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Antineutrino Detectors Could Be Key to Monitoring Iran's Nuclear Program

President Obama has made it clear in a statement that the Iran nuclear deal signed yesterday was “built on verification.” Technology built to detect an elusive subatomic particle called the antineutrino could help.

The International Atomic Energy Agency wants a reactor-monitoring tool that is portable, safe, inexpensive, and remotely controllable. Antineutrino detectors, which give a peek into how much uranium and plutonium are in a reactor core, promise all of that.

The technology, which has been in the works since the early 2000s, has improved tremendously in the past five years, and it is now almost ready for practical use, says Patrick Huber, a physics professor at the Center of Neutrino Physics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “Less than two years from now, you should have at least one maybe several types of antineutrino detector technologies that would work as nuclear safeguard detectors.”

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New Study Finds Feedback Loop Between Air Travel and Climate Change

Airplanes emit greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Now, a study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that air travel and climate change could actually be coupled in a loop. Changing wind patterns due to a warming climate could lengthen certain flight times, resulting in long-haul flights burning even more fuel and emitting yet more greenhouse gases.

Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution wanted to see how flying times between Hawaii and the western US coast were affected by jet-altitude winds. From a Department of Transportation public database, they got departure and arrival times for every single flight going back and forth between Honolulu and Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle for the past 20 years. That was a total of 250,000 flights operated by four major airlines.

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Wind Turbines Power Liquid-Air Energy Storage

One startup energy company is looking to reinvent not only wind energy, but also energy storage.

Keuka Energy recently launched a 125-kilowatt prototype vessel that uses its novel floating wind turbine design paired with liquid-air energy storage to create a steady source of electricity.

Unlike traditional wind turbines, which have three blades and a central gearbox, Keuka’s turbine is a pinwheel of aluminum blades that sits atop a floating V-shape platform containing liquid air.

The Florida-based company claims that its wind turbine design allows for larger turbines that could produce far more electricity. The world’s largest single offshore wind turbine is currently about 6 megawatts; Keuka says its full-size turbines could produce at least double that amount.

Liquid-air energy storage, also sometimes called cryogenic energy storage, is a long-term energy storage method: electricity liquefies air to nearly -200°C and then stores it at low pressure. When the energy is needed, the liquid air is pumped to a high level of pressure and heated to a gas state. The gas then drives a turbine.

Although it is an attractive energy-storage technology because of its long duration, liquid-air energy storage requires a significant amount of electricity to make the liquid air, limiting its usage by utilities. Keuka claims that because its design substantially reduced the cost by supplying the power directly from the turbines to the liquefaction equipment.

The company also says its wind turbine design is more cost effective, thanks to elimination of the gear box and the use of light-weight aluminum blades that cost less than 10 percent the price of traditional composite blades. Even if the technology is effective and can come in at lower costs, Keuka will likely face a long road to acceptance by the notoriously risk averse utility industry.

Keuka is not the only startup looking to advance liquid-air energy storage. In 2014, General Electric signed an exclusive global licensing deal with Highview Power Storage, a U.K. startup that makes utility-scale liquid-air energy storage systems.

Another similar technology that has gained more traction is compressed-air energy storage, which does not have the energy density of liquid air, but so far has proven more cost effective. Compressed air, while a cheap form of energy storage once built, is still expensive to build and geographically limited; underground caverns are needed to store the air.

Other startups are also looking offshore for cheap energy storage. Bright Energy is developing a system that would use offshore renewable energy to store compressed air in vessels in the ocean. Canadian startup Hydrostor also has a design to store compressed air underwater. 

If Keuka’s 125-kilowatt prototype is successful, it plans to launch a larger 25 MW demonstration project in early 2017.

DOE Launches New Grid-Connected Wave Power Project in Hawaii

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has launched a new wave power device to bring renewable power to the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

Northwest Energy Innovation has developed a float that is attached to a hull under the water. The device captures both the vertical and horizontal motion of the wave, and the energy that is captured is the result of the relative rotation between the hull and the float. The energy is then transferred via a cable to land.

The device, named Azura, will be installed at the U.S. Navy’s Wave Energy Test Site in Kaneohe Bay. It will be independently tested by the University of Hawaii.

The 20-kilowatt demonstration project will run for one year. It is the first time a grid-connected, wave energy device has been deployed and independently tested for that period of time in the United States, according to the DOE.

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Chemical Battery Can Recharge Itself With Light

Batteries, by definition, convert chemical energy into electricity. Once you’ve sucked them dry, you have to reverse the process to convert electricity into chemical energy, and for that, you need a source of electricity. It’s not like it’s hard to do this, but it is certainly a minor annoyance that could do with a fix.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, India, have skipped the annoying step by developing a battery that charges directly from light. We’re not talking about a battery with a solar panel on it: it’s a “photo battery” where the anode itself is made of titanium nitride and ambient light.   

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Doping Lithium-ion Batteries to Make Them Safer

Fires resulting from the catastrophic failure of lithium-ion batteries could be prevented with chemical additives, say researchers at Stanford University.

When lithium-ion batteries overheat, they can burn through internal pockets, burst into flames, and even explode. One reason such damage can occur is the formation of dendrites—finger-like deposits of lithium that can grow long enough to pierce the barrier between a lithium-ion battery's halves and cause it to short out.

