JAN 22

Using Metals as Carbon Free Fuel Alternatives

Written by on January 22, 2016

metal powder fuel

Researchers are exploring the novel idea of using metals as fuels. This is not some new, exotic science-fiction material, but rather plentiful, ordinary metals such as iron that could be used in a novel way for storing and transporting renewable energy. According to a McGill University article, the research being led by Professor Jeffrey Bergthorson is proposing “a novel concept for using tiny metal particles – similar in size to fine flour or icing sugar – to power external-combustion engines.” Instead of using the chemical bonds with carbon, which are currently the basis of most fuels we presently use, metal powders could be used in a similar fashion and make use of energetic reactions to release energy when and where it is needed.

The article describes the process: “Unlike the internal-combustion engines used in gasoline-powered cars, external-combustion engines use heat from an outside source to drive an engine. External-combustion engines, modern versions of the coal-fired steam locomotives that drove the industrial era, are widely used to generate power from nuclear, coal or biomass fuels in power stations.”

We already speak of the “embodied energy” in a material as par of its overall sustainability profile. Materials that are energy intensive to produce, such as concrete and steel, are less preferable from a lifecycle perspective compared to a material like wood, which needs much less energy to gather and prepare. So the idea of using iron powder (or some other metal) as a fuel is not as impractical as it might seem at first.

While we think of metal as non-combustible, fine metal can be burned (as anyone who has ever lit a piece of steel wool on fire can tell you). But transporting a load of iron dust is much less hazardous than loads of oil or liquified natural gas.

Using metals as a fuel would require capturing the spent fuel in order to re-process it. Having clouds of rust floating in the air sounds like a dystopian future. But, in theory, processing the oxidized metal back into its pure state could be carried out repeatedly, re-using the same metal over and over.

While the researchers are looking at all levels of energy use with this technology, from automotive uses on up, the idea of storing grid-scale energy or even transporting it from one location to another (refining metal near locations producing lots of energy, much the way aluminum processing presently takes place close to cheap electricity sources), and then transporting the metal to power plants for it to be burned to produce electricity.

One potential drawback that probably requires further investigation is that metal is a much heavier substrate than carbon-based fuels are. If metal dust is to be used for transportation, how heavy is the fuel that needs to be carried for ordinary travel?

But if existing combustion power plants could be adapted to use metal powder instead of coal or other fossil fuels, then much of the existing power generating infrastructure could be used, and power generation could continue to be in the same places it is now, using the same grid as is currently supplying electricity. Large scale power plants are also likely much easier to set up with the equipment necessary to do the capture of exhaust.

via: Quirks and Quarks

JAN 13

Still Plugging Electric Cars at NAIAS 2016

Written by on January 13, 2016


Nobody is trying to save the planet with green cars anymore.

The days of green cars being featured at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) seem to be over.  Gone are the days of rainforest themes and bamboo floors and ostentatiously placed recycling bins.  But we’ve been reporting that for the past few years. We’ve continued to note the decrease in emphasis on the importance of fuel economy, resource conservation, emissions reduction, and similar features that make a car “green.”  Green is now passe.  Or green has become mainstream.  It’s probably a bit of both.

This is not to say that everything has gone back to the way it was.  Regulations for fuel economy have pushed things to where a small, chunky SUV had the kind of unheralded fuel efficiency that would’ve been one of the selling points for a small sedan a few years earlier.  So, in that sense, the entire industry has gotten greener.  But it’s gotten rolled into the ordinary business of selling cars.

The one thing which is a green car element that was repeated across many manufacturers’ displays this year was the electric vehicle charging station.  Rather than being surrounded by a special display drawing attention to the “green” car, in most instances, the rechargeable vehicles were identified primarily by having that company’s power unit standing beside it (often with the unit plugged in to show the connection).  Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Porsche are among those with this kind of display.  Having a matching branded charging station in one’s own garage is one thing, but the interoperability of different chargers needs to be assured for the uptake of electric vehicles to continue to grow.

Instead of everyone trying to establish their green credibility, this year the feature that most manufacturers seem to want you to covet is having the ability to connect your phone and your car.  Rather than embedding complicated systems into the vehicle itself, they are instead taking advantage of the nimbler technology of the smartphone, and making it easier to pair that with your new vehicle.

The other thing that was striking to a long-time auto show attendee was the number of shifts in space between different manufacturers.  While some companies’ presence was in the same part of Cobo Hall where they have been in previous years, there were moves among several companies major companies with their displays in very different places from where they had been for the last few years.  Does being in a different place mean anything significant?  Maybe not.  But at the same time, it seems emblematic of a shift in the landscape.

