Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nanotechnology and Power Engineering

Nanotechnology is poised to strongly influence virtually every area of technology and engineering. Electric power engineering is no exception.
discoveries in nanotechnology have led to what many consider the next generation of solar technology: ultra-thin amorphous silicon, organic and inorganic solar cells derived from nanocrystals that convert sunlight into electricity at a fraction of the cost of silicon-based solar cells. They are also more flexible, less brittle and can even be painted onto structures, allowing more possibilities for building integrated architectural design. Greater research investment in these technologies is yielding continually higher sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiencies, bringing them closer to full-scale commercialization.

Fuel cells also benefit from nanotechnology. While the ability to store adequate quantities of hydrogen molecules has remained a serious dilemma in developing the technology for large-scale use, nanotechnology has the potential to put hydrogen storage in the fuel cell directly using nanostructures of carbon, zeolites or stacked clays. Nanoengineered electrodes in the form of cathodes and anodes are currently being manufactured and incorporated in solid oxide and polymer electrode-based fuel cells that provide higher efficiency and performance. Nanotechnology applied to fuel cells enables more efficient and reduced use of precious metals - such as using platinum nanoparticles for high surface area and low volume - along with improved membrane function and durability.

Also see this article, that discusses the exciting quantum level effect called multiple exciton generation (MET), which is being studied in silicon nanocrystals/quantum dots. These crystals can be capable of generating more than one electron per absorbed photon.

Improved storage batteries and supercapacitors will also come from the application of nanotechnology research to electric power.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Generation IV Nuclear--Toward an Environmentally Friendlier Nuclear Fission Reactor

Nuclear energy is a likely alternative to the increased use of coal, as oil supplies begin to plateau over the next few decades. Next generation nuclear fission reactors will not have the massive need for coolant water, and will thus be environmentally friendlier. Their safer designs--when compared to contemporary reactors--should reduce some public concerns about moving toward more nuclear power plants.

The US government energy labs are actively soliciting new reactor designs, in the knowledge that there are few alternatives to nuclear energy over the next half century, if humans are to significantly move away from fossil fuels.
The Energy Department's Idaho National Laboratory is conducting the program that seeks to use cutting-edge technology in building a high temperature reactor capable of producing hydrogen, electricity and/or process heat. Officials said such a nuclear power plant would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by enabling nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels in the petrochemical and transportation industries.

"Proceeding with conceptual design for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant brings the Department of Energy another step closer to developing this advanced new technology," Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon said. "Through this effort, (the department) will foster a public-private partnership to complete this development and spur the commercial scale deployment of advanced clean and safe nuclear energy as quickly as possible."

Read more about next generation fission here, here, and here.

The last link, Energy from Thorium, is particularly thought provoking, because it introduces a reactor concept that will not add to the concern over the propagation and breeding of weapons grade fissionable materials. Thorium does not breed Plutonium.

High temperature reactors that do not use water as the primary coolant should allow the use of nuclear energy in more arid climates, where cooling water is scarce. These designs should also be more useful in mining both oil sands and shale oils in situ.

China has already begun the planning and development process for a rapid expansion of
Chinese nuclear energy capacity. And although recent Japanese earthquakes are causing the Japanese to re-think their commitment to nuclear, for less earthquake-prone areas in the developed world, nuclear is a natural.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Greece Opts for Fuel Cell Submarine

While fuel cell powered submarines cannot stay submerged as long as nuclear submarines, they are able to remain underwater for a respectable 3 weeks before needing to resurface.
The HDW Class 214 submarine has a fuel cell-generated power supply, allowing it to operate entirely on hydrogen. The fuel cell, which produces electrical energy from oxygen and hydrogen, allows the new submarine to cruise under water for up to three weeks without resurfacing. Conventional diesel-electric submarines typically deplete their battery power after a few days cruising under water. In addition, the fuel cell makes no noise and produces no detectable exhaust heat, in turn making the submarine virtually undetectable.

This is the most advanced conventional submarine in the world and the Greek State was the first in the world to order it.

