nature Communications, Kaner and El-Kady described a way to use their DVD burner technique to produce micro-supercapacitors, which can be used to power sensors and other small electronic devices. Those supercapacitors are even more efficient. "With those, we essentially got up to 400 Farads per gram," Kaner says.
Energy futurists see great potential for such cheap, easy-to-produce, energy-dense supercapacitors. In many applications, these devices could either replace or work alongside batteries to make for more energy-efficient devices. In vehicles, efficient supercaps could be used to save up the kinetic energy your car otherwise loses while braking-i.e., what's known as "regenerative braking"-and then deliver that power in a burst when you need to accelerate. Several Chinese companies have producedsupercap-powered buses. Because supercapacitors charge and discharge rapidly, the buses can be replenished at every bus stop. The quick charge allows the bus to go for a few miles-enough to get to the next stop, where it sips more power.
Kaner says this vision could be more broadly applied to other kinds of vehicles. "The ultimate vision I could see is that even if you had to charge your supercapicator-powered car every 20 miles, you could have a lane on the freeway that was a charging lane," Kaner says. "As long as you drove in that for a sufficient time, your car gets charged." Kaner stresses that we're likely a long way from such a future. Among other obstacles, researchers like him would have to find a way to make graphene even more efficient and producible at large scale. That's exactly what he's looking to do next; Kaner and his team have signed a deal with a supercapacitor company to work on ways to commercialize their production technique.
Still, he's reluctant to put any timeline on when we'll see such capacitors in products, and he cautions against any immediate great expectations. "I think people are looking for a breakthrough in battery technology, and supercaps offer a lot of promise," Kaner says. "But when somebody puts out an article with a lot of hype, and then that doesn't happen in a year, people get frustrated." So, be warned: Supercapacitors won't make next year's gadgets any easier to deal with. But in 5 or 10 years, say, they could change the way the world charges up.
A Scottsdale, Arizona-based startup is now selling batteries that promise to be a cheaper alternative for grid backup.
After years of development, a novel battery technology from the startup Fluidic Energy is being commercialized (see "Betting on a Metal-Air Battery Breakthrough"). It's a rechargeable metal-air battery whose first application is replacing diesel and lead-acid battery backup systems for telecommunications towers, and for other businesses that need a steady supply of power. The company has been quietly demonstrating its battery with customers for a year. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Fluidic Energy founder and chief technology officer Cody Friesen made details about its product publicly available for the first time. Metal-air batteries have the potential to store more energy than lithium-ion batteries, which are now used in electric vehicles and some grid applications. Based on the materials used, metal-air batteries could also be less expensive than lead-acid batteries, the cheapest, widely used rechargeable batteries.
But while nonrechargeable metal-air batteries have been used commercially for a long time-they're often used in hearing aids, for example-it's been difficult to make them rechargeable. In a metal-air battery, a metal such as zinc (the one used in the case of Fluidic Energy) reacts with oxygen from the air to generate electricity. To repeatedly recharge a metal-air battery, it's necessary to remove that oxygen and form zinc metal again. But the metallic zinc left behind tends to form porous structures that take up much more space than dense, solid metal, negating the potential size advantage of metal-air batteries. Upon recharging, the zinc can also form root-like structures that cause short circuits within the battery. Making a long-lasting air electrode-the site of the interaction between the battery and the outside environment-is also a challenge. The existing ones are fine for single-use batteries, but not for rechargeable batteries that are meant to last longer.
To address the problem of zinc producing bulky, dendritic structures, Fluidic Energy uses chemical additives to ensure that zinc forms dense, uniform layers. The problem is that these additives tend to evaporate or break down over time. Fluidic Energy developed proprietary ionic liquids that don't evaporate and don't decompose at the voltages seen in the battery, and that, crucially, are inexpensive. The high cost of ionic liquids has kept them from being used in battery applications.
Friesen says the company also developed air electrodes that last five to seven times longer than others on the market, although he's keeping the specific advances that made that possible secret. The resulting batteries are cheaper than buying the combination of lead-acid batteries and diesel engines typically used to keep telecommunication towers running through blackouts. And they cost far less to operate, since they eliminate the need for diesel fuel, at least when the telecommunication towers are connected to the grid. (The batteries can also be used in off-grid applications, where they'd need to be paired with a power source such as solar panels or a diesel generator.)
