Is the Future of Energy in the Hands of Laboratory Scientists?

Update from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit

It wasn’t that many months ago that we wrote that the cost of renewable energy was close to catching up to the cost of conventional oil-based energy production. But now that oil prices have taken the express elevator down from around $100 dollars a barrel to somewhere around $40 a barrel — depending upon the day of the week — where does that leave renewable energy? Well, if you ask the attendees of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit taking place this week in Washington, D.C., the answer you’ll get is they are still very bullish on the future of renewable energy technology.

 

ARPA-E Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit is taking place this Week in Washington, D.C.

ARPA-E Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit is taking place this Week in Washington, D.C.


White House Announces Clean Energy Investment Initiative, Whose Goal is to Raise $2 Billion in Private Sector Investment

Yesterday, Pres. Obama announced a new Clean Energy Investment Initiative, whose goal is to get commitments for at least $2 billion of private sector investment to develop new technologies that can address climate change and reduce carbon pollution. As part of the announcement, several major institutions announced participation, including the University of California Board of Regents, which is allocating at least $1 billion of its endowment and pension over the next five years; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Schmidt Family Foundation and Wells Fargo.

It was also announced yesterday that the White House will host a Clean Energy Investment Summit later this spring. Separately, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced a new partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to create a Clean Energy Incubator Network (incubatenergy.org) which provides resources to help entrepreneurs developing new energy technologies.

 

Take a Tour of the ARPA-E Technology Showcase

A disclaimer: it’s difficult to assess whether new ideas will pan out — or flame out! Some of the ideas presented are so far-fetched and far out that you have to think they just might work! And it only takes one or two game-changer ideas to transform the world. So with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff and take a look at some of the interesting technology on display at the ARPA-E event.

 

Developing a Smarter Energy Grid

You may recall our previous discussion of the overhaul the German electrical grid. This week Scientific American had an extensive blog article on why we need to do the same here in North America. It’s not surprising that there were many technologies on display that addressed the need of creating a smarter energy grid, including new solutions for distributed power flow control systems using smart wires for energy routing, new high efficiency superconducting wires for wind turbine generators, and new concepts for high-performance dynamic power flow controllers.  

 

New Technologies for Renewable Energy

Many of the tech ventures at ARPA-E focused on renewable energy sources. Quite a few were in the biotech category, including new technologies for modifying tobacco plant leaves to produce oil, engineered bacteria which can create fuel without photosynthesis, and the project to produce jet fuel from the Camelina Sativa plant.  

 

wave to energy convertorDeveloped by researchers at the Taflab Berkeley (http://taflab.berkeley.edu/) under the guidance of Prof. Reza Alam. This Wave Energy Converter (WEC) is a semi-submerged Marine and Hydrokinetic Energy (MHK) technology. Its unobtrusive and storm-resistant design could provide renewable baseload power and desalination to coastal population centers, while also reducing coastal erosion.

 

ACCIO presented their turbine-free offshore wind power system, which generates electricity using wind and charged water mist. There are no moving parts, instead positive and negative charges are collected on the tubes to create direct current electrical power.

ACCIO presented their turbine-free offshore wind power system, which generates electricity using wind and charged water mist. There are no moving parts, instead positive and negative charges are collected on the tubes to create direct current electrical power.

 

Three other concepts struck us as really quite novel, including a so-called Wave Carpet designed to capture wave energy at the shoreline, a system from ACCIO, which purports to extract electrical current from charged particles produced by wave action, and an artificial tornado system from AVEtec Energy Corporation, which can power a turbine to produce electricity.

 

AVEtec Energy Corporation presented their AVE AERO system, which is an outdoor device that initiates an artificial tornado using a small heat source and ambient warm air. A turbine is mounted at the base to generate electricity.

AVEtec Energy Corporation presented their AVE AERO system, which is an outdoor device that initiates an artificial tornado using a small heat source and ambient warm air. A turbine is mounted at the base to generate electricity.

 

Capturing Greenhouse Gases and Turning Them into Useful Products

Capture of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide is the goal of several exhibitors at ARPA-E.  SRI, formerly known as Stanford Research Institute, is working on at least two different solutions to this problem, including using ammonium carbonate to remove carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide prior to combustion, as well as a solid carbon “BrightBlack” sorbent technology to remove pollution after combustion. The technology venture known as Dioxide Materials is also working to convert excess carbon dioxide into useful products such as plastics and industrial chemicals.

