Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a new way of storing energy from sunlight that could lead to ‘unlimited’ solar power.
The process, loosely based on plant photosynthesis, uses solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. When needed, the gases can then be re-combined in a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity whether the sun is shining or not.
According to project leader Prof. Daniel Nocera, “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years. Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now, we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”
A fungus that lives inside trees in the Patagonian rain forest naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel, biologists announced today. And the fungus can grow on cellulose, a major component of tree trunks, blades of grass and stalks that is the most abundant carbon-based plant material on Earth.
“When we looked at the gas analysis, I was flabbergasted,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist at Montana State University, and the lead author of a paper in Microbiology describing the find. “We were looking at the essence of diesel fuel.”
While genetic engineers have been trying a variety of techniques and genes to get microbes to create fuel out of sugars and starches, almost all commercial biofuel production uses the century-old dry mill grain process. Ethanol plants ferment corn ears into alcohol, which is simple, but wastes the vast majority of the biomatter of the corn plant.
Using the cellulose from plants — the stalk instead of the ear, or simply wood from poplars — to make liquid fuel is a long-held dream because it would be more environmentally efficient and cheaper, but is far more difficult.
Chemists at Ohio State University say they have produced a next-generation material that not only absorbs the full spectrum of sunlight, but also make makes the electrons generated more easy to capture.
The hybrid material — a combination of electrically conductive plastic and metals like molybdenum and titanium — is the first of its kind to capture the full solar spectrum, according to Malcolm Chisholm, one of the authors of the paper describing the research, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Solar panels in use today capture only a small fraction of the energy contained in sunlight.
The material is years from being made into a commercial product, but is another example of how innovations in the field of solar energy could make vastly more of the sun’s energy available for human use. Recent action by Congress to extend industry tax incentives should keep companies investing in new technology research and development. And according to the Department of Energy, “Under the ongoing global financial crisis, a lack of available credit is causing projects to be delayed or canceled, but the clean energy sector is continuing to attract substantial amounts of investment capital.”
If coupled with new battery technology, solar energy technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we generate electricity. Millions of homes could be outfitted with their own power sources, and they could store enough electricity — if efficient enough — to eliminate the need for power plants in the residential sector.
That’s been the promise of solar energy for a long time. Breakthroughs like this one announced by Ohio State brings the vision that much closer to reality.
Ohio State University chemists have created a new material that could revolutionise photovoltaic solar panels.
Today’s solar cell materials are sensitive to only a limited range of frequencies, so they can only capture a small fraction of the energy contained in sunligh.
The new hybrid material – an electrically conductive plastic combined with metals including molybdenum and titanium – is the first that is sensitive to all the colours in the rainbow, allowing it to absorb all the energy contained in visible light at once.
Not only is the hybrid material more sensitive than normal solar panels, it also generates much more charge (more free electrons) than the researchers were expecting.
“This long-lived excited state should allow us to better manipulate charge separation,” said Professor Malcom Chisholm, chair of the Ohio State’s Chemistry Department.
To design the as-yet-unnamed hybrid material, Chisholm explored different molecular configurations on a supercomputer before synthesizing molecules of the new material in a liquid solution.
However, he warns that it could be years before high-power hybrid solar panels find their way onto our roofs. Until then, we’re stuck with today’s traditional silicon panels – and hopefully the more efficient thin-film technologies coming soon.
There are many new forms of alternative energy but maybe none as interesting as the Cool Earth Solar “Balloon.” The concept behind this design is that they create an “inflatable plastic thin-film balloon (solar concentrator) that, upon inflation, focuses sunlight onto a photovoltaic cell held at its focal point.
The design produces 400 times the electricity that a solar cell would create without the company’s concentrator.” Cool Earth has already began construction on a power plant in Livermore, CA that will utilize this new technology. The plant is modest in size, creating only 1.4 Megawatts but if this plant works as well as they expect it to, they plan on launching a full sized plant next summer. One great thing about this device is that it’s made up of a very common and cheap material. “Plastic thin film is abundant and cheap,” said Cool Earth Solar CEO Rob Lamkin. “It only costs two dollars for the plastic material necessary for our solar concentrator.”
Combining solar and robots could never be bad (Wall-E!), but at the Solar Power International convention it wasn’t about solar-powered robots as much as it was robotics that can help with the manufacturing and production of solar gear. There were at least four booths touting robotics for stacking solar panels, assembling products and inspecting systems.
We took this short 15-second video of the solar robotic solution from Adept. In the video the Adept Quattro quickly picks up and places the solar products into exact locations, which the company says maximizes productivity and minimizes breakage.
