Money for Good Ideas

GE has put up $200 million for an innovation experiment they’re calling an “Ecomagination Challenge“.  The hope is that businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and students will share their best ideas on how to build the next-generation power grid.  The best ideas will get start-up demonstration funding.

There are 3 categories for topics:

  1. Renewable energy -  new ways to generate the energy to meet our growing needs. Making the best use of the energy created by renewable resources is critical to a reliable supply of affordable energy.
  2. Grid Efficiencies – GE is looking at different grid technologies that help lower delivery losses and those that anticipate and monitor demand. Reducing losses frees up grid capacity, reduces the need for infrastructure capital expenditure, and protects consumers from steep rate increases. Reducing voltage eliminates the over-delivery of energy, so customers are not paying for unused energy.
  3. EcoHomes/EcoBuildings - smarter building practices and components that reduce energy demands.  GE is already working on a wide range of promising technologies, including smart meters and appliances that let consumers’ appliances “talk” to their power utility; wireless AMI; home area networks; renewable integration tools; demand response systems; home energy use monitoring; time-of-use pricing; plug-in hybrid electric vehicle integration; and neighborhood micro grids.  They’re looking for innovation.

Good ideas are being accepted at the website until Sept 30, 2010.  You will be asked to register, and then write a clear, detailed proposal describing the idea.  You retain intellectual property on the idea (but don’t post confidential information).

Once the idea is posted, the general public will vote on ideas that they consider the most promising smart grid technologies. GE will use those votes to decide which ones make economic sense. In late October, GE will announce those entrants with whom GE intends to pursue commercial relationships. In November, GE will announce any business deals with GE that have been formalized.

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Recharging Battery Technology

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA, have created a new method to increase the conductivity of battery materials, and the method might be compatible with conventional battery-manufacturing techniques.

According to Kevin Bullis at MIT’s Technology Review,

“the researchers found that paraffin wax and oleic acid encourages the growth of platelike nanostructures of lithium-manganese phosphate. These “nanoplates” are small and thin, allowing electrons and ions (atoms or molecules with a positive or negative charge) to move in and out of them easily. This turns the material–which ordinarily doesn’t work as a battery material because of its very poor conductivity–into one that stores large amounts of electricity.”

It’s clear the new batteries will be able to consistently charge at more than 10% more than current maximum load batteries.  And olivine materials last longer.  Because they have a stable atomic structure, they are more durable.   Imagine – as some manufacturers claim – a cell phone-sized battery that would last over 30,000 cycles – almost 50 years of continual use!

This technology holds promise for all electric uses.  Materials that wouldn’t normally work as a battery material because of poor conductivity could be coaxed into storing large amounts of electricity.  Cheaper and more durable batteries for future electric cars.

This is certainly a technology to watch.

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Hydrogen from Fry Oil

Ever been to a fast food restaurant and the fries tasted just a bit like fish or onions?  It’s because they use the same tub to cook everything they fry.  It’s worse if they don’t change the oil occasionally – it will hold those flavors until it’s thrown out.

But what to do with the old oil?  Some restaurants are selling it to biodiesel manufacturing plants.  A cleaner alternative is to convert the oil into hydrogen.

Researchers at the University of Leeds have found an energy-efficient way to make hydrogen out of those used frying oils. More than that, the process of converting it generates some energy beyond the resulting hydrogen gas.  The whole process is  essentially carbon-neutral.

Dr. Valerie Dupont leads the project.  Her team uses compressed air (like in an auto workshop) and shoots it at a 650 degree nickel catalyst to form nickel oxide.  That raises the temperature to 850 degrees. The used oil then reacts with the hot nickel oxide to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Next, they added an absorbing material to remove any residual carbon dioxide, leaving pure hydrogen, which is stored until it is used. (Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel whose only byproduct is water.)

Dr Dupont’s team has been able to do this in a small lab, but believes it’s fully scalable and repeatable outside a lab environment.  They envision a day when the process can be run semi-automatically at regional service stations, so that hydrogen-powered vehicles could be refueled in their neighborhoods, instead of making a trip to an industrial park.

For more info, visit the college’s website.

The researchers have shown that the two-stage process works well in a small, test reactor. They now want to scale-up the trials and make larger volumes of hydrogen gas over longer periods of time.

“The beauty of this technology is that it can be operated at any scale. It is just as suitable for use at a filling station as at a small power plant,” Dr. Dupont said.

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Flexible Solar Panels

On Monday (Jul 12) SoloPower announced new line of flexible thin-film solar panels.  Made from a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium (CIGS), these are made to be easily installed on existing commercial rooftops.

SoloPower's high-efficiency flexible thin-film solar panels are lighter and easier to install in commercial or industrial applications.

The company makes  the panels using a roll-to-roll electroplating process,  to be lighter than glass-encased panels.   These thin film solar cells utilize only a 1–4 µm thick layer of semiconducting material to produce electricity, instead of the traditional rigid multi-crystalline silicon wafers that are typically 150 µm thick.

