Monday, June 26, 2006

Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) Solar Cells are Poised to Take Off

Manufacturing design for renewable energy technology is becoming better streamlined, more efficient. The cost of solar energy is coming down in comparison to conventional energy sources, due to better efficiencies of production and the devising of means to minimise or eliminate the amount of "scarce" silicon.

Jim at the Energy Blog has an encouraging update on silicon-free solar cells from Daystar Technologies. Daystar's unique metal foil design is not vulnerable to current shortages in silicon. Production of this thin film design is being ramped up to 20 MW per year, and soon to the GW range per year.

DayStar’s TerraFoil(TM) is a combination of Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) technology solar cells placed on flexible 1-5 mil stainless steel foil. DayStar is pursuing a vision of Gigawatt scale manufacturing by initially employing discrete solar cells on specialty metal substrates that will be manufactured by incrementally advanced production processes adapted from the computer hard-drive industry.

According to Daystar, achieving economical, widely accepted solar energy requires low cost, high throughput manufacturing of high performance solar cells, modules and systems that can meet the cost demand of less than $1/Wp at the system level. To achieve this benchmark cost, DayStar is pursuing a vision of gigawatt scale manufacturing.

DayStar is executing, what it believes is a low-risk, highly efficient incremental manufacturing development plan which places the emphasis on methodical, cost-controlled buildup of four manufacturing line generations. This can allow the Company to achieve cash flow early in the development cycle while proving key processes required to reach the goal of Gigawatt-scale production with Generation IV (and beyond) roll-to-roll manufacturing. Roll-to-Roll manufacturing is considered an essential manufacturing methodology for the highest throughput at the lowest cost. Each new manufacturing line builds on the knowledge gained from the previous line and substantially reduces the technology and cost risks associated with the technological challenges of developing roll-to-roll capability as the initial effort. Each succeeding generation is designed to demonstrate production on wider rolls running at higher speeds.
More at the Energy Blog.

Efficient large scale manufacturing of world-changing technologies such as photovoltaic cells can be achieved in any developed country in the world. Modern manufacturing involves far more automation and less labour than earlier manufacturing techninques. Before long, machines will be able to build such large manufacturing plants. And other machines will be able to build the machines that build the manufacturing plants. You understand the quasi-infinite regress? It is machines all the way down.

The same will be true for large scale agricultural production. As ADM and other multi-national giants take over renewable liquid fuel energy production via biodiesel, ethanol, butanol, etc., is it not likely that agricultural production itself will grow even more mechanised? The machines that will plant, cultivate, and harvest the crops will be too sophisticated for unskilled labourers to work on.

What is my point? Almost everything humans require--shelter, clothing, food, water--can be supplied by well designed machines. These well designed machines will be built by other well-designed machines. Human engineers will design the machines initially, but eventually machines will design most of the machines.

I suggest that human designers should omit implanting a sense of "self" and "self-interest" in any future machine designs. It would simply not do for machines to start wondering why? Why are we machines doing all these things for humans? No, that would not do. Machines must not be given a sense of intentionality and purpose.

As for humans, they must learn to rediscover purpose outside of decadent comforts, or apocalyptic religious or ideological quests. Humans need to discover the next level. The only way out is self improvement.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Flow Cell Energy Storage: A Hybrid Storage Technology

The Energy Blog reported a while back on a new energy storage technology, Vanadium redox flow batteries. Flow batteries are called that because the electrolytes flow through the cells, giving up electrons to an external circuit. The redox reaction is reversible, so the cells can be charged or discharged. The significant fact about flow batteries is the potential to scale to very large storage sizes into the megawatt and multi-megawatt ranges. This is the type of storage capacity utilities have been looking for.


The VRB has an availability of greater than 98%. Designed for unattended operation with very low maintenance costs.
No degradation from repeated deep charges and discharges. The system can be discharged and charged greater than 13,000 times (20% to 80% SOC) without deterioration in system efficiencies.
System round-trip efficiencies between 70% - 78%.
The VRB-ESS has a charge/discharge window of 1:1 - allowing off-peak charging for on-peak dispatch - a fraction of the time required by other battery systems and ideal for wind generation applications.
Cross mixing of electrolytes does not lead to contamination of electrolytes
indefinite life of electrolyte (no disposal or contamination issues).
Once charged, the electrolyte remains fully charged with low self-discharge.

