Expanding Options In Solar Energy and Electric Cars

Mission Peak (L), Mount Allison (C) and Monume...
Mission Peak in Fremont, CA. Image via Wikipedia

A roundup of a few stories that came out this week that I found particularly interesting.

  • Solyndra, a startup in Fremont, CA (just down the street from my office), is using a new form factor for thin film solar cells:

    Unlike conventional solar panels, which are made of flat solar cells, the new panels comprise rows of cylindrical solar cells made of a thin film of semiconductor material. The material is made of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. To make the cells, the company deposits the semiconductor material on a glass tube. That’s then encapsulated within another glass tube with electrical connections that resemble those on fluorescent lightbulbs. The new shape allows the system to absorb more light over the course of a day than conventional solar panels do, and therefore generate more power.

    Not only do they not need trackers, but because they are mounted with space between each tube, they aren’t susceptible to wind and they can collect light reflected off the building’s roof and ambient light coming in obliquely.

    What I like about this story is that it shows that there’s still a lot more innovation to be done in all areas of alternative energy design – yesterday I saw another report about a new fuel cell membrane made of a cheap material instead of platinum, and there’s practically a new wind energy device every week. They’re not all going to be winners, but it’s the kind of design ferment that’s going to lead to big cost and practicality improvements in every area.

  • The EPA provides an interactive analysis (using Google Earth) of marginal and contaminated land that could be used for renewable energy farms – wind and/or solar:

    According to the EPA, many lands tracked by the agency, such as large Superfund sites, and mining sites offer thousands of acres of land, and may be situated in areas where the presence of wind and solar structures are less likely to be met with aesthetic, and therefore political, opposition.

    One stumbling block for a massive transition to solar power in the U.S. has been the land use question. I’m not saying we want to build our power on contaminated lands, but it’s interesting to see this as an option.

    Via CleanTechnica.com

  • Renault commits to electric vehicles. Saying that:

    “EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers”

    Renault unveiled two zero-emission concept cars at the Paris autoshow Mondiale de l’Automobile, both of which are pure electric. The cars have a range of 160-200 kilometers (95-120 miles) and are designed for day-to-day use and short weekend trips, “not vacations” as Renault admits.

    Renault is committing to EVs because they believe that’s the only they’ll be able to deliver the gasoline economy and emissions reductions being demanded by both the market and governments.

These stories caught my eye as not just “more of the same” this week. What green energy stories got your interest up recently?

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Carbon Fiber May Not Be Necessary

Inlay with nacre tesserae; Bagdad pavilion; th...Image via Wikipedia

Looked at one way, carbon fiber composites are just our simplistic human analog of natural nano-featured composites like those that make up mussel and abalone shells. Mollusks use a “digital” process for creating their shells – a digital process controlled by a computer running DNA as its code. What if we could make composites like those little molluscs – stronger and more resilient than some random fibers jammed into some plastic?

Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, following on work done at Michigan and MIT, have created a new bio-inspired material that combines the strength of ceramics with the stretchiness of polymers. Consisting of ceramic platelets in a polymer matrix, like bricks in mortar, the material is both light and strong – approximately four times as strong as steel.

In designing the material, the researchers carefully studied the mechanical structure of nacre, the shiny layer on the inside of seashells, and tried to improve it. Nacre has platelets made of calcium carbonate arranged in layers inside a protein-based polymer. “There’s something very special about the size of these platelets,” Studart says. “Nacre uses specific platelet length and thickness to achieve the high strength and [stretchability] that you see in metals.”

This type of biomimicry is the next major frontier of materials science. Sea shell, or nacre, has long been a target for researchers in the emerging field of biomimetics – literally “copying life” – along with artificial photosynthesis for gathering sunlight as energy, multiple other materials such as spider silk, and a whole host of behaviors and capabilities that the natural world has evolved over hundreds of millions, or even billions, of years.

The combination of nature’s techniques, such as creating nacre with a digital process, and Man’s inventiveness is ushering an era of materials with amazing properties – just in time to address some of the most significant problems we’re facing, including global climate change and sustainable energy.

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Carbon Mitigation Through Carbon Fiber?

A cloth of woven carbon filamentsImage via Wikipedia

Here’s an idea – let’s just suck the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon fiber to build superlight cars! These superlight cars would significantly reduce our demand for gasoline in the short term, and enable a right-sized hydrogen-based transportation fuel economy in the long term! Sounds great, right? But it’s a pipe dream right now – today carbon fiber is made from PolyAcryloNitrile (PAN), which is made from petroleum, and it’s an expensive and time-consuming process to make the fiber, and to make automobile parts from it.

Let’s quickly tot up the pros and cons of carbon fiber as part of a profitable solution to the world’s energy problems:

Pros:

  • Enables superlight cars, which require much smaller (therefore relatively less expensive as well as more efficient) engines to provide equivalent performance to current cars
  • Huge safety advantages, due to a) vehicles having less kinetic energy due to lower weight and b) structures can be incredibly strong and or selectively weak to protect passengers and provide crumple zones
  • Can significantly reduce the number of parts per vehicle
  • Can significantly reduce assembly time per vehicle

Cons:

  • 2-10 times more expensive per part than steel
  • Carbon fiber production significantly lower than necessary for application to even a fraction of new vehicles
  • Cycle times for parts are typically in hours, rather than minutes as for steel parts
  • Design expertise is limited
  • Process for making fibers is environmentally unfriendly
  • Fabrication techniques have a large amount of fiber waste, compounding the cost disadvantage

Despite the advantages of carbon fiber, the disadvantages seem so overwhelming that many analysts have discounted it as a near term option. For example, the recent MIT report “On The Road In 2035” asserts:

“Polymer composites [that is, carbon fiber reinforced composites, ed.] are also expected to replace some steel in the vehicle, but to a smaller degree given high cost inhibitions.”

So, the future for carbon fiber is not looking rosy. But… There is some hope on the horizon. The companies, organizations, and research labs that break the code can look forward to significant returns, so the investment in addressing carbon fiber’s disadvantages is large and growing. Several startups are promising significant improvements in cost and cycle time, while multiple labs are addressing the questions of feedstock, environmental impact, cycle time, and efficiency. Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute already argues that the time is now to initiate the transition to composite cars, with his Hypercar.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the following topics on the work of improving carbon fiber composites.

  • Reducing the cost
  • Improving cycle time
  • Reducing waste
  • Using environmentally friendly processes for feedstock generation, fiber creation, and fabrication
  • Other alternatives for strong, lightweight composites, including new biomemetic materials
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