Renewable Fuel From Water

Physicists at Lancaster University (in UK) are developing methods of creating renewable fuel from water using quantum technologyRenewable hydrogen can already be produced by photoelectrolysis where solar power is used to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. But, despite significant research effort over the past four decades, fundamental problems remain before this can be adopted commercially due to inefficiency and lack of cost-effectivenessDr Manus Hayne  from the Department of Physics said: “For research to progress, innovation in both materials development and device design is clearly needed.

The Lancaster study, which formed part of the PhD research of Dr Sam Harrison, and is published in Scientific Reports, provides the basis for further experimental work into the solar production of hydrogen as a renewable fuel. It demonstrates that the novel use of nanostructures could increase the maximum photovoltage generated in a photoelectrochemical cell, increasing the productivity of splitting water molecules.

To the authors’ best knowledge, this system has never been investigated either theoretically or experimentally, and there is huge scope for further work to expand upon the results presented here,” said Dr Haynes. “Fossil-fuel combustion releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing global climate change, and there is only a finite amount of them available for extraction. We clearly need to transition to a renewable and low-greenhouse-gas energy infrastructure, and renewable hydrogen is expected to play an important role.

Fossil fuels accounted for almost 90% of energy consumption in 2015, with absolute demand still increasing due to a growing global population and increasing industrialisationPhotovoltaic solar cells are currently used to convert sunlight directly into electricity but solar hydrogen has the advantage that it is easily stored, so it can be used as and when needed. Hydrogen is also very flexible, making it highly advantageous  for remote communities. It can be converted to electricity in a fuel cell, or burnt in a boiler or cooker just like natural gas. It can even be used to fuel aircraft.


Solar Nanotechnology-based Desalination

A new desalination system has been developed that combines membrane distillation technology and light-harvesting nanophotonics. Called nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation technology, or NESMD for short, the development has come from the Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), based at Rice University. The system works whereby hot salt water is flowed across one side of a porous membrane and cold freshwater is flowed across the otherWater vapor is naturally drawn through the membrane from the hot to the cold side, and because the seawater doesn’t need to be boiled, the energy requirements are less than they would be for traditional distillation, according to the researchers. However, the energy costs are still significant because heat is continuously lost from the hot side of the membrane to the cold.

Unlike traditional membrane distillation, NESMD benefits from increasing efficiency with scale,” said Rice’s Naomi Halas, a corresponding author on the paper and the leader of NEWT‘s  nanophotonics research efforts. “It requires minimal pumping energy for optimal distillate conversion, and there are a number of ways we can further optimise the technology to make it more productive and efficient.

The distillation membrane in the chamber contained a specially designed top layer of carbon black nanoparticles infused into a porous polymer. The light-capturing nanoparticles heated the entire surface of the membrane when exposed to sunlight. A thin half-millimeter-thick layer of salt water flowed atop the carbon-black layer, and a cool freshwater stream flowed below.

Rice scientist and water treatment expert Qilin Li said the water production rate increased greatly by concentrating the sunlight: “The intensity got up 17.5 kilowatts per meter squared when a lens was used to concentrate sunlight by 25 times, and the water production increased to about 6 liters per meter squared per hour.”

In the PNAS study, researchers offered proof-of-concept results based on tests with an NESMD chamber about the size of three postage stamps and just a few millimeters thick.


Sion, The Solar-Powered Car

What has room for 6 passengers, an all-electric range of up to 155 miles (250 kilometers), and a body covered in solar panels that can add as many as 18 miles (30 kilometers) of driving a day from sunlight? That would be the Sono Motors Sion, an innovative solar-powered car from a team of German entrepreneurs that is scheduled to have its world debut on July 27 (2017).

The Sion project was able to move forward thanks to an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign last year that raised over a half million dollars. More than 1,000 people have participated so far.

