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Building Better Solar Cells, at Robot Speed

Testing out new types of solar cells at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Process Development and Integration Lab used to involve multiple rooms, numerous pieces of equipment and any number of possible sources of error or accident. Enter a robot.

The lab now has several robotic bays that have automated the process of making new solar cells with varying base components, streamlining the process to an extreme degree. It's also a lot faster than it used to be. According to a story posted on the NREL website:

"How much faster? The robot working with silicon can build a semi-conductor on a six-inch-square plate of glass, plastic or flexible metal in about 35 minutes. It pivots and dishes like a point guard, sifts like a master chef, analyzes like a forensics expert and does it all while maintaining a vacuum seal on the entire process."

There are other robots as well, with two of them specializing in different materials. One uses Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) and another that has yet to be brought online uses cadmium-telluride.

The ongoing goal of improving solar cells is to bring their cost into a range that would be competitive with traditional power generation sources. Solar technology companies working toward that goal will now be able to use the NREL robot army to rapidly speed up testing of new materials and formulas for their cells. A big part of that cost equation is raising the percentage of the sun's energy hitting the cell that can be converted into electricity. Several years ago at NREL, researchers set a record by achieving 40.8 percent efficiency; most rooftop solar cells come in at around 11 or 12 percent.

"The system was designed to allow us to do things we could not do before, such as get a better look at impurities and the quality of materials, the different layers that compose the CIGS cell," said Miguel Contreras, a senior scientist at NREL. "It's helping us understand better what is limiting our efficiencies, as well as learning how to improve industrial productivity."

Images via NREL.

Hydrogen Economy II

After  President George W. Bush unveiled early in his first term a vision of a hydrogen economy--a vision that momentarily "killed" visions of an electric car--it did fot take long for the truth to sink in that it would decades at the least before motor vehicles would generally run on fuel cells fueled by hydrogen. So it came as rather a surprise to see, reading an account by a German Russia expert of a September 2006 meeting with Vladimir Putin, the following: "The age of oil will one day draw to a close. How is Russia preparing for the time after cheap oil, or indeed, after oil? Putin offers an optimistic perspective: 'We are working on hydrogen energy. In the medium term we will invest massively.' " So reports Michael Stuermer, in Putin and the Rise of Russia.

What did Putin have in mind? Was he still clinging to something like Bush's vision, well after most Americans had tossed it onto the dustbin of history?

Now comes a report from Siemens that it is working with the Russian National Research Nuclear University to develop turbines that would run on hydrogen. Siemens does not underestimate the challenges: "The idea of combusting hydrogen with oxygen to obtain water and extract a large amount of energy with zero environmental pollution is still a long way off at the moment. The production of pure oxygen is too costly and the combustion temperatures of 3,200 degrees Celsius are too high for the turbine blading used in the power plants. Natural gas, which burns at approximately 1,950 degrees Celsius, already requires air cooling of the blading. Siemens CT in Munich is therefore also conducting research intoheat-resistant ceramics for use in turbines."

Evidently that vision will be a long time comng too--if ever indeed it's realized--but it too is an interesting one.

A Nuclear Gem

For Americans who came of age in the 1960s, at least the more political of them, the holy of holies was the Port Huron Statement. The founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the statement called for "establishment of a democracy of individual participation," a politics "bringing people out of isolation and into community."

Did it make a lot of sense, at a time when communities in the U.S. South were barring Blacks from schools and desegregation could be enforced only by Federal agents, to propose a progressive politics based on greater communitarianism? Not a lot, perhaps, but it also didn't much matter. That's because the details generally didn't much matter. What counted was the spirit of the document, which really did capture the longing of a new generation--the first postwar generation to reach adulthood--for new political beginnings based on a kind of humanism rather than traditional liberalism or socialism.

Mad Men, the wildly popular television series about the world of advertising in the 1960s, nicely captures this point in an episode in which two young men propose an ad campaign echoing Port Huron principles. Holding a copy of the statement in his hands, one of them tells their boss that the Port Huron authors "would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, and circumstances" with power based in "love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity." (For those of you who are sticklers for documentation, that's in Season 2, "The Gold Violin.")

Does it really make sense that cynical Madison Avenue ad executives would  create a campaign for a New York City coffee brand on the basis of the Port Huron Statement? Not really. Could it really have happened? Sure. After all, nobody took the statement too literally, and for many claiming to be inspired by its principles, it might as well have been written in Latin, Arabic or Sanskrit.

