New Articles and Apologies

solar1Let’s start with the apologies. I’m very sorry for the prolonged absence of late, and I trust that people actually noticed I haven’t been around 😉 But both my day and my side job have both been very busy and have left me mentally and physically taxed by the end of the day. However, I do have things to show for it, mainly in the form of a new list of articles that were recently published on both Universe Today and HeroX.

I’ve taken to posting the new entries on their respective pages (over on the right there). However, if you’re like me, you don’t bother to check these out much and would rather be notified if something new is happening. And the way I see it, a post now and again that contains the links to all the latest is something people won’t mind hearing about (as opposed to being notified every time one does!)

So here they are, in order of publication:

  • Small Spacecraft Ejected from ISS Will Provide Same-Day, On-Demand Delivery – Basically, the ISS is getting a small fleet of return vehicles that will allow them to deliver samples back to Earth in less than 24 hours. This will help research and experiments quite a bit, and could also open the way for commercial use of the ISS’s National Lab.
  • Make a Deal for Land on the Moon – This one was not only fun to write, it contains a cautionary tale worth sharing. No matter what some realtors may tell you, there’s absolutely no way to buy land on the Moon… yet! However, given the way that commercial aerospace and space industries are heating up, this may soon change.
  • HeroX News: The Promise of Solar Power – This is probably the longest article I’ve written for either publication of late. It deals with recent innovations that are causing solar power to break its own the efficiency limits and usher in an age of renewable energy. And none too soon either!

Climate Crisis: Solar-Powered Oasis to Feed Desert Cities

https://i2.wp.com/f.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2014/08/3034601-slide-s-6-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgDesertification is one of the biggest threats associated with Climate Change. In places like North Africa and the Middle East, where countries already import up to 90% of their food, the spread of the desert due to increasing temperatures and diminished rainfall is made worse by the fact that cities in the region continue to grow. It’s a situation that is getting more expensive and energy-intensive at a time when things need to be getting more cost-effective and sustainable.

Luckily, a team of architects hopes to create a new agricultural system that could grow and deliver food in the desert. It’s called OAXIS, a conceptual design for a modular set of prefab greenhouses, covered in solar panels, which would extend from a city into the desert. The design of the buildings aims to keep out intense summer heat while the solar panels would power the rest of the building’s infrastructure and send extra energy back into the city.

https://i0.wp.com/a.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2014/08/3034601-slide-s-3-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgConceived by Forward Thinking Architecture, a Barcelona-based firm, the concept seeks to combine flexibility with a minimal carbon footprint. Towards this end, they chose to forgo usual transportation and create a unique conveyor system that would deliver produce without the use of any fossil fuels. The conveyor belt would be underground so it could keep running in a straight line even if buildings were in the way.

Inside the prefab greenhouses, farmers would grow crops like tomatoes, lettuce, and strawberries using a hydroponic system that can reduce fertilizers and pesticides and save 80% of the water used in traditional agriculture, in part by recycling and reusing it. As for where the water comes from, the designers suggest that groundwater could supply the farm’s needs, but many Middle Eastern countries already rely on desalination.

https://i0.wp.com/a.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/inline-large/inline/2014/08/3034601-inline-i-1-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgIdeally, desert populations would be small enough that the region’s sparse rainfall could support local crops. But that’s not the reality. In addition, a small part of the recycled water would also be used to create an outdoor garden for education. As architect Javier Ponce, principal and founder of Forward Thinking Architecture, explained:

We thought it cannot only be a farming-only building, it must have a pedagogical approach and have to be attractive in order to become a biodiversity hub which can be visited by the local people and visitors… The cities should be smaller, denser, and compact, but this is not the current situation for some of the Arabian peninsula cities since they have exponentially grown and attract more people and workers. There has been a rapid urbanization in the area since the middle of the 20th century.

The project, he hopes, could help supply food as climate change makes the situation even more challenging. Already, countries in the worst-affected regions are desperately looking for solutions. For example, Qatar has already invested hundreds of millions in a plan to grow as much local food as possible by 2030. Other countries in the region, like Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, and the desert-locked Saudi Arabia are expected to follow.

https://i0.wp.com/e.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2014/08/3034601-slide-s-7-a-solar-powered-oasis.jpgThese regions in particular have felt the pressure brought on by the escalating price of importing food. This pressure is exacerbated due to the disappearance of peak oil, which accounted for the vast majority of this region’s wealth. However, the project has farther-reaching implications, as Climate Change threatens to turn much of the world’s arable land into dry, drought-ridden plains.

