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Archive for the ‘renewable enegy’ Category

It’s not nice to ignore Mother Nature

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A new book by Geoffrey Heal, professor at Columbia Business School, makes a trenchant point that’s ignored by those currently in power: our prosperity depends on protecting the planet.

Heal did a Q&A interview about his book, Endangered Economies, in the current issue of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ magazine Catalyst. (Heal is also UCS board member and an expert on economics and the environment.)

“The natural world provides everything we depend on,” Heal says. “We get our food from the natural world, we get our drinking water and our oxygen from the natural world, and we evolved as part of it. We simply can’t live without it. Plants create food, and they need pollination from insects and they need rain and they need soil. We can’t synthesize these things. So we really are totally dependent on the natural world in the end. Read the rest of this entry »

Bionic leaf beats photosynthesis, creates liquid fuel

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bionic-leaf_orig_1 (1)Now this from Harvard University researchers: “bionic leaf 2.0,” which turns sunlight into liquid fuel, introduced in the academic journal Science earlier this month.

In what is called an artificial version of photosynthesis in plants, the study says the “bionic leaf 2.0” “aims to make use of solar panels for splitting molecules of water into oxygen and hydrogen. On separation of the water compounds, hydrogen is moved into a chamber for consumption by bacteria. A specialized metal catalyst and carbon dioxide in the chamber then helps generate a liquid fuel.”

Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, and Pamela Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, have developed a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels. What’s cool about this is that using sunlight to convert it into liquid fuels would reduce the vast areas of land usually used for producing plants that generate biofuels. According to a study by the University of Virginia, about 4 per cent of the world’s farmland is currently under crops for fuel rather than crops for food.

The paper, whose lead authors also include postdoctoral fellow Chong Liu and graduate student Brendan Colón, is described in a June 3 paper published in Science.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Nocera said in a Harvard Gazette article. “Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.” While the study shows the system can be used to generate usable fuels, its potential doesn’t end there, said Silver, who is also a founding core member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

“The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist — biology can do chemistry we can’t do easily,” she said. “In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile.”

The new system builds on previous work by Nocera, Silver, and others, which — though it was capable of using solar energy to make isopropanol — faced a number of challenges. Chief among those, Nocera said, was the fact that the catalyst used to produce hydrogen — a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy — also created reactive oxygen species, molecules that attacked and destroyed the bacteria’s DNA. To avoid that, researchers were forced to run the system at abnormally high voltages, resulting in reduced efficiency.

“For this paper, we designed a new cobalt-phosphorous alloy catalyst, which we showed does not make reactive oxygen species,” Nocera said. “That allowed us to lower the voltage, and that led to a dramatic increase in efficiency.” Read the rest of this entry »

Ready for the circular economy?

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And intelligent assets? A report from the World Economic Forum says the rapid and pervasive development of digital technologies, along with an understanding of circular economy principles, will drastically change life for the average urban citizen much sooner than we think.

smartcities1WEF’s report, “Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential,” defines the circular economy as a concept in which materials and products are kept at their highest possible value at all times. It’s all about connectivity: “The exponential growth of connectivity has had a sweeping impact on our society in the last decade. It is widely understood that this increased connectivity between people, products and systems can create significant new sources of value for citizens and economies,” the report says.

“As we look to the next decade, the prevalence of connectivity, through the Internet of Things and the creation of ‘intelligent assets’ will accelerate,” so the question is, how to harness technological advances to enable smarter economic growth, resource and food security, and an improved infrastructure.

The impending digital transformation the WEF envisions has the potential to redefine the very basis of the materials-reliant industrial economy, the report’s Executive Summary continues. “Enabled by intelligent assets, a new model of development gradually gaining independence from finite resource extraction is emerging. Can pervasive connectivity become the new infrastructure enabling effective material flows, keeping products, components and materials at their highest value at all times, thus enabling the coming of age of the circular economy? Such a system would generate, on top of business advantages, multiple benefits for users and society as a whole.

“It would be a system where shared and multimodal transport help citizens to quickly and safely navigate to their destination, even during rush hour. A system where assets are able to signal the need for maintenance before breaking down, and in which local farmers can monitor and regenerate the areas of their land at risk of degradation, while at the same time providing abundant and fresh produce.”

The rapid increase in the number of intelligent assets is “reshaping” the economy. “The number of connected devices is expected to grow to 25–50 billion by 2020, from around 10 billion today. A growing body of research indicates that this Internet of Things (IoT) offers a trillion dollar opportunity, brought about by improved production and distribution processes and, perhaps more importantly, a significant shift in the way products are utilized.” The surge in intelligent assets is expected to “irreversibly transform industries and societies, and when paired with circular economy principles, this transformation has the potential to unlock tremendous value opportunities.”

This circular economy would help “decouple economic value creation from resource consumption.” It encompasses four value drivers – extending the use cycle length of an asset, increasing utilization of an asset or resource, looping or cascading an asset through additional use cycles, and regeneration of natural capital – that can be “combined with one (or several) of the three main intelligent assets value drivers – knowledge of the location, condition, and availability of an asset.”

What’s at stake “is not incremental change or a gradual digitization of the system as we know it, but a reboot: pervasive connectivity rolled out at scale has the power to redefine value generation, whilst helping emerging economies bypass heavy upfront investments and material-intensive solutions.”

For example, WEF posits an ecosystem of intelligent assets-enabled services that could jointly “open widespread access to reliable, grid-free renewable energy. Solar panels could be provided as a service to individuals and businesses without access to the capital to buy solar panels themselves, through weekly online payments.”