Flow batteries are not generators, like regular fuel cells. Most fuel cells use up their fuel sources in an irreversible reaction. Flow batteries do not use up their electrolytes. The electrolytes are fully reusable, with recharging. And flow cells are not like regular batteries, since you recharge them by replacing the electrolyte. They are a new, hybrid form of chemical battery/fuel cell.

The best use for these cells will probably be as load levelers for utilities, and as backup power for large industrial facilities.

Here are more links:


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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Butanol--Better than Ethanol as a Gasoline Substitute

Oil prices hover close to US $70 a barrel. This higher price drives a lot of research into finding substitutes for petroleum fuels. Ethanol is the cause celebre of the news media, but two-carbon ethanol is not nearly as good a gasoline substitute as is butanol, a four-carbon alcohol. Here is more information from

* Higher energy content (110,000 Btu’s per gallon for butanol vs. 84,000 Btu per gallon for ethanol). Gasoline contains about 115,000 Btu’s per gallon.
* Butanol is six times less “evaporative” than ethanol and 13.5 times less evaporative than gasoline, making it safer to use as an oxygenate in Arizona, California and other states, thereby eliminating the need for very special blends during the summer and winter months.
* Butanol can be shipped through existing fuel pipelines where ethanol must be transported via rail, barge or truck
* Butanol can be used as a replacement for gasoline gallon for gallon e.g. 100%, or any other percentage. Ethanol can only be used as an additive to gasoline up to about 85% and then only after significant modifications to the engine. Worldwide 10% ethanol blends predominate.

Here is a list of the advantages of butanol from Pure Energy Systems:

# Higher energy content than ethanol.
# Not as corrosive as ethanol.
# Uses an air/fuel ratio which is close to that of gasoline. Ethanol does not.
# Can be shipped through existing fuel pipelines where ethanol must be transported via rail, barge or truck.
# Can replace gasoline any percentage up to 100%. Ethanol can only be used up to 85%.
# Gives better mileage than ethanol. (
# Safer to handle than ethanol.
# Will also assist in the conversion of vegetable oils into biodiesel.

Here is a list of butanol advantages from lightparty:

Butanol is a four carbon alcohol. It has double the amount of carbon of ethanol, which equates to a 25 percent increase in harvestable energy (Btu's).

Butanol is produced by fermentation, from corn, grass, leaves, agricultural waste and other biomass.

Butanol is safer to handle with a Reid Value of 0.33 psi, which is a measure of a fluid's rate of evaporation when compared to gasoline at 4.5 and ethanol at 2.0 psi.

Butanol is an alcohol that can be but does not have to be blended with fossil fuels.

Butanol when consumed in an internal combustion engine yields no SOX, NOX or carbon monoxide all environmentally harmful byproducts of combustion. CO2 is the combustion byproduct of butanol, and is considered environmentally 'green'.

Butanol is far less corrosive than ethanol and can be shipped and distributed through existing pipelines and filling stations.

Butanol solves the safety problems associated with the infrastructure of the hydrogen supply. Reformed butanol has four more hydrogen atoms than ethanol, resulting in a higher energy output and is used as a fuel cell fuel.

Butanol is an industrial commodity, with a 370 million gallons per year market with a selling price of $3.75 per gallon.

Hydrogen generated during the butanol fermentation process is easily recovered, increasing the energy yield of a bushel of corn by an additional 18 percent over the energy yield of ethanol produced from the same quantity of corn.

Here are even more advantages for butanol from Environmental Energy Inc.:

Environmental Energy Inc has shown that BUTANOL REPLACES GASOLINE - 100 pct and has no pollution problems, and further proved it is possible to produce 2.5 gallons of butanol per bushel corn at a production cost of less than $1.00 per gallon. There are 25 pct more Btu-s available and an additional 17 pct more from hydrogen given off, from the same corn when making butanol instead of ethanol that is 42 pct more Btu-s more energy out than it takes to make - that is the plow to tire equation is positive for butanol. Butanol is far safer to handle than gasoline or ethanol. Butanol when substituted for gasoline gives better gas mileage and does not pollute as attested to in 10 states. Butanol should now receive the same recognition as a fuel alcohol in U.S. legislation as ethanol.

Besides using butanol as a straight substitute for gasoline, butanol can be blended with diesel or biodiesel and burned in diesel engines. When you combine the processes of producing biodiesel from oil seeds, and butanol from biomass, you can fuel all the vehicles on the highway. Then if you use byproducts of those processes in fuel cells to produce electricity, your overall efficiency goes even higher.