The power system is based upon technology developed by Air Products.
The fueling technology is based on Air Products’ unique cryogenic hydrogen compressors (CHCs), which are used in conventional hydrogen supplies, as well as in bus fueling applications.

“We are paving the way to the future hydrogen economy, by already supplying liquid hydrogen from Central Europe, as far as Ireland, Italy, Spain and Israel. By supplying liquid hydrogen as well as fueling equipment, we are able to offer a complete and safe package to our customers. We are proud to have already supplied hydrogen fueling equipment, as well as liquid hydrogen, to fuel submarines from the German Navy and now the Hellenic Navy, and we hope more will adopt this revolutionary technology soon,” said Ian Williamson, general manager-Future Energy Solutions, Air Products Europe.

It is important for Greece to have a submarine capability for patrolling its many kilometers of coastline. Along with many other countries on the Mediterranean, Greece is under assault from hundreds of thousands of would-be immigrants, many terrorists among them, who seek to flee a life of oppression in muslim countries to the south.


Brazil Going Nuclear

Brazil is best known in the energy world for using sugar cane to produce ethanol for fuel. But Brazil also has the world's largest known uranium reserves. With the passage of time, uranium is becoming more important than petroleum, for many uses.

Latin America is a place of current unrest, largely due to the influence of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Chavez supports the bloody revolutionary movement FARC in Colombia, and is trying to influence the political future of every other country in Latin America--with some success in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Brazil, with its vast mineral resources and large economy, is the main obstacle to Chavez' desire to dominate Latin America. If Chavez cannot bully Brazil through its recent huge purchases in arms from Spain, Russia, China, etc. Hugo will feel compelled to take more forceful measures.

Brazil is feeling the heat from its neighbor to the north. That is why Brazil is converting its attack submarines from closed-cycle fossil fuel to nuclear fuel.
July 15, 2007: Brazil is going to invest half a billion dollars over the next eight years to develop a nuclear power plant for submarines (SSNs, nuclear attack subs). Brazil has two nuclear power plants, and the largest deposits of Uranium on the planet. The submarine power plant would be designed to fit in an French or German submarine. Both of these countries are now building subs with closed cycle power plants, which take up nearly as much space as a nuclear power plant would. But the closed cycle plants still use fossil fuel, and Brazil wants to reduce use of fossil fuels. Thus Brazil would replace its current five conventional subs with four or five nuclear ones. These boats would be used to patrol the sea lanes off Brazil's long Atlantic coast.

For large scale electric power generation, for powering naval vessels at sea for long cruises, for powering large underground or undersea shelters, growing centers, and shelters--nothing is as good as nuclear power. And despite the best efforts of "environmentalist activists," nuclear energy is becoming safer and more reliable at every stage of its cycle.

Brazil understands the threat that Venezuela poses to the future of Latin America. Brazil does not intend to become a "client" of Chavez, nor to allow Hugo to become the regional hegemon.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Better Large Scale Battery Storage

Al Fin is always spouting off about the need for "utility scale energy storage" for load-leveling, and for bringing more renewable energy sources online--such as solar and wind. Al Fin's favourite technology is the redox flow cell, but other storage technologies are making a bid to play this very important role.
Using so-called NaS batteries, utilities could defer for years, and possibly even avoid, construction of new transmission lines, substations and power plants, says analyst Stow Walker of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. They make wind power — wildly popular but frustratingly intermittent — a more reliable resource. And they provide backup power in case of outages, such as the one that hit New York City last week.

Such benefits are critical, because power demand is projected to soar 50% by 2030 and other methods of expanding the power supply are facing growing obstacles. Congress is likely to cap carbon dioxide emissions by traditional power plants to curtail global warming. Meanwhile, communities are fighting plans for thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines needed to zap electricity across regions.

....American Electric Power (AEP), one of the largest U.S. utilities, has been using a 1.2 megawatt NaS battery in Charleston, W.Va., the past year and plans to install one twice the size elsewhere in the state next year. Dozens of utilities are considering the battery, says Dan Mears, a consultant for NGK Insulators, the Japanese company that makes the devices.

