Friday, March 28, 2008

Solar Thermal: Not as Sexy as PV, But More Ready for Prime Time Energy Production

Solar thermal is the solar sister with less sex appeal, but more maturity. This sister is ready to start putting out power, and over a longer time span.
The ability to utilize solar thermal technology after the sun sets is made possible by a storage system that is up to 93% efficient, according to Ausra’s executive vice president John O’Donnell.

High efficiency is achieved because solar thermal plants do not need to convert energy to another form in order to store it and do not rely on battery technology. Flat moving recflectors or parabolic mirrors focus solar energy to generate heat. This heat generates steam that turns turbines, thus generating an electric current.

If you want to generate electricity-at, say, 3 am-heat from the sun can be stored for later use. This gives solar thermal technology the ability to not just produce peak power, but also generate base load electricity.

“Adding solar plants that reliably generate until 10 pm displaces the highest cost alternative power,” said John O’Donnell. “That is the first wave of solar thermal plants. The daily and seasonal variation in grid load in the United States matches solar availability.”__CleanTechnica

This built-in advantage of solar thermal should exist for at least the next 10 to 20 years. In 20 years or so, utility-scale electric storage should allow photovoltaics to mature, and begin producing at the levels of her older sister.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Levitating Magnet Fusion Makes Progress at MIT

Using a unique levitating magnet approach, MIT researchers have made progress within the past week at confining plasma with the goal of producing controlled fusion reactions.
Begun in 1998, the Levitated Dipole Experiment, or LDX, uses a unique configuration where its main magnet is suspended, or levitated, by another magnet above. The system began testing in 2004 in a "supported mode" of operation, where the magnet was held in place by a support structure, which causes significant losses to the plasma--a hot, electrically charged gas where the fusion takes place.

LDX achieved fully levitated operation for the first time last November. A second test run was performed on March 21-22 of this year, in which it had an improved measurement capability and included experiments that clarified and illuminated the earlier results. These experiments demonstrate a substantial improvement in plasma confinement--significant progress toward the goal of producing a fusion reaction-- and a journal article on the results is planned. ___MIT__via__NextEnergy

MIT's LDX fusion approach confines plasmas by a more natural and controllable "pulling flux" as opposed to the "pushing flux" being attempted by Tokamak approaches such as ITER.

Novel approaches to fusion such as LDX and other new approaches to fusion described by Brian Westenhaus and Brian Wang, may very well break the tape ahead of much more expensive approaches such as ITER.

Technological breakthroughs in superconducters, nanotech materials, and optical-electronic process controls should allow the materials and infrastructural costs for alternative fusion approaches to drop considerably, over time.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Better, Safer Nuclear Fuel Technologies

Current high oil prices add an exclamation mark to the need for new, reliable energy sources. Converting our automobiles from petrol to electricity will require new high capacity power plants--like nuclear fission reactor plants. It is important to make nuclear power so safe that the public becomes more accepting of the necessary expansion.

Brian Westenhaus at New Energy and Fuel explains some clever modifications of nuclear fuel that will make the fuel both safer for use and disposal--and--much less likely to be used to make nuclear weapons.
The technology is about the coatings that are applied to particles of fuel. Two paths are being followed, one is a cylinder shaped pellet of particles and the other is the pebble or spherical shaped pellet. The choices are made due to the diverging engineering sets that are going to pebbles that are entered into a fuel system and reside until burned through and rods filled with cylindrical pellets in common use today. The paths exist to accommodate the helium-cooled reactor where the helium gas is used to transfer the heat out to the electrical generation plant.

Spherical pellets are planned for use in systems that would meter through the fuel so avoiding a full shutdown to refuel. Cylindrical pellets would be used in rods that would produce larger reactors while still requiring a shutdown to refuel.

The advantages of the research and development of coating technology offers more beyond the increase of burnup percentage. The effects yield that the total fuel used is reduced, the amount needed to produce a given output is reduced and most importantly, the operating temperatures can be raised which brings a dramatic increase in the efficiency, or much more electricity is generated for a given amount of fuel. Nevertheless, the main concern for utility owners and customers is the safety increases as the coatings are stable beyond the reactive temperatures of the active fuel so blanking the “meltdown” or being a rich deposit of fuel that could be made into weapons.___NewEnergy

These technologies appears to offer several advantages in both safety and operational efficiency over current designs of fission fuel.

Brian Wang at NextBigFuture explains that nuclear energy is actually much safer than people believe--even in its worst designs.
Those who talk about PV solar power (millions of roofs) need to consider roof worker safety. About 1000 construction fatalities per year in the US alone. 33% from working at heights.

