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China Dominates the World of Wind, but the U.S. Wind Energy Market Rebounds

In 2014, the wind energy market in the United States grew sixfold, but it was still dwarfed by the world leader in wind: China.

China’s 2014 wind installations were up nearly 40 percent over 2013’s, according to new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). China installed 20.7 gigawatts last year, nearly half of the world’s total and more than four times the 4.7 gigawatts installed in the United States.

The strong figures for wind reflect a solid year for clean energy investment worldwide. Global clean technology investment was $310 billion in 2014, according to BNEF—up 16 percent from the previous year, but still a little lower than its peak of $317.5 billion in 2011.

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AutoCharge is Microsoft Research's Take on Wireless Charging with Light

Remember a few years ago when the mere fact that we had ways of charging gadgets wirelessly was futuristic and awesome? Remember slightly after that when everyone realized that all of the wireless charging solutions involved compromises that made them not that that much better than plugging your stuff into a wall? Like, having to put your phone in one specific place to charge it, or (and this is especially dumb) having to plug some kind of dongle into your phone to take advantage of a plug-free wireless charging pad?

If you still have to think about charging a phone (or anything else), and you still have to plan around charging it, the fact that the actual charging itself is technically wireless becomes little more than a novelty. Really, what we want is mindless, effortless charging, and Microsoft Research has an idea of how that might happen.

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This Paper "Slinky" Could Power Internet of Things

Origami that harvests energy from the same effect behind most static electricity could eventually be used to power electronics in a cheap, lightweight, environmentally friendly way.

Static electricity usually results from a phenomenon called triboelectricity. When two different materials repeatedly come into contact and then separate, the surface of one material can steal electrons from the surface of the other. This is why rubbing your feet on a carpet or a running comb through your hair can build up static electricity.

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Brimstone and Nanotech May Boost Batteries

Batteries that pair lithium with sulfur may now be a major step closer to propelling electric vehicles three times farther than the lithium-ion batteries used to do so today, researchers say.

For electric vehicles to have a 500-km range, their batteries would need to store nearly double the energy they do now. One possible solution are lithium-sulfur batteries, which store more electrons kilo for kilo than lithium-ion batteries. Moreover, sulfur is extremely abundant, relatively light, and cheap, making it potentially very attractive for use in novel batteries.

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Can Methane Act as a Storage Medium for Renewable Energy?

Researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in German have demonstrated a novel method of converting the outputs of biogas facilities into methane. The new type of methanation plant can fit inside a standard shipping container, and could be combined with renewable energy production as a means of storing the excess and intermittent supply that is inherent to wind and solar power.

“As conventional methanation processes reach their limits at this point, we have developed a new reactor concept,” said Siegfried Bajohr, the leader of the new project, in a press release. The concept takes the products of biomass gasification—hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide—and uses a nickel catalyst to produce methane and water. The catalysis is done in a “honeycomb catalyst carrier,” already used as catalytic converters in cars, which are “characterized by a high thermal conductivity and mechanical robustness.”

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Particles Make Paths to Get More Out of Batteries

A major fraction of the energy in all batteries lies untapped. Now, scientists have found a new way to pull some of it out—materials that change into pathways for electricity within the battery over time. The scientists report their results this week in the journal Science.

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Perovskite Solar Cell Bests Bugbears, Reaches Record Efficiency

Perovskite solar cells are one of the hottest prospects in clean energy research, offering good power outputs from low-cost materials that are relatively simple to process into working devices. But their rapid progress has not been without some stumbling blocks. 

Firstly, the cells’ power conversion efficiency often varies depending on how it is measured, suggesting an underlying instability in the cells’ light-gathering perovskite materials. That’s bad news for photovoltaic panels that need to work for a decade or more. Secondly, researchers were struggling to extend the range of the light wavelengths that the cells could harvest, a key strategy for improving their efficiency beyond the 20 percent or so achieved by typical silicon or thin-film solar cells. Some of the field’s leading lights have spent much of last year grappling with these issues.

Now a team researchers in South Korea has developed a perovskite blend that addresses both these challenges, and delivers what they say is the highest-efficiency perovskite cell to date.

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2014 Renewable Energy Recap: Stepping Backward, Crawling Forward

If we want to stay positive, 2014 was the year when solar power started making the sort of noise in global energy markets that experts have long predicted. If we allow some cynicism to creep in, 2014 was a year when big ideas stalled out, when falling oil prices left renewable energy’s immediate future in limbo, and when international climate deals seem both hopeful and far too timid.

Half full, half empty—take your pick!

Let’s start with the empty side. As has become tradition in these year-end posts, a quick look at the U.S. offshore wind industry: nope, still nothing. The miniature test turbine up in Maine remains the lone offshore turbine; the big projects gunning for the real first-in-water prize, meanwhile, do seem to be getting close. Star-crossed Cape Wind is finally through its legal and permitting hurdles, has made financing progress including $150 million from the Department of Energy, and plans to start construction in 2015; Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm is also on track, with permitting completed and steps like naming its turbine foundation fabricator. Progress, perhaps, until we look at Europe and it’s 7000-plus megawatts of installed offshore capacity.

Another branch of marine-based renewable energy had a particularly disappointing year: wave power, long hyped as a great untapped source, seems to be taking steps backward all the time. Ocean Power Technologies, among the theoretical leaders in developing viable wave power tech, has scaled back or cancelled several plans this year, and the world still has no grid-connected wave power at all. In fact, we don’t even really know what wave energy should look like; designs abound, and research continues, but even a few megawatts of wave energy by decade’s end would be impressive.

