How To Power The U.S. With Solar

Speaking recently at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island, Elon Musk told his audience — including 30 United States governors — that it’s possible to power the nation with solar energy.

If you wanted to power the entire U.S. with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah; you only need about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels to power the entire United States,” Musk said. “The batteries you need to store the energy, to make sure you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square-mile. That’s it.”

Why solar? Well, as Musk explained, as far as energy sources go, we can count on solar to come through for us: “People talk about fusion and all that, but the sun is a giant fusion reactor in the sky. It’s really reliable. It comes up every day. If it doesn’t we’ve got bigger problems.”

At present, about 10 percent of the U.S. is powered by renewable energy sources. To achieve a complete renewable energy power, Musk thinks solar is the way to go.

To start, he suggested combining rooftop solar and utility-scale solar plants. The former would be on the rooftops of houses in the suburbs, while the latter could power other areas. As we’ve seen with Tesla’s new rooftop solar unit, and efforts in other countries, like Australia, to build large-scale solar plants, this is a goal well within reach.

Next, while in transition from fossil fuel to solar, it’d be necessary to rely on other renewables. “We’ll need to be a combination of utility-scale solar and rooftop solar, combined with wind, geothermal, hydro, probably some nuclear for a while, in order to transition to a sustainable situation,” Musk explained.

Finally, the U.S. has to build more localized power sources, like the rooftop solar setups. “People do not like transmission lines going through their neighborhood, they really don’t like that, and I agree,” Musk said. “Rooftop solar, utility solar; that’s really going to be a solution from the physics standpoint. I can really see another way to really do it.”

When this happens, the U.S. would eliminate about 1,821 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by the country’s current electric power sector — 35 percent of the overall CO2 energy-related emissions in the U.S.


Scalable Catalyst Produces Cheap Pure Hydrogen

The “clean-energy economy” always seems a few steps away but never quite here. Fossil fuels still power transportation, heating and cooling, and manufacturing, but a team of scientists from Penn State and Florida State University have come one step closer to inexpensive, clean hydrogen fuel with a lower cost and industrially scalable catalyst that produces pure hydrogen through a low-energy water-splitting process.

Hydrogen fuel cells can boost a clean-energy economy not only in the transportation sector, where fast fueling and vehicle range outpace battery-powered vehicles, but also to store electrical energy produced by solar and wind. This research is another step forward to reaching that goal.
Energy is the most important issue of our time, and for energy, fuel cells are crucially important, and then for fuel cells, hydrogen is most important,” said Yu Lei, Penn State doctoral student and first author of an ACS Nano paper describing the water-splitting catalyst she and her colleagues theoretically predicted and then synthesized in the lab. “People have been searching for a good catalyst that can efficiently split water into hydrogen and oxygen. During this process, there will be no side products that are not environmentally friendly.”

The current industrial method of producing hydrogen — steam reforming of methane — results in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other methods use waste heat, from sources such as advanced nuclear power plants or concentrated solar power, both of which face technical challenges for commercial feasibility. Another industrial process uses platinum as the catalyst to drive the water-splitting process. Although platinum is a near-perfect catalyst, it is also expensive. A cheaper catalyst could make hydrogen a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels in transportation, and power fuel cells for energy storage applications.

Molybdenum disulfide has been predicted as a possible replacement for platinum, because the Gibbs free energy for hydrogen absorption is close to zero,” said Mauricio Terrones, professor of physics, materials science and engineering, and chemistry, Penn State. The lower the Gibbs free energy, the less external energy has to be applied to produce a chemical reaction.


How To Recycle Carbon Dioxide

An international team of scientists led by Liang-shi Li at Indiana University (IU) has achieved a new milestone in the quest to recycle carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere into carbon-neutral fuels and others materials.


The chemists have engineered a molecule that uses light or electricity to convert the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide — a carbon-neutral fuel source — more efficiently than any other method of “carbon reduction.”

molecular leaf

If you can create an efficient enough molecule for this reaction, it will produce energy that is free and storable in the form of fuels,” said Li, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences‘ Department of Chemistry. “This study is a major leap in that direction.”

