Climate Crisis: China’s Pollution-Eating Skyscrapers

phoenix-towers-worlds-tallest-wuhan-china-designboom-01 Though it is already home to the world’s largest building – in the form of the New Century Global Center in Chendu – China is seeking to create the world’s tallest structure as well. Designed by UK-based Chetwoods Architects and known as the Phoenix Towers, this tower concept is slated to be built in Wuhan, Central China. But equally impressive is the fact that this building will be suck pollution out of the air and water and will host more than the usual building features.

The larger of the two towers reaches a total of 1000 meters (3,280 ft) in height – beating the Burj Khalifa by 170 meters (558 ft) – and sports an ambitious list of sustainable technology. The towers cover 7 hectares (17 acres) of ground on a 47-hectare (116-acre) plot that sits upon an island in a lake. In an attempt to make the design of the towers more relevant to Chinese culture, Chetwoods drew upon the Fenghuang (or Chinese Phoenix) mythological bird and designated the larger tower Feng (male), and the smaller tower Huang (female).

phoenix_towers_chetwoods-2The designers hope the building will serve as a catalyst for more sustainable design in the industrial city. Laurie Chetwood, chairman of U.K.-based Chetwoods, the architects on the project explained how the building’s water-cleaning features work:

The water goes up through a series of filters. We don’t use power to pull the water up, we’re using passive energy. As it goes through the filters and back, we’re also putting air back into the lake to make it healthier… Wuhan is an unusual city, dotted with huge lakes. Protecting the lakes could lead to other projects that protect them even more.

The towers also have pollution-absorbing coatings to help clean the air, vertical gardens that filter more pollution, and a chimney in the middle of the larger tower naturally pulls air across the lake for better ventilation. For the sake of generating energy, the building relies on a combination of wind turbines, lightweight solar cladding, and hydrogen fuel cells running on the buildings’ waste, giving it energy independence and even having enough left over for the local community.

phoenix_towers_chetwoods-4Inspired by the Chinese symbols of the phoenix, and the concept of yin and yang, one tower feeds the other with renewable power in a symbiotic relationship. Spheres hanging between the two towers will also hold restaurants with views of the lake. Pending approval by the city’s mayor, construction may begin by the end of the year and could be completed by 2017 or 2018, a pace that the architects say would be unlikely in other countries.

According to Chetwood, construction in China obeys a different set of rules and parameters than his native Britain:

The most amazing thing for me is that in the U.K. we strive as designers to get things built, and there’s a lot of red tape, but the Chinese seem to have a different view of things. I think they’re incredibly optimistic. If you have an idea and you think, ‘Oh, is this going to be too exciting’, they’ll actually want it more exciting. It’s more ambitious. They’re quite keen to push the boundaries. For a designer, that’s fantastic. It’s a thrill.

Whereas the sheer size of the buildings is reflective of China’s aim to assert its national authority on the world stage, it’s focus on pollution-eating and green energy is reflective of the desire to create living spaces in a sustainable way. And it is one of many building concepts being considered by Chinese authorities that seeks to address pollution by achieve energy independence, while at the same time being part of the solution by incorporating pollution-eating features.

shanghai_towerFor instance, there’s China’s Shanghai Tower, which finished construction in August of last year. This building is currently the tallest tower in China, is one-third green space and a transparent second skin that surrounds the city in a protective air envelope that controls its internal temperature. In addition, vertical-axis wind turbines located near the top of the tower and geothermal vents located at the bottom will generate 350,000 kWh of supplementary electricity per year.

And then there’s Sky City, a building under construction (though currently on hold) in Changsha, Hunan province. Designed by Broad Sustainable Building, this 666m meter (2,185 ft) skyscraper incorporates numerous sustainable building features. These include modular design, recycled building materials, non-toxic building materials, insulated walls and quadruple glazing. Beyond China, there is also the Pertamina Energy Tower in Jakarta, which relies on geothermal, solar, and wind turbines to act as the very picture of energy independence.

Together, these concepts (and many others currently under consideration) represent the future of urban planning and architecture. In addition to being assembled with recycled material, fabricated using less wasteful methods (like 3-D printing), and seeing to their own energy needs in a clean and sustainable way, they will also incorporate carbon capture, air and water cleaning technology that will make urban environments healthier places to live.


The Future is Fusion: Surpassing the “Break-Even” Point

JET_fusionreactorFor decades, scientists have dreamed of the day when cold fusion – and the clean, infinite energy it promises – could be made possible. And in recent years, many positive strides have been taken in that direction, to the point where scientists are now able to “break-even”. What this means is, it has become the norm for research labs to be able to produce as much energy from a cold fusion reaction as it takes in triggering that reaction in the first place.