While the batteries seem to be a good solution for telecommunication towers, it could be a while before the batteries are used in cars. Metal-air batteries are an intriguing technology for cars because they have the potential to store three or four times as much electricity as lithium-ion ones, which could extend vehicle range or make it possible to use smaller, cheaper battery packs. "We're not anywhere close to that," Friesen says, although the technology stores significantly more energy than lead-acid batteries. Large-scale grid storage could also be a challenge. Historically, efficiency has been a problem with metal-air batteries, which can waste nearly half the energy stored in them. Friesen says Fluidic has addressed the problem, but for competitive reasons he wouldn't give the specific efficiency, other than to say that "our efficiencies are far beyond that of a diesel and lead-acid system."In addressing the backup power market, Fluidic Energy will face a tough competitor. GE recently opened a large factory in Schenectady, New York, to build batteries that are also designed to replace diesel generators and lead-acid batteries (see "GE's Novel Battery to Bolster the Grid" and "Inside GE's New Battery Factory").
BrightSource Energy is planning to complete construction of one of world's largest solar thermal power plants this year, and is now betting on an even more massive project that it hopes will come online by 2016. The Oakland, California, company's first utility-scale plant, its 370-megawatt Ivanpah facility in the Mojave Desert, uses thousands of software-controlled mirrors to direct sunlight at three central towers that produce steam and power a turbine (see "In Pictures: The World's Largest Solar Thermal Power Plant"). PG&E and Southern California Edison have entered long-term contracts to buy power from the three units of the project, a sprawling 3,500-acre installation that cost $2.2 billion and is slated to start firing up this summer. In the more than five years Ivanpah took to permit, finance, and build, the solar market has changed dramatically around it.
Today, there is more than 7,000 megawatts of photovoltaic solar power online in the U.S., compared to 546 megawatts of concentrating solar power, or CSP, according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Rapidly dropping prices for photovoltaic panels have made large farms and distributed installations attractive to electric utilities that need to meet mandates to supply lower-carbon power. Partly because of these shifts, solar thermal companies have struggled to finance projects. At least one, Solar Millennium, went bankrupt last year. Siemens exited the business entirely last year.
BrightSource CEO John Woolard says that while lower PV pricing had hurt Siemens and other solar thermal companies using older, less efficient parabolic trough technology that collects heat across a large field rather than at a concentrated receiver, Brightsource's towers can more efficiently power a turbine and are more flexible in generating power. Typical solar PV and wind power sources, which can't provide power when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, are often backed up by a separate natural gas plant. Ivanpah and Palen's turbines can simply be multitasked to use natural gas. mBrightSource announced this week it is partnering with its Spanish competitor Abengoa Solar for help financing, building, and operating the two 750-foot tall towers at its next site, the Palen project in Riverside County, California. Last summer, BrightSource won its bid to purchase the project site after Solar Millennium, its owner, went bankrupt. The company has yet to secure financing for a project expected to cost $2.6 billion and is now awaiting final permits. BrightSource hopes to begin construction by next year, Woolard says.
The Riverside project's even larger size (each 250 megawatts, rather than Ivanpah's three at up to 130 each), more advanced mirror systems that track the sun, and more efficient turbines could bring capital costs down further, says Woolard. Abengoa's long track record of building and operating giant CSP plants will also help. One of its other massive projects opened this week (see "Abu Dhabi Plugs in Giant Concentrating Solar Plant"). Notably, neither Ivanpah nor Palen will have what is likely crucial to the long-term success of solar thermal power in the marketplace: the ability to store energy using molten salts, which could help make up for the unevenness of other renewable sources. "Every utility out there is saying my problem is not at noon at all; in fact my peak is 4 o'clock, moving to 6 o'clock," says Woolard, referring to the fact that many western U.S. utilities are using more and more solar PV power that ramps down just as people come home from work and turn on their appliances.
