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.)
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.
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.
#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
#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.
#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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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").
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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."
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.
leads the nation in the number of advanced biofuel production
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
In terms of
research and product innovations, California is a world leader by a
remarkable margin, said Doug Henton, chief executive of Collaborative
are a good measure of where the innovation is coming from,"
California saw a
26% increase in patent registrations in 2011 from 2010, Henton said.
companies obtained 913 clean-tech patents in that period,"
Henton said. "The next best state, New York, obtained 427
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
though it could take well over a decade for investors to get a
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."
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.