Dioxide Materials is developing technology targeted at power plants that converts excess carbon dioxide into intermediate chemicals like formic acid which can be used to produce transportation fuels and industrial chemicals.

Dioxide Materials is developing technology targeted at power plants that converts excess carbon dioxide into intermediate chemicals like formic acid which can be used to produce transportation fuels and industrial chemicals.

 

Energy Storage Solutions to Bridge the Gap When Solar or Wind Power Generation Is Low

It’s clear that the Achilles’ heel of solar technology is that there is no electrical production at night or significantly reduced during cloudy days. Conventional wind energy production can also vary greatly depending on wind speeds. Consequently, there is great interest in developing large-scale energy storage solutions to keep the power grid alive when renewable energy sources are not producing. The range of technologies on display addressing this issue is overwhelming! There were new solutions for batteries, including all electron batteries, solid-state batteries for vehicles, aqueous batteries for vehicles, new chemistry lithium sulfur cells, phase change materials for storing heat, as well as novel technologies for storing compressed air and natural gas in vehicles.

 

Energy Recovery from Existing Heat Sources

The conventional combustion process, as well as many industrial processes, can produce excessive heat. This can also happen on the residential and consumer scale as well — a window air-conditioning unit for example produces a lot of heat, as does a flat screen television, a laptop computer and even your cell phone produces heat. Technologies on display that addressed this need to recover this heat energy included a demonstration of metal hydrides that generate electricity from waste heat, improved thermoelectric devices to recover heat energy, a silicon chip that takes heat as input and outputs electricity, and, finally, the University of Georgia displayed a new technology for vastly improving the efficiency of heat pumps to provide air-conditioning for residential and industrial use.

 

Innovations in Improving Energy Efficiency

The final category we’ll look at is a broad one: improving energy efficiency. We have to digress for a moment, though, and talk about rare earth magnets, which are used in small electric motors and devices like mobile phones. Whether you realize it or not, all of us have come to be very dependent upon these materials for powering our electric cars, our iPhones and so on. But rare earth materials, which are mostly used as powerful yet lightweight magnets, are called rare earth for a reason: there are not infinite supplies of this material. And, worryingly for many supply-chain experts, the primary sources of rare earth materials are mostly located in China.

So it was not surprising that many ventures at the ARPA-E event were presenting alternative materials to create high-energy permanent magnets without using rare earth materials or creating high-efficiency motors that do not require rare earth materials. Other categories of energy efficiency on display were quite interesting as well, including energy-saving smart window coatings presented by the University of Texas at Austin, solutions to make surfaces slippier — useful for reducing friction in pipelines for example — as well as jet engine style wind turbine designs.

 

Kohana Technologies

Kohana Technologies has developed a Blown Wing Technology for wind turbines than can disrupt the laminar flow to reduce their load during extraordinary wind gusts and turbulence, saving the blades from potential destruction during storms. It’s faster and simpler than changing the pitch of the blade. No external air pump is required, a valve allows collected air to exit the leading edge. With this overload protection, the blades can be lighter and more efficient.

 

Two other technologies caught our eye. Kahana Technologies has a novel solution for wind turbine blades. Conventional wind-turbine blades have to be built to withstand windstorms and turbulence, but the novel Kahana solution transfers high-pressure air via a tube system to the low-pressure leading edge. This alters the laminar flow and protects the blades from over stress; as a result, blades can be lighter and more efficient. Finally, LiquidPiston exhibited their high-efficiency, non-wankel rotary engines, which operate on gasoline or diesel.

 

LiquidPiston develops rotary engines (not Wankel engines) based on the High Energy Hybrid Cycle. The company claims its engines are 30% smaller than gas engines and up to 75% smaller than diesel engines, with up to 50% better fuel economy and near zero vibration.

LiquidPiston develops rotary engines (not Wankel engines) based on the High Energy Hybrid Cycle. The company claims its engines are 30% smaller than gas engines and up to 75% smaller than diesel engines, with up to 50% better fuel economy and near zero vibration.

 

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