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Artist's impression of squeezing more power out of solar cells by physically deforming each of the crystals in the semiconductors used by photovoltaic cells.

Scientists Find Strange New Effect for Future Solar Cells: Flexo-photovoltaics

Scientists at the University of Warwick report that they’ve discovered a new kind of photovoltaic effect. What they dub “flexo-photovoltaics” is really the realization that ordinary crystals—including silicon—and other materials can be made to exhibit a long-known, but underutilized type of energy conversion. The key is to poke the material, hard and with something sharp.  

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Visualization of the proposed SPARC tokamak experiment. Using high-field magnets built with newly available high-temperature superconductor, this experiment would be the first controlled fusion plasma to produce net energy output

MIT Spin-off Faces Daunting Challenges on Path to Build a Fusion Power Plant in 15 Years

Fusion power is always two or three decades away. Dozens of experimental reactors have come and gone over the years, inching the field forward in some regard, but still falling short of their ultimate goal: producing cheap, abundant energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei together in a self-sustained fashion.

Now an MIT spin-off wants to use a new kind of high-temperature superconducting magnet to speed up development of a practical fusion reactor. The announcement, by Commonwealth Fusion Systems, based in Cambridge, Mass., caused quite a stir. CFS said it will collaborate with MIT to bring a fusion power plant online within 15 years—a timeline faster by decades than other fusion projects.

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Computer chip overheating

The Electronics Cooling System 400 Million Years in the Making

Over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, water-repellent skin has enabled tiny insects, called springtails, to breathe through their skin without suffocating in damp soil flooded by rainwater. More recently, such natural engineering has inspired a new approach to cooling new generations of miniaturized electronic devices.

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An image of a panda is used to illustrate how flexible, rechargeable yarn batteries can be connected in series to power electroluminescent panel displays.

Yarn-like Rechargeable Zinc Battery Could Power Smart Clothes and Wearables

Researchers have shaped a rechargeable zinc-ion battery into an elastic yarn that churns out power when bent, stretched, washed with water, and even cut.

The zinc yarn battery could be woven into washable sensor-laden smart clothes and integrated into commercial textiles to power wearable displays, electronics, and medical implants.

The yarn joins a line-up of innovative flexible energy-generating and -storing devices that can be integrated into power fabrics. The list includes solar cell ribbons that can be woven into fabrics, knittable supercapacitors, and power-generating yarns that harvest mechanical energy or the triboelectric effect to generate power.

Some researchers have tried to make flexible versions of the workhorse zinc-manganese alkaline battery because of its proven high capacity, low cost, and safety. But these flexible versions have had low capacities. Plus these primary batteries can’t be recharged. But researchers have recently come up with high-performance rechargeable zinc-ion batteries.

Chunyi Zhi of the City University of Hong Kong and his colleagues made their thread-like rechargeable zinc battery by twisting carbon nanotube fibers into yarn. They coat one piece of yarn with zinc to make an anode and another with manganese dioxide to serve as a cathode. Then they wind the two yarn pieces on an elastic fiber, soak it with a commonly used water-absorbing gel, and encase the device in elastic silicone and a water repellant.

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Power Lines

Cyber Defense Tool Is an Early Warning System for Grid Attacks

A rifle attack on an electrical substation near California’s Silicon Valley in April 2013 led to the development of a new tool for grid operators that will enable them to better detect not only a brutal physical attack but also the slightest hint of a hacker looking for vulnerabilities in these critical links in the grid.

The thousands of substations that are nodes in North America’s electrical grid receive high-voltage energy from transmission lines that originate at power plants and step down that voltage so it can enter local distribution networks to power homes and businesses. Although distributed in nature, grid operators worry that the loss of just a few critical substations could trigger an outage that cascades across a region, potentially crippling a major urban center.

Indeed, in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported the startling findings in confidential report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC): Thirty substations across the U.S. played an outsized role in grid operations; knocking out nine of them could cause a cascading outage capable of bringing down the nation’s grid.