The car will have two versions. The Urban comes with a 14.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack. It has a range of about 75 miles (121 kilometers) and will cost $13,200. The Extender version has a 30 kilowatt-hour battery and a range of 155 miles (250 kilometers). Its target price is $17,600. Neither price includes the battery. Like the Renault Zoe, customers will either buy the battery separately or lease it. The leasing option gives owners the flexibility to upgrade the battery later as improvements in battery technology become available.

The hood, roof, and rear hatch of the Sion are covered with monocrystalline silicon cells that are 21% efficient. On a sunny day, they can generate enough electricity to add 18 miles of range. The solar cells are 8 millimeters thick and embedded in a polycarbonate layer that is shatterproof, weather resistant, and light in weight. The Sion can also be 80% charged using an AC outlet in about 30 minutes, according to company claims. No DC charging option is available. The car also comes with an outlet that can power electronic devices.

Inside, all the seats of the 5 door hatchback fold flat, offering multiple configurations for carrying passengers and cargo. There is a 10 inch center display and smartphone connectivity via WiFi or Bluetooth. The ventilation system is called breSono and incorporates a dollop of moss, which is said to act as a natural filter when an electrical charge is applied.

The company will offer an online maintenance and repair system it calls reSono. It allows owners to order parts online and comes with a video that shows them how to install the parts when they arrive.  Or they can take the car and the parts to any local auto repair shop facility to get them installed.


Clean Hydrogen Produced From Biomass

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed a way of using solar power to generate a fuel that is both sustainable and relatively cheap to produce. It’s using natural light to generate hydrogen from biomass. One of the challenges facing modern society is what it does with its waste products. As natural resources decline in abundance, using waste for energy is becoming more pressing for both governments and business. Biomass has been a source of heat and energy since the beginning of recorded history.  The planet’s oil reserves are derived from ancient biomass which has been subjected to high pressures and temperatures over millions of years. Lignocellulose is the main component of plant biomass and up to now its conversion into hydrogen has only been achieved through a gasification process which uses high temperatures to decompose it fully.

biomass can produce hydrogen

Lignocellulose is nature’s equivalent to armoured concrete. It consists of strong, highly crystalline cellulose fibres, that are interwoven with lignin and hemicellulose which act as a glue. This rigid structure has evolved to give plants and trees mechanical stability and protect them from degradation, and makes chemical utilisation of lignocellulose so challenging,” says  Dr Moritz Kuehnel, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the research.

The new technology relies on a simple photocatalytic conversion process. Catalytic nanoparticles are added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. This is then placed in front of a light in the lab which mimics solar light. The solution is ideal for absorbing this light and converting the biomass into gaseous hydrogen which can then be collected from the headspace. The hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, which allows it to be used for power.

The findings have been  published in Nature Energy.


Graphene And Fractals Boost The Solar Power Storage By 3000%

Inspired by an American fern, researchers have developed a groundbreaking prototype that could be the answer to the storage challenge still holding solar back as a total energy solution. The new type of electrode created by RMIT University (Australia) researchers could boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3000 per cent. But the graphene-based prototype also opens a new path to the development of flexible thin film all-in-one solar capture and storage, bringing us one step closer to self-powering smart phones, laptops, cars and buildings. The new electrode is designed to work with supercapacitors, which can charge and discharge power much faster than conventional batteries. Supercapacitors have been combined with solar, but their wider use as a storage solution is restricted because of their limited capacity.

RMIT’s Professor Min Gu said the new design drew on nature’s own genius solution to the challenge of filling a space in the most efficient way possible – through intricate self-repeating patterns known as “fractals”.

The leaves of the western swordfern are densely crammed with veins, making them extremely efficient for storing energy and transporting water around the plant,” said Gu, Leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics at RMIT.

mimicking fern

Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level. “The immediate application is combining this electrode with supercapacitors, as our experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity30 times more than current capacity limits.   “Capacity-boosted supercapacitors would offer both long-term reliability and quick-burst energy release – for when someone wants to use solar energy on a cloudy day for example – making them ideal alternatives for solar power storage.”  Combined with supercapacitors, the fractal-enabled laser-reduced graphene electrodes can hold the stored charge for longer, with minimal leakage.


