This New Fuel Cell Could Turbocharge Renewable Power

A new type of ceramic fuel cell cranks out record amounts of power. S. Choi et al., Nature Energy 10.1038 (2018)

By: Robert F. Service

Fuel cells are far greener than gas-powered engines because they produce electricity without burning up the hydrogen (or other fuel) that powers them. But they’re often impractical on a commercial scale because they’re so much more expensive to make. Now, researchers report that by creating a fuel cell that can run at a midrange temperature, they’ve made an inexpensive, powerful version that could boost the prospects for plentiful green energy.

Most fuel cells run at temperatures too hot or too cool to make at a reasonable price. One class, the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) cells that power cars and buses, run at about 100°C. Another class, the solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) that power backup generators for hospitals and other buildings, typically run at 1000°C. The lower temperature of PEM cells makes the essential chemical reactions sluggish, requiring the use of expensive metal catalysts, such as platinum, to speed them up. But the feverish temperatures of SOFCs means that even if they don’t need the pricy catalysts, they need to be built from expensive metal alloys that can handle the scorching operating temperatures.

So in recent years, fuel cell researchers have pursued a Goldilocks strategy, looking for midrange temperature fuel cells that operate at about 500°C. That’s warm enough for reactions to proceed quickly, but cool enough to allow them to be built from cheaper metals, such as stainless steel. Initially, scientists tried doing so with catalysts borrowed from SOFCs. The devices worked, but they generated just 200 milliwatts of power per square centimeter (mW/cm2) of electrode surface area, well behind the performance of PEM fuel cells and SOFCs. To make it commercially, such fuel cells would need to produce at least 500 mW/cm2, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Two teams have gotten close. One group, led by Ryan O’Hayre, a materials scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, reported last year in Science that it had produced an intermediate temperature fuel cell capable of producing 455 mW/cm2. Another group, led by Ji-Won Son, a materials chemist with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, reported last year in Nature Communications that it got a similar result at the ideal operating temperature of 500°C.

Now, a group led by Sossina Haile, a chemical engineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has crossed the goal line. Haile and her colleagues figured out that one key problem was occurring as soon as the reaction started. Both PEM fuel cells and SOFCs, like batteries, have two electrodes separated by an ion-conducting electrolyte. At one electrode, fuel molecules are broken apart and stripped of negatively charged electrons, which pass through an external circuit to a second electrode. Meanwhile, positively charged ions ripped from the fuel molecules travel through the electrolyte to the second electrode where they recombine with the traveling electrons.

Haile discovered that the connection point between the first electrode—called an anode—and the electrolyte was weak, blocking protons from zipping through to the second electrode, or cathode. So Haile and colleagues added a thin but dense layer of catalyst material atop the bulk of their anode catalyst, creating an easier transition for protons to move into the electrolyte. The researchers also tweaked the composition of their ceramic electrodes to make them more stable in the presence of steam and carbon dioxide. As they report today in Nature Energy their devices produced nearly 550 mW/cm2 at 500°C. They were stable for hundreds of hours of operation with few signs of degradation.

O’Hayre says the new work is “a great contribution,” and calls the performance “impressive.” But he notes that there are still a few issues that need to be solved before these devices are ready for market. For starters, the current cells are small, just a few centimeters in diameter. Researchers would need to find a way to make much larger versions, which could be tricky. That’s because the dense coating on the anode was formed by a technique called pulsed laser deposition, which is difficult to do large-scale on a commercial assembly line.

Another challenge, adds David Tew, a program manager at DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in Washington, D.C., is that the all-ceramic electrodes and electrolyte are extremely brittle, which could make them less durable for use in real-world conditions.

Haile doesn’t disagree with those concerns. But she says her team’s advance should encourage researchers to solve those problems. If they do, intermediate range fuel cells could transform renewable energy, because they can also be used to convert electricity—say from a wind turbine—into hydrogen and other fuels for storage, and later turn them back into electricity. That would solve renewable energy’s biggest challenge: storing energy when the sun isn’t shining and the wind is still. That’s a combination that even Goldilocks might say could be just right for the future of fuel cells.