Yet even so, there's one little detail that may come as a surprise to many a Sixties veteran today--especially those who may have become active in anti-nuclear-power movements of the Seventies and Eighties. In an article assessing President Obama's pro-nuclear stance in the current issue of the New Yorker, the magazine's political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg draws attention to these lines in the statement: "Our monster cities, based historically on the need for mass labor, might now be humanized, broken into smaller communities, powered by nuclear energy, arranged according to community decision."

Why would we want need huge nuclear reactors to power smaller communities once large cities are eliminated? Don't ask. The details really didn't matter.





More on Peak Lithium

Quite some time back EnergyWise contributor Peter Fairly shrewdly noted that the future of hybrid and electric cars might be subject to a "peak lithium" problem, analogous to the peak oil issue that has been the subject of so much debate for so many decades--and that tiny Bolivia might find itself in the position of Saudi Arabia. This week's New Yorker carries an article on Bolivia and lithium by one of the magazine's star contributors, Lawrence Wright. Meanwhile, Tech Review has carried a photo essay showing what Bolivia's nascent lithium industry might look like.


The Top PV Equipment Manufacturer Establishes R&D Lab in Xian

Best known outside China for the ancient terra cotta army found nearby, Xian also is one of China's major high-tech hubs and manufacturing centers, where many multinationals conduct operations. Though desperately polluted, like so many of China's big cities, it also has considerable charm, with old walls, a bell tower, a thriving Muslim community, and a lovely cloistered mosque. Soon it also will be home to what surely will be the world's foremost R&D lab for photovoltaics manufacturing equipment. Applied Materials, the leading maker of semiconductor and flat-panel-display equipment, is setting up an R&D lab in Xian and deploying one of its star chief technology officers, Mark R. Pinto, to run it.

Pinto describes the basic setup as follows: "The building has two floors for labs (each floor is the height of two office levels). The first floor lab will be mostly a crystalline silicon PV lab but the equipment is just arriving next month. The second floor is a full thin-film line--the one we've been working on with the 5.7-meter-square panels, so it is huge. And we just made our first panels this week.The main objective of both labs is to use equipment to prove in processes at full scale, something we cannot do in our other locations."

As described here last December in a post about utility-scale photovoltaics,  Applied Materials has made a nice business out of offering complete sets of tool-making equipment to aspiring makers of thin-film silicon sheets, in effect just about everything that's needed in the manufacturing process, which it has branded with the name SunFabs. An interactive video on the company's website describes how a SunFab factory can be linked to a solar farm; a photo-essay describing its production processes also can be found in the current issue of MIT's Technology Review.


Illinois Legislature Paves Way for More Nuclear Power

Since 1987, a moratorium has been in place in the state of Illinois preventing the construction of new nuclear power facilities. Now, the Illinois Senate voted 40-1 to repeal that ban, and with passage in the House as well a state that already gets 48 percent of its power from nuclear reactors could be upping that percentage even further.

Illinois has six currently operating nuclear power plants, five of which have two reactors. Exelon Energy owns all of the plants, and they have already been issued an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a second reactor at the lone single-reactor site.

Across the country, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power, so Illinois is a bit off the charts. In fact, the state ranked first in nuclear power generation and capacity in 2008. Of course, recent momentum has pushed nuclear power back to the fore, with President Obama touting its potential and the government recently offering its first loan guarantee for new reactors. That project will receive $8.33 billion to build two new reactors in Georgia.

Interestingly, the Illinois moratorium on new plants was put in place until an acceptable permanent repository for nuclear waste could be found. Earlier this year the Obama administration announced they would pull the permit application to use the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, which was the only permanent storage site under consideration. Now, even without a replacement, Illinois is changing its tune.

And if you're pondering the "green" potential of nuclear power, then consider this: Illinois, with its 48 percent of power generated by nuclear reactors, ranked sixth from the top in terms of state carbon dioxide emissions in 2007. It does rank fifth in population, but with such a high percentage of its power from a supposedly carbon-free source, one might expect a bit better result.

Photo of Byron Nuclear Generation Station in Illinois via Ben Jacobson on Wikimedia Commons.

Natural Gas's Contested Potential

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the short-hand name given for innovations in natural gas recovery that have radically transformed the outlook for production and reserves, not only in the United States but in many other parts of the world as well, including China. But it’s rather a misnomer. The truly disruptive innovation is not fracking as such, a technique that’s been used for many decades in the oil and gas industry, but horizontal drilling into shale formations. Drilling first vertically and then horizontally, using advanced computer controls and seismological techniques, drillers can reach much more gas from a far smaller area of the surface. This makes all the ecological, social, and political ramifications of drilling much more manageable—and if indeed they are well managed, there may be a revolution in gas that will give the world another century’s worth of fossil fuel.