At the same time, it takes into account the need to reduce reliance on water and fossil-fuels. As our population continues to skyrocket, a smarter and more sustainable use of available resources are always needed. As Ponce explained:

The OAXIS project is an alternative or complementary way to respond to the food insecurity and water scarcity of the region in a self-sufficient way. It aims to help reduce the food imports to feed part of the people in a nearby future based on renewable energies.

And be sure to check out this OAXIS promotional video, courtesy of Forward Thinking Architecture:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, forwardthinkingarchitecture

Powered by the Sun: Breakthrough Solar Cells

solar1In addition to becoming cheaper, and increasing in efficiency and yields, solar cell technology is also growing in terms of innovative design. By going beyond the conventional design of silicon panels and electrical cables, researchers are ensuring that solar technology can go farther. And the latest advances in design are especially far-sighted, aiming to merge solar technology with just about any surface, and even sending it into space.

In the former case, researchers at Michigan State University have created a fully transparent solar concentrator, which could turn any window or sheet of glass – from highrise buildings to the screens on smartphones and tablets – into a photovoltaic solar cell. And whereas other “transparent” solar panels have been designed in the past, this one is the first that truly lives up to the word.

transparent-solar-cellScientifically, a transparent solar panel is something of an oxymoron. Solar cells, specifically the photovoltaic kind, make energy by absorbing photons and converting them into electrons. If a material is transparent, by definition it means that all of the light passes through the medium. This is why previous transparent solar cells have actually only been partially transparent, and usually cast a colorful shadow.

To get around this limitation, the Michigan State researchers use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell, they used a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible).

https://i0.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/transparent-luminescent-solar-concentrator-colorful.jpgThis emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. Currently, the Michigan TLSC has an efficiency of around 1%, but they think 5% should be possible. On their own, these aren’t huge figures, but on a larger scale — every window in a house or office block — the numbers quickly add up to a significant electrical yield.

Moreover, the researchers are confident that the technology can be scaled all the way from large industrial and commercial applications, down to consumer devices, while remaining “affordable.” So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels. But if large amounts of solar power can be produced from sheets of glass and plastic, it would go a long way to making the scaling process feasible.

solar_panel_origamiAnother major innovation comes from Brigham Young University, where researchers have been working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to address the challenge of Space-Based Solar Power. For some time, scientists have understood that a solar array in orbit of Earth would be ideally suited for solar power collection, since it would be immune to weather, cloud cover or diurnal cycles (aka. nighttime).

Unfortunately, getting solar cells into space is a bit of a problem. In order to be effective, solar panels need to be thin have a large surface area to soak up more rays. This makes it difficult to transport them into orbit, and requires that they be broken down,and flown up piece by piece, and then assembled once in orbit. Given the cost of mounting a sending a single rocket into orbit, this prospect becomes very costly very fast.

solar_panel_origami1However, the Brigham team came up with a simple and elegant solution to this problem, and found it in the form of origami. By working with complex origami folds, they were able to design a solar array that can shrink down to one-tenth of its original size. Folded up, the device is 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) across and can easily wrap around a spacecraft. Once it reaches space, the array would then unfold to become as wide as 25 meters (82 feet).

Given that solar panels deal with large, flat, thin structures, the origami concept seems like a natural fit. And this is not the first time that it has been used in space equipment design – in the 1990’s, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura created a prototype for another folding solar panel. However, that project was abandoned for various reasons, not the least of which was lack of funding.

space-solar-headTo make the concept work and renew interest in the application, he Brigham team worked with Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami expert who also happens to be a mathematician and engineer and once worked at JPL himself. As Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:

He was trained as a physicist, used to work at JPL, and then got tired of the formal bureaucracy and left to start folding paper. Now he’s a world expert… We see value in going directly to any artist, even if they don’t have his credentials, because they have the thousands of hours or folding and tinkering to realize what can and can’t be done. Anytime you can bring in other disciplines, they just visualize things differently and bring in different solutions to your problems.

The new solar panels could be used to power spacecraft and potentially also on orbiting power stations that could wirelessly send energy to Earth via microwaves. A similar design could also be used on Earth to provide new options for portable solar power in remote locations. The same type of design might also be used in architecture or product design because of its unusual looks and function.