Courtesy: http://www.sciencemag.org/


There’s a New Job in the Solar Industry

Grazing sheep on solar farms can be a win-win for the energy and agricultural industries. (Molly A. Seltzer)

By: Molly A. Seltzer

On the east side of Kauai, a herd of sheep grazes in an unusual pasture. The low valley, flanked on either side by green mountains, is the site of a 13-megawatt solar farm, where some 300 hungry sheep prune the grasses that grow around 55,000 solar panels.

While this may seem like a surprising collaboration, it is a trend that has grown with the rise of utility scale solar development in agricultural areas across the country. Large solar installations are often found in rural areas, and many times, there are local farmers that raise animals nearby. One of the biggest and most expensive operational challenges solar farms face is controlling vegetation on the sites. Overgrown plants can create unwanted shade, compromising electricity production, or even become tangled in the wiring on the backside of the arrays.

A spokesperson for Duke Energy, one of the largest electric power holding companies in the United States, says, “Other than the lease of the land, vegetation management is the number one expense at our solar facilities.”

While mowing has historically been the go-to method for vegetation management, in recent years, grazing sheep have become another landscaping solution, and one that can be a win-win for the energy and agricultural industries.

The shepherd at the Kauai solar farm in Lihue, Daryl Kaneshiro, is a retired petrol worker and former Kauai council member. Kaneshiro grew up on the west side of the island, and ranching has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. He grew up on his family’s poultry farm, and in 1998, began running cattle and sheep on his own 300 acres, now Omao Ranch Lands. In 2013, the solar developer MP2 leased a portion of his land to install a small 250-kilowatt solar array, and Kaneshiro was hired to maintain the grounds.

Kaneshiro first mowed and did weed whacking and other maintenance by hand. Then, in an effort to cut down on the manual maintenance, he tried fencing in sheep and moving them in rotations to strategically eat the vegetation. He now has close to 700 sheep in his herd and maintains three farms on the island. Kaneshiro serves as an agricultural consultant for a fourth, an AES solar and battery site, which is expected to become operational in late 2018. Grazing sheep on solar farms has become the primary source of revenue for his family, enabling them to continue to build the ranch, install a solar-powered aquaponics system, and lay the groundwork for a farm-to-table restaurant at the ranch.

This is not the only place where the energy and agricultural sectors have come together. While it is fairly uncommon for farmers to both receive land lease payments and secure the maintenance contract for a site, as Kaneshiro has, the solar and agricultural industries have been blooming side by side. Sheep have been seen grazing solar land from coast to coast, in Hawaii, California, Texas, New Jersey and New York. The partnership is particularly strong where utility scale solar—large farms usually over 20 acres—has been established.

The solar shepherd phenomenon is perhaps most notable in North Carolina, which has become a national hotbed for utility scale solar, ranking second in the country to California with over 3,700 megawatts of solar installed in nearly 7,000 installations. Companies such as Apple, Ikea, Corning and Dow have all developed solar farms in the state. With the explosion of solar farms comes a need for grounds maintenance.

Tonje Woxman Olsen co-founded Sun Raised Farms in 2012 to serve as a maintenance contractor for solar farms specifically. The company offers mowing, grazing and agricultural services, and manages a network of sheep farmers throughout the state that want to grow their flocks and serve these solar sites. (Given that each solar farm is built differently, with varied geographies, soil baselines, sizes and designs, some areas of the pasture might be better maintained by mowing than grazing, or vice versa.) Sun Raised Farms recently expanded outside of North Carolina, securing a contract for a 20-acre solar farm in Virginia. The company sees the benefit to local farmers as twofold: a place for them to graze sheep, which can then be sold for lamb, strengthening the domestic, pasture-raised lamb market, and direct income from the solar farm owners for performing quality maintenance services. The outfit now grazes sheep on 1,000 acres of solar pasture, which totals 250 megawatts of solar capacity.

