No Manhattan Project, But Don’t Say No To Breakthrough Innovations

a polar bear and her baby
The polar bears say "keep the innovations coming - it's getting warm out here!" (image by Just Being Myself, CC 2.0 licensed)

While I agree with Joseph Romm on Climate Progress that we can’t count on a “Manhattan Project”-style endeavour to engineer our way out of the climate crisis in the short term, nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to have a certain expectation that technology will improve over the right timescale, so we can be ready to take advantage of it.

A few weeks ago Martin Brown had a great post on his Fairsnape blog on Recession Thoughts and Tips. One of his many excellent suggestions was

Stand in the future and observe the industry in 2016/2019 – climate change will not be ‘put on hold’ during the recession – so do you have a route to zero mapped out?

His suggestions apply, of course, not only in a recession, but also if you want to help make big changes happen. In particular, “Standing in the future” is critical for those who are trying to make changes in response to climate change to visualize how things must be (for us to survive) in 2020 or 2030, because only then can we figure out how to get there.

The key challenge for that kind of thing is thinking big enough! Small example: If you’d asked me twenty years ago, or even ten, if it was every going to be possible to watch video on my phone, I’d have said “No, there’s just not going to be enough bandwidth for that to happen. I don’t ever expect that to be something we can do.” Was I ever wrong! And I consider myself open-minded and an outside the box thinker!

It’s very likely that the technologies and practices that get us out of a climate change disaster aren’t invented yet, or at best are in labs somewhere. Those of us – the rest of us – who need to take those inchoate and early ideas and turn them into market realities need a LOT of imagination to forcefully move the world out of its current ruts.

That’s why I often post news about discoveries coming out of labs, or going into the development process. Daniel Nocera’s [intlink id=”162″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]hydrogen reforming[/intlink], and [intlink id=”181″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]nanotechnology breakthroughs[/intlink], or technologies like or based on them, will be changing our lives in the next 10, 20, or fifty years – whether by mitigating carbon, or helping us store or generate renewable energy, or perhaps in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

If there are particular technologies you are watching, let me know in the comments – I’ve love to hear about them.

DoE Secretary Steven Chu: We Need Nobel-Level Breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

Yesterday the New York Times published an interview (including some of the original audio) with our new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Among other comments, he said that to address the climate emergency, we need “Nobel-level breakthroughs” in several key areas – batteries, biofuels, and solar photovoltaics.” As an illustration, he pointed out:

The photovoltaics we have today, … without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it’s about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting … solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don’t even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere… That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough.”

There’s no arguing with that idea – if solar PV were five times cheaper, no one would need complicated “payback period” models to justify installing it. (Luckily, we do have those models, and so some people are taking the plunge.)

Of course, this is just the story of how technologies advance – it’s very familiar from the rise of semiconductors. A technology needs an ever-expanding “feedstock” of innovations, discoveries, and breakthroughs to grow at an exponential rate. In semiconductors, the history of technologies such as FET, MOS, CMOS, new clean room techniques, different types of lithography, and many other innovations each offered ever decreasing feature size and lower cost. This parade of innovations combined to ensure that just when one technology was reaching its limit of compactness, another newer and more efficient technology would be there to take its place. When the new one ran out of steam the cycle would repeat. (And several of those innovations resulted in Nobels.)

One example of the “old thinking” on PV is the projections about its availability and cost. Many of these projections assume a linear improvement in price/performance. To help save the world, the price/performance of solar electricity and batteries and efficiency and fuel cells must come down faster than the typical, linear projections – just as it did for semiconductors.

Luckily, despite a current dip in investment and research levels due to the economy, this is happening in the solar photovoltaics domain. [intlink id=”210″ type=”post”]New[/intlink] [intlink id=”218″ type=”post”]discoveries[/intlink], new manufacturing methods, and [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]new thinking[/intlink] will continue to drive the price down. With luck, Chu’s support from his bully pulpit in the DoE can accelerate this process.

Hat tip to Watthead for turning me on to this interview.

Fuel Cell Innovation Update

The week I started this blog in August 2008, there were [intlink id=”5″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]three major fuel-cell related discoveries[/intlink] making the rounds in the science magazines. Since then, there have been [intlink id=”7″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]new announcements every week[/intlink] of an [intlink id=”229″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]improved catalyst or membrane or electrolyte[/intlink]. As these discoveries mature into real products and enter the market, the option of using fuel cells for energy storage, both for homes as well as vehicles, will become more and more cost-effective.

Energy storage is potentially a big part of the zero-net energy house picture, and is certainly critical for the hydrogen automobile transition. I thought I’d highlight a few recent discoveries and advances in the world of fuel cells, the “energy storage of the future.”

  • Cheaper Fuel Cells with nanotubes instead of platinum:

    “Fuel cells haven’t been commercialized for larger-scale applications because platinum is too expensive,” says Liming Dai, a materials-engineering professor at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, who led the work. “For electrodes, you need a cheaper material that still has a high performance.”

  • A new catalyst could make ethanol fuel cells practical for portable gadgets

    The new catalyst, developed by researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory, breaks the carbon bonds without high voltages, efficiently releasing enough electrons to produce electrical currents 100 times higher than those produced with other catalysts.

  • A new fuel cell uses a cheap nickel catalyst

    Now researchers in China have developed a fuel cell that uses a new membrane material to operate in alkaline conditions, eliminating the need for an expensive catalyst. The power output of the new prototype, which uses nickel as a catalyst, is still relatively low, but it provides a first demonstration of a potentially much less expensive fuel cell.