Investigators thought that the intent to trigger such a cascading event may have been behind a 2013 rifle attack on Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf substation in Coyote, Calif., near San Jose, home to Silicon Valley. During the still-unsolved crime, attackers cut fiber optic cables to the facility, and then shot up 17 transformers, resulting in $15 million in damage. The utility had to to re-route power around the damaged substation until repairs could be made.

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The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Power System in Stuttgart/Sunnyvale

SXSW 2018: Energy and Tech Executives Envision the Carbon-Free Future

Let’s say you live in a developed country and you’re concerned about your carbon footprint. You’re aware that the world generates and uses about 575 exajoules of energy a year, and that there are 7.632 billion people on the planet. Not wanting to be an energy hog, you do a quick calculation to figure out your fair share. You come to a sobering realization: One round-trip flight from San Francisco to Rome and you’re done.

Just that one flight “would blow your energy budget for the year,” says Maarten Wetselaar, Director of Integrated Gas & New Energies at Shell International Exploration and Production. “No more electricity” use. “No more heating in the winter. No more air conditioning in the summer.”

Wetselaar was part of a panel on the future of energy at the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference. The group’s far-ranging discussion considered such sweeping industry trends as tech collaborations between large companies and small startups, the rapid spread of distributed and renewable power generation, and surprising new combinations of technologies that are starting to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Wetselaar’s declaration about personal energy budgets was meant to give his listeners a vivid idea of the magnitude of the changes in store for not just energy producers but also for consumers. “The energy sector needs to change drastically in the next 30 years,” he says. “And no one knows for sure what it will look like.”

He adds: “It’s not just about cleaner energy. It’s about producing a lot more energy. That’s a big agenda for energy producers, like us, but also for consumers.”

To underscore his point, the Shell executive offers a quick reality check: For every electric vehicle purchased in the United States, 70 gasoline-powered SUVs are sold; the figure for Europe is 35.

Some large tech companies are getting the message and looking for ways to reduce their footprints, says another panelist, senior technologist John Frey of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE). A few years ago, the company, which offers servers, networks, and storage, performed an analysis and discovered that “our own operational footprint was only 10 percent of our impact on the globe.” The rest came from the greenhouse-gas emissions of companies in its supply chain and other factors.

After some soul searching, company officials concluded that “If we’re going to power technology using renewable energy, we can’t do it ourselves.” One initiative, launched two years ago, is a four-way collaboration among HPE, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Daimler AG, and Power Innovations International located in American Fork, Utah. The goal is a hydrogen based, carbon-free data center, powered by solar cells and wind turbines.

Data centers consume huge amounts of power and have high reliability requirements, because outages can mean significant financial losses. So, powering them with intermittent sources, such as solar and wind, hasn’t been tried before. According to Frey, an important shift occurred last November, when the collaborative project began powering the NREL data center with Daimler fuel cells originally developed for Mercedes trucks and SUVs. Power Innovations did the systems integration for the project.

At the moment, the fuel cells are using hydrogen reformed from natural gas. But the near-future goal, Frey explains, is to use hydrogen generated from solar and wind. During times of high power output, the system will produce and store excess hydrogen in tanks for use when the photovoltaics or wind turbines cannot meet demand.

The partnership is an example of the kind of alliances that are becoming increasingly common in the energy industry. “One of the surprising things we’ve seen in the last few years is energy, info-tech, and mobility companies coming together,” says Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the panel’s moderator.

Shell’s Wetselaar verified the trend:

“Historically, the approach to innovation was quite closed. Quite well-paid technologists and researchers worked behind closed doors trying to create the intellectual property that we could use. But now it’s much more open. We’re looking to work with others, collaboratively. Even startups.”

Wetselaar reports that Shell is investing in startups mainly through a venture-capital arm the company runs.

He envisions a grid based mainly on renewable power sources. He concedes that the intermittent nature of these sources will be a problem, but believes it will be solved in the foreseeable future. Intermittency, he declares, is “one of the questions that will be solved in the next 10 years.”

He disputed the idea that a resurgence of nuclear power would be needed to enable the world to keep chugging into a future in which India and China continue to electrify, generation continues to surge, and the rate of greenhouse gas emissions goes down rather than up.