A primary benefit to the solar shepherds is income diversification.

Shawn Hatley, owner of Blake’s Creek Ranch and The Naked Pig Meat Co. located in Oakboro, North Carolina is a member of the Sun Raised Farms network. He speaks about the importance of having multiple revenue sources in the agricultural industry today. According to a 2017 USDA report, 50 percent of farms in the United States generate less than $10,000 annually in sales. And 80 percent of farms make less than $100,000 each year in sales.

“The more enterprising, the more economically resilient a business is,” he says. “Historically, you could raise a family of four on a 100-acre farm with carpentry, crop, egg and cattle sales. On today’s farms, farmers may have crop rotation, but for our scale, farms need to have multiple enterprises to compete with large agricultural operations.”

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University began integrating solar shepherding into its agricultural seminars in September 2016. Interest is growing and the university is now considering creating programs that focus exclusively on sheep grazing for solar farms.

Hatley sees his sheep as another crop, and the decision to raise sheep requires a significant investment, just as a new crop would. It could be up $500,000 to grow a flock of 1,000 ewes, between the initial capital investment and operational overhead over five years. But it is also another revenue stream. If all goes as planned, the grazing operation will be a means to make his business more resilient to the uncertainties of agricultural life: fluctuating commodity prices, input costs, crop output and extreme weather.

Solar shepherding is a real opportunity, Hatley thinks, when the ultimate goal is to make farming work financially.

Courtesy: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/


How Can a Smart Household Aid in Economics of the Home?

By: Arindam Paul

Smart homes or the home automation technology has been on the scene for a long time now, and at present, it is increasingly gaining popularity in both residential and commercial spaces all across the globe. The primary reason behind this is rapid technological advancements that have made home automation technology and smart devices much more affordable and user-friendly.

A smart home essentially means a home having a centralized digital control system whereby one can control the functioning of all the electronic appliances and devices in his/her home. This includes your entertainment system (TV, stereo, etc.), cooling (fans and air conditioners) and lighting system, HVAC system, and security system. When all these devices are connected via a single digital home platform, you can control them from anywhere and even any part of the world with just a click on your smartphone or tablet.

Just imagine this – you enter a room, the fan and lights turn on, and when you leave the room, they automatically turn off! Wouldn’t it be nice to monitor the activities in and around your home, even when you are not present there? Wouldn’t it be great if you could keep a close tab on the activities of your children and their caretaker while you are away? Well, you can do all of this with home automation.

A smart home cannot just make a home energy efficient but also economically smart. By making your home ‘tech-savvy,’ it brings with it a host of advantages that help to a great extent in minimizing energy consumption while reducing the costs.

The foremost advantage of home automation is safety and security of your house. With smart security systems, you can not only monitor any suspicious activity going on in your home but also prevent mishaps like a house fire from an oven you forgot to turn off. With just a click on your smartphone, you can lock/unlock your doors, can communicate with your loved ones (children and elderly parents) while you are away, and so much more. Now, every time you go out, you don’t have to worry about locking the doors as automated door locks make it a point that whenever you leave your home, you can be assured of its safety. Needless to say, you save a lot of valuable time!

Another important advantage of home automation is energy efficiency. This technology allows you to set your devices in a way that they can automatically turn off when not in use. This includes your lights, fans, AC, refrigerators, cooking oven, etc. As you begin to use these appliances wisely, you are not just conserving energy, but at the same time, you are saving a lot of money. Your monthly electricity bill will be reduced to a considerable extent, and also you don’t have to spend additional fuel to get back home to check if you’ve turned off all the devices.

Home automation makes your life much more convenient and comfortable. You can control all your devices with voice commands or a click on your smartphone. You will no longer have to get up every time you want to adjust the speed of the fan or switch of the lights – your devices will automatically adjust themselves by learning your usage patterns and behaviors. For instance, you can set your thermostat or AC while you are away from home so that by the time you reach home, the ambient temperature inside is just the way you want it to be. This is not only convenient but also cost-effective. Studies suggest that people who used smart technology save around 10%-30% on their energy costs. In the long run, just imagine how much money intelligent home technologies could help you save!