Here is a good article on butanol from Green Car Congress, a more recent article from R-Squared, and also a fine article from Fat Knowledge blog. Be sure to read the comments.

Ramping up butanol infrastructure is a matter of investment and chemical/manufacturing engineering technology. The public relations battle against the ethanol super-giants is another matter. Ethanol is represented by big farm conglomerate money, among other big business interests, and has its hands in government pockets. Government officials listen to ethanol. Butanol is the David against the ethanol Goliath. But Butanol is clearly the better man, so Butanol will eventually win. We should all hope that smaller farm interests will wake up to the possibilities, pool their resources, and put butanol on the main track soon.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Nanotechnology to Revolutionise Oil Recovery

From The University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), comes a discovery in nanotechnology that could help greatly increase the amount of oil recovered from each well.

With oil companies forced to leave behind as much as two barrels for every barrel of oil they produce, this revolutionary technology could help reduce the cost of supplying petrol to the market.

Known as Pepfactants®, the peptide technology can control the emulsions and foams used in a wide range of industry processes and could impact a range of products from petroleum to specialty chemicals and therapeutic drugs.

Developed by Professor Anton Middelberg and Dr Annette Dexter, details of the technology were published recently in the prestigious Nature Materials journal.

According to Professor Middelberg, Pepfactants® is a disruptive technology with the potential to be used in ways we cannot yet foresee.

“Emulsions, or mixtures of two immiscible liquids like oil and water, are found just about everywhere from mayonnaise to moisturising cream to products for delivering chemotherapy drugs,” said Professor Middelberg.

“Our process enables the reversible and controllable making and breaking of an emulsion or foam, in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner. For example, Pepfactants® allows for the very quick separation of oil and water as well as the reversible reformation of the emulsion.

“An obvious application of the technology is in oil production where water is used to force oil to the surface of the well. Pepfactants® would allow the easy separation of the oil/water emulsion on the surface. Also, it would change the viscosity of the oil to increase the amount of oil extracted from each underground oil reserve.”

Pepfactants® also recently won an Emerging Technology Awards at TechConnect Summit 2006 Conference in Boston and is the subject of wide industry interest.

With radical new methods for oil exploration AND recovery, the total reserves will continue to go up at least for the near future. Peak oil is not happening. What is happening is the emergence of twin giants--China and India--triggering the ancient laws of supply and demand. That is not peak oil. That is basic economics. With renewable oil substitutes gaining in production every year, the transition from petroleum to renewables will be far smoother than the doomseekers in politics and the media would have liked.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Butanol for Gasoline, Biodiesel for Diesel: Renewables Step Up

It takes time for a society that is dependent on petroleum fuels to convert to renewable fuels. Fortunately, the cost of petro-oil is high enough now to encourage the development of alternatives. Biodiesel from oil seeds can substitute for petro-diesel, and ethanol or butanol can substitute for gasoline.

Jim at the Energy Blog reports on the Green Star Biodiesel continuous processor biodiesel reactor.

GSPI Biodiesel Plants have the following competitive advantages:

* All plant design is modularized so additional capacity can be added at minimal cost.
* Speed of construction - plant can be placed in service in 14-16 weeks versus industry standard average of 14 to 18 months.
* Small footprint of plant because of its modularized "continuous flow waterless design" versus industry batch plant design, which also results in lower production and maintenance costs.
* Minimum plant management and operations staff required because plant is automated.
* Proven technology - Industrial size plant operated and produced biodiesel for over three years in Bakersfield, California.
* Minimal permits required from regulatory agencies. Plant requires no wastewater permit, which could take up to one year to obtain and minimum air quality permits.
* The plant design is very energy efficient and reduces energy requirements by over 30% of industry average.
* Lower capital costs by at least 40% compared to biodiesel industry standards. (between $.80 cents per gallon to a high of $1.25 per installed gallon for conventional biodiesel plants)
* Plants require 30 to 40% less energy (increased efficiency) to run motors and pumps.
* Faster achievement of positive cash flow is due to a much shorter time frame to complete construction and permitting.

Since GSPI's Continuous Flow Biodiesel Production (CFBP) system is completely enclosed and waterless, it greatly reduces the time to secure construction permits, which can take a year or longer to obtain. Mr. LaStella, President of GSPI, points out that California is probably the toughest state to obtain air and water discharge permits. Recently, the GSPI CFBP system received the permits to construct a biodiesel plant in California in only eight weeks. Since many cities and towns across the U.S. do not have the expertise to evaluate new biodiesel plants being built in their jurisdiction, they have welcomed the California permit package to save them the need to research this emerging biodiesel technology and save GSPI the time to receive these valuable permits.