But can the ramifications be managed? A recent visit to Dimock, Penn., one of the most concentrated centers of gas drilling in the U.S. Northeast’s Marcellus Formation, and reports from DISH, Texas, a major locus of drilling in the Southwest’s Barnett Formation, showed that impacts on communities can be worrisome—and that industry claims are not quite what they seem to imply.

In Dimock, a small town north of Scranton, evidence of drilling is all around: arrays of large fresh water and waste water tanks; sizable equipment such as compressors and water filters; convoys of large trucks carrying pipe; hilltop rigs that can been seen for miles away. When operations were at their peak, says a local citizen, hundreds of trucks were coming through the center of town every hour, and supplies also were being delivered by noisy, intrusive helicopters.

Sand and a variety of chemicals are added to fracking water to keep seams open and reduce fluid friction. The industry claims that there’s no documented case of water supplies being contaminated by chemicals, ever or anywhere in the United States. But to judge from what one sees in Dimock, that’s more than a little misleading. Though the companies working in Dimock have refused to concede any wrong-doing, they have equipped some houses with “water buffaloes” to provide the water citizens normally would get  from wells. They’ve outfitted many wells with vents, to allow methane to escape that’s somehow got into the wells. (In one case, claims citizen-guide Vera Scroggins, a well cap actually exploded.)

Admittedly, venting of natural gas may not be a huge issue for local citizens, who are more concerned about toxins and carcinogens getting into their drinking water, to the extent they are concerned at all. (Most support  natural gas development  because of the huge monetary returns it will bring them personally and their communities.) But it’s an issue for the rest of us: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and if too much of it escapes into the atmosphere during drilling and extraction, that could vitiate one of natural gas’s main advantages—its low carbon content  relative to coal.

What is more, if Marcellus development spreads to upstate New York into New York City’s watershed, it could threaten Gotham’s pristine water supplies. Potential show-stopping problems do not end there.

DISH, a small town north of Dallas, is in the heart of Texas’s Barnett formation, where horizontal gas drilling techniques were perfected in the last decade. Originally called Clark, it renamed itself five years ago in a deal with EchoStar Communications, owner of the DISH network. In exchange for calling itself DISH, each of the town’s citizens get free satellite television for a decade.

That’s been a pretty good deal for DISH, but what about natural gas? According to Mayor Calvin Tillman, who spoke late last year to Pennsylvania’s League of Women Voters about problems the Texans encountered, gas development brought concerns not only about water but also air. DISH, Tillman told the Pennsylvania women (who are preparing a critical report about Marcellus development), is at the hub of the natural gas boom that has brought Texas an estimated $8-10 billion in revenues in the last decade and 100,000 new jobs. Gas and water pipelines criss-cross the town, in which  five companies have installed 11 compressors that are noisy and smelly. But when citizens brought their concerns about the volatile organics associated with the compressors to the attention of the companies and Texas regulators, they got a brush-off. That severed trust between the citizens and the companies, Tillman reported.

When the town commissioned its own study, spending 15 percent of a year’s budget on it, not only methane but a number of known carcinogens were found in “fugitive emissions” from drilling operations. 16 chemicals including benzene were found to be “above the effects screening level.”

The gas industry  has been fighting proposals for Federal regulation. It claims state regulation is adequate. But there are many documented instances of citizens finding state enforcement weak, collusive, and non-credible. And according to a report published by ProPublica, an organization that supports investigative reporting, of 31 drilling states surveyed, only four have detailed regulations governing gas fracking and only 10 require disclosure of the chemicals used.

The gas industry, comparing formations like the Marcellus to Qatar gas and Saudi oil reserves, has been running ads saying that gas could be the bridge to a world powered by wind turbines. It may actually be the other way around: Wind may be the bridge to a world powered by gas. But that will only be the case if the industry plays it straight with the public.

Supercritical Fuel Combustion Could Drastically Improve Efficiency

Transonic Combustion's fuel injection system aims to blow hybrid technologies out of the water. They have demonstrated the ability to get as much as 64 miles-per-gallon on the highway using their TSCi technology, compared to a Toyota Prius's 48 MPG. The technology is likely still a few years away from any degree of mass adoption, but it and similar technologies have the potential to join the alternative fuels movement in ramping up auto efficiency to extreme levels.