The Biggest Solar Plant Ever Built produces electricity at $0.10/kWh

The massive, 648-megawatt array was officially linked to the grid after being hooked up to a 400kV substation, the operator Adani Green Energy Ltd announced. The plant is spread across 2,500 acres in the town of Kamuthi in the Ramanathapuram district (India)  and will supply enough clean, green energy for 300,000 homes. The Deccan Chronicle reported that the $679 million solar park consists of 380,000 foundations, 2.5 million solar modules, 576 inverters, 154 transformers and 6,000-kilometers of cables. The plant was built with parts and machinery from around the world. Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani formally dedicated the structure to the nation.


“This is a momentous occasion for the state of Tamil Nadu as well as the entire country“, he said. “We are extremely happy to dedicate this plant to the nation; a plant of this magnitude reinstates the country’s ambitions of becoming one of the leading green energy producers in the world.”

India has an ambitious solar energy goal. In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to increase solar power capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022, five times higher than the previous target.

The plant was commissioned by Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. Indian Express reported in July 2015 that the state government would buy the entire 648 megawatts produced by Adani at a fixed price of $0.10/kWh (Rs 7.01/kWh) for 25 years.


Nanotechnology Boosts Solar Panel Efficiency

Solar power, which is power drawn from the sun, is a familiar concept for most Americans. You set out some thick, flat arrays the color of blueberries in your lawn or on your roof, and they use the photovoltaic effect to generate a current. For many people, this means they can expect to spend less on energy from nonrenewable sources like oil and gas, with the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions in the long run. The benefits for developing nations are even greater. Take Africa, for example. As a continent, it is extremely sunny and flat so it seems like a natural place to deploy solar panels. The main barriers preventing this rollout are the cost of cell production and limitations on cell efficiency.

solar farm

Fortunately, research costs for solar energy are comparatively lower than other fields. This has led to scientists coming up with a number of inventive ways to improve solar cells through the use of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology refers to manmade matter measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). For reference, a sheet of paper is 100,000 nm, while a strand of hair is 80,000 nm. Due to their size and extreme variety, nanotechnology allows scientists to create microscopic components and enhance the performance of existing technologies. For example, electroplating solar panels with nanometers-thin layers of silver helps the system absorb heat and makes it resistant to corrosion. Hinging on the size and versatility of nanotechnology, scientists have discovered several different ways to leverage it to improve solar cells.

The amount of energy solar cell panels can produce is limited in part by the sunlight it collects. If the array can collect more sunlight while still taking up the same amount of space, the energy produced per panel will increase. This would have a profound effect on arrays in places like Africa, where it is extremely sunny. The increase in surface area would mean a greater amount of energy collected and output over the lifetime of the cell. Using nanotechnology, scientists have developed a way to do just this.

The actual product is called a dye-sensitive solar cell. It uses a layer of porous nanoparticles coated in dye to increase the surface area on the solar cell on a microscopic level. This has the added benefit of making the cell more flexible, and increasing its ability to work in extreme conditions. If that seems difficult to imagine, think about it this way: Picture a long strip of candy dots. The paper is the solar array while the candy is the layer of nanoparticles. The candy increases the surface area of the paper without adding much bulk. Thus, the paper remains supple. Some of the greatest advances in flexible solar cells have been made by Alberta scientist Jillian Buriak. Using a spray gun and laminators, Buriak and her team developed a way to spray nanoparticles onto the plastic. This sheet is then run through the laminator, which spreads out the layer even further. The result is an extremely thin solar cell with innumerable practical applications.