NASA_suntowerAccording to Trease, the Department of Defense has already been in touch with them regarding applications for soldiers in the field:

Soldiers right now might carry around 100 pounds, 15 of those pounds are batteries and fuel. If you can eliminate that, you’ve dramatically reduced their load… It’s different from opening an umbrella, because it can accommodate rigid material. You could do something like a deployable glass chandelier or a table. When it’s deployed, it looks like a flower blooming–it’s got a nice aesthetic to it.

In the next few weeks, Trease will also meet with other experts to consider different potential applications for space equipment, like antennas and reflectors, that could also deploy using origami. And given the rapidly-dropping prices associated with placing objects into orbit, this could prove to be the basis for the dream of Space-Based Solar Power – where all our energy needs are met by solar arrays in orbit that then beam them to Earth.

 

Source: extremetech.com, fastcoexist.com

Towards a Cleaner Future: Denmark’s Wind Power

wind-power-660Denmark made a recent and very positive announcement. According to Denmark’s Energy Association, wind power is now the cheapest source of energy, beating coal, fossil fuels, and natural gas. What’s more, the government agency claims that by 2016, the electricity whipped up by its newest turbines will be half the price of conventional means. The announcement came in the last week of July, and is raising hopes for clean energy around the world.

For years, wind and solar have been achieving grid parity with fossil fuels in many places around the world, meaning they are just as cheap. But even without the tax breaks, declining manufacturing costs and growing scale have rendered wind power just as cheap as natural gas in many states in the gas-rich US. And as Deutsche Bank analyst Vishal Shah claims, this is the “beginning of the grid parity era” for solar, worldwide.

solar_array1As he explains it, demand is being driven by “sustainable” markets – meaning the US, China, and regions outside of Europe – with Japan leading the way with an estimated 7 GW annual demand:

Solar is currently competitive without subsidies in 10+ major markets globally, and has the potential to achieve competitiveness in 10-20 additional markets over the next 3 years.

China, which plans to add 10 GW of solar capacity this year alone, only added “in the 2-3 GW range” during the first half of 2013, which would suggest a vast expansion is coming in the second half of the year. Emerging markets are likely to adopt unsubsidized policy models to promote solar growth, especially if new low-cost capital becomes available in concert with policy support to reduce costs.

denmark_windBut Denmark is blowing past grid parity and towards a scenario in which clean energy is actually much, much cheaper. According to analysts, when its two massive offshore wind farms come online, they’ll be the nation’s most inexpensive energy source by a wide margin. As Yale 360, an environmental policy group centered at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, explains:

Electricity from two new onshore wind power facilities set to begin operating in 2016 will cost around 5 euro cents per kilowatt-hour. Wind power would remain the cheapest energy option even if interest rates on wind power projects were to increase by 10 percent, the report found.

This is good news for a nation that’s hoping to get 50 percent of its power from wind turbines by 2050. Right now, the nation already boasts an impressive clean energy mix of 43 percent. And Rasmus Peterson, Denmark’s energy minister, said at a press conference:

Wind power today is cheaper than other forms of energy, not least because of a big commitment and professionalism in the field. This is true for researchers, companies and politicians. We need a long-term and stable energy policy to ensure that renewable energy, both today and in the future, is the obvious choice.

airpollution1Importantly, the DEA’s analysis did not factor in the health and environmental costs of burning fossil fuels—which are considerable—and instead looked directly at the market forces in the country. Natural gas and coal are much more expensive in Denmark than it is in the US, which helps make wind such an economic bargain, and the nation has explicitly pursued wind power for decades.

But improving technology, falling costs, and the strong, consistently blowing offshore winds that will turn the new turbines are making the case for wind power rock solid. At the end of July, it was revealed that Germany gets a full 28.5 percent of its energy needs with clean sources. Now Denmark is proving that running your nation on clean energy can be cheaper anyone thought possible, even ten years ago.

Sources: motherboard.vice.com, renewableenergyworld.com, e360.yale.edu

 

Powered by the Sun: The “Energy Duck”

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31Part of the challenge of paving the way towards a future where solar power is able to meet our energy needs is finding ways to integrate it into our daily lives. Basically, until such time as efficiency limits, storage and intermittency problems are truly overcome, one of the best ways to do this is to place photovoltaic arrays where the demand is highest and to get creative with how they collect it.