Falls are the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry. An average of 362 fatal falls occurred each year from 1995 to 1999, with the trend on the increase. 269 deaths (combined falls from ladders and roofs in 2002).___NextBigFuture
As Brian explains at his post, only 50 workers died at Chernobyl, the worst commercial nuclear reactor accident. And of course, no one died at Three Mile Island, the most celebrated nuclear reactor mishap in the western world.

Ambitious planners who wish to see solar panels put on every rooftop, would likely be responsible for the deaths of many thousands of workers from accidental falls. Similar safety problems apply to the use of wind generators--which can be particularly hazardous.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

China Boosts Polysilicon Production

Polysilicon is a popular material for building photovoltaic (PV) panels, but has been in short supply. Consequently, the price of polysilicon has gone up from US $20 per kg to over US $300 per kg in 5 years. Chinese industrialists intend to cash in on the production of this newly valuable commodity. Chinese polysilicon factories are poised to produce double the polysilicon currently being produced around the world. Is there a downside to this Chinese boom in solar energy?
In China, a country buckling with the breakneck pace of its industrial growth,...stories of environmental pollution are not uncommon. But the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It's a green energy company, producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. But the byproduct of polysilicon production -- silicon tetrachloride -- is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards.___WaPo

On the one hand, Chinese suppliers are making an important material in solar energy production more available. On the other hand, these Chinese factories are ignoring common rules of toxic waste disposal, while paying Chinese government officials to look the other way.

Apparently the news media considers this situation remarkable because the pollution is being done in the name of green energy. But honestly, the monstrous pollution spewed into China's air, onto its soil, and into its waters should be reported as important news every day--until something is done to stop it.

False, invented crises such as "climate change catastrophe" take up far too much of the media's (and the public's) attention, while serious and genuine environmental catastrophes go looking for interested parties.

China is poisoning itself in the name of wealth, power, and world clout. It is also poisoning the rest of the world through its pollution, and its poisoned toys, medicines, toiletries, and unsafe parts for critical machines.

How fascinating that the media cannot be bothered, and the public cannot be concerned over that.

Hat tip Earth2Tech

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Energy: Media is Stuck on Stupid

Can you really get energy from garbage? From exhaust gases? From forestry and agricultural biowaste? In all the brouhaha about biofuels taking food out of the mouths of babies, who would have the imagination to take a negative such as garbage and exhaust gases, and turn them into a positive such as useful energy? Only intelligent people, which is why you hear so little about the idea in the mainstream media.

Brian Westenhaus at New Energy and Fuel looks at the "pyrolysis reaction," one of several ways of extracting useful energy from waste.
Modern science is exploring and improving on pyrolysis. Scientists know what temperatures yield what products and how time at temperature can affect the product production. The modern goal is to have no oxidized products and yield products that can be made into other products. What is common is to try to yield pyrolysis oil, a complex mixture of oxygenated hydrocarbons that can be refined into most things that crude oil can also be used to make. The advantage is that modern techniques yield liquid products that are much easier to use, easier to transport and can be made into a wide array of products.

The latest technology is in gaseous pyrolysis. Gaseous pyrolysis has been around for well over 100 years when coal was first treated by pyrolysis to make “coal gas” that was piped around to homes and businesses for lighting lamps before electricity became commonplace. Today the target is “syn-gas” or “syngas” and to achieve the highest yield with the least possible liquid and solid products.

Its not all that simple, pyrolysis is a complex reaction and results can be products out of equilibrium with difficult to predict properties. Nevertheless, technology marches on and the control expertise has good results now in managing the process temperatures, the timing, ambient surroundings, and the “contaminates” of oxygen, water and other gases. A pure or consistent feedstock can yield excellent results. Keep in mind that only a very small fraction of the energy locked in the feedstock is all that’s required to make the necessary heat run the pyrolysis.___NewEnergy

Pyrolysis reactions are the subject of intensive research by those who understand the energy revolution that is coming.

Here is more about energy from garbage, and energy from exhaust gases. Even the US military in Iraq is learning to replace diesel generators with trash fueled generators.

For those who are stuck on stupid the mainstream media's perceptions of biofuels, take a quick peak at the different approaches to biomass energy and energy from garbage. No need to do anything as drastic as to change your mind. Just let some new information in, and allow fermentation to occur.
Image Source

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jet Fuel from Garbage--Using Waste Wisely

Rentech Inc. plans to use garbage from Los Angeles County to produce synthetic bio-fuels. And LA is only the beginning:
Rentech, Inc. (AMEX: RTK), announced today it is expanding its initiative to produce synthetic biofuels from garbage, often referred to as municipal solid waste (MSW). Rentech, having developed, patented and licensed clean-energy technology for over a quarter-century, will pursue projects in large municipalities to convert garbage that otherwise would be buried at landfills into ultra-clean, biodegradable jet fuel, potentially meeting the needs of local airports and communities.