The CIGS process is also more efficient.  SoloPower says they have achieved 19.9%, which is significantly better than most other solar generating systems.  It is also better than tests concluded earlier this year by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of  aperture conversion efficiencies of 11% – itself an improvement.

These low-cost, high-power, flexible thin-film photovoltaic modules from SoloPower offer a viable alternative to electricity produced from hydrocarbon sources.

additional material from and

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Printing on Aluminum Boosts Solar Efficiencies

Nanosolar, a San Jose (CA) energy company, has opened an automated facility for manufacturing an innovative new process for cheaper solar panels.  The solar panels are made by printing a semiconductor material called CIGS on aluminum foil.

Nanosolar located the factory in Luckenwalde near Berlin, Germany, in part because German government incentives for the purchase of solar cells has created a large market for solar panels.  The panel factory is automated to sustain a production rate of one panel every ten seconds, or an annual capacity of 640MW when operated 24×7.

It’s not that the cells are that much more efficient than others.  On average, the company’s solar panels convert just 11 percent of that energy into electricity, about the same as most good quality cells, and a little less than high-end cells, which have demonstrated up to 16% efficiency.

What makes Nanosolar’s technology unique is the producability improvements of the panels, and the transmission increases in the panels.  By using large aluminum-foil sheets to collect electrons from each panel, Nanosolar decreases the amount of wiring per panel and has increases the current its panels can generate, up to 160 watts each, compared to 70 watts for standard panels.

But what matters most to consumers is that making panels this way eases installation and lowers production and operations cost.  Based on DoE’s life cycle amortized cost methods,  using these in sunny locations could produce electricity at less than six cents per kilowatt hour (compared to 12 cents for conventional panels), almost as low as coal-fired generation plants.

Nanosolar started in a small laboratory in 2002.  It strives to be a “green” company both in its products and its practices.  It also strives to maintain a  small company feel.  For example, “almost everyone eats lunch in the office café, sitting at whatever table has an opening and enjoying conversations with Nanosolar people from all different departments, executives and operators alike.”

sources: Technology Review, NanoSolar website

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Concentrated Solar Shines Bright

Concentrating the sun’s rays on a smaller spot is a great approach to boosting efficiency of solar power.  It’s a half-step toward making solar economically viable.

Traditional solar thermal systems use highly concentrated sunlight to create steam that drives electric turbines.  Trouble is, that way takes massive amounts of water to create steam, but abundant clean water is coming to be one of the scarcest commodities in the world.  And taking water from fish and wildlife habitats puts you sideways from environmental regulators.

What Amonix (a California-based startup) has done is to combine Fresnel lenses, a tracking system, and solar cells for large, highly efficient solar-power installations.

Step one is the lens. I know about Fresnel lenses from theater. It takes a small light source (a bulb) and spreads it out to provide wide coverage of an area on stage. Amonix turned it around, to take a wide coverage of sunlight and concentrate it on a small solar collector. These thin, plastic Fresnel lenses, measuring about 350 square centimeters, focus sunlight down to a 0.7 square centimeters spot. That concentrates the sunlight to 500 times its normal intensity.

That concentrated sunlight hits an ultra-efficient multi-junction solar cell made by Spectrolab, the most efficient in the world. They’ve shown 41% efficiency in the lab, and Amonix is able to get 39% in field tests.

These cells are set in an array that’s 23.5 meters by 15 meters, 165 co-joined panels worth. Then Amonix uses a tracking system that keeps the lenses pointed to within .8 degrees of the angle of the sun all day long.

That’s a lot of miracles happening all at once. And we’re worried about the long-term viability of plastic lenses exposed to that much UV radiation. But at least it holds promise for the future.


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Supercritical Injector Doubles Efficiency

Transonic Combustion company has a new injector that can double efficiency, improved energy efficiency and lower CO2 emissions using conventional fuels like gasoline.  In the lab, they have achieved 64mpg in a non-hybrid Prius-class vehicle (3400  pounds)

This innovative fuel injection systems uses “supercritical” fuel injection, where the fuel is modified with a catalyst for  ultra-high efficiency and lower emission levels.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s  Transportation Research Board, gasoline engines only use 15% of their energy for propulsion of the vehicle.  30% is waste heat out the radiator and another 30% goes out with the exhaust.

Transonic’s precision controlled fuel injection systems produce lean air-to-fuel ratios that minimize many of thermal efficiency losses from today’s engine technology.  This is done by changing the physical properties of hte gasoline into a supercritical state.

For non0chemists, the critical point is the intersection of liquid and gasseous state of a substance.  Above that – the supercritical area – the substance mixes very easily while remaining compositionally dense.  What Transonic has been able to do is push the gasoline into that supercritical area, mix it with oxygen and inject the mix into the chamber with no liquid droplets to lower the burning temperature.