Burning fuel — such as carbon monoxide — produces carbon dioxide and releases energy. Turning carbon dioxide back into fuel requires at least the same amount of energy. A major goal among scientists has been decreasing the excess energy needed.

This is exactly what Li’s molecule achieves: requiring the least amount of energy reported thus far to drive the formation of carbon monoxide. The molecule — a nanographene-rhenium complex connected via an organic compound known as bipyridine — triggers a highly efficient reaction that converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide. The ability to efficiently and exclusively create carbon monoxide is significant due to the molecule’s versatility.

Carbon monoxide is an important raw material in a lot of industrial processes,” Li said. “It’s also a way to store energy as a carbon-neutral fuel since you’re not putting any more carbon back into the atmosphere than you already removed. You’re simply re-releasing the solar power you used to make it.

The secret to the molecule’s efficiency is nanographene — a nanometer-scale piece of graphite, a common form of carbon (i.e. the black “lead” in pencils) — because the material’s dark color absorbs a large amount of sunlight.

Li said that bipyridine-metal complexes have long been studied to reduce carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with sunlight. But these molecules can use only a tiny sliver of the light in sunlight, primarily in the ultraviolet range, which is invisible to the naked eye. In contrast, the molecule developed at IU takes advantage of the light-absorbing power of nanographene to create a reaction that uses sunlight in the wavelength up to 600 nanometers — a large portion of the visible light spectrum.

Essentially, Li said, the molecule acts as a two-part system: a nanographeneenergy collector” that absorbs energy from sunlight and an atomic rheniumengine” that produces carbon monoxide. The energy collector drives a flow of electrons to the rhenium atom, which repeatedly binds and converts the normally stable carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

The idea to link nanographene to the metal arose from Li’s earlier efforts to create a more efficient solar cell with the carbon-based material. “We asked ourselves: Could we cut out the middle man — solar cells — and use the light-absorbing quality of nanographene alone to drive the reaction?” he said.

Next, Li plans to make the molecule more powerful, including making it last longer and survive in a non-liquid form, since solid catalysts are easier to use in the real world.

The process is reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


How To Turn CO2 Into Rock

An international team of scientists have found a potentially viable way to remove anthropogenic (caused or influenced by humans) carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphereturn it into rock.

The study, published today in Science, has shown for the first time that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) can be permanently and rapidly locked away from the atmosphere, by injecting it into volcanic bedrock. The CO2 reacts with the surrounding rock, forming environmentally benign minerals.


Measures to tackle the problem of increasing greenhouse gas emissions and resultant climate change are numerous. One approach is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), where CO2 is physically removed from the atmosphere and trapped underground. Geoengineers have long explored the possibility of sealing CO2 gas in voids underground, such as in abandoned oil and gas reservoirs, but these are susceptible to leakage. So attention has now turned to the mineralisation of carbon to permanently dispose of CO2.

Until now it was thought that this process would take several hundreds to thousands of years and is therefore not a practical option. But the current study – led by Columbia University, University of Iceland, University of Toulouse and Reykjavik Energy – has demonstrated that it can take as little as two years.

Lead author Dr Juerg Matter, Associate Professor in Geoengineering at the University of Southampton, says: “Our results show that between 95 and 98 per cent of the injected CO2 was mineralised over the period of less than two years, which is amazingly fast.”

Carbonate minerals do not leak out of the ground, thus our newly developed method results in permanent and environmentally friendly storage of CO2 emissions,” adds Dr Matter, who is also a member of the University’s Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute and Adjunct Senior Scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Columbia University. “On the other hand, basalt is one of the most common rock type on Earth, potentially providing one of the largest CO2 storage capacity.

Storing CO2 as carbonate minerals significantly enhances storage security which should improve public acceptance of Carbon Capture and Storage as a climate change mitigation technology,” says Dr Matter. “The overall scale of our study was relatively small. So, the obvious next step for CarbFix is to upscale CO2 storage in basalt. This is currently happening at Reykjavik Energy’s Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, where up to 5,000 tonnes of CO2 per year are captured and stored in a basaltic reservoir.”