  • A novel low-temperature electrolyte could make solid-oxide fuel cells more practical

    Solid-oxide fuel cells are promising for next-generation power plants because they are more efficient than conventional generators, such as steam turbines, and they can use a greater variety of fuels than other fuel cells. They can generate electricity with gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and hydrogen, among other fuels. But the high temperatures required for efficient operation make solid-oxide fuel cells expensive and limit their applications.

Home-generated energy is sustainable, non-polluting, and carbon-free. As the price of energy generation continues to drop, it’s possible to imagine [intlink id=”329″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]the nation’s homes becoming the nation’s power plant[/intlink]. But that can’t happen until we have effective home-based energy storage.

Why I Am Optimistic

GDP per capita vs. 'Economic Energy Efficiency...Image via Wikipedia

The signs are pointing to a critical convergence that, to be honest, is coming just in time. The world’s will is aligning. Climate change, oil prices, pollution, growth, commuting – these and other factors are forming a message in society’s mind that says “things are not good and they must be fixed.” Businesses and governments, at the same time, are realizing that the changes needed to achieve sustainability are not going to be a drag on the economy but can actually be profitable while being good for society as a whole. Of course, the high and rising price of oil has something to do with this as well.

And technology is improving – finally – to the point that our remaining energy needs, after the 50% reduction in energy intensity possible via efficiency, can be cost-effectively replaced by renewables. Scientific and technical announcements just in the last two weeks – factor of 10 reductions in fuel cell and hydrogen splitting catalyst costs; new materials lighter, stronger, and cheaper than carbon fiber; and new ways to collect sunlight and convert it to electrical, thermal, and chemical energy – will, when available commercially, combine with all the other technologies that continue to stream out of labs and corporations, to drive the prices of sustainable energy down, down, and farther down.

So what we’re seeing at this moment in history is a powerful combination – the will to change with the technical ability to make the change, and the understanding that the change is cost-effective and in many cases profitable.

And that’s why I’m optimistic.

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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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More amazing energy storage news

I posted yesterday about three new breakthrough discoveries related to energy storage from the last week, but they keep on coming – here’s another:

Some researchers at Melbourne’s Monash University in Australia have made yet another breakthrough related to making fuel cells more feasible for general purpose use. Their breakthrough is related to a new cathode design, made with a much cheaper material than the typical platinum. The result is an order of magnitude reduction in the materials cost for the fuel cell.

Professor Maria Forsythe and her colleagues used a conducting polymer (a special plastic that conducts electricity) called poly(3,4-ethlenedioxythiphene), or PEDOT for the cathode, instead of platinum. The amount of platinum required for a passenger car fuel cell costs $3500 to $4000, and accounts for the major part of the cost of the fuel cell. Using PEDOT for the cathode reduces the cost to a few hundred dollars.

Forsyth says the cathode could also be used in zinc air batteries, which are under development for storing energy in cars.

The energy game is just getting started

It’s been a great week for energy! In separate announcements, scientists at MIT, a university in Spain, and at an energy startup in Texas made some amazing claims that to me indicate that what we think we know about alternative energy and energy efficiency, we don’t know.

At MIT, Dr. Daniel Nocera announced a new, much lower energy process for separating water into hydrogen and oxygen, using new catalysts developed in his labs. This discovery, if it can be successfully commercialized, represents perhaps the best currently known way to store solar energy for when the sun’s not shining. The idea is that when the sun is shining, electricity generated by solar photovoltaic cells would be used to generate hydrogen, which would then be used later in a fuel cell to generate electricity when it’s needed, such as to drive your electric car, or to heat the water for your shower in the morning.

Using sunlight to split water, storing solar energy in the form of hydrogen, hasn’t been practical because the reaction required too much energy, and suitable catalysts were too expensive or used extremely rare materials. Nocera’s catalyst clears the way for cheap and abundant water-splitting technologies.

In an unrelated story, scientists at Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain announced a new electrolyte for use in solid oxide fuel cells which could significantly improve their practicality. Until now,

the high temperatures required for efficient operation make solid-oxide fuel cells expensive and limit their applications. The low-temperature electrolyte reported by the Spanish researchers could be a “tremendous improvement” for solid-oxide fuel cells, says Eric Wachsman, director of the Florida Institute for Sustainable Energy, at the University of Florida.

Finally, EEStor, a hugely-funded battery startup in Texas announced a major milestone in their efforts to create a new battery technology that “will have more than three times the energy density of the top lithium-ion batteries today and … the ability to recharge in less than five minutes.” There is a lot of skepticism about EEStor’s claims in the scientific community, in part because they have not yet demonstrated their technology to outside reviewers. But if their technology is real, and a number of top-line venture capital firms are betting that it is, the accepted wisdom about batteries will have a sea change. There’s even a car company that’s committed to using the new battery in the near term:

Toronto-based ZENN Motor, an EEStor investor and customer, says that it’s developing an EESU-powered car with a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a 250-mile range. It hopes to launch the vehicle, which the company says will be inexpensive, in the fall of 2009.

Hopefully we’ll be hearing more concrete information soon. Dick Weir, founder and president of EEStor, says they’ll be coming out with more information about their progress and technology on a “more rapid basis.”

That makes three major announcements about energy storage in one week, any one of which, if it’s successfully commercialized, changes the economics and practicality of alternative energy. Given that alternative energy and energy efficiency are already cost-effective and “ready for prime time,” these changes could literally deliver the very low-cost energy that nuclear power advocates promised 50 years ago. But this time it will be truly clean.