“The Rentech Process can help solve waste management issues by utilizing waste streams such as MSW for the production of synthetic biofuels,” stated Richard Penning, EVP of Commercial Affairs for Rentech. “For example, the County of Los Angeles alone creates close to 42,000 tons of garbage each day, and the City is quickly running out of landfill space to dispose of its waste,” Mr. Penning continued.

The production of biofuels from MSW using the Rentech Process could have a potentially carbon neutral or even carbon negative footprint while extending the life of existing landfills. These fuels are also cleaner burning and more efficient than petroleum-derived fuels. ___BusinessWire

The energy-from-waste industry is gearing up to be a highly competitive area of fuel production in the US.

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US Congress' Stupidity Driving Up Oil Price

Do you think skyrocketing oil prices are due to peak oil? To oil speculators? To hedge fund speculators? Yes, but probably the US Congress is the culprit behind this weeks upward surges. The Energy Independence and Security Act 2007 passed by the US Democratic Party-led Congress is causing many oil analysts concern over whether the law means that the US is barred from using oil from Canada's immense tar sands deposits. The answer to that question may be too expensive to find out. If enough analysts believe the answer to be "no dice for tar sands" then expect oil prices to go well above the current US $110 a barrel psychological ceiling.

But that is not the bad news. The bad news is that idiot-filled legislatures such as the current US Congress are not uncommon around the globe. Every country that takes CO2 hysteria seriously will pay a huge price in the economic and industrial sphere. Governments are not manned by intelligent people who understand the real world. So if governments pass laws based upon unscientific theories such as CAGW, it is their people who will pay with their jobs, their houses, their families, their health, and ultimately their lives--if government caused financial distress pushes society too far.

This is only the beginning.

The US Congress should consider itself duly warned, and should immediately pass legislature that explicitly removes Canadian tar sands from the provisions of the 2007 energy bill. Failure to do so is a shot into the heart of the US economy, and a further boost to oil prices.

But that may be the goal. Economic hardship in a presidential election year is generally blamed on the President, rather than the Congress--which is often more directly responsible for the health of the economy than the President. We will only know the answer to that question if a Democratic Party candidate is elected President in November.

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Print-On PV, Paint-On PV, and Quantum PV

Three different approaches to increasing the use of photovoltaics--print-on PV, paint-on PV, and quantum PV--may provide product designers and architects with novel energy solutions. First, "print-on PV" uses ink-jet printer technology to rapidly print out PV surfaces.
Konarka Technologies, the Massachusetts-based company we first recognized with a 2005 Breakthrough Award for its affordable Power Plastic solar film, said this week that it has successfully manufactured those thin solar cells using an inkjet printer. In addition to decreasing production costs because it relies on existing inkjet technology, the printable Power Plastic cells can be applied to a range of small-scale, highly variable power opportunities, from indoor sensors to small RFID installations. ___PopMech__via__BayouRenaissanceMan
The next new PV manufacturing technology is "PV Paint."
The University of Swansea said it would now begin working with Bangor University, the University of Bath and Imperial College London on the project....Dr Dave Worsley, a reader in the Materials Research Centre at the University's School of Engineering, who led the first phase of research said that the breakthrough could have enormous implications for the way new buildings are powered.

"[Corus' pre-finished steel division] Corus Colours produces around 100 million square metres of steel building cladding a year," he observed. "If this was treated with the photovoltaic material, and assuming a conservative five per cent energy conversion rate, then we could be looking at generating 4,500Gw of electricity through the solar cells annually. That's the equivalent output of roughly 50 wind farms."

It is also hoped that the solar cell material could be applied to steel using existing paint rollers used during steel manufacturing processes. The researchers said they hoped to develop a way of applying layers of solar cells to a flexible steel service at a rate of 30-40m sq per minute, potentially making the process relatively cost effective.___Source
Eventually, every conceivable (non-living) surface could be generating electricity while the sun is shining. As engineers provide more flexible methods of adding PV to virtually any product, it is up to designers to incorporate the technology in such a way as to be unobtrusive, safe, and reliable.