"If you've got these batteries distributed in the neighborhood, you have, in a sense, lots of little power plants," Walker says. "The difference between these and diesel generators is these batteries don't need fuel" and don't pollute.

The NaS battery is the most advanced of several energy-storage technologies that utilities are testing. The oldest and most widespread form of energy storage in the USA, pumped hydroelectricity, collects water after it spins a turbine and uses a small amount of electricity to send it back and repeat the process.

Lead-acid batteries — the same kind used in cars — were installed by Southern California Edison in 1988. But the batteries, though inexpensive, typically fill warehouse-size buildings and last about five years. That's because the acid that connects positive and negative electrodes corrodes components.

An NaS battery, by contrast, uses a far more durable porcelain-like material to bridge the electrodes, giving it a life span of about 15 years, Mears says. It also takes up about a fifth of the space. Ford Motor pioneered the battery in the 1960s to power early-model electric cars; NGK and Tokyo Electric refined it for the power grid.

Since the 1990s, Japanese businesses have installed enough NaS batteries to light the equivalent of about 155,000 homes, says Brad Roberts, head of the Electricity Storage Association. In the USA, AEP is using the 30-foot-wide by 15-foot-igh battery to supply 10% of the electricity needs of 2,600 customers in north Charleston, says Ali Nourai, AEP manager of distributed energy. The battery, which cost about $2.5 million, is charged by generators from the grid at night, when demand and prices are low, and discharged during the day when power usage peaks.

....A more intriguing goal is to wring more energy out of the wind farms that are cropping up across the country. Wind typically blows hard at night when power demand is low, producing energy that cannot be used. When demand peaks midday, especially in the summer, wind is often sporadic or absent. NaS batteries could let AEP store wind-generated power at night for daytime use.

Next year, AEP plans to install another NaS battery in West Virginia to provide backup power in case of an outage — the first such application of the technology, Nourai says. The battery would kick in automatically, so customers would see no disruption.

Other utilities are planning or considering the technology. In Long Island, N.Y., a group of utilities plans this summer to install an NaS battery at a bus depot. The battery is charged at night, when power prices are low, and discharged during the day to pump natural gas into tanks to provide fuel for the buses, says Mike Saltzman of the New York Power Authority. That cuts electric costs for the bus company and eases stresses on the grid. Pacific Gas & Electric is leaning toward installing a much larger, 5-megawatt battery by 2009, enough to power about 4,000 homes, says PG&E's Jon Tremayne.

....Meanwhile, other storage devices are gaining traction, too. A group of Iowa municipal utilities plans to use wind turbines to compress air during off-peak hours that will be stored in an underground cavern. The air would be released at peak periods to run turbines and generate power for about 200,000 homes. Another technology, the flywheel, has a massive cylinder that can spin for days after being started by a generator. The cylinder can then activate a turbine to supply electricity for a few seconds or minutes when it's needed, for instance, to head off an interruption to a computer center from a lightning strike.

Homes, businesses, neighborhoods, and larger areas all need energy storage scaled to their needs. This is one of the more important energy issues at present, yet it gets relatively little attention.

Hat tip Fatknowledge blog

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Small Scale Solutions

The image above depicts a Zotloterer Gravitational Vortex that can be used to generate electricity from a small head of water, and at the same time aerate the stream.
The aspect of the power plant reminds a bit of an upside-down snail. The water passes through through a large, straight inlet, then passes tangentially into a round basin, forming a powerful vortex (whirlpool), which finds its outlet at the center bottom of the shallow basin.

The turbine does not work on pressure differential but on the dynamic force of the vortex. Not only does this power plant produce a useful output of electricity, it also aerates the water in a gentle way.

Of course the use of water vortices has been pioneered by another Austrian - Viktor Schauberger, who was also known as the "water wizard". He floated hard-to transport heavy logs from remote regions of the Austrian forests, not accessible at the time by streets, to where they would be milled and processed. The feat was accomplished by carefully regulating the water's temperature and by inducing a rolling, longitudinal vortex motion in the water.