In laboratory tests on modern engine architectures, this technology has successfully run on gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, heptane, ethanol, and vegetable oil, all in the same engine.

The company expects cost-parity with current high-end injection systems.  They are already working with 3 auto companies for conversion of their existing engines, with a target introduction to the commercial market in 2014

for more information:

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Dense Packing Increases Efficiency for Wind

While it’s generally understood that horizontal wind turbines are more efficient than vertical blade turbines, the effect of the blade catching the air tends to slow that air down, meaning each turbine needs a significant separation from one another to reach that efficiency.

Students at Caltech were looking for ways to improve wind turbine efficiencies, and have found a way to increase the power efficiency per foot of land area by studying the way fish swim. 

When in a school, fish swim in an offset pattern that creates what’s called a Kármán vortex street.  In fluid dynamics, a Kármán vortex street is a repeating pattern of swirling vorticies (whirlpools) that are formed when a fluid (which could include water or air) passes over objects.  Under the right conditions, the separation and recombining of the fluid is what causes the effect.

When air passes around an object – especially circular cylinders, like power plant cooling towers, it tends to move to one side, which creates a low pressure on the other side, pulling the air back in a wave pattern.  These eddies are shed continuously from each side of the body, forming rows of vortices in its wake.  The further it gets from the object, the smaller the oscillation, and eventually the regular pattern disappears.  But in the first few feet past the object, it can cause havoc.  It’s especially troubling when the object is moving through a relatively slower fluid (like an airplane flying through the air).

This effect also has positive effects. Their interaction helps keep schools of fish synchronised and reduces the total propulsive power needed per fish. A similar effect reduces the fuel consumption of vehicles travelling in a platoon.

What the students did was arrange the turbines in a way to catch the vortices.  that drove them to vertical blades, since the eddies would dissipate in a traditional horizontal blade wind farm.  But by installing vertical turbines in a Kármán vortex street, the turbulance from one helped power the next.  And because they were closer together, more of them could be mounted on smaller patches of real estate, and support structures could be combined for more efficient transmission.

According to the researchers, “these configurations significantly reduced the land use for vertical axis wind turbine wind farms, resulting in array power density increases of over one order of magnitude compared to operational horizontal axis wind turbine wind farms”

Patents have been filed.



Note: the comment to the article mentioned  a Russian company, ‘SRC Vertical’, whose wind turbines are marketed in the USA by a company called ‘Wind-sail’, that was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to build VAWT’s, has built VAWT’s with an efficiency of 38%, which is up there with the best HAWT’s, and they reckon they can increase the efficiency up to 45%.

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Bill Gross is CEO of eSolar, and thinks he’s finally found a way to use the power of the sun to generate massive amounts of energy.  He calls it a “disruptive revolution” in carbon-free energy.

Rather than using direct solar to electric conversion, which remains a technical challenge to do efficiently, Gross wants to use a “field of tabletop-sized glass panels” to reflect solar rays on liquid-filled towers.  The heat creates steam to drive a traditional turbine.

The system incorporates video cameras, a bank of Dell servers and complex software to monitor and move the mirrors to track the sun’s position.

Gross claims his power will cost around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. That would make it less than wind power.    But then, Gross has been called a”serial entrepreneur” -  he’s launched more than 30 tech companies.  He’s also founder of startup incubator Idealab, based in Pasadena, CA.

I hope it works.

Sources:  Technology Review/Solar Thermal Heats Up, by Evan I. Schwartz and eSolar website.

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Fusion Power Experiment Readied

The $14 billion ITER project in France is hoping to demonstrate fusion – in 2014.  But researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA hope to achieve that goal much earlier, hopefully before the end of 2009.

In a sprawling building covering the area of three football fields, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is taking shape.  The LLNL approach will use 192 powerful lasers to heat a 2 millimeter hydrogen pellet to a temperature of 100 million °C and a density 100 times that of lead–enough to start a fusion reaction.  The planned experiment will only fire the lasers for less than 20 nanoseconds, but the hopes are that will be enough to fuse the hydrogen into helium, with a release of releasing neutrons and x-rays.

If it all works, the lasers will deliver a pulse of power 500 times greater than the peak electricity-generating capacity of the United States. The pulse will ignite the thermonuclear explosion–essentially creating a tiny star.

The resulting chain reaction should continue to burn until the hydrogen fuel runs out, and demonstrate the way forward for a lasting supply of energy.  That is, if the system can be made more efficient.  While the fusion energy is more than the power of laser energy, it will take 10 times more power to generate the reaction than it will give off.

“Even if NIF is as successful as hoped, they’ll still be a very long way from being in a position to turn this into a practical energy source,” says Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.  But it will, as he says, be “an incredibly impressive technological achievement.”

source:  Technology Review/Igniting Fusion, by Kevin Bullis

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