For example, a group of British artists have conceptualized a giant solar harvesting floating duck as part of the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition. Dubbed “Energy Duck”, the giant structure has been designed not only to generate clean electricity for the local residents of Copenhagen, but to also provide a unique visitor center. In short, it comes renewable energy with a cautionary message about the effects of Climate Change.

energyduckInspired by the arctic eider duck, Energy Duck not only hopes to offer a unique renewable energy source, but also highlight the impact that climate change has had on the local population and breeding habitats of the eider duck in recent years. As its creators – Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer – explained:

Energy Duck is an entertaining iconic sculpture, a renewable energy generator, a habitable tourist destination and a celebration of local wildlife.

Covered in photovoltaic panels, the Energy Duck is designed to harvest solar energy from every inch of its exterior shell. Solar cells mounted around the base are also positioned to take advantage of the sun’s rays being reflected off the water’s surface. Additionally, the facility features hydro turbines which use water pressure to provide stored energy to the grid after sunset and during the evening.

https://i1.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/gallery_lrg/energyduck-2.jpgAll of this helps the Energy Duck overcome the all-important issue of intermittency. By being able to generate energy around the clock, the Duck is not dependent on the sun shining in order to continue operating and providing power. As the team explained:

When stored energy needs to be delivered, the duck is flooded through one or more hydro turbines to generate electricity, which is transmitted to the national grid by the same route as the PV panel-generated electricity. Solar energy is later used to pump the water back out of the duck, and buoyancy brings it to the surface. The floating height of the duck indicates the relative cost of electricity as a function of city-wide use: as demand peaks the duck sinks.

Inside the giant Energy Duck, visitors can get a unique look into the working mechanics of the hydro turbines, watching as the water levels rise and fall. Sunlight also filters through small spaces between the exterior solar panels, providing a kaleidoscope-like view of Copenhagen. However, another interesting feature about the Energy Duck is its environmental message.

energyduck-5So while people are visiting the interior and taking note of the impressive technology, they will also be getting a lesson in why it is important. And really, the inherent message of the concept is really very appropriate. A clean, renewable, alternative energy source designed to look like, and inspired by, one of the many creatures that is endangered because of humanity’s dependence on unclean fuels.

Now if we could just design a land-roving solar farm in the shape of a polar bear!

Sources: gizmag.com, inhabitat.com

Towards a Clearner Future: World’s Largest Renewables Projects

jaguar-solar-arrayThanks to increasing efficiency in solar panels, as well as dropping costs for manufacture and installation, generating renewable electricity at home or in commercial  buildings is becoming increasingly viable. And this fast-growing trend has been manifesting itself in an impressive list of “world’s largest” projects, with government and industry pairing to make renewable energy a major power source.

For example, back in January, the world’s largest solar bridge was completed in London on the Blackfriars Bridge. As part of Blackfriars Station in London, the bridge was fitted with 4,400 photovoltaic panels between 2009 and 2014 – which are expected to reduce the station’s CO2 emissions by an estimated 511 tonnes (563 tons) per year. Considering London’s issues with air quality and mass transit, this is a major step towards sustainability.

ivanpah-1Then in February, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) – the world’s largest solar-thermal plant – became fully operational in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California. The 392 MW plant, which was developed with funding from NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy, is expected to generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes, each year.

And in April, Jaguar joined Audi, Ferrari and Renault by installing fields of solar panels on top of its new Engine Manufacturing Center in South Staffordshire. This solar field is now the largest rooftop array in the UK, comprising over 21,000 photovoltaic panels and a capacity of 5.8 MW. Jaguar estimates the installation will meet more than 30 percent of the centers energy needs and reduce the plant’s CO2 footprint by over 2,400 tonnes (2,645.5 tons) per year.

windstream-wind-solar-hybrid-jamaicaAnd now, Windstream Technologies – a commercial wind and sun generating firm aimed at bringing renewable energy to municipalities, commercial buildings and homes -has installed what it says is the world’s largest wind-solar hybrid array on the roof of the Myers, Fletcher, & Gordon (MFG) lawfirm in Kingston, Jamaica. The array is expected to generate over 106,000 kWh annually and demonstrates the ability to maximize energy production with limited roof space.