Look at this interesting approach to converting sunlight directly to fuel through artificial photosynthesis.
Natural photosynthesis is a good interim measure, but Brudvig and colleagues decided to design an artificial system to harness sunlight with greater efficiency, he said.

"Our goal is artificial photosynthesis, to move electrons not using chlorophyll," he said.

Brudvig is experimenting with manganese complexes hooked onto nano particles of titanium oxide and suspended in water.

Nano particles are the material of choice because they maximize surface area, essential to a process that depends on light.

Both manganese and titanium are common in Earth’s crust and relatively inexpensive, he said. Earth also has a large supply of water.

The manganese molecule can absorb energy from sunlight and use it to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The plan is for the manganese to split a water molecule into one oxygen atoms, two positively charged hydrogen nuclei and two negatively charged electrons, he said.

These electrons are transported to the titanium oxide, where light boosts them into a higher energy state andconducts them to another reaction surface that create hydrogen, methane, methanol, and other fuels.

"Any fuel has excess electrons. We could transfer the moving electrons to make hydrogen, and then use hydrogen to turn carbon dioxide into methanol," Brudvig said. That is, in chemical symbols, CO2 + 6 e- + 6 H+ ---> (CH3 OH) + H2O.

Excess oxygen from the water would be released to the atmosphere.

Check out these Turkish phase transition tiles for keeping cool in the summer heat.

Or this architectural innovation using solar powered pumps and fans that could save up to 40% of the fossil fuels used to heat and cool the average home.

This Indian plan for generating electricity from plastic waste may help clean up landfills and trash piles.

Finally, this improved approach to radiant floor heating may help bring this energy saving technology to more new homes.

Hat tip keelynet.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

News from the Nuclear Front

As more countries begin ramping up plans for new nuclear power plants, IBM has committed itself to playing a leading advisory role.
Big Blue's Global Center of Excellence for Nuclear Power sits in southern France, near Cadarache, the site of the International Thermonuclear Experimental reactor fusion project.

The center will provide consultation for the design, construction, safety and operations of power plants based on IBM software, hardware and services. The company is eager to vend its expertise to utility companies looking to build new reactors or put older ones back in shape after the EU opened the energy market to all Europeans at the beginning of July. Theoretically, all Europeans are free to get their energy from any company, making a market ripe for competition — and perhaps consulting.

"France possesses world-class expertise in the area of nuclear power," IBM Lead Architect Frederic Bauchot said. "Establishment of the Center enables IBM to utilize not only local IBM talent and experience in nuclear systems design and implementation, but also advanced skills of a leading nuclear power market".

Meanwhile, South Korea will be assisting the Ukraine in construction and management of new nuclear plants. In India, nuclear scientists are designing an advanced Thorium reactor.
The novel Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR) being developed by V. Jagannathan and his team at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai has received global attention after a paper was submitted to the International Conference on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems (ICENES) held June 9-14 in Istanbul.

Power reactors of today mostly use a fissile fuel called uranium-235 (U-235), whose "fission" releases energy and some "spare" neutrons that maintain the chain reaction. But only seven out of 1,000 atoms of naturally occurring uranium are of this type. The rest are "fertile", meaning they cannot fission but can be converted into fissionable plutonium by neutrons released by U-235.

Thorium, which occurs naturally, is another "fertile" element that can be turned by neutrons into U-233, another uranium isotope. U-233 is the only other known fissionable material. It is also called the "third fuel".

Thorium is three times more abundant in the earth's crust than uranium but was never inducted into reactors because - unlike uranium - it has no fissionable atoms to start the chain reaction.

But once the world's uranium runs out, thorium - and the depleted uranium discharged by today's power reactors - could form the "fertile base" for nuclear power generation, the BARC scientists claim in their paper.

Development of alternative fuels for nuclear reactors can not come soon enough, since the market for uranium is threatening to burst through the roof.


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