Using nanotechnology, scientists have discovered that they can create cells that absorb 90 percent of the sunlight that hits it. This allows for more efficient concentrating solar power (CSP) plants. Unlike traditional solar arrays, CSP plants generate power by focusing the sun, generally through mirrors, on molten salt. The heated salt is used to create steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. One limitation of these plants is that the materials used to collect the sunlight degrade after about a year, causing a dip in production while they are repaired.

This new technology can withstand extreme heat and last for many years outdoors, despite exposure to the elements.


Huge Solar Farm Opens In South France

France has opened the largest solar farm in Europe, producing enough electricity to power a city the size of Bordeaux. The 260 hectare park, situated at Cestas in the Gironde, is slightly larger than the principality of Monaco, and has the same power as an old coal power station. It cost €360million and has been built by the independent renewable electricity producer Neoen. The company’s director general said that the work had been completed on time and in budget.

solar farmLe Figaro compared the project to France’s latest nuclear reactor EPR nuclear reactor under construction in Flamanville whose budget has risen from €3.3billion to €10.5bn and is currently due to start production six years late, in 2018.

Also by comparison, the price of electricity from the solar park is set at €105 per megawatt hour (MWh) for the first 20 years, compared to €114 MWh for the EPR reactor. Wind power is typically around €80 MWh.

The panels were manufactured by three different factories in China and installed by Schneider Electric, a subsidiary of the construction group Eiffage who fitted 15,000 panels a day to complete the project.
The site has 680km of underground cable, 3,700km of solar cable and 116km of high tension cable.
More than 16,500 metal support tables and 3,826 fuse boxes were fitted.

Integrated Solar Fuels Generator

Generating and storing renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, is a key barrier to a clean-energy economy. When the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) was established at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) and its partnering institutions in 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub had one main goal: a cost-effective method of producing fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, mimicking the natural process of photosynthesis in plants and storing energy in the form of chemical fuels for use on demand. Over the past five years, researchers at JCAP have made major advances toward this goal, and they now report the development of the first complete, efficient, safe, integrated solar-driven system for splitting water to create hydrogen fuels.


This result was a stretch project milestone for the entire five years of JCAP as a whole, and not only have we achieved this goal, we also achieved it on time and on budget,” says Caltech’s Nate Lewis, professor of chemistry, and the JCAP scientific director.

This accomplishment drew on the knowledge, insights and capabilities of JCAP, which illustrates what can be achieved in a Hub-scale effort by an integrated team,” adds Harry Atwater, director of JCAP. “The device reported here grew out of a multi-year, large-scale effort to define the design and materials components needed for an integrated solar fuels generator.
Another key advance is the use of active, inexpensive catalysts for fuel production. The photoanode requires a catalyst to drive the essential water-splitting reaction. Rare and expensive metals such as platinum can serve as effective catalysts, but in its work the team discovered that it could create a much cheaper, active catalyst by adding a 2-nanometer-thick layer of nickel. This catalyst is among the most active known catalysts for splitting water molecules into oxygen, protons, and electrons and is a key to the high efficiency displayed by the device. The demonstration system is approximately one square centimeter in area, converts 10 percent of the energy in sunlight into stored energy in the chemical fuel, and can operate for more than 40 hours continuously. “This new system shatters all of the combined safety, performance, and stability records for artificial leaf technology by factors of 5 to 10 or more ,” Lewis says. “Our work shows that it is indeed possible to produce fuels from sunlight safely and efficiently in an integrated system with inexpensive components,” Lewis adds .


Solar Power: Nanorods-based Perovskite Module

Research teams from the Universiti Malaysia Pahang and University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, Italy, have jointly developed a nanorod-based perovskite solar module. The scientists claimed that it is the world’s first such solar module, as the perovskite solar modules are not only more efficient but also showed remarkable and improved shelf life.

perovskite solar panelThe nanostructuring of the photoelectrode, the researchers say, brings about great improvement in stability compared with those cells without a scaffold layer. The nanorod-based solar modules retained their original efficiency values even after 2,500 hours of shelf-life investigation.