Tesla, which had been the brash upstart at the show a few years ago and maintained a presence for several years, was not a part of this year’s show at all.  More surprisingly, Toyota’s presence was reduced to a small counter with just two people standing behind it, although sub-brands Scion and Lexus had a presence, and they evidently had a bit more to reveal during the continuation of the show on Tuesday.

Luxury brands seemed to be a bigger presence than in the past.  Both Cadillac and Lincoln displays were disconnected from the rest of their respective parent companies, and were across from one another in about the space around where Tesla had been in past years.  A “luxury lifestyle” magazine (with a handful of high-end cars in their display) had a space easily as large as some of the less mainstream exhibits from previous years, such as VIA, or BYD, or last year’s car printing 3D printer.  There seemed to be a new emphasis on exclusivity, while also an overall reduction in the size of the footprint than in previous shows.  While last year there were many technological displays on the lower level, this year it was just the US Army (also present on the lower level last year) and the automotive design program of Lawrence Technological University.

But the number of companies with more than one electric or hybrid vehicle seems like this year’s notable trend.  BMW, for one example, has three different vehicles (i8, i3, and 330e), all for different market segments, with plug-in capability.  That, as much as anything, seems to be the green trend to watch for the next couple of years.


Osmosis Power Is Off the Table Now

Written by on January 5, 2016


Not every energy technology that is explored is going to lead to a successful new power industry. Osmosis power was one of the more unusual technologies we’ve come across. But now, after a few years of investigation, it appears that this technology is not a viable option for larger scale power generation.

Statkraft, the Norwegian company which had opened a pioneering research facility to explore the potential of osmotic power generation, has closed its operations.  Moreover, a recent research publication looking at the technology finds that biofouling, the accumulation of algae, bacteria, and other organic material on surfaces where they adversely affect the performance of the system, makes the technology unfit for power generation at the present time.

It is not inconceivable that further technological developments might be developed that could make osmotic power generation a viable system. However, with so many other ways of producing power cleanly and inexpensively, and with the other challenges presented in using osmosis, it is likely that this option will remain shelved.

JUL 16

Pioneering Waste-Reusing Plastic Roads

Written by on July 16, 2015


A new way of building roads with recycled plastic is being developed by Dutch company KWS Infra. As a resident of Michigan, where the combination of hard northern winters and a legislature that refuses to do its job have led to a statewide condition with many roads in embarrassingly bad shape, this hits close to home. The plastic roads are claimed to offer a number of advantages that make this a potentially revolutionary technology.

The proposed system is going to use “100% recycled materials” according to the company. If plastic-based roads can serve to make a use for more plastic waste and keep it from entering waste streams, that could be a huge benefit all by itself. The premanufactured road sections are modular, and would be built in a factory and then shipped to the work site where they could be installed faster than conventionally-built roads can be completed. The plastic road modules are also better able to be installed over sand or poor soil (which is a frequent issue in the Netherlands). The modular units can also contain chases for electrical wireways or other infrastructure to be incorporated. As with other premanufactured systems and components, there can be better quality control of manufacturing as opposed to work done in the field. The modular road sections are also lighter in weight, meaning less impact on roads and less transportation energy to deliver materials.

The plastic road could be more durable and longer lasting than conventional paving, and is resistant to a wide range of temperatures (although it might not be suitable for use in far northerly regions). “Plastic Road is also virtually maintenance free. It is resistant to corrosion and weathering. So it can easily to temperatures from -40 to +80 degrees Celsius and it is much more resistant to chemical attack. We estimate that the life span of roads can be tripled.” (article translated via Google Translate) Having a material that won’t develop potholes could be a huge advantage if the plastic road is able to deliver that.  Presumably the modular panels have some structural strength which gives them the ability to span over poor soils, and that might also help in resisting damage from frost heave.  Having panels that can be more quickly replaced could also lead to less road blockage and delay during construction (and less idling vehicles is yet another environmental side benefit that could come from these roads).

Other interesting technologies, like solar roadways, might dovetail with the modular construction of plastic roads, enabling both systems to be adopted more readily by combining the benefits of both in a single system.  The open chases of the plastic roads could also make it fairly easy for the solar panels to be prewired in the factory, and only need to make connections between modules in order to connect the system.

The list of potential features the plastic roads offer is impressive. The company is now looking for a partner and a location for a demonstration pilot program to test these roads and see how well they perform in real-world conditions.

via: Construction Data Building Blocks Blog


Superhydrophobic Coating Makes Better Solar Panels

Written by on June 2, 2015


Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a coating for glass that is superhydrophobic, making it so that it will literally bounce water off the surface. This coating also decreases the amount of light that reflects away from the glass. The benefits for solar collectors are immediately evident.

The ability to be self-cleaning would be an enormous benefit for solar panels, even without the additional conversion efficiency benefits. Although many of the best locations for solar panel farms are in dusty desert climates with very little rainfall, even there, the ability to clean the solar panels with just a small amount of water and the self-cleaning ability of the panels would be a benefit, and a savings in labor and in water use.

