Powered by the Sun: Efficiency Records and Future Trends

solar_panelThere have been many new developments in the field of solar technology lately, thanks to new waves of innovation and the ongoing drive to make the technology cheaper and more efficient. At the current rate of growth, solar power is predicted to become cheaper than natural gas by 2025. And with that, so many opportunities for clean energy and clean living will become available.

Though there are many contributing factors to this trend, much of the progress made of late is thanks to the discovery of graphene. This miracle material – which is ultra-thin, strong and light – has the ability to act as a super capacitor, battery, and an amazing superconductor. And its use in the manufacture of solar panels is leading to record breaking efficiency.

graphene-solarBack in 2012, researchers from the University of Florida reported a record efficiency of 8.6 percent for a prototype solar cell consisting of a wafer of silicon coated with a layer of graphene doped with trifluoromethanesulfonyl-amide (TFSA). And now, another team is claiming a new record efficiency of 15.6 percent for a graphene-based solar cell by ditching the silicon all together.

And while 15.6 efficiency might still lag behind certain designs of conventional solar cells (for instance, the Boeing Spectrolabs mass-production design of 2010 achieved upwards of 40 percent), this represents a exponential increase for graphene cells. The reason why it is favored in the production of cells is the fact that compared to silicon, it is far cheaper to produce.

solar_power2Despite the improvements made in manufacturing and installation, silicon is still expensive to process into cells. This new prototype, created by researchers from the Group of Photovoltaic and Optoelectronic Devices (DFO) – located at Spain’s Universitat Jaume I Castelló and the University of Oxford – uses a combination of titanium oxide and graphene as a charge collector and perovskite to absorb sunlight.

As well as the impressive solar efficiency, the team says the device is manufactured at low temperatures, with the several layers that go into making it being processed at under 150° C (302° F) using a solution-based deposition technique. This not only means lower potential production costs, but also makes it possible for the technology to be used on flexible plastics.

twin-creeks-hyperion-wafer-ii-flexibleWhat this means is a drop in costs all around, from production to installation, and the means to adapt the panel design to more surfaces. And considering the rate at which efficiency is being increased, it would not be rash to anticipate a range of graphene-based solar panels hitting the market in the near future – ones that can give conventional cells a run for their money!

However, another major stumbling block with solar power is weather, since it requires clear skies to be effective. For some time, the idea of getting the arrays into space has been proposed as a solution, which may finally be possible thanks to recent drops in the associated costs. In most cases, this consists or orbital arrays, but as noted late last year, there are more ambitious plans as well.

lunaring-3Take the Japanese company Shimizu and it’s proposed “Luna Ring” as an example. As noted earlier this month, Shimizu has proposed creating a solar array some 400 km (250 miles) wide and 11,000 km (6,800 miles) long that would beam solar energy directly to Earth. Being located on the Moon and wrapped around its entirety, this array would be able to take advantage of perennial exposure to sunlight.

Cables underneath the ring would gather power and transfer it to stations that facing Earth, which would then beam the energy our way using microwaves and lasers. Shimizu believes the scheme, which it showed off at a recent exhibition in Japan, would virtually solve our energy crisis, so we never have to think about fossil fuels again.

lunaring-2They predict that the entire array could be built and operational by 2035. Is that too soon to hope for planetary energy independence? And given the progress being made by companies like SpaceX and NASA in bringing the costs of getting into space down, and the way the Moon is factoring into multiple space agencies plans for the coming decades, I would anticipate that such a project is truly feasible, if still speculative.

Combined with increases being made in the fields of wind turbines, tidal harnesses, and other renewable energy sources – i.e. geothermal and piezoelectric – the future of clean energy, clear skies and clean living can’t get here soon enough! And be sure to check out this video of the Luna Ring, courtesy of the Shimizu corporation:


Sources:
gizmodo.com, fastcoexist.com

Coming Soon: A Universal Flu Vaccine?

flu_vaccineScientists have been making great strides in coming up with treatments and cures for illnesses that were previously thought to be incurable. While some of these are aimed at eliminating pandemics that have taken millions of lives worldwide (such as HIV/AIDS) others are aimed at treating the more common – but no less infectious – viruses, like the common flu.

When it comes to the latter, the difficulty is not so much in creating a cure, as it is a cure all. The flu is a virus that is constantly evolving, changing with the seasons and with each host. This requires medical researchers to constantly develop new vaccines year after year to address the latest strain, as well as specialized vaccines to address different  types – i.e. H1N1, swine, avian bird.

flu_vaccine1Luckily, a research team at Imperial College London say they have made a “blueprint” for a universal flu vaccine. Their report appeared in a recent issue of Nature Medicine. In their report, they specified that the key to creating a universal vaccine lies in targeting the core of the virus, rather than its ever-evolving DNA.

Just last year, researchers at the Friedrich-Loeffler Institute in Riems Island, Germany sought to create a similar vaccine that would target the virus’ RNA structure rather than the key proteins found in the DNA. By contrast, the Imperial researchers set about looking into T-cells, the crucial part of the immune system that is thought to be able to recognize proteins in the core.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicTheir research began with a series of clinical examinations of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which was produced by the combining of earlier strains of pig and bird flu. The team then compared levels of one kind of T-cells at the start of the pandemic with symptoms of flu in 342 staff and students at the university. They showed that the higher the levels of the T-cells a patient had, the milder their symptoms were.