Woolard says future BrightSource projects will eventually use molten salt energy storage. The company hasn't done so yet because project financiers can only tolerate so much new risk in each project.
BrightSource faces significant challenges as it seeks opportunities to prove the benefits of its technology. Its costs are still high, as noted by the California Energy Commission when it did not approve three of its five proposed power purchase contracts with Southern California Edison last year. And, facing permitting delays, BrightSource shelved its Rio Mesa project in California in January to focus on the Palen site. However, despite these barriers, California utilities are still looking seriously at the technology because they must deliver a third of their power to consumers from renewables by 2020.
In addition to slow permitting and uncertain national climate policies and tax incentives, the need to build new transmission lines to support a large number of new projects in the desert is also a major barrier to large growth of the technology in the United States. As a result, BrightSource's next projects will likely be international. It is in the final stages of securing a contract in Israel, and is scouting in South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Ultimately, Woolard says, the biggest market could be China, where demand for electricity is exploding and new transmission has to be built no matter what.
When it comes to the green technology sector, there's California and then there is everyone else.
The state has managed to reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions even as its economy and population have grown, according to Next 10, the San Francisco nonprofit group that has produced the California green innovation index for the last five years.
In its just released 2013 report, Next 10 said the state continues to be the national leader in areas such as venture capital funding for green technology, green tech patents and the growth in clean power generation.
Next 10 founder F. Noel Perry said that "the big take-away from all of this is that California's green energy economy is diversifying, advancing and helping generate positive economic activity."
"Clean tech patents are rising," Perry said. "Clean economy jobs are growing, and California ranks among the most efficient and least carbon intensive economies in the world."
It's some positive economic news for the state with the worst unemployment rate in the nation, which remains at a stubborn 9.8%. Through January 2011, Next 10 said there were 176,000 "core clean economy" private sector jobs in the state. That was an increase of about 5,000 jobs compared with January 2008, making it one of the few sectors that has seen a rise above pre-recession figures.
California also leads the nation in the number of advanced biofuel production companies.
In power generation, Perry said, "California continues to be a world leader." In 2011, renewable energy was responsible for 14.5% of the state's electrical power generation, up 39% since 2002.
Perry said that the biggest reason for the increase in clean energy was a fourfold increase in wind power generation, which was enough to catapult California ahead of Iowa and into second place in the U.S., behind Texas.
In terms of research and product innovations, California is a world leader by a remarkable margin, said Doug Henton, chief executive of Collaborative Economics Inc.
"Patents are a good measure of where the innovation is coming from," Henton said.
California saw a 26% increase in patent registrations in 2011 from 2010, Henton said.
"California companies obtained 913 clean-tech patents in that period," Henton said. "The next best state, New York, obtained 427 clean-tech patents."
Silicon Valley continued to attract the biggest percentage of venture capital funding in California, with 43%, or $1.1 billion, of the $2.6 billion received in 2012. That was a fairly substantial drop from the more than $3.7 billion in venture funding in 2011. But that was still a substantial share of the $4.4 billion in venture capital funding nationwide and of the $6.5 billion raised worldwide.
That Northern California tech center was followed by Orange County, which pulled in $570 million in 2012; San Diego County, with $340 million; and Los Angeles County, with $106 million.
Transatomic Power, an MIT spinoff, is developing a nuclear reactor that it estimates will cut the overall cost of a nuclear power plant in half. It's an updated molten-salt reactor, a type that's highly resistant to meltdowns. Molten-salt reactors were demonstrated in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Lab, where one test reactor ran for six years, but the technology hasn't been used commercially.
The new reactor design, which so far exists only on paper, produces 20 times as much power for its size as Oak Ridge's technology. That means relatively small, yet powerful, reactors could be built less expensively in factories and shipped by rail instead of being built on site like conventional ones. Transatomic also modified the original molten-salt design to allow it to run on nuclear waste.