MFG’s installation is a part of an effort by Jamaica’s sole energy provider, Jamaica Public Service, to make the capability for producing renewable energy for its approximately one-million citizens more widely available. The array is expected to generate 25kW of wind power and 55kW of solar power, and the electricity generated can either be used, stored off-grid or fed back into the grid.

windstream-wind-solar-hybrid-jamaica-3The installation incorporates 50 of WindStream’s SolarMill devices, with each different model comprising one or more solar panel and three or more turbines. This is to ensure that the daily and seasonal trends of wind and solar resources are all mitigated by capturing both at any time of the day or year. Windstream says it will return its investment within four years and will produce savings of around US$2 million over the course of its estimated 25-year lifespan.

Merging solar, wind and other renewable technologies into communities, commercial spaces and housing is not only a means of cutting emissions and utility bills, it is also a way to tackle two of renewable energy’s greatest stumbling blocks. These are the problems of storage and intermittency – generating energy when it’s needed and getting it to where it’s needed.

And be sure to check out this video of the rooftop array from Windstream Technologies:


Sources:
gizmag.com, (2), nrg.com, networkrailmediacentre.co.uk

The Future of Disaster Relief: The Ecos PowerCube

EcosPowerCube-640x353One of the greatest challenges to humanitarian aid and disaster relief is the task of getting services to where they needed the most. Whether it’s hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, or wildfires; getting electricity, water, and other utilities up and running again is a tough task. And with every moment that these services are not available, people are likely to die and humanitarian crises ensue.

However, Ecosphere Technologies – a diversified water engineering and environmental services company – believes it’s designed a solution in the form of their new PowerCube. This self-contained, mobile apparatus is designed to deliver solar power to off-grid areas along with water purification facilities and WiFi base stations — all in a single package that is the size of a shipping container.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/disaster-lg-1.jpgThe Ecos PowerCube will be available in three sizes that are designed to fit into 10-foot, 20-foot, and 40-foot shipping containers. The largest models will be capable of generating up to 15kW of power, which will be parceled between providing electrical hook-ups, water treatment and internet access. And they will also serve as temporary shelters, providing temporary sleeping quarters or medical stations.

What is especially innovative about the design is the use of fold-out solar panels, which allow for significant power generation without compromising on the handy space-saving form. Deployed, the Cube is able to maximize its solar-absorbing surface area; but packed up, its small enough to fit into a shipping container and be deployed around the world. However, the design also comes with its share of drawbacks.

powercube-howFirst, there’s the apparent lack of batteries, which means the Cubes will only be able to provide power while the sun is shining. This is crucial since time is often of the essence in disaster areas, with windows for treating wounds and rescuing the buried and trapped lasting typically less than three days. Second, the 15kW generator is rather meager compared to what a diesel generator can produce – between 600kW and 1.7MW.

This means, in essence, that some twenty or so PowerCubes would have to be shipping to a disaster area to equal the electrical capacity of a single large diesel generator. And the intermittency problem is certainly an issue for the time being, unless they are prepared to equip them with high-capacity batteries that can quickly absorb and hold a charge (some graphene or integrated Li-ion batteries should do it).

https://i1.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/military-lg-2.jpgIn the meantime, it is still a crafty idea, and one which has serious potential. Not only do disaster areas need on-site water distribution – shipping it in can be difficult and time consuming – but internet access is also very useful to rescue crews that need up-to-date information, updates, and the ability to coordinate their rescue efforts. And military installations could certainly use the inventions, as they would cut down on fuel consumption.

Still, refinements will need to be made before this is a one-fit solution problem of what to do about disaster relief and fostering development in densely populated areas of the world where things like water-treatment, electricity, and internet access is not readily available.

Source: extremetech.com, ecospheretech.com

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.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, designboom.com, gizmag.com

Looking Forward: 10 Breakthroughs by 2025

BrightFutureWorld-changing scientific discoveries are emerging all the time; from drugs and vaccines that are making incurable diseases curable, to inventions that are making renewable energies cheaper and more efficient. But how will these develops truly shape the world of tomorrow? How will the combination of advancements being made in the fields of medical, digital and industrial technology come together to change things by 2025?

Well, according to the Thomson Reuters IP & Science unit – a leading intellectual property and collaboration platform – has made a list of the top 10 breakthroughs likely to change the world. To make these predictions, they  looked at two sorts of data – current scientific journal literature and patent applications. Counting citations and other measures of buzz, they identified 10 major fields of development, then made specific forecasts for each.

As Basil Moftah, president of the IP & Science business (which sells scientific database products) said:

A powerful outcome of studying scientific literature and patent data is that it gives you a window into the future–insight that isn’t always found in the public domain. We estimate that these will be in effect in another 11 years.