Finally, quantum PV, for getting more of the solar spectrum :
The researchers used four different sizes of quantum dots (between 2.3 and 3.7 nm in diameter) which exhibited absorbent peaks at different wavelengths (between 505 and 580 nm). The group observed a trade-off in performance corresponding with quantum dot size: smaller quantum dots could convert photons to electrons at a faster rate than larger quantum dots, but larger quantum dots absorbed a greater percentage of incoming photons than smaller dots. The 3-nm quantum dots offered the best compromise, but the researchers plan to improve both the conversion and absorption performances in future prototypes.

Besides investigating the quantum dots’ size quantization effect, the researchers also experimented with two different nano architectures – particle films and nanotubes – that act as scaffolds for transporting electrons from the quantum dots to the electrodes. The group found that the hollow 8000-nm-long nanotubes, where both the inner and outer surfaces were accessible to quantum dots, could transport electrons more efficiently than films. ___NextBigFuture
Solar energy is available in quantities too large for humans to use. By incorporating PV into more products and installations, we can use ever more of the plentiful resource. By combining solar thermal, PV, and large scale storage, solar energy will be poised to approach its potential. Only space-based solar is capable of harvesting more solar energy than that combined approach.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Air Force to Build Small Nuclear Reactor

Small nuclear reactors would be convenient power sources for large industrial and military installations--particularly those in Arctic and Antarctic areas, or otherwise isolated locations such as mid-ocean locations. The US Air Force has come to the same conclusion:
According to a recent article in Energy and Environment News, the Air Force is planning to build a 100-225 megawatt nuclear power reactor. It will not only provide affordable, reliable electricity to an Air Force base, which has yet to be chosen, but will also be used as a power source for the local community. This is a departure from the usual news regarding the comeback of nuclear power. These stories generally revolve around plans to build large, 1000-1600 megawatt commercial reactors to increase power supplies to consumers that rely on the current electricity grid (also known as base load capacity expansion).

While such planning certainly signals a new day for nuclear power, it does not necessarily represent the full scope of a true nuclear renaissance. The Air Force’s decision, however, demonstrates a growing recognition that nuclear energy has applications beyond simple base load expansion. And that is an indication that a nuclear renaissance is truly underway.

One of the advantages of nuclear power is its flexibility, which the Air Force has recognized with its decision. These small reactors share many of the advantages of their larger counterparts. They produce massive amounts of power, run on inexpensive uranium, require infrequent refueling, and are environmentally friendly.

Smaller reactors have some unique advantages as well. First, they allow its users to insulate themselves from an increasingly unreliable U.S. power grid. This vulnerability was demonstrated last week when a relatively minor disturbance on the grid caused massive blackouts across Florida. They are also physically smaller so that they can be constructed in more isolated locations. This would obviously be attractive to the armed forces, which relies on a distributed system of sometimes remote installations and bases.

Outside of the military context, these smaller reactors could have a role in providing modern power services to some of the one and a half billion people that remain without access to modern power services throughout the world. This is not to say that every rural African or Asian village should have its very own reactor. It is to say, however, that small reactors could play a role in providing the reliable energy to parts of the world that have been denied such basic services in the past.___Source
I suspect that as small and modular nuclear reactors prove their safety and reliability for the more distributed, off-grid medium scale application, that more uses for them will be found.

The largest danger accompanying increased use of nuclear power is the chance that the fuel will be misused for weapons purposes--either dirty bombs or enriched nuclear weapons. Considering the far greater risks coming down the road from biological and nano-biological weapons, it is vital to place this risk of more widespread nuclear energy in perspective. By all means, keep track of radioactive materials. But be careful of all likely risks, not just one. And always weigh risks against benefits.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Switchgrass Ethanol: 55 Cents a Gallon

The internet is full of frantic hysterics who claim that biofuels will starve the world. But no one eats switchgrass, and switchgrass grows on marginal soils not used for crops. If you can make $0.55 a gallon ethanol from switchgrass, who is being starved?
Following up on a net-energy study published in the January Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) scientists today reports the on-farm economic costs of producing switchgrass for cellulosic ethanol.

In their PNAS energy-analysis paper, the team reported that switchgrass, when used for cellulosic ethanol, yielded over five times more energy than required to produce the fuel. In this month's edition of the journal BioEnergy Research, the team describes their study's second part, which examined the farm-scale production costs of switchgrass.

...On average, switchgrass production costs were $60 per ton. Two farmers with previous experience growing switchgrass were able to limit production costs to $39 a ton. They were among a group of five farmers whose production costs were $50 or less per ton. That's something farmers elsewhere could probably achieve as they, too, gain production experience with switchgrass, the researchers suggest. Based on the $50-per-ton figure, and assuming a conversion efficiency of 80 to 90 gallons per ton, the farmgate production cost of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass would be about $0.55 to $0.62 per gallon.___Source
Even at 62 cents a gallon for switchgrass ethanol, that is fairly economical fuel, for not starving anyone.