And now, the world’s best fusion reactor – located in Oxfordshire, Engand – will become the first fusion power experiment to attempt to surpass it. This experiment, known as the Joint European Torus (JET), has held the world record for fusion reactor efficiency since 1997. If JET can reach break-even point, there’s a very good chance that the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) currently being built in France will be able to finally achieve the dream of self-sustaining fusion. 


Originally built in 1983, the JET project was conceived by the European Community (precursor to the EU) as a means of making fusion power a reality. After being unveiled the following year at a former Royal Navy airfield near Culham in Oxfordshire, with Queen Elizabeth II herself in attendance, experiments began on triggering a cold fusion reaction. By 1997, 16 megawatts of fusion power were produced from an input power of 24 megawatts, for a fusion energy gain factor of around 0.7.

Since that time, no one else has come close. The National Ignition Facility – the only other “large gain” fusion experiment on the planet, located in California – recently claimed to have broken the break-even point with their  laser-powered process. However, these claims are apparently mitigated by the fact that their 500 terrawat process (that’s 500 trillion watts!) is highly inefficient when compared to what is being used in Europe.

NIF Livermore July 2008Currently, there are two competing approaches for the artificial creation of nuclear fusion. Whereas the NIF uses “inertial confinement” – which uses lasers to create enough heat and pressure to trigger nuclear fusion – the JET project uses a process known as “magnetic confinement”. This process, where deuterium and tritium fuel are fused within a doughnut-shaped device (a tokamak) and the resulting thermal and electrical energy that is released provides power.

Of the two, magnetic confinement is usually considered a better prospect for the limitless production of clean energy, and this is the process the 500-megawatt ITER fusion reactor once its up and running. And while JET itself is a fairly low-power experiment (38 megawatts), it’s still very exciting because it’s essentially a small-scale prototype of the larger ITER. For instance, JET has been upgraded in the past few years with features that are part of the ITER design.

fusion_energyThese include a wall of solid beryllium that can withstand being bombarded by ultra-high-energy neutrons and temperatures in excess of 200 million degrees. This is a key part of achieving a sustained fusion reaction, which requires that a wall is in place to bounce all the hot neutrons created by the fusion of deuterium and tritium back into the reaction, rather than letting them escape. With this new wall in place, the scientists at JET are preparing to pump up the reaction and pray that more energy is created.

Here’s hoping they are successful! As it stands, there are still many who feel that fusion is a pipe-dream, and not just because previous experiments that claimed success turned out to be hoaxes. With so much riding on humanity’s ability to find a clean, alternative energy source, the prospects of a breakthrough do seem like the stuff of dreams. I sincerely hope those dreams become a reality within my own lifetime…

Sources:, (2)

The Future of Energy: Cold Fusion for US and China

NASA_coldfusionThe science behind cold fusion has been a source of constant controversy for decades. Not only has this pursuit turned up its share of phony claims, the fact that it also promises to yield clean, abundant energy on the cheap has led to no shortage of romantic endorsements and vocal detractors. But if it could be made to work, there is no doubt that our energy problems would be solved, and in a way that is not harmful to our environment.

Last February, NASA made waves by announcing that they were working towards cold fusion through low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology. Then in September, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California announced a major milestone when they managed to produce a controlled reaction that provided more energy that was required to start it.

e-cat1But all of that seemed to pale in comparison to the announcement by Andrea Rossi’s that he managed to create a fusion power plant that was reportedly capable of generated a single megawatt of power. Known as the E-Cat 1MW Plant (short for Energy-Catalyser), Rossi announced its creation back in November, and indicated that he and his company were taking pre-orders and that they would start deliveries by 2014.

Today, the big news is that a large US investment company has acquired the rights to the cold fusion LENR technology. That investment company is Cherokee Investment Partners, and they appear to be interested in deploying the cold fusion tech commercially in both China and the US to meet both countries existing and projected energy needs.

fusion_energyRelying on the same process as other LENR technology, the E-Cat generates cold fusion by taking nickel and hydrogen and fusing them into copper – a process that has 10,000 times the energy density of gasoline, and 1,000 times the power density. Rossi says he’s found a special catalyst that makes the process work, but many scientists remain unconvinced.

Regardless of whether or it not it can deliver, it now seems that Rossi’s previously allusions to an American partner are true after all. Much like everything surrounding Rossi, he chose to be nebulous about the identity of the company that was supporting him. However, with this latest deal, Cherokee and its CEO Thomas Darden, a man who has a history of investing in clean energy, is a believer in the design.

e-cat3In addition to preparing the patents through a Limited Liability Company – known as Industrial Heat – there are also reports that Darden recently visited China to showcase the E-Cat to Chinese officials and businesspeople. China is reportedly looking at using the E-Cat to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and meet its the energy needs of its growing cities in a way that won’t generate more air pollution.