At the same time, devices employing a conventional TiO2 nanoparticle material showed nearly 60 percent of original performance, and planar devices employing a compact TiO2 layer showed under 5 percent of original performance. The three types of electron transport layers were measured under similar experimental conditions.

The team have determined that the peculiar conformation of nanorods facilitated a stable perovskite phase due to their inherent stability and macroporous nature.

Rajan Jose, the team leader from University Malaysia Pahang is a professor of physics in the Faculty of Industrial Science & Technology and has been working on nanomaterials for energy applications since 2008. He calls the findings a significant milestone in the field of nanotechnology.

According to Rajan, his team has solved a technology bottleneck for large-scale application of the technology by applying “precise laser treatment and via interfacial engineering”.

The team has  published the findings in the  online edition of ACS Nano,  titled Vertical TiO2 Nanorods as a Medium for Stable and High-Efficiency Perovskite Solar Modules.



Solar Panels: Perovskites Better Than Silicon

In the solar power research community, a new class of materials called perovskites is causing quite a buzz, as scientists search for technology that has a better “energy payback time” than the silicon-based solar panels currently dominating the market. Now, a new study by scientists at Northwestern University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory reports that perovskite modules are better than any commercially available solar technology when products are compared on the basis of energy payback time.

Solar panels are an investment — not only in terms of money, but also energy. It takes energy to mine, process and purify raw materials, and then to manufacture and install the final product. Energy payback time considers the energy that went into creating the product and is a more comprehensive way to compare solar technology than conversion efficiency. The research team reports the energy payback time for solar panel technology made with perovskites could be as quick as two to three months, easily beating silicon-based panels, which typically need about two years to return the energy investment.

perovskite solar panel

People see 11 percent efficiency and assume it’s a better product than something that’s 9 percent efficient,” said Fengqi You, corresponding author on the study and assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “But that’s not necessarily true. One needs to take a broad perspective when evaluating solar technology.”

In what’s called a cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment, You and his colleagues traced a product from the mining of its raw materials until its retirement in a landfill. They determined the ecological impacts of making a solar panel and calculated how long it would take to recover the energy invested.

The findings have been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science .


Spray-on Solar Power

Pretty soon, powering your tablet could be as simple as wrapping it in cling wrap. Illan Kramer and colleagues from the University of Toronto (U of T) have just invented a new way to spray solar cells onto flexible surfaces using miniscule light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum dots (CQDs)—a major step toward making spray-on solar cells easy and cheap to manufacture. Solar-sensitive CQDs printed onto a flexible film could be used to coat all kinds of weirdly shaped surfaces, from patio furniture to an airplane’s wing. A surface the size of your car’s roof wrapped with CQD-coated film would produce enough energy to power three 100-Watt light bulbs — or 24 compact fluorescents. He calls his system sprayLD, a play on the manufacturing process called ALD, short for atomic layer deposition, in which materials are laid down on a surface one atom-thickness at a time.
In two recent papers in the journals Advanced Materials and Applied Physics Letters, Kramer showed that the sprayLD method can be used on flexible materials without any major loss in solar-cell efficiency. Kramer built his sprayLD device using parts that are readily available and rather affordable—he sourced a spray nozzle used in steel mills to cool steel with a fine mist of water, and a few regular air brushes from an art store.
spray-on solar cells
My dream is that one day you’ll have two technicians with Ghostbusters backpacks come to your house and spray your roof,” said Kramer, a post-doctoral fellow with The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto and IBM Canada’s Research and Development Centre.
This is something you can build in a Junkyard Wars fashion, which is basically how we did it,” said Kramer.

“As quantum dot solar technology advances rapidly in performance, it’s important to determine how to scale them and make this new class of solar technologies manufacturable,” said Professor Ted Sargent (ECE), vice dean, research in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at University of Toronto and Kramer’s supervisor. “We were thrilled when this attractively manufacturable spray-coating process also led to superior performance devices showing improved control and purity.”