In short, they predict that people living in 2025 will have access to far more in the way of medical treatments and cures, food will be more plentiful (surprisingly enough), renewable energy sources and applications will be more available, the internet of things will become a reality, and quantum and medical science will be doing some very interesting thins.

1. Dementia Declines:
geneticsPrevailing opinion says dementia could be one of our most serious future health challenges, thanks in no small part to increased life expectancy. In fact, the World Health Organization expects the number of cases to triple by 2050. The Thomson Reuters report is far more optimistic though, claiming that a focus on the pathogenic chromosomes that cause neuro-degenerative disease will result in more timely diagnosis, and earlier, more effective treatment:

In 2025, the studies of genetic mutations causing dementia, coupled with improved detection and onset-prevention methods, will result in far fewer people suffering from this disease.

2. Solar Power Everywhere:
solarpowergeWith the conjunction of increased efficiencies, dropping prices and improved storage methods, solar power will be the world’s largest single source of energy by 2025. And while issues such as weather-dependence will not yet be fully resolved, the expansion in panel use and the incorporation of thin photovoltaic cells into just about every surface imaginable (from buildings to roadways to clothing) will means that solar will finally outstrip fossil fuels as coal as the predominant means of getting power.

As the authors of the report write:

Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic energy (from new dye-sensitized and thin-film materials) will heat buildings, water, and provide energy for devices in the home and office, as well as in retail buildings and manufacturing facilities.

3. Type 1 Diabetes Prevention:
diabetes_worldwideType 1 diabetes strikes at an early age and isn’t as prevalent as Type 2 diabetes, which comes on in middle age. But cases have been rising fast nonetheless, and explanations range from nutritional causes to contaminants and fungi. But the report gives hope that kids of the future won’t have to give themselves daily insulin shots, thanks to “genomic-editing-and-repairing” that it expects will fix the problem before it sets in. As it specifies:

The human genome engineering platform will pave the way for the modification of disease-causing genes in humans, leading to the prevention of type I diabetes, among other ailments.

4. No More Food Shortages:
GMO_seedsContrary to what many speculative reports and futurists anticipate, the report indicates that by the year 2025, there will be no more food shortages in the world. Thanks to a combination of lighting and genetically-modified crops, it will be possible to grow food quickly and easily in a plethora of different environments. As it says in the report:

In 2025, genetically modified crops will be grown rapidly and safely indoors, with round-the-clock light, using low energy LEDs that emit specific wavelengths to enhance growth by matching the crop to growth receptors added to the food’s DNA. Crops will also be bred to be disease resistant. And, they will be bred for high yield at specified wavelengths.

5. Simple Electric Flight:
Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype airplane attends his first flight over PayerneThe explosion in the use of electric aircraft (be they solar-powered or hydrogen fueled) in the past few decades has led to predictions that by 2025, small electric aircraft will offset commercial flight using gas-powered, heavy jets. The report says advances in lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen storage will make electric transport a reality:

These aircraft will also utilize new materials that bring down the weight of the vehicle and have motors with superconducting technology. Micro-commercial aircraft will fly the skies for short-hop journeys.

6. The Internet of Things:
internet-of-things-2By 2025, the internet is likely to expand into every corner of life, with growing wifi networks connecting more people all across the world. At the same time, more and more in the way of devices and personal possessions are likely to become “smart” – meaning that they will can be accessed digitally and networked to other things. In short, the internet of things will become a reality. And the speed at which things move will vastly increase due to proposed solutions to the computing bottleneck.

Here’s how the report puts it:

Thanks to the prevalence of improved semiconductors, graphene-carbon nanotube capacitators, cell-free networks of service antenna, and 5G technology, wireless communications will dominate everything, everywhere.

7. No More Plastic Garbage:
110315-N-IC111-592Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (aka. the Pacific Trash Vortex), the mass of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that measures somewhere between 700,000 and 15,000,000 square kilometres (270,000 – 5,800,000 sq mi)? Well, according to the report, such things will become a thing of the past. By 2025, it claims, the “glucose economy” will lead to the predominance of packaging made from plant-derived cellulose (aka. bioplastics).

Because of this influx of biodegradable plastics, there will be no more permanent deposits of plastic garbage filling our oceans, landfills, and streets. As it says:

Toxic plastic-petroleum packaging that litters cities, fields, beaches, and oceans, and which isn’t biodegradable, will be nearing extinction in another decade. Thanks to advancements in the technology related to and use of these bio-nano materials, petroleum-based packaging products will be history.