It’s a rethinking of value creation and logistics delivery from a straight line to a digitalized circular perspective, a brave new world of extreme connectivity.

Singularity here we come.

Image: From the WEF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Written by William DiBenedetto

21 March, 2016 at 7:30 am

Eat more stuff – we need the fuel

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And while we’re at it let’s get goats into the act.

But first, UCLA researchers are studying the use of the human feces as biofuels to power cars. David Wernick, graduate student of UCLA, notes that poop is an untapped resource that only gets flushed in toilets.

In the US, just counting animal manure, more than 1 billion tons of poop are produced yearly. But Wernick and his colleagues are also trying other materials to produce new kinds of biofuels such as sewage waste, plant matter, cellulosic matter and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Gizmodo reported

The UCLA team plans to engineer the bacteria in human waste by breaking down the proteins in excrement and other waste rich in protein such as wastewater algae and byproducts from the fermentation of beer, ethanol and wine. Wernick believes that the re-engineered bacteria, when it uses the protein to produce poo-based biofuels, would result is the vehicle running without a need to adjust its automotive parts.

BBC recently reported that fungi found in goat and sheep stomachs can break down vegetation in a way that may be useful for biofuel production. Most biofuel in the United States comes from crops such as corn, but growing corn takes a lot of land, and using it for biofuels may drive up food prices. So the industry is increasingly looking toward nonfood sources of biomass like grass and wood. In a study published in Science, researchers show that fungi isolated from the feces of goats and sheep can break down wood better than the standard processes in place. Plus, these fungi can change which digestive enzymes they produce in response to what they are eating, making them more flexible than traditional methods.

Renewable energy is all about looking at everything in new ways, including our own poop…oh, and goats.

Update on lithium ion batteries:

Starting on April 1, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will ban shipments of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft due safety concerns. According to Lloyd’s Loading List.com, the decision is “binding on all (191) ICAO Member States and therefore the airlines which operate in those States.”

This is the latest in a national and international efforts to restrict shipments of lithium-ion batteries as cargo. Last month I posted that the Federal Aviation Administration issued a “safety alert” urging U.S. and foreign commercial passenger and cargo airlines to conduct “a safety risk assessment to manage the risks associated with transporting lithium batteries as cargo.” The FAA also issued a guidance to its own inspectors to help them determine whether airlines have adequately assessed the risk of handling and carrying lithium batteries as cargo.

Written by William DiBenedetto

7 March, 2016 at 6:00 am

Safe battery tech prevents “thermal runaway”

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150108-stanford-battery-1-100637348-largeIf it gets too hot, get out of the battery! Researchers at Stanford University have developed a lithium-ion battery that shuts down automatically as it begins to overheat.

Lithium-ion batteries are used in nearly all portable electronics. They’re light, can store a lot of energy and are easily recharged, but they are also susceptible to overheating if damaged. A short circuit in the battery often leads to fire. A recent article in Nature Energy by a team of Stanford researchers reveals a safe battery design that features “a fast and reversible thermoresponsive polymer switching material that can be incorporated inside batteries to prevent thermal runaway.”

The new Stanford battery uses a polyethylene film that has embedded particles of nickel with nanoscale spikes. Researchers coated the spikes with graphene, a conducting material, so that electricity can flow over the surface. When the temperature rises the film expands, and at about 70 degrees Celsius (160 degrees Fahrenheit) the conducting spikes no longer touch each other, breaking the circuit – causing the battery to shut down.

Once the battery shuts down, the runaway thermal reaction is avoided and the battery cools; eventually the nickel spikes are brought back into contact and the electricity flow resumes.

“We can even tune the temperature higher or lower depending on how many particles we put in or what type of polymer materials we choose,” said Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford and a member of the research team.

The Nature Energy article [Nature Energy 1, Article number: 15009 (2016) doi:10.1038/nenergy.2015.9] says: “Batteries with this self-regulating material built in the electrode can rapidly shut down under abnormal conditions such as overheating and shorting, and are able to resume their normal function without performance compromise or detrimental thermal runaway. Our approach offers 103–104 times higher sensitivity to temperature changes than previous switching devices.”

This has the potential of averting the catastrophic fires seen in hoverboards, laptops and aircraft.

The article was written by the researchers Zheng Chen, Po-Chun Hsu, Jeffrey Lopez, Yuzhang Li, John W. F. To, Nan Liu, Chao Wang, Sean C. Andrews, Jia Liu, Yi Cui and Zhenan Bao.

Image: Stanford researchers use a polyethylene film in lithium-ion batteries to shut down the battery if it gets too hot. Credit: Stanford University/IDGNS

Written by William DiBenedetto

9 February, 2016 at 5:30 am

Pope Francis: Care for our common home (4)

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Laudato Si'_cover_ Thomas CizauskasHere’s the next installment of our close read of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on climate change, Laudato Si’.

(Note: emphasis added by me)

Climate as a common good

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. (Para. 23) Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

5 October, 2015 at 6:00 am

A Shell game?

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shell oil vintage sign_Karen BlahaWhen the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell chats up the importance of renewable energy as part of the globe’s future energy mix, one might well be a tad suspicious—after all this is an oil major speaking, right?

Could it be that Ben van Beurden has seen the light, powered by things other than fossil fuels? Is it possible he is thinking about the future in a way that’s perhaps more enlightened than simply rhetorical?

Speaking recently at OPEC‘s 167th meeting in Vienna, van Beurden said traditional energy sources should integrate and work together with clean technologies to provide sustainable and economically-sensible power for the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

13 July, 2015 at 6:30 am

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