Moving to the full part of the glass, solar power is really starting to explode. In the U.S., a big third quarter brought the country up to 16.1 gigawatts of installed photovoltaic capacity, with another 1.4 GW of concentrating solar power. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the growth through three quarters represented 36 percent of all new electricity capacity; in 2012, solar represented only 9.6 percent of new growth.

Around the world as well, solar made headlines this year. Germany produced half of its electricity from solar power on one particularly sunny day in June, and even the gloomy weather of the United Kingdom set records.

But wait, don’t get too excited: oil prices are dropping with remarkable speed. Though opinions differ about the consequence. Some—like Richard Branson—say this drop in dirty energy prices will have a severely limiting effect on solar power. Others argue that the markets are different, with oil prices affecting transportation fuels far more than the electricity generation markets where solar has been growing. Exactly how $50-per-barrel or lower oil will affect clean energy uptake will be a big story in 2015.

The other major driver of renewables moving forward is national and international climate policy. This year saw an historic deal between China and the United States, far and away the world’s two biggest emitters. It would cut U.S. emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China commited to a peak emissions date of 2030. There are varying opinions on just how great this deal really is, but it undoubtedly changed the international, um, climate, surrounding emissions cuts. The Lima COP20 talks did produce something, though it is little more than a guideline for what might happen next year in Paris. A truly strong, binding, international climate deal, of the type we had all hoped for back in 2009 in Copenhagen and that some do hold out hope for in Paris in 2015, would have an immediate effect on renewable energy development.

Crawl forward, step back, leap forward, fall down flat. Renewable energy progress has never been particularly linear, and this year was no exception. Let’s check back in 12 months to see if these bumpy lines can all start pointing in the right direction.

NTSB Raps Some Knuckles With Boeing Battery-Fire Report

In a report released this month, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found plenty of blame to go around when reviewing a lithium-ion battery fire inside a 787 Dreamliner passenger aircraft in January 2013.

The board's report in particular singles out the plane's manufacturer (Boeing), its contracted battery supplier (GS Yuasa), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as falling short in ensuring public safety. Last year during NTSB hearings, Boeing Vice President Mike Sinnett called their self-policing policy with FAA "in retrospect... [not] conservative enough."

The NTSB apparently agrees. Its report says FAA provided "insufficient guidance" for its own certification engineers to develop testing for rechargeable batteries used in a commercial jumbo jet. (Such conclusions are also consistent with other criticism of FAA, as noted in a 2013 investigation by the Wall Street Journal that the agency today "has neither the budget nor the expertise to do extensive testing on its own.")

David Zuckerbrod, CEO of Baltimore-based Electrochemical Solutions, praises NTSB's thorough report. Zuckerbrod says he was shocked that the metal battery containers’ design had not taken into account the rare but often devastating thermal runaway fires well known in the cellphone, laptop, and portable electronics industry.

"Even the battery box design was poor," he says. "No one had engineered for cascading failure— one cell going boom and taking out the next cell and the next cell and the next cell. Battery folks know that [can] happen. Have you ever googled 'laptop battery fire'? These folks never watched that movie."

Press coverage at the time suggested that the 7 January 2013 Japan Airlines battery fire, which fortunately only ignited after all passengers and crew had disembarked at the gate at Boston's Logan Airport, might have been caused by overcharging, external heating, or environmental conditions surrounding the battery pack.

However, NTSB has concluded the battery caught fire because of an internal short circuit, possibly arising from either a manufacturing defect in the cell or from temperature spikes allowed by a poorly designed battery management system.

Zuckerbrod says NTSB's report found lax battery manufacturing protocols that are not up to the best industry standards.

For instance, he says, battery manufacturer GS Yuasa wasn't sufficiently careful in keep welding debris and other metal filings out of the battery cells. Moreover, cell assembly involved winding battery materials around a cylindrical mandrel and then flattening the cells by hand into a squashed oval shape that was then compacted into the battery container.

"I was surprised that GS Yuasa wasn't doing a better quality job on those cells, because they were going to be used in aircraft. When you have [military] spec stuff, they drive the vendors crazy with their specifications. It becomes a gigantic portion of the work to deal with the quality control. But the way they were assembling the cells was a little bit high-risk."

One number in the NTSB report in particular really took Zuckerbrod by surprise, he says. According to the report, GS Yuasa "stated that less than 1 percent of manufactured [battery] cells were rejected."

If this number is close to 1 percent and accurately reflects the battery's potential failure rate, he says, then it should give considerable pause. By contrast, he says, the industry standard 18650 lithium-ion battery cell has a typical failure rate of about one-in-ten-million (0.000001 percent).

"It seems like they took [a battery design] off the shelf that in retrospect wasn't aircraft grade," he says.

And while it's not known yet how much of the NTSB's Dreamliner recommendations have been adopted, Zuckerbrod says he thinks the agency's and media's scrutiny has made it likely they'll be taken seriously.

"There's a lot of good stuff in the report, with a big list of things they could do better," he says. "Some of which are easily adopted. We got lucky this time."

Electricity and Enzymes Turn Carbon Dioxide Into Alcohol Biofuel

When you drink alcohol, enzymes in your liver break it down into a series of byproducts, including carbon dioxide. A group of scientists in Austria are trying to run the process in reverse, using the same sort of enzymes to convert CO2 to alcohol and other products that can be used as fuel or as raw materials for the biochemical industry.

 “We are trying to reduce the CO2 electrochemically,” Stefanie Schlager, a doctoral student at Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria, told a session at the Materials Research Society’s fall meeting in Boston last week.

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