Hydrogen Fuel Stations

A Stanford University research lab has developed new technologies to tackle two of the world’s biggest energy challenges – clean fuel for transportation and grid-scale energy storageHydrogen fuel has long been touted as a clean alternative to gasoline. Automakers began offering hydrogen-powered cars to American consumers last year, but only a handful have sold, mainly because hydrogen refueling stations are few and far between.

silicone nanoconesStanford engineers created arrays of silicon nanocones to trap sunlight and improve the performance of solar cells made of bismuth vanadate

Millions of cars could be powered by clean hydrogen fuel if it were cheap and widely available,” said Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.

Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, which emit carbon dioxide, hydrogen cars themselves are emissions free. Making hydrogen fuel, however, is not emission free: Today, making most hydrogen fuel involves natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

To address the problem, Cui and his colleagues have focused on photovoltaic water splitting. This emerging technology consists of a solar-powered electrode immersed in water. When sunlight hits the electrode, it generates an electric current that splits the water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. Finding an affordable way to produce clean hydrogen from water has been a challenge. Conventional solar electrodes made of silicon quickly corrode when exposed to oxygen, a key byproduct of water splitting. Several research teams have reduced corrosion by coating the silicon with iridium and other precious metals.
The researchers described their findings in two studies published this month in the journals Science Advances and Nature Communications. 

Writing in the June 17 edition of Sciences Advances, Cui and his colleagues presented a new approach using bismuth vanadate, an inexpensive compound that absorbs sunlight and generates modest amounts of electricity.

Bismuth vanadate has been widely regarded as a promising material for photoelectrochemical water splitting, in part because of its low cost and high stability against corrosion,” said Cui, who is also an associate professor of photon science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “However, the performance of this material remains well below its theoretical solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency.”

Bismuth vanadate absorbs light but is a poor conductor of electricity. To carry a current, a solar cell made of bismuth vanadate must be sliced very thin, 200 nanometers or less, making it virtually transparent. As a result, visible light that could be used to generate electricity simply passes through the cell.

To capture sunlight before it escapes, Cui’s team turned to nanotechnology. The researchers created microscopic arrays containing thousands of silicon nanocones, each about 600 nanometers tall.

Nanocone structures have shown a promising light-trapping capability over a broad range of wavelengths,” Cui explained. “Each cone is optimally shaped to capture sunlight that would otherwise pass through the thin solar cell.”

In the experiment, Cui and his colleagues deposited the nanocone arrays on a thin film of bismuth vanadate. Both layers were then placed on a solar cell made of perovskite, another promising photovoltaic material.

When submerged, the three-layer tandem device immediately began splitting water at a solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 6.2 percent, already matching the theoretical maximum rate for a bismuth vanadate cell.


Algae To Power Jets

Aviation giant Airbus hope algae could one day help power jets – and help airlines cut their C02 emissions. They’re working with the Munich Technical University (Germany) to cultivate the photosynthetic organisms in this lab. Algae here is cultivated in water with a salt content of 6-9 percent. A combination of light and carbon dioxide does the rest.


Primarily you need obviously algae cells that are able to generate fats and oils. In combination with CO2 and light these algae cells propagate and form algae biomass and under certain cultivation conditions, for example the lack of nitrogen in the cultivation media, these algae cells accumulate fats and oils in their cell mass and this can reach up to 50 to 70 percent of the total cell weight. That is quite a lot and once you formed that fat and oil you can actually extract it from the cell and convert it over a chemical process“, says  Thomas Brueck, Professor at Munich Technical University (TUM). In these open tanks algae grows 12 times faster than plants cultivated on soil, producing an oil yield 30 times that of rapeseed.

Algae fuel today is still in the state of research so today, we could probably not offer it at costs which are realistic to run an airline. But we are sure that over time, we will make it possible to offer kerosine made of algae for a competitive price“, comments Gregor von Kursell, Airbus Group Spokesman. The company says the project remains in its infancy. Researchers believe biofuel from algaculture could provide up to 5 percent of jetfuel needs by around 2050.


Electric Cars That Eat CO2

An interdisciplinary team of scientists has worked out a way to make electric vehicles that only are not only carbon neutral but carbon negative, capable of actually reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide as they operate.