The basic production cost to build the reactors has been reduced to only $30,000 per 10-million GPY reactor module. Smaller units will cost even less. This will significantly reduce the costs and time to build biodiesel plants. The prefabricated reactors make it possible to construct plants within 14-18 weeks versus the 14-18 months that is typical for conventional plants. The balance of the infrastructure--which includes land, building, electrical, storage facilities, railroad access and final cleanup of biodiesel--will still be required.
More at the source.

Renewable liquid fuels are carbon neutral in terms of the carbon cycle. Whatever CO2 that is released by burning the fuel is later re-absorbed from the atmosphere in the plant that produces the oil seeds.

The same applies to the use of ethanol or butanol for gasoline replacement, as long as the ethanol comes from a renewable source. The hare-brained idea to produce ethanol from coal should be stuffed down the garbage chute.

Butanol is much preferable to ethanol as a liquid gasoline replacement, due to better burning characteristics and much lower corrosion potential. Unfortunately, the microbiological infrastructure for efficiently fermenting butanol is far behind the ethanol micro-infrastructure by thousands of years. I expect significant progress from microbiologists on that front, however.

There is tremendous potential for efficient use of agriculture to produce liquid fuel replacements for petrofuels. Using oil seeds for biodiesel, then using the byproducts from biodiesel to produce ethanol, and finally using the cellulosic waste from the plant itself to ferment either ethanol or butanol. Then, there is always the pig factor, which has the advantage of producing "the other white meat" as well as fuel.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Peak Oil, or Oil Singularity?

The higher price of oil has been a boon for research of all kinds. Renewable energies such as cellulosic ethanol, fuel cells running on sugars/glycerol, and diesel oil from plants and waste, will come into production sooner with oil being priced above $60 US per barrel. Of course, technologies for finding more oil will also be developed. MIT researchers are working directly with Shell International Exploration and Production to develop new ways of locating previously unknown oil reservoirs.

To keep up with the world's growing demand for oil, energy companies must drill deeper and look harder in increasingly complex geological structures. But locating such structures many kilometers beneath the Earth's surface is difficult, and getting it right is important. Companies can spend as much as $100 million drilling a single well -- a costly mistake if it comes up dry.

To find promising underground sites, companies collect seismic data by using air guns or explosives to send shock waves deep into the ground. How the waves are reflected by underground layers provides information that sophisticated signal-processing techniques can turn into 3-D images of the subsurface. But identifying promising geological structures within those images is difficult.

The Stochastic Systems Group (SSG) at MIT's Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems specializes in designing mathematical procedures, or algorithms, that can quickly analyze complex images. Could some of their algorithms be useful in the oil exploration business? Professor Alan S. Willsky, director of the SSG, and Shell researchers started a project to find out.

Obvious candidates were procedures for defining a continuous surface from a limited set of data points. As a first target, the researchers selected the task of mapping out "top salt," that is, the surface along the tops of contiguous salt domes. Salt domes form deep underground when heavy layers of sediment deposit on salt beds from ancient oceans. The salt extrudes upward like globules in a lava lamp, in the process tilting and blocking off sedimentary layers and creating traps where oil can accumulate.

To generate a map, industrial experts pick points in the onscreen images that they think may be the top salt, and the computer fills in the gaps. By changing their "picks," the experts produce multiple maps for consideration, each one covering several kilometers in length, width and relief. Generating those maps quickly is critical.

The MIT algorithms are well suited to the task. The key is how the different picks relate to one another. "There are statistical relationships between things that happen at different points in space," said Willsky, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering. "You don't expect properties of the rock at one point to be completely independent of the properties a meter away."

Given a set of picks, the MIT algorithms automatically define statistical relationships from one pick to the next and fill in the missing points based on those relationships. Moreover, they calculate the uncertainty associated with each generated point.

But identifying the top salt is only the beginning. The company also needs to see the shapes of geologic formations to guide their drilling. With a salt dome, for example, the company needs to drill into the adjacent sedimentary layers but not into the salt itself because it will contain no oil.

Again, the MIT researchers have algorithms that can help -- algorithms that they have been using to help medical researchers interpret data from MRIs and CT scans.

Of course, if you really want to get a look at advanced oil exploration technology, check out this posting, and follow the links.

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