High costs, together with concerns about safety and waste disposal, have largely stalled construction of new nuclear plants in the United States and elsewhere (though construction continues in some countries, including China). Japan and Germany even shut down existing plants after the Fukushima accident two years ago (see "Japan's Economic Troubles Spur a Return to Nuclear" and "Small Nukes Get Boost"). Several companies are trying to address the cost issue by developing small modular reactors that can be built in factories. But these are typically limited to producing 200 megawatts of power, whereas conventional reactors produce more than 1,000 megawatts.
Transatomic says it can split the difference, building a 500-megawatt power plant that achieves some of the cost savings associated with the smaller reactor designs. It estimates that it can build a plant based on such a reactor for $1.7 billion, roughly half the cost per megawatt of current plants. The company has raised $1 million in seed funding, including some from Ray Rothrock, a partner at the VC firm Venrock. Although its cofounders, Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, are still PhD candidates at MIT, the design has attracted some top advisors, including Regis Matzie, the former CTO of the major nuclear power plant supplier Westinghouse Electric, and Richard Lester, the head of the nuclear engineering department at MIT.
The new reactor is expected to save money not only because it can be built in a factory rather than on site but also because it adds safety features-which could reduce the amount of steel and concrete needed to guard against accidents-and because it runs at atmospheric pressure rather than the high pressures required in conventional reactors.
A conventional nuclear power plant is cooled by water, which boils at a temperature far below the 2,000 �C at the core of a fuel pellet. Even after the reactor is shut down, it must be continuously cooled by pumping in water. The inability to do that is what caused the problems at Fukushima: hydrogen explosions, releases of radiation, and finally meltdown.
Using molten salt as the coolant solves some of these problems. The salt, which is mixed in with the fuel, has a boiling point significantly higher than the temperature of the fuel. The reactor has a built-in thermostat-if it starts to heat up, the salt expands, spreading out the fuel and slowing the reactions. That gives the mixture a chance to cool off. In the event of a power outage, a stopper at the bottom of the reactor melts and the fuel and salt flow into a holding tank, where the fuel spreads out enough for the reactions to stop. The salt then cools and solidifies, encapsulating the radioactive materials. "It's walk-away safe," says Dewan, the company's chief science officer. "If you lose electricity, even if there are no operators on site to pull levers, it will coast to a stop."
The new design improves on the original molten-salt reactor by changing the internal geometry and using different materials. Transatomic is keeping many of the design details to itself, but one change involves eliminating the graphite that made up 90 percent of the volume of the Oak Ridge reactor. The company has also modified conditions in the reactor to produce faster neutrons, which makes it possible to burn most of the material that is ordinarily discarded as waste. A conventional reactor produces about 20 metric tons of high-level waste a year, and that material needs to be stored for 100,000 years. The 500-megawatt Transatomic reactor will produce only four kilograms of such waste a year, along with 250 kilograms of waste that has to be stored for a few hundred years.
Bringing the new reactor to market will be challenging. Although the basic idea of a molten-salt reactor has been demonstrated, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's certification process is set up around light-water reactors. The company will need the NRC to establish new regulations, especially since the commission must sign off on the idea of using less steel and concrete if the design's safety features are to lead to real savings.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell says that the commission is aware of Transatomic's concept but that designs haven't been submitted for review yet. He says that for the next few years, the NRC will be focused on certifying more conventional designs for small modular reactors. He says the certification process for Transatomic will take at least five years once the company submits a detailed design, with additional review needed specifically for issues related to fuel and waste management.
A detailed engineering design itself may be years away. The company's next step is raising $5 million to run five experiments to help validate the basic design. Russ Wilcox, Transatomic's CEO and the former CEO of E Ink, estimates that it will take eight years to build a prototype reactor-at a cost of $200 million. He says that's less time than it took investors to get a return on E Ink, which was acquired for $450 million 13 years after the first investments in the company.
Even though it could take well over a decade for investors to get a return,
venture funding isn't out of the question, Ray Rothrock says. But he says the company will face many challenges. "The technology doesn't bother me in the least," he says. "I have confidence in the people. I wish someone would build this thing, because I think it would work. It's all the other factors that make it daunting."
The company's biggest challenge might come from China, which is investing $350 million over five years to develop molten-salt reactors of its own. It plans to build a two-megawatt test reactor by 2020.