Dendrites form when a battery electrode degrades and metal ions deposit onto the electrode's surface. Previously, scientists at Stanford developed a lithium-ion battery that can detect when dendrites start to puncture the barrier between its halves and warn that it needs to be replaced.

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Photo: UCSD

Project Will Make Clothes Cool So You Don't Need the AC

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego are developing a smart fabric capable of helping the wearer maintain a comfortable body temperature. The aim: reducing the need for building-level air conditioning.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, five percent of all the electricity produced in the United States is used by air conditioners. This isn't just reflected in billions of dollars, but also in hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide released into the air each year. The U.S. isn't alone. In India for example, the total power consumption for air-conditioning is projected to climb by an order of magnitude over the coming decade.

Although developing more power-efficient air conditioners and building greener homes and offices can help cut energy costs and reduce pollution, finding ways to live and work without air conditioners might prove to have an even larger impact in the long run.

The achieve this ambitious goal, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) has been financing several initiatives including one called ATTACH (Adaptive Textiles Technology with Active Cooling and Heating).

The goal of this three-year project, led by UC San Diego nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang, is to create personal, wearable heating and cooling technology for office occupants in order to reduce the energy consumption of a building's HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system. Unlike other advanced fabric technologies, which are designed to work outdoors (in either very cold climates or a very warm ones), ATTACH is designed for indoor use at temperatures ranging from 19 °C to 26 °C. Garments using the technology can help reduce and in some cases even eliminate the need for HVAC.

According to ATTACH team member Renkun Chen, "The project's goal is to achieve a comfortable skin temperature of 93 degrees [Fahrenheit]." The technology under development is based on adaptive textiles that will automatically increase or decrease their insulation value (porosity and thickness) when the ambient temperature decreases or increases, respectively. That part of the mechanism would be purely passive, consuming no power. In addition to that, the team plans to add integrated heating and cooling elements, using printed thermoelectric devices and batteries.

According to Wang, his team is looking at different innovative ways of powering the active components. Among these are a flexible biofuel cell (already demonstrated by Wang's team in previous research) that uses sweat as a fuel source, and printable, flexible low-cost batteries.

ATTACH is still in the early stages of development, with different teams working on individual components. If all goes according to plan, these components will be integrated into a single wearable fabric prototype in three years time.​

Evaporation Can Drive Engines and Generate Electricity

Evaporating water can generate electricity, a clean renewable energy source that could help power robots, sensors, and vehicles, researchers say.

Biology regularly uses evaporation as a source of energy. For instance, redwood trees rely on evaporation to pull water from the ground to their crowns. Now scientists at Columbia University and their colleagues have developed two new engines that generate power from evaporation.

The researchers previously found that when bacterial spores expand and shrink with changing humidity, they can push and pull other objects very forcefully, packing more energy gram for gram than many other materials.

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Photo of bird on electric wire

The Forgotten History of How Bird Poop Cripples Power Lines

Bird poop once crippled the most wide-ranging power grid in the world, a new historical study reveals.

In 1913, two 386-kilometer-long electric lines, the longest in the world at the time, began carrying power from the Big Creek hydroelectric dams in the Sierra Nevada mountains southward to customers in Los Angeles. In 1923, the lines were upgraded to carry 220,000 volts, making them among the world's highest voltage lines at the time and pushing the limits of what was thought to be possible with the technology of the day.

However, unexplained short circuits that cropped up in the months after the expensive upgrade threatened to turn this marvel of engineering into a failure. The rate of disruptive flashovers—arcs of electric current that sometimes leapt from the wires to the steel towers and into the earth—jumped dramatically, leading to power interruptions seconds to minutes long every two or three days on average.

Engineers at power company Southern California Edison proposed a variety of causes for this mysterious problem, including lightning storms, moisture on spider webs, and "rivers of ions" in the air, but none could fully solve the puzzle. After a few desperate months of investigation, researchers finally discovered the culprit—vast amounts of bird excrement, historian of science Etienne Benson at the University of Pennsylvania explains in a new study in the journal Environmental Humanities.

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Senegalese-American Chart-topper Akon Looks to Light Up Africa

Senegalese-American musician and record producer Akon is well known for lighting up the stage and the music charts. But now he’s set his sights on a more important mission than delighting music fans: supplying electricity to 600 million Africans who currently lack access to the grid. He has started an initiative called Akon Lighting Africa. Its first project is the launch of a Solar Academy in Bamako, Mali. The faculty at the academy, which is scheduled to open this summer, will help African engineers and entrepreneurs develop skills that will enable them to produce solar-powered microgrids and make it easier to acquire the necessary equipment.

Africa has the lowest percentage of inhabitants with access to national grids, but has the benefit of 320 days of sun each year on average. Harnessing that solar energy will not only allow Africans to use electronic gadgets, but also create a new category of tech jobs that could boost the standard of living across the continent. “We expect the Africans who graduate from this center to devise new, innovative, technical solutions,” Thione Niang, one of Akon Lighting Africa’s cofounders, told Reuters. “With this academy, we can capitalize on Akon Lighting Africa and go further.”

The group announced the launch of the academy late last month at the second United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Forum, in New York City.


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