Ten years ago, graduate students at Harvard University found a way of making silicon more responsive, by blasting the surface with a wafer, using a brief pulse of laser energy, along with dopants. They called the result “black silicon”, which was a much improved silicon and was able to absorb protons and release electrons much better. Now a company went official and said that they have been working for three years on this technology and are going to commercialize this process.
The company that will develop the “black silicon” is called SiOnyx and is confident that their technology is able to help manufacturers build much more efficient photovoltaic cells and sensitive detectors, without using anything else than the silicon-based process they currently use.
Black silicon could revolutionize some of nowadays technologies, like solar energy generation, medical imaging and digital photography.
“You’ve never been able to detect light the way this stuff detects light. It means that you solve a clear and obvious pain point for a very large number of customers,” says Stephen Saylor, SiOnyx CeO.
Researchers at the Oregon State University College of Engineering have discovered an efficient way to produce hydrogen from different types of biowaste, including municipal sewage.
The process uses 75% less energy than the traditional water electrolysis method of producing hydrogen, and can be done at a much lower cost, making it a good candidate for hydrogen fuel production. In the lab, researchers are already close to the Department of Energy’s goal of $2 to $3 per gasoline gallon equivalent for hydrogen fuel.
The university describes the process like this:
“In these systems, naturally occurring microorganisms from sewage attach to the surface of an anode and degrade the waste in the sewage, in a device that is something like a battery. The waste decomposes, eventually leaving protons that migrate to the cathode, combine with electrons and generate hydrogen.”
Last week Spectrum Online ran my profile of Andasol 1, a solar thermal power plant that’s set to startup in Andalucia with the largest installation built expressly for storing renewable energy: a set of molten salt storage tanks that will hold enough heat energy to run its 50 MW steam turbine for 7.5 hours after dark. This week brought decisive evidence that another solar thermal design that makes even better use of energy storage — a so-called ‘power tower’ whereby sunlight is focused on a central tower — will also have its moment in the Andalucian sun.
The project, dubbed Gemasolar, will employ sun-tracking mirrors covering an area equal to 40 soccer fields to focus light at the top of a roughly 120-meter-high tower. There the sunlight will heat a solar receiver full of molten salt. In contrast, Andasol 1 (like most of the solar thermal plants under construction in the U.S., Spain, North Africa and the Gulf) uses thousands of square meters of trough-shaped mirrors to focus light on a synthetic oil; energy is stored via heat exchangers that transfer the synthetic oil’s heat to a molten salt.
One advantage of the power tower is thus obvious: heating salt directly eliminates the need for heat exchangers, reducing installation and operating costs. Another lies in the fortuitous thermodynamics of heating molten salts, whose maximum safe temperature of 565 C is about 165 C higher than the synthetic oil’s.
Sandia National Lab researchers verified these power tower advantages in the second half of the 90s, but also suffered through a series of operational difficulties. Five years ago the European Commission provided funding for the Gemasolar project (then known as the Solar Tres) to demonstrate that the difficulties could be overcome, but the project foundered on legal issues and changes in Spain’s renewable energy law. But engineering continued and this March the project sprung back to life when its lead proponent, Spanish engineering firm Sener, clinched a solar thermal joint venture with Abu Dabi’s alternative energy program.
A new invention could revolutionize solar energy – and it was made by a 12-year-old in Beaverton.
Despite his age, William Yuan has already studied nuclear fusion and nanotechnology, and he is on his way to solving the energy crisis.
It all started with Legos – after he learned nanotechnology to make robots take off. The seventh grader then got an idea inspired by the sun.
“Solar it seems underused, and there are only a few problems with it,” Yuan said.
Encouraged by his Meadow Park Middle School science teacher, the 12-year-old developed a 3D solar cell.
“Regular solar cells are only 2D and only allow light interaction once,” he said.
And his cell can absorb both visible and UV light.
“I started to realize I was actually onto something,” Yuan said.
At first, he couldn’t believe his calculations.
“This solar cell can’t be generating this much electricity, it can’t be absorbing this much extra light,” he recalled thinking.
If he is right, solar panels with his 3D cells would provide 500 times more light absorption than commercially-available solar cells and nine times more than cutting-edge 3D solar cells.
It’s amazing that you can make this sort of discoveries in calculations only.
Just like Einstein, this kid couldn’t believe the outcome of his own calculations.
Einstein’s calculations turned out to be correct. Let’s hope this kid will have the same destiny.