The coating can be applied to glass in a number of different categories, including architectural purposes, and military applications, but the use of superhydrophobic coating for solar panels could be particularly beneficial:

“Where solar panels are concerned, the suppression of reflected light translates into a 3-6 percent relative increase in light-to-electricity conversion efficiency and power output of the cells. Coupled with the superhydrophobic self-cleaning ability, this could also substantially reduce maintenance and operating costs of solar panels. In addition, the coating is highly effective at blocking ultraviolet light.”

According to the ORNL press release, the coating is also highly durable, unlike other hydrophobic and self-cleaning technologies. The process to make this coating is also cost-effective, and it “can be fabricated through industry standard techniques mak[ing] it easy and inexpensive to scale up and apply to a wide variety of glass platforms.”

via: Oak Ridge National Laboratory press release

image via: ORNL

MAR 11

Solar Impulse Begins Round-the-World Journey

Written by on March 11, 2015

Earlier this week, the Solar Impulse aircraft took off from Abu Dhabi on the first leg of it’s atempt to fly around the globe entirely on solar power.  We’ve been especially interested in this project from its beginnings as it has moved along setting new records, and we will now be watching as they make this trip around the world.

Pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg will not fly non-stop (which Picard did in 1999 in the Breitling Orbiter 3, completing the first non-stop trip around the world by balloon), but will fly a number of legs over several months.

The adventure is expected to last until July or August of this year, with the flight making a number of stops along the way.  The Solar Impulse site lists the proposed route with “stops in Muscat, Oman; Ahmedabad and Varanasi, India; Mandalay, Myanmar; and Chongqing and Nanjing, China. After crossing the Pacific Ocean via Hawaii, Si2 will fly across the Continental U.S.A. stopping in three locations – Phoenix, and New York City at JFK. A location in the Midwest will be decided dependent on weather conditions. After crossing the Atlantic, the final legs include a stop-over in Southern Europe or North Africa before arriving back in Abu Dhabi.”

The idea of solar powered flight seemed like a distant possibility when the Solar Impulse team announced their concept in 2007.  But work has proceeded methodically, with improvements and new records set along the way in the development of an entirely solar powered aircraft that can even fly through the dark of night solely from its stored power.  Circumnavigating the globe entirely on solar power will mark another milestone in flight, and in green technology, as well.

JAN 22

Solar-Powered Window Sensors for Smarter Buildings

Written by on January 22, 2015


Sensors are the next step needed on the road to developing smarter buildings, and a new, very-low power device has been developed to allow information about window to be transmitted to a control system for a building without a need for extra building wiring or power supply. The sensors are self-powered by the sun through a tiny solar cell on top of the unit.

The sensors, developed by the Fraunhofer Institute, are small enough to fit inside the gap between the two panes of a typical double-pane window. The solar cell itself and the sensor electronics and transmitter are so small that they sit flat on the spacer and do not block any of the visibility between the two panes.

The sensor is able to detect when a window is opened or closed, and can transmit that information wirelessly to a building management system (BMS) controlling the building. Used in conjunction with motorized operators for the windows, this can allow for a building to be opened up for fresh air when conditions permit, and to close the building back up when needed, even if the room is unoccupied.

The sensor can also serve an intrusion detection function, if the window is jostled or changes position unexpectedly. The sensor uses solar power, and is able to charge an internal battery to allow it to continue to operate even at night (currently able to span about 30 hours of darkness). Putting the sensor package between the panes also minimizes the problems that could come with occupants tampering with the sensor.

Since a single room could have many windows, the wiring to provide this level of information to a BMS system has been prohibitive in most cases. But this could be a point where a new degree of smart materials helps make a building more responsive and allow occupants a greater degree of control over their environment in conjunction with an intelligently managed building system.

image: copyright Fraunhofer Institute
via: Gizmag 

JAN 12

Who Cares About the 2015 Green Car of the Year?

Written by on January 12, 2015


One thing we’ve looked for in our annual coverage of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is the attention paid to green cars. Over the past few years, we’ve noted that environmental concerns have diminished year to year. Part of this is due to those concerns going mainstream and being incorporated into manufacturers’ whole lines, to a greater or lesser extent. But the days of having a “green flagship” are pretty much over.

This year’s five finalists for Green Car of the Year were: Audi A3 TDI, BMW i3, Chevrolet Impala Bi-Fuel, Honda Fit, and VW Golf. The field is still wide open, as these include a range of fueling options, including diesel, electric, bi-fuel (gasoline/ethanol), conventional high-efficiency gasoline, and an all-of the above smorgasbord from VW with almost all of those options included in the available options for the Golf.