Home automation is the future. It is the green way of living. As more and more households lean towards smart home technology, it will mean increased availability of our finite resources. Living in an age where the energy resources are on the verge of being exhausted, smart technologies have indeed become a necessity for humankind.


Author Bio:

Arindam Paul is a co-founder of Atomberg Technologies, a startup working towards creating unique energy efficient and tech savvy products. He is currently heading the Marketing and Long term strategy division at Atomberg and is aiming to disrupt the world of household appliances.

Prior to this he has experience of working as a management consultant at Cognizant. He did his undergraduate in chemical engineering from NIT Surat and MBA from IIM Indore.

Apart from this he loves reading non fiction, watching football, blogging and cooking.


Australia Plans “Virtual” Power Plant of Distributed Solar Panels, Tesla Batteries

By: Viknesh Vijayenthiran

Having built the world’s biggest battery in the Australian state of South Australia a year ago to provide energy to the grid in the event of a supply shortage, Tesla is now involved in the state’s next energy security plan by helping to create what’s known as a “virtual power plant.” And it’s all emissions free.

Working with its partners, the South Australian government will install solar panels and battery storage systems, in this case Tesla’s Powerwall 2.0, at 50,000 homes in the state over the next four years. All of the homes are already connected via the existing energy grid so collected energy can easily flow where it’s needed, using a software management system that accesses each home’s battery and then instructs it to release energy to the grid in times of need.

The energy will be generated and stored in the batteries during the day, when demand is low, and then discharged during the night, when demand is high. At peak generation, the virtual power plant is expected to generate 250,000 megawatts, or as much as a small coal power plant.

Each of the homes will feature a 5-kilowatt solar panel system and 13.5-kilowatt-hour battery storage system. Private investment and taypayer funds will be used for the installation but will be repaid over time via the sale of the generated electricity. Individual households in the network are expected to benefit from significantly lower energy bills, with analysts predicting a 30 percent reduction in energy costs on average.

An initial trial involving 1,100 public housing homes has already commenced. This will be expanded to 24,000 public housing homes following the trial and then the deal will be offered to more residents in the state.

Audi in January said it would conduct the trial of a similar virtual power plant in its hometown of Ingolstadt, Germany, but on a much smaller scale.

Courtesy: https://www.motorauthority.com/


Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia is Spending Billions on Renewable Energy

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Saudi Arabia is known for its oil and sun-soaked deserts. In a move to secure the kingdom’s financial future, its name could soon become synonymous with renewable energy.

According to the New York Times, Prince Mohammed bin Salman decided that Saudi energy company ACWA Power would spearhead the creation of a $300 million solar farm capable of powering 200,000 homes. And that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what the Saudi government plans to spend on renewables.

“All the big developers are watching Saudi,” said Jenny Chase, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a market research firm. … The renewables strategy finally started to take real shape when Khaled al-Falih took over as energy minister in 2016. Mr. Falih made solar and wind a priority for the kingdom, and set up a new unit last year to expedite the work. Much of the staff was drawn from Aramco.

Mr. Shehri, who had worked at Aramco before leading the kingdom’s renewables program, said he faced an “extremely challenging” task. Meeting Saudi Arabia’s targets would require contracts for a series of new facilities to be awarded by the end of 2020. “The only way this was possible,” he said, “was because we have done previous work.”

Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil resources, would seem an unlikely champion for renewables. But the country’s location and climate mean it has plenty of promising sites for solar and wind farms.

By 2019, the Times writes, they’ll have thrown $7 billion at the creation of solar and wind farms. The hope is that this push towards clean energy will be able to provide the kingdom with close to 10% of its internal energy needs, not to mention supplying its citizens with jobs for generations to come.

But there’s a dark side to this story: developing domestic wind and solar power allows Saudi oil companies to export more of their oil.

Courtesy: https://boingboing.net/