8. More Precise Drugs:
drugsBy 2025, we’ll have sophisticated, personalized medicine, thanks to improved production methods, biomedical research, and the growth of up-to-the-minute health data being provided by wearable medical sensors and patches. The report also offers specific examples:

Drugs in development are becoming so targeted that they can bind to specific proteins and use antibodies to give precise mechanisms of action. Knowledge of specific gene mutations will be so much more advanced that scientists and physicians can treat those specific mutations. Examples of this include HER2 (breast cancer), BRAF V600 (melanoma), and ROS1 (lung cancer), among many others.

9. DNA Mapping Formalized:
DNA-1Recent explosions in genetic research – which include the Genome Project and ENCODE – are leading to a world where personal genetic information will become the norm. As a result, kids born in 2025 will be tested at the DNA level, and not just once or twice, but continually using nano-probes inserted in the body. The result will be a boon for anticipating genetic diseases, but could also raise various privacy-related issues. As it states:

In 2025, humans will have their DNA mapped at birth and checked annually to identify any changes that could point to the onset of autoimmune diseases.

10. Teleportation Tested:
quantum-entanglement1Last, but certainly not least, the report says research into teleportation will be underway. Between the confirmation of the Higgs Boson (and by extension, the Standard Model of particle physics), recent revelations about quantum entanglements and wormholes, and the discovery of the Amplituhedron, the field of teleportation is likely to produce some serious breakthroughs. No telling what these will be – be it the ability to teleport simple photons or something larger – but the fact that the research will be happening seems a foregone conclusion:

We are on the precipice of this field’s explosion; it is truly an emerging research front. Early indicators point to a rapid acceleration of research leading to the testing of quantum teleportation in 2025.

Summary:
Will all of these changes come to pass? Who knows? If history has taught us anything, it’s that predictions are often wrong and much in the way of exciting research doesn’t always make it to the market. And as always, various factors – such as politics, money, public resistance, private interests – have a way of complicating things. However, there is reason to believe that the aforementioned 10 things will become a viable reality. And Moftah believes we should be positive about the future:

[The predictions] are positive in nature because they are solutions researchers and scientists are working on to address challenges we face in the world today. There will always be obstacles and issues to overcome, but science and innovation give us hope for how we will address them.

I, for one, am happy and intrigued to see certain items making this list. The explosion in solar usage, bioplastics, and the elimination of food scarcity are all very encouraging. If there was one thing I was anticipating by 2025, it was increased drought and food shortages. But as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. And as someone who has had two grandmothers who lived into their nineties and have both suffered from the scourges of dementia, it is good to know that this disease will be on the wane for future generations.

It is also encouraging to know that there will be better treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV, and diabetes. While the idea of a world in which all diseases are preventable and/or treatable worries some (on a count of how it might stoke overpopulation), no one who has ever lived with this disease, or known someone who has, would think twice if presented with a cure. And hardship, hunger, a lack of education, resources and health services are some of the main reasons for population explosions.

And, let’s face it, its good to live in an age where the future looks bright for a change. After a good century of total war, totalitarianism, atomic diplomacy, terrorism, and oh so much existential angst and dystopian fiction, it’s nice to think that the coming age will turn out alright after all.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, ip-science.thomsonreuters.com

Powered by the Sun: Boosting Solar Efficiency

solar1Improving the efficiency of solar power – which is currently the most promising alternative energy source – is central to ensuring that it an becomes economically viable replacement to fossil fuels, coal, and other “dirty” sources. And while many solutions have emerged in recent years that have led to improvements in solar panel efficiency, many developments are also aimed at the other end of things – i.e. improving the storage capacity of solar batteries.

In the former case, a group of scientists working with the University of Utah believe they’ve discovered a method of substantially boosting solar cell efficiencies. By adding a polychromat layer that separates and sorts incoming light, redirecting it to strike particular layers in a multijunction cell, they hope to create a commercial cell that can absorb more wavelengths of light, and therefor generate more energy for volume than conventional cells.

EMSpectrumTraditionally, solar cell technology has struggled to overcome a significant efficiency problem. The type of substrate used dictates how much energy can be absorbed from sunlight — but each type of substrate (silicon, gallium arsenide, indium gallium arsenide, and many others) corresponds to capturing a particular wavelength of energy. Cheap solar cells built on inexpensive silicon have a maximum theoretical efficiency of 34% and a practical (real-world) efficiency of around 22%.