Needless to say, this deal has bolstered Rossi’s and the E-Cat’s credibility, but the technology remains unproven. Rossi says that he has a team of international scientists that are planning to do another round of tests on the E-Cat which are slated to end in March, with a peer-reviewed report to follow sometime after that. Fingers crossed, those rounds of test will provide conclusive proof.

Then, we can all get to work dreaming about a bright, clean future, and the thousands of applications such plants will have!


Powered by the Sun: Nanotech Solar Cells

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????With every passing year, interest in solar power has been growing by leaps and bounds. Given the impacts of Climate Change, widespread droughts, tropical storms, wildfires and increasing global temperatures, this should not come as a surprise. But an equally important factor in the adoption of clean energy alternatives has to do with improvements that are being made which will make it more efficient, accessible, and appealing to power companies and consumers.

Three such recent developments come to us from Standford, MIT, and the Neils Bohr Institute, respectively; where researchers have announced new ways using nanoprocesses to boost the yield of individual solar cells. In addition to cutting costs associated with production, installation, and storage, increasing the overall electrical yield of solar cells is a major step towards their full-scale implementation.

solar_nanoFirst, there’s MIT’s new concept for a solar cell, which uses nanowires to massively boost the efficiency of quantum dot photovoltaic cells. Quantum dots – which are basically nano-sized crystals of a semiconducting material – are already being considered as an alternative to conventional silicon cells, since they are cheaper and easier to produce.

However, until recently they have been a letdown in the efficiency department, lagging significantly behind their silicon counterparts. By merging zinc oxide nanowires into the design of their quantum dot photovoltaic cells, the MIT researchers were able to boost the current produced by 50%, and overall efficiency by 5%.  Ultimately, their goal is to get that up to 10%, since that is considered to be the threshold for commercial adoption.

gallium-arsenide-nanowire-solar-cellMeanwhile, researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark and EPFL in Switzerland announced that they have built solar cells out of single nanowires. In this case, the process involved growing gallium-arsenide (GaAs) wires on a silicon substrate, and then completing the circuit with a transparent indium tin oxide electrode, which are currently employed in the creation of photovoltaic cells and LEDs on the market today.

Prior to these development, nanowires were being researched mainly in conjunction with computer chips as a possible replacement for silicon. But thanks to the combined work of these researchers, we may very well be looking at solar cells which are not only hair-thin (as with the kind being developed by Penn State University) but microscopically thin. And much like the research at the University of Oslo involving the use of microbeads, this too will mean the creation of ultra-thin solar cells that have a massive energy density – 180 mA/cm2, versus ~40 mA/cm2 for crystalline silicon PVs.

solar_boosterAnd last, but not least, there was the announcement from Stanford University of a revolutionary new type of solar cell that has doubled the efficiency of traditional photovoltaic cells. This new device uses a process called photon-enhanced thermionic emission (PETE) that allows for the absorption of not only light, but heat. This combination makes this new type of cell the equivalent of a turbocharged solar panel!

pete-photovoltaic-thermionic-diagram-stanfordIn conventional cells, photons strike a semiconductor (usually silicon), creating electricity by knocking electrons loose from their parent atoms. The PETE process, on the other hand, uses the gallium arsenide wafer on top gather as much sunlight as possible, creating a lot of excited electrons using the photovoltaic effect. The underside, which is composed of nanoantennae, emits these photoexcited electrons across a vacuum to the anode with gathers them and turns them into an electrical current.

Beneath the anode is a of heat pipe that collects any leftover heat which could be used elsewhere. One of the easiest applications of PETE would be in concentrating solar power plants, where thousands of mirrors concentrate light on a central vat of boiling water, which drives a steam turbine. By concentrating the light on PETE devices instead, Stanford estimates that their power output could increase by 50%, bringing the cost of solar power generation down into the range of fossil fuels.

Though there are still kinks in their design – the cell has a very low 2% rate of energy efficient thus far – the researchers at Stanford are making improvements which are increasing its efficiency exponentially. And although their planned upgrades should lead to a solar cell capable of operating in extremely hot environments, they stress that the goal here is to build one that is capable of gathering power in non-desert environments, such as Spaced-Based solar arrays.

Combined with improved production methods, storage capacities, and plans to mount solar arrays in a variety of new places (such as on artificial islands), we could be looking at the wholesale adoption of solar power within a few years time. Every day, it seems, new methods are being unveiled that will allow Solar to supplant fossil fuels as the best, cheapest and most efficient means of energy production. If all goes as planned, all this could be coming just in time to save the planet, fingers crossed!

Sources:, (2)