“If you invest sufficiently in wind and solar, then all you need is a mid-merit solution,” in between baseload generators and peaking plants, says Wetselaar. Such a solution might be “stored hydrogen, natural gas, or hydropower,” depending on location, he says. He adds that structural changes in electricity grids will also be required in such a system. He acknowledges the failure of such a vision in Germany, which some years ago began attempting to emphasize wind power in the north and solar in the south. The critical third link in the chain was to be “a grid to make it all come together, but which failed due to public resistance,” he concedes.

Wetselaar also believes that a carbon tax is necessary to make progress on cutting emissions. “We’ve argued for a carbon tax in Europe,” he says. “Putting a price on carbon is the best way to let the market decide how best to decarbonize. I think it will continue to be an important tool. But if we wait for the politicians to implement it, we will miss the Paris Accords completely.

“Implementing a carbon price takes political courage,” he continues. “And we don’t see much of that.”

Regardless of the details, Wetselaar says the big picture is clear: “Certainly, we believe that by 2070 the energy system has to be net carbon free.”

HyperSciences Drill

Is Google Going Underground With Hypersonic Tech?

Google is carrying out research on hypersonics, probably for new technologies to slash the cost of geothermal energy and tunneling. It could also be acquiring a Washington-based startup called HyperSciences that has already built prototype devices.

In January, Google signed a US $100,000 Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The agreement says “Google’s research division is doing a conceptual exploration of hypersonic trajectories in high Reynolds number ablation regimes,” and calls for NASA to “perform an analysis of a hypersonic projectile traveling through dense atmosphere.”

Hypersonics refers to anything travelling five times the speed of sound or faster, and usually refers to extremely high speed aircraft or weapons, such as Boeing’s unmanned X51 scramjet or the new Russian ballistic missile that Vladimir Putin boasted about last week.

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Solar panels in the sun

Arizona Utility Opts for Solar and Storage to Meet Peak Demand

Solar photovoltaic panels in the desert near Phoenix may seem unremarkable. After all, the southwestern United States offers some of the best solar conditions in North America.

But a recently announced 65 megawatt (MW) project is making news by coupling solar PV with battery energy storage, a first for utility Arizona Public Service, which solicited proposals in 2017 for generation sources to provide electricity during peak demand hours.

Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that the solar-plus-storage bid beat out other generation sources, including multiple proposals for natural gas plants. (The utility has an agreement with an existing natural gas-fired plant for a total of 570 MW for the summers of 2020 through 2026.)

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Illustration of a delivery drone.

Drone Delivery, If Done Right, Could Cut Emissions

Drone delivery is expected to take off big time in the next few years.  Chinese online retailer JD.com has already launched drone delivery in four provinces in China, while DHL and Zipline are delivering medicines with drones in rural and hard-to-reach areas. Amazon, Google, and UPS are all working on getting drone delivery service off the ground. 

There are a lot of issues to think about when it comes to package delivery using drones—safety, privacy, and logistics being some of the main concerns. In a new study, researchers tackle two other important aspects: energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Drones could use less energy and spew fewer emissions into the air than trucks, researchers say. But that advantage diminishes as drones get bigger and use dirty electricity to recharge.

“If you’re delivering a phone or sunglasses, drones would be a good way to go anywhere in the U.S. or most of world,” says Joshua Stolaroff, an environmental scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who led the study published in Nature Communications. “But a larger drone carrying a bag of groceries can lead to higher emissions in a lot of the country with the current electricity grid,” says Stolaroff

To make drone delivery truly green, regulators and retailers will have to limit the size of drones and the number of new warehouses that support them, Stolaroff and his colleagues say.

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Used cathode particles from spent lithium ion batteries are recycled and regenerated to work as good as new.

Simple, Energy-Efficient Recycling Process for Lithium-Ion Batteries

A simple new recycling process restores old lithium battery cathodes to mint condition using half the energy of current processes. Unlike today’s recycling methods, which break down cathodes into separate elements that have to be put together again, the new technique spits out compounds that are ready to go into a new battery.

The method works on the lithium cobalt oxide batteries used in laptops and smartphones, and also on the complex lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt batteries found in electric cars.

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