At the other end of things, there are multijunction cells. These use multiple layers of substrates to capture a larger section of the sun’s spectrum and can reach up to 87% efficiency in theory – but are currently limited to 43% in practice. What’s more, these types of multijunction cells are extremely expensive and have intricate wiring and precise structures, all of which leads to increased production and installation costs.

SolarCellResearchIn contrast, the cell created by the University of Utah used two layers — indium gallium phosphide (for visible light) and gallium arsenide for infrared light. According to the research team, when their polychromat was added, the power efficiency increased by 16 percent. The team also ran simulations of a polychromat layer with up to eight different absorbtion layers and claim that it could potentially yield an efficiency increase of up to 50%.

However, there were some footnotes to their report which temper the good news. For one, the potential gain has not been tested yet, so any major increases in solar efficiency remain theoretical at this time. Second, the report states that the reported gain was a percentage of a percentage, meaning that if the original cell efficiency was 30%, then a gain of 16% percent means that the new efficiency is 34.8%. That’s still a huge gain for a polychromat layer that is easily produced, but not as impressive as it originally sounded.

PolyChromat-640x353However, given that the biggest barrier to multi-junction solar cell technology is manufacturing complexity and associated cost, anything that boosts cell efficiency on the front end without requiring any major changes to the manufacturing process is going to help with the long-term commercialization of the technology. Advances like this could help make technologies cost effective for personal deployment and allow them to scale in a similar fashion to cheaper devices.

In the latter case, where energy storage is concerned, a California-based startup called Enervault recently unveiled battery technology that could increase the amount of renewable energy utilities can use. The technology is based on inexpensive materials that researchers had largely given up on because batteries made from them didn’t last long enough to be practical. But the company says it has figured out how to make the batteries last for decades.

SONY DSCThe technology is being demonstrated in a large battery at a facility in the California desert near Modeso, 0ne that stores one megawatt-hour of electricity, enough to run 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for an hour. The company has been testing a similar, though much smaller, version of the technology for about two years with good results. It has also raised $30 million in funding, including a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The technology is a type of flow battery, so called because the energy storage materials are in liquid form. They are stored in big tanks until they’re needed and then pumped through a relatively small device (called a stack) where they interact to generate electricity. Building bigger tanks is relatively cheap, so the more energy storage is needed, the better the economics become. That means the batteries are best suited for storing hours’ or days’ worth of electricity, and not delivering quick bursts.

solarpanelsThis is especially good news for solar and wind companies, which have remained plagued by problems of energy storage despite improvements in both yield and efficiency. Enervault says that when the batteries are produced commercially at even larger sizes, they will cost just a fifth as much as vanadium redox flow batteries, which have been demonstrated at large scales and are probably the type of flow battery closest to market right now.

And the idea is not reserved to just startups. Researchers at Harvard recently made a flow battery that could prove cheaper than Enervault’s, but the prototype is small and could take many years to turn into a marketable version. An MIT spinoff, Sun Catalytix, is also developing an advanced flow battery, but its prototype is also small. And other types of inexpensive, long-duration batteries are being developed, using materials such as molten metals.

Sumitomo-redox-flow-battery-YokohamaOne significant drawback to the technology is that it’s less than 70 percent efficient, which falls short of the 90 percent efficiency of many batteries. The company says the economics still work out, but such a wasteful battery might not be ideal for large-scale renewable energy. More solar panels would have to be installed to make up for the waste. What’s more, the market for batteries designed to store hours of electricity is still uncertain.

A combination of advanced weather forecasts, responsive fossil-fuel power plants, better transmission networks, and smart controls for wind and solar power could delay the need for them. California is requiring its utilities to invest in energy storage but hasn’t specified what kind, and it’s not clear what types of batteries will prove most valuable in the near term, slow-charging ones like Enervault’s or those that deliver quicker bursts of power to make up for short-term variations in energy supply.

Tesla Motors, one company developing the latter type, hopes to make them affordable by producing them at a huge factory. And developments and new materials are being considered all time (i.e. graphene) that are improving both the efficiency and storage capacity of batteries. And with solar panels and wind becoming increasingly cost-effective, the likelihood of storage methods catching up is all but inevitable.

Sources: extremetech.com, technologyreview.com