They have done so by demonstrating how the graphite electrodes used in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric automobiles can be replaced with carbon material recovered from the atmosphere. The unusual pairing of carbon dioxide conversion and advanced battery technology is the result of a collaboration between the laboratory of Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cary Pint at Vanderbilt University and Professor of Chemistry Stuart Licht at George Washington University. The team adapted a solar-powered process that converts carbon dioxide into carbon so that it produces carbon nanotubes and demonstrated that the nanotubes can be incorporated into both lithium-ion batteries like those used in electric vehicles and electronic devices and low-cost sodium-ion batteries under development for large-scale applications, such as the electric grid.

Tesla Model 3

This approach not only produces better batteries but it also establishes a value for carbon dioxide recovered from the atmosphere that is associated with the end-user battery cost unlike most efforts to reuse CO2 that are aimed at low-valued fuels, like methanol, that cannot justify the cost required to produce them,” said Pint. “Our climate-change solution is two fold: (1) to transform the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into valuable products and (2) to provide greenhouse gas emission-free alternatives to today’s industrial and transportation fossil fuel processes,” adds Licht. “In addition to better batteries other applications for the carbon nanotubes include carbon composites for strong, lightweight construction materials, sports equipment and car, truck and airplane bodies.

The project builds upon a solar thermal electrochemical process (STEP) that can create carbon nanofibers from ambient carbon dioxide developed by the Licht group and described in the journal Nano Letters last August. STEP uses solar energy to provide both the electrical and thermal energy necessary to break down carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen and to produce carbon nanotubes that are stable, flexible, conductive and stronger than steel.

The recipe for converting carbon dioxide gas into batteries is described in the paper titled “Carbon Nanotubes Produced from Ambient Carbon Dioxide for Environmentally Sustainable Lithium-Ion and Sodium-Ion Battery Anodes” published online on Mar. 2 by the journal ACS Central Science.


New Efficient Materials For Solar Fuel Cells

University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) chemists have developed new high-performing materials for cells that harness sunlight to split carbon dioxide and water into useable fuels like methanol and hydrogen gas. These “green fuels” can be used to power cars, home appliances or even to store energy in batteries.

solar fuel cells

Technologies that simultaneously permit us to remove greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide while harnessing and storing the energy of sunlight as fuel are at the forefront of current research,” said Krishnan Rajeshwar, UTA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and co-founder of the University’s Center of Renewable Energy, Science and Technology. “Our new material could improve the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar fuel generation, which is not yet economically viable,” he added.

The new hybrid platform uses ultra-long carbon nanotube networks with a homogeneous coating of copper oxide nanocrystals. It demonstrates both the high electrical conductivity of carbon nanotubes and the photocathode qualities of copper oxide, efficiently converting light into the photocurrents needed for the photoelectrochemical reduction process. Morteza Khaledi, dean of the UTA College of Science, said Rajeshwar’s work is representative of the University’s commitment to addressing critical issues with global environmental impact under the Strategic Plan 2020.


Ocean: NanoMotors Remove Ninety Percent Of The Carbon Dioxide

Machines that are much smaller than the width of a human hair could one day help clean up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans. Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego have designed enzyme-functionalized micromotors that rapidly zoom around in water, remove carbon dioxide and convert it into a usable solid form. The proof of concept study represents a promising route to mitigate the buildup of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas in the environment, said researchers.

nanomotorsNanoengineers have invented tiny tube-shaped micromotors that zoom around in water and efficiently remove carbon dioxide. The surfaces of the micromotors are functionalized with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enables the motors to help rapidly convert carbon dioxide to calcium carbonate

We’re excited about the possibility of using these micromotors to combat ocean acidification and global warming,” said Virendra V. Singh, a postdoctoral scientist in Wang’s research group and a co-first author of this study. In their experiments, nanoengineers demonstrated that the micromotors rapidly decarbonated water solutions that were saturated with carbon dioxide. Within five minutes, the micromotors removed 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a solution of deionized water. The micromotors were just as effective in a sea water solution and removed 88 percent of the carbon dioxide in the same timeframe.

In the future, we could potentially use these micromotors as part of a water treatment system, like a water decarbonation plant,” said Kevin Kaufmann, an undergraduate researcher in Wang’s lab and a co-author of the study.