In fact, the VW Golf was awarded North American Car of the Year honors at this year’s show, and the new, aluminum F-150 Ford pickup won for Truck of the Year. But none of the manufacturers has a display touting the Green Car of the Year. Senior representatives for a couple of the contenders knew that it wasn’t one of theirs, but didn’t know beyond that. The Green Car of the Year seems to have fallen off general awareness at this year’s show.

The most striking new technology on display, which will be of interest to green car enthusiasts, are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). These are going to be the next big thing to watch for, and a number of manufacturers are displaying their FCV concepts and demonstrators. Companies with FCVs in their displays this year include Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota.

Fabrication and 3d printing are also concepts getting prominent display at this year’s show. An operational 3D printing station is on the main floor as part of the Local Motors display, printing out a car body during the show. The lower level of the show, which often has some of the more interesting displays, has a complete 3D printed car, as well as probably the least fuel efficient vehicle at this year’s show, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (not for retail sale).

Informative static graphic displays are also in much less abundance than previous years. The engine-on-a-stick motif and the cutaway display are much less a part of this year’s show. Many of the manufacturers seem to be focusing more on the sculpture and the simple presence of their cars. Displays about fuel efficiency or milage are in very short supply at this year’s show. And no one is trying to show off a particular vehicle as an esepcially green leader.

If you’ve read this far, then you, too, must have some interest in green cars. Since the announcement was made a few weeks ago, maybe it’s not considered news. But it seems emblematic of just how far things have gone – whether you see that as a good thing or a bad thing – that it’s not even a part of BMW’s display for the vehicle to announce that the BMW i3 is this year’s Green Car of the Year.

DEC 12

Solar-Powered, Concrete Hull Boat

Written by on December 12, 2014


Carter Quillen is an engineer who bought an old, concrete hulled sail boat named the ‘Archimedes’ and, instead of refitting it with new masts, decided instead to turn it into the largest solar powered concrete hulled boat in the world.

The ‘Archimedes’ is a 50 feet (15.24 meters) long, with a displacement of 20 tons and is able to travel at up to 5 miles per hour (8 km/hour) powered solely by a 5kW solar array. Quillen is traveling along the Intercoastal Waterway as an advocate for microgrid energy production as well as using his boat as a demonstration platform for sustainable technology.

In addition to solar electric propulsion, the ‘Archimedes’ also uses solar power for its refrigeration, A/C, and water heating, and the solar panels are also being developed to be deployed in a funnel configuration for rainwater catchment.

Quillen is also campaigning for greater use of solar power in Florida, noting that “the ‘Sunshine State,’ ranks 20th nationwide in solar energy use per capita.”

Link: Ship of Imagination

video link


Is BEHA the Greenest Plane, or a Kitchen Sink?

Written by on December 5, 2014

Most people thought the triplane was a relic of the past, an ungainly aircraft from the early days, left behind as more modern designs came to the fore.  But the triplane could be getting another lease on life if the Kickstarter campaign by Faradair Aerospace Limited is successful.

The BEHA (which stands for Bio-Electric Hybrid Aircraft) is an odd looking design which seems to have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it.  The design is intended to be a six-seat aircraft with “sports car feel,” with an emphasis on safety.  The cabin is intended to have Formula 1 style crash protection as well as a ballistic parachute recovery fail-safe system.  The electric fans and ducted propeller, along with the lift from three wings, are intended to provide for exceptionally quiet flight.

Bio-Electric Hybrid refers to the combination of propulsion systems being used.  This project combines a biodiesel engine (to generate electricity and to run a large ducted pusher propeller at the back) along with twin electric fan motors.  The plane will take off and land using the electric motors, and the biodiesel engine and pusher propeller are for in-flight recharging and aiding in cross-country cruising.

But wait, like the late-night commercials say, There’s More!

The triple wing provides greater lift for the plane.  It also provides more top surface area for solar panels.  Yes, this plane also has solar panels on all three wings, as well as the fuselage and on top of the duct surrounding the pusher propeller in back.  The solar panels “are not the primary power source for the electric motors, but simply additional trickle charge capability.”

Does all of this unusual gear really make it a green aircraft?  Lots of aircraft have tested biofuels, and the performance has been pretty much uniformly acceptable.  Solar panels on the wings are part of the Solar Impulse, but that is a very specialized, purpose-built craft that does use its solar panels to power the craft.  Ducted fans and electric engines are being used in other applications.  Even whole-airplane parachutes are not new.  Does putting all these features together make a very green vehicle, or is it just a rough patchwork of other concepts all put together in a single vehicle?

EcoGeeks like us have been intrigued by a host of other unusual aircraft concepts over the years. Certainly other pioneering vehicles seemed ungainly at first.  Whether the BEHA rises to become a star will remain to be seen.

Link: Faradair Kickstarter