Of course, if you want to starve billions of people, that will cost you $10 a gallon or more. Al Gore and his friends will gladly handle the administrative costs.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

US Bio-Energy Funding Picks Up

In the US both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy are beginning to infuse much-needed basic science funding into the bio-energy sector. The grants span a wide range of topics in bio-energy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced that combined, USDA and DOE will invest up to $18.4 million, over three years, for 21 biomass research and development (R&D), and demonstration projects that will contribute to creating the bioeconomy. These projects specifically aim to address critical barriers to making production of biomass based products - electricity, heat, biofuels and bio-based products - more efficient and cost-effective.___Source

The projects range from studies of rapid-growing biomass plants, to cellulosic ethanol systems, to micro-wave pyrolisis and thermo-chemical processing of biomass to combined heat and power (CHP) biomass. Additionally, various industrial processes for non-energy chemical uses of biomass are also being studied.

Frankly, industry itself has taken the lead in cellulosic ethanol production, so the US government should not be financing that sector. But the other projects mentioned at the Biopact article linked above appear to open doors to significant energy and industrial projects in the future.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Sodium Sulfide Batteries: 1 Megawatt Storage

Renewable energy such as wind and solar have been waiting for cheap, reliable utility scale storage for decades. The sun only shines half the day on average, and the wind is apt to stop blowing at any time. Utility-scale electrical storage could provide 24 hour energy from renewables, which would make renewable energy more competitive.
Xcel Energy, (NYSE: XEL)in partnership with the University of Minnesota, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Great Plains Institute, will soon begin testing a one-megawatt sodium-sulfur battery storage system to demonstrate its ability to store wind energy and dispatch it to the electricity grid when needed.

Fully charged, the batteries could power 500 homes for six and one-half hours. Xcel Energy will purchase the batteries from NGK Insulators, Ltd. that will be an integral part of the project. The sodium-sulfur battery is commercially available and versions of this technology are already being used in Japan and in a few US applications, but this is the first U.S. application of the battery as a direct wind energy storage device.

The 50-kilowatt battery modules, 20 in total, will be roughly the size of two semi trailers and weigh approximately 60 tons. They will be able to store about 6.5 megawatt-hours of electricity, with a charge/discharge capacity of one megawatt. When the wind blows, the batteries are charged. When the wind calms down, the batteries can be used to supply energy to the grid as needed. ___EnergyBlog
More information on the sodium sulfide system can be found here.

For truly huge electrical storage, redox flow cells make more sense. Even so, the NaS system can certainly fill an important gap, if they prove both reliable and cheap enough.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Peak Oil: Meet PackersPlus StackFrac

Some oil fields require horizontal wells drilled, to reach the oil. But if the wells are not fractured appropriately, the oil that is there may not come out of the well. The Bakken formation in Saskatchewan and North Dakota is a good example.
Despite mounting successes across the Western Sedimentary Basin as well as the United States, the novel technology didn't make much splash until two years ago. That's when Petrobank began applying it in the Saskatchewan Bakken. Unstimulated, a Bakken horizontal well typically makes 10 to 30 barrels per day, hardly an economic return for an expenditure of $1.2 million. When stimulated using earlier technologies, however, water cuts routinely jumped from near nothing to 70% of total production. StackFrac enabled Petrobank to stimulate oil flow with minimal additional water, which transformed the Bakken into Canada's hottest oil play.

...Three years ago, Schlumberger Limited bought a minority stake (30%) in Packers Plus, forging an alliance that's bearing fruit overseas. StackFrac crews have worked their magic in Saudi Arabia, Mexico, West Africa and elsewhere. The first system installed in China improved the well's gas production by about 2,500%, from 250 mcf per day to more than six mmcf, sparking plans for more to follow. "We are currently active in more than 10 countries," says Themig, "and our personnel roster exceeds 200."___Source__via__Brian_Wang
Across North America, well previously considered exhausted are awaiting the application of new production technologies--to squeeze the remaining oil out of the hole. Likewise, across North America and much of the world, oil and gas deposits too hard and expensive to find via traditional seismic exploration technologies, are waiting to be located by PIP and other advanced exploration technologies.

The game of oil and gas production is far from up. It is vital to improve upon exploration and production of oil and gas, to allow bio-fuels time to develop and scale up to the demand. At the same time, other renewables will be climbing the learning curve, developing better technologies of production and utilisation.

More links, images, and details at NextBigFuture.


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