Researchers then teased out the specific part of the immune system that offered some pandemic flu protection and which part of the virus it was attacking. from there, They began developing a vaccine that would trigger the production of these cells – known as CD8 T cells. These cells would attack the invading flu virus, ignoring the outer protein structure and focusing on the core which it had encountered before.

Influenza_virus_2008765Prof Ajit Lalvani, who led the study, told the BBC:

It’s a blueprint for a vaccine. We know the exact subgroup of the immune system and we’ve identified the key fragments in the internal core of the virus. These should be included in a vaccine. In truth, in this case it is about five years [away from a vaccine]. We have the know-how, we know what needs to be in the vaccine and we can just get on and do it.

The benefits of such a vaccine would be profound and obvious. While many of us consider the seasonal flu to be an inconvenience, it is important to note that it kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people worldwide each year. While this is a fraction of the total number of deaths attributed to AIDS (1.6 to 1.9 million in 2010, it is still a significant toll. What’s more, new pandemics have the potential to take doctors by surprise and kill large numbers of people.
t-cellHowever, the Imperial College researchers admit that it is generally harder to develop a T-cell vaccine than a traditional one designed to provoke an antibody response. The challenge will be to get a big enough of a T-cell response to offer protection and a response that will last. So while the blueprint is in place, medical researchers still have a long road ahead of them.

Prof John Oxford, of Queen Mary University of London, put it this way:

This sort of effect can’t be that powerful or we’d never have pandemics. It’s not going to solve all the problems of influenza, but could add to the range of vaccines. It’s going to be a long journey from this sort of paper to translating it into a vaccine that works.

AI-fightingfluWhat’s more, there are concerns that a T-cell vaccine would be limited when it comes to certain age groups. Jenner Institute at Oxford University, explains:

Live attenuated influenza vaccines which are given by nasal spray and will be used in children in the UK from this autumn are much better at increasing the number of influenza-specific T cells, but these vaccines only work in young children who haven’t yet had much exposure to influenza virus, so we need an alternative approach for adults.

Interestingly enough, this approach of stimulating the production of T-cells bears a striking resemblance to the work being done at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at OHSU, where researchers are working towards a vaccine that could also cure HIV. This research also appeared in Nature Medicine last month.

So not only could we be looking at a cure for both HIV and the flu in the near future, we could be looking at the containment of infectious viruses all over the world. As these two cases demonstrate, advances in medical science towards antivirals appear to be tied at the hip.

Sources: bbc.co.uk, gizmodo.com, nature.com

The Future is Here: Lab-Grown Burgers!

labmeat1Artificially-created meat has long been the dream of futurists and researchers, a means of solving world hunger and improving health at the same time. Efforts to create it using 3D printing are coming along, but another research firm has offered a different approach – in vitro grown meat. And at the same time, this lab-grown alternative offers consumers the chance to improve their health by eating something more nutritionally balanced.

The breakthrough comes to us from a group of researchers led by Mark Post, a Vascular Physiology professor at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. To make the burger, he and his team began with a kind of stem cell called a myosatellite cell that is taken from a cow’s neck. These cells are then placed in growth medium that the researchers have formulated to allow them to grow and divide. The resulting cells are grown into 20,000 strips of muscle tissue which are assembled into beef.

labmeat0This is an encouraging development for a number of reasons. First of all, a 2011 joint-research study between the University of Oxford, University of Amsterdam, and a number of environmental research organizations, cultured meat required up to 45 percent less energy and up to 96 percent less water to produce, generated up to 96 percent less greenhouse gases and, without animal herds of flocks to tend to, requires 99 percent less land.

Second, Post’s recipe for a lab-grown beef burger contains no fat, compared to its rather fatty organic  counterpart. And while fat is responsible for giving a burger much of its taste, Post insists that his recipe tastes “tastes reasonably good.” In the coming weeks Post plans on cooking his burger at an event in London where participants will try the in vitro meat – adding salt and pepper to taste.

labmeatHowever, the process is not completely devoid of reliance on actual cows. As already mentioned, the original stem cells that make the process possible have to come from a living cow. In addition, the muscle cells were grown in fetal calf serum, a necessity at this point since the process is still in its infancy. It’s hoped that in the future the burger can be produced without any material of animal origin.

And of course, the technology needs to become way more scalable before it can be considered viable. For example, between the cost of extracting the fetal cow tissue and turning it into meat in a lab, a single burger took roughly $325,000 to produce. But ultimately, this feat was all about pushing the boundaries and challenging notions of what is possible.

3d_meat In addition, as technology improves and the process is refined, costs will come down. And as Post said in an interview, the point of developing this process was to demonstrate that it can be done:

Let’s make a proof of concept, and change the discussion from ‘this is never going to work’ to, ‘well, we actually showed that it works, but now we need to get funding and work on it.’

While it may be several more years before in vitro burgers replace old fashioned farmed burgers, but the feat is a delicious victory for environmentalists and scientists alike in search for alternate ways to feed the world’s addiction to meat.

Funny, all this talk of lab-grown meat is giving me a sense of deja vu. Didn’t somebody write a story about this exact kind of thing not that long ago? Oh yeah… it was me! Well that’s just great, now I got to sue J.J. Abrams and the University of Maastricht? Lord, why do you torment me so?

Sources: singularityhub.com, pubs.acs.org