The fuel injection system thrives by heating gasoline before injecting it into the combustion chamber; this supercritical state allows it to combust without the need for a spark. While traditional combustion engines end up using only about 15 percent of the total energy contained in fuel, this type of approach could help move toward 30 and even 50 percent. This could drastically reduce the amount of automotive fuel used in the world, significant because, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fully 23 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions came from the transport sector in 2004.

Transonic hopes to begin installing their systems in 2014. The company's VP of business development, Mike Rocke, told Technology Review that at 50 mph cruising speed, a test car was able to achieve 98 mpg.

Elsewhere, other improvements in the standard internal combustion engine are joining in the race for more efficient fuel injection. Last year, Nissan unveiled a dual injector system (left) that by reducing fuel droplet diameter can up fuel efficiency by about four percent.

Biofuels, electric cars and maybe even hydrogen might be on the way, but improving on what we've got won't hurt either.

Photos via Transonic Combustion, Nissan.

DOE Ramps Up "Clean Coal" Initiatives

The Department of Energy recently announced that $154 million in funding will head toward Thompsons, Texas, where NRG Energy will build a post-combustion carbon capture and sequestration project. The CCS technology will theoretically scrub clean the emissions from NRG's W. A. Parish Unit 7, a coal-fired power plant.

The plant will use a company called Fluor Corporation's to capture the emitted carbon dioxide, and the company's press release [PDF] says it will be capable of grabbing 90 percent of the CO2. For the plant in question, this will be equivalent to about 400,000 tons each year.

The captured gas will then be compressed, and used in enhanced oil recovery operations and sequestered in oilfields nearby. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said "Advancing our carbon capture and storage technology will create new jobs in America and reduce our carbon pollution output. It’s another example of our country’s innovation at work."

Of course, it isn't hard to find people to point out the flaws in "clean coal" arguments. Sometimes it's a myth, other times... well, it's a myth a lot of the time, apparently. Environmental groups and renewable energy advocates point out that even if the carbon dioxide can be captured and stored safely - technology that has yet to be rolled out on a large, commercial scale - there is plenty still dirty about mountaintop removal mining, or even about traditional mining.

Still, President Obama has repeatedly touted the idea of clean coal, and Secretary Chu is clearly on board. So for the moment, projects like the NRG Energy plant will move forward, and the myth will perpetuate.

Image via Arnold Paul on Wikimedia Commons.

U.S. Wind Industry Calls for Renewable Energy Standard

This week the American Wind Energy Association assembled a bunch of energy industry executives to make a pitch to the press for a national renewable energy standard, that is, a mandate requiring utilities to generate certain proportions of electricity from renewable sources by certain dates. They argued that such a standard would create jobs, promote green tech manufacturing in the United States, and catch up with other countries that have been leading the way in renewables. "RES is the way we've done it across the world and across the country," said one participant, observing that 29 U.S. states have adopted renewable energy standards.

The trend is real but the assertion dubious. The European countries that have forged ahead the fastest in renewables--Germany, Denmark, and Spain--have done so not primarily with renewables standards but by means of feed-in tariffs: Any party that generates electricity from a designated renewable source is guaranteed definite returns as of specified dates, every such party is entitled to sell the electricity into the national grid, and the added costs are allocated among all ratepayers. The feed-in tariff has an enormously powerful stimulus not just to production but to R&D as well, in that the more cheaply you can make electricity from whatever renewable you use, the higher the profit you're sure to make.

What's wrong with relying on renewable energy standards instead? One big thing is that an RES encourages projects of dubious worth, which in the long run can backfire, as concerns about excessive costs and inadequate performance set it. RES implementation also depends as a rule on complicated systems of renewable energy credits that rivals, in terms of bookkeeping and administrative overhead, the cap-and-trade carbon systems that are so much in fashion.

Speaking of which, as prospects dim for congressional adoption of a really effective U.S. carbon trading regime, Columbia University's Jeffrey R. Sachs suggests we revisit the whole question of how to approach greenhouse gas regulation. Writing in the current issue of Scientific American, Sachs takes the White House to task for leaving negotiation of a climate bill to Congress and lobbyists. "The result is sprawling draft legislation, hard for the public to understand and replete with hidden and overt financial transfers to vested interests." (Sound familiar?) Sachs proposes instead that EPA should regulate carbon aggressively and that the government should reconsider a national carbon tax after all. (Cap and trade was supposed to be the more politically palatable approach, but if it's not palatable after all, why not adopt a much simpler and much more transparent tax bill?) Above all, says Sachs, "the public needs to hear a plan." The Obama administration has promised to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent by 2020, but how exactly is that to be achieved?


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