Shiny Rocks May Be Good For Solar Energy

Fools Gold
Fool's Gold (image by Clearly Ambiguous, CC 2.0 licensed)

Interesting note flying around the blogosphere yesterday (see here, here, and here, amongst many websites featuring the news) about a research project done at Berkeley. It found that, based on material cost and availability, solar photovoltaics made with iron pyrites (aka Fool’s Gold) are more likely to solve our energy crisis than PV made with silicon or CIGS thinfilms. This is due to both the cost of the raw materials and their availability – both crystalline silicon and the CIGS precursors are relatively expensive and relatively rare. Iron pyrite and its precursors are among the most common elements on earth, in contrast.

What we’ve found is that some leading thin films may be difficult to scale as high as global electricity consumption… if our objective is to supply the majority of electricity in this way, we must quickly consider alternative materials that are Earth-abundant, non-toxic and cheap. These are the materials that can get us to our goals more rapidly.

The paper noted that PV cells made with iron pyrite are not as efficient as those made with silicon, but here’s where it gets interesting. I did a Google search yesterday to find out just how efficient those iron pyrite solar cells are – and I can’t find them. There are a handful of papers about iron pyrite solar cells, but none that indicate it’s anywhere near being ready to compete even on the low-efficiency end. (E.g., see here, in a paper from 2000.)

So, that may mean I’m just not any good at searching on Google, and be that as it may. The other side of the coin is that this report lines up with what I’ve [intlink id=”119″ type=”post”]been saying since October[/intlink] – it’s not about the efficiency of the cells, it’s about the [intlink id=”194″ type=”post”]price/performance[/intlink]. We have plenty of surface area on which to put solar cells, even if they aren’t very efficient. What we don’t have is lots of extra money to pay for them – so low-efficiency cells that have a good price performance ratio – $1-2/kw or $0.10-0.30/kwh – are what we’re looking for.

(And of course, we need to be a lot more efficient in our energy usage, and be able to store that good sun power we’ve generated.)

In any case, I’m now looking forward to hearing about iron pyrite-based solar cells – if you know of any post-2000 research on this topic, definitely let me know!

Green Shopping For DIYers

Main Street #6 (Superior Appliances)
Are They Energy Star Certified? (Image by kevindooley, CC 2.0 licensed)

In the national consciousness “green is the new black.” But what if you want to do a little work around the house – paint the kitchen, retrofit with some compact fluorescent lights, build some shelves? How much of a challenge is getting materials and advice for a green DIY or remodeling project? My friend Rich Wingerter decided to find out a few weeks ago, and went on a little shopping trip. He recounts his experience with Green Shopping on his blog The Greens.

“My take is that many green products are within hailing distance of their traditional (let’s say “polluting” cousins). If you can do a remodel with green materials and spend no more than, say, 5% above what you would have spent anyway, then you will probably profit from the results. Are there enough green options comparable in price to reasonably do a green remodel in the Silicon Valley area? To find out, I went shopping. I wanted to find out what kinds of green building materials I could buy and not blow my (theoretical) budget. “

Some highlights:

At Orchard Supply Hardware (a California chain) he asked about sustainable lumber:

I was told that they don’t sell this kind of lumber, and that they didn’t know anything about it. They directed me to the commercial desk, on the theory that maybe they had something for contractors.

At Orchard’s commercial desk he asked about green materials in general:

(Explaining, of course, that I was talking about eco-friendly products, not objects painted green). Blank stare. Crickets.

Rich fared better at Kelly Moore Paints and Lowe’s. Did Kelly-Moore have green products?

Yes, they did, and they didn’t go blank when I asked. … They had an option with a zero-VOC, as well, and gave me pricing so I could compare with the default versions. In addition, they carried Yolo Colorhouse® paints, which are zero-VOC base.

How about Lowe’s?

Joe Roche, a Regional Commercial Sales manager, understood what I was looking for. Joe was good enough to walk through part of the store with me. We went to the lumber section and looked for certified lumber. We didn’t immediately spot any, but Joe said that they often have it even if it’s not marked. He said that they had done a LEED-certified project, and they had to special order the lumber so that it all came stamped.

Rich went on to find some low-e windows and a number of Energy Star appliances at Lowes. In his post he also compares the prices of traditional and green materials, such as the paint at Kelly Moore and some of the Energy Star vs. non-Energy Star appliances.

Rich’s conclusion is:

While companies are trying to market green building materials, and in many cases probably have them in stock, the word hasn’t really filtered down to the sales floor.

Rich’s focus on this blog and on his site Green Making is green building in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is building not only an information base, but also a community site for builders and buyers who want to build green. It’s a great resource for everyone interested in green building and zero net energy homes, especially those of us in the Bay Area. I recommend taking a surf through and putting it on your bookmarks.

Have you had a “green shopping” experience? Have you been able to get good advice on a green DIY project from a local or chain hardware or building supply store? How about bad advice? Please share your stories in the comments – we’d love to hear them!

SD Forum’s Green and Clean Dinner Meeting

The Image via Wikipedia

I attended the SDForum Green and Clean Dinner tonight. The topic was “Where’s the Money?” Five panelists, representing a VC firm, a bank, an angel funding group, a bridge-financing firm, and an entrepreneur who has raised his money independently, discussed the various sources of funding for clean tech companies. i took extensive notes, and will provide more details later, but for now some of the highlights were:

  • Liquidity may be different for clean tech companies than we got used to for high tech companies during the Internet boom
  • Because of the technical risks involved in clean tech, the old venture capital adage of “market first, team second, and product third” often needs to be turned around
  • Especially for power, this is a global market – Europe is at least 15 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of regulations supporting alternative energy and other clean tech
  • There are a lot of entrepreneurs seeking funding – the VC read over 2,400 business plans and funded only 21. The angel investor says one of his biggest problems is “perpetual motion machine” proposals – they have to do a lot of scientific due diligence on the proposals

SDForum’s next Green and Clean event is a breakfast meeting in San Francisco on September 30, focusing on Innovation in Transportation.

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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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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.