The team, led by nanoengineering professor Joseph Wang, has published the work this month in the journal Angewandte Chemie.


How To Trap Greenhouse Gases

Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas tend to collect within Earth’s atmosphere as “greenhouse gases” that are blamed for escalating global warming.

So researchers around the globe are on a quest for materials capable of capturing and storing greenhouse gases. This shared goal led researchers at Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur to team up to explore the feasibility of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (VACNTs) to trap and store two greenhouse gases in particular: carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). As the team reports in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP Publishing, they discovered that gas adsorption in VACNTs can be influenced by adjusting the morphological parameters of the carbon nanotube thickness, the distance between nanotubes, and their height.

Carbon nanotubes against greenhouse gases
Snapshots of CO2 adsorption in double-walled carbon nanotube arrays (with an inner tube diameter of 2r=3 nanometers and various inter-tube distance at T=303 K and p=1 bar)


These parameters are fundamental for ‘tuning’ the hierarchical pore structure of the VACNTs,” explained Mahshid Rahimi and Deepu Babu, the paper’s lead authors and doctoral students in theoretical physical chemistry and inorganic chemistry at the Technische Universität Darmstadt. “This hierarchy effect is a crucial factor for getting high-adsorption capacities as well as mass transport into the nanostructure. Surprisingly, from theory and by experiment, we found that the distance between nanotubes plays a much larger role in gas adsorption than the tube diameter does.


How To Clean Up Cigarette Smoke

The Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) research team has developed a nano-catalyst for air cleaning in a smoking room that removes 100% of acetaldehyde, the first class carcinogen, which accounts for the largest portion of the gaseous substances present in cigarette smoke.

Air Cleaning DeviceFor the performance evaluation test, the research team made an air cleaning equipment prototype using the nano-catalyst filter. The equipment was installed in an actual smoking room in the size of 30 square meters (with processing capacity of 4 CMM). About 80% of cigarette smoke elements were processed and decomposed to water vapor and carbon dioxide, within 30 minutes, and 100% of them within 1 hour. The test condition is based on the processing capacity which could circulate the air inside the entire 30 square meter smoking room once every 15 mns.

The nano-catalyst filter uses a technology that decomposes elements of cigarette smoke using oxygen radical, which is generated by decomposing ozone in the air on the surface of the manganese-oxide-based nano-catalyst filter. An evaluation test with total volatile organic compounds (TVOC), such as acetaldehyde, nicotine and tar, which account for the largest volume of gaseous materials in cigarette smoke, is conducted to evaluate the performance of the newly-developed catalyst. The results show that the new catalyst decomposes over 98% of the aforementioned harmful substances.


Hydrogen Batteries Power Airliners Galley

Fuel cells hidden inside trolleys used to serve passengers their in-flight drinks could generate enough additional energy to power an airliner’s entire galley, according to German researchers. Passengers on airliners are used to their in-flight snacks coming from the flight attendant’s trolley. In the future, that trolley could provide enough power to cook a plane-load of meals. German researchers have been showcasing their portable fuel cell at the Paris Air show.


What you see here is an energy generation system with a tank, a reformer, a fuel cell and a battery. The fuel cell hybrid system produces enough power for one galley and if I put it in, you can see the galley is now powered by the trolley,” said  Ronny Knepple, head of energy systems at developer Diehl Aerospace. Diehl‘s humble-looking trolley houses a tank filled with liquid propylene glycol which provides the hydrogen – the fuel source for the battery.

“The propylene glycol from the tank is evaporated and here in the reformer at high temperature the hydrogen is extracted from the propylene glycol,” explains Professor Gunther Kolb from Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (Germany)  and one of the power unit’s designers.
A catalytic converter in the trolley transforms the toxic by-products of the reaction into carbon dioxide and water. And the compact unit is lighter and smaller than conventional energy systems.
We have used here our special plate heat exchanger technology, which allows us to reduce weight and especially the size of the system considerably. In some cases here, we could save 90 percent of the space required by conventional technology,” adds Prof. Kolb. Planes in service for decades are often refurbished with power-hungry new technology in their galleys. Diehl and its collaborators hope their system will provide an independent power source for increased energy demands. The prototype lighting up the galley in Paris could be seen on airliners within 2 years.