The Future Of Energy Isn’t Fossil Fuels Or Renewables, It’s Nuclear Fusion (Really?)


 

Co State Nuc Fussion 2Colorado State University scientists, using a compact but powerful laser to heat arrays of ordered nanowires, have demonstrated micro-scale nuclear fusion in the lab.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the climate doesn’t matter. That we’re completely ignoring the connection between carbon dioxide, the Earth’s atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, global temperatures, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise. From a long-term point of view, we’d still need to plan for our energy future. Fossil fuels, which make up by far the majority of world-wide power today, are an abundant but fundamentally limited resource. Renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power have different limitations: they’re inconsistent. There is a long-term solution, though, that overcomes all of these problems: nuclear fusion.

Even the most advanced chemical reactions, like combusting thermite, shown here, generate about a million times less energy per unit mass compared to a nuclear reaction.

Even the most advanced chemical reactions, like combusting thermite, shown here, generate about a million times less energy per unit mass compared to a nuclear reaction.NIKTHESTUNNED OF WIKIPEDIA

It might seem that the fossil fuel problem is obvious: we cannot simply generate more coal, oil, or natural gas when our present supplies run out. We’ve been burning pretty much every drop we can get our hands on for going on three centuries now, and this problem is going to get worse. Even though we have hundreds of years more before we’re all out, the amount isn’t limitless. There are legitimate, non-warming-related environmental concerns, too.

Even if we ignored the CO2-global climate change problem, fossil fuels are limited in the amount Earth contains, and also extracting, transporting, refining and burning them causes large amounts of pollution.

Even if we ignored the CO2-global climate change problem, fossil fuels are limited in the amount Earth contains, and also extracting, transporting, refining and burning them causes large amounts of pollution.GREG GOEBEL

The burning of fossil fuels generates pollution, since these carbon-based fuel sources contain a lot more than just carbon and hydrogen in their chemical makeup, and burning them (to generate energy) also burns all the impurities, releasing them into the air. In addition, the refining and/or extraction process is dirty, dangerous and can pollute the water table and entire bodies of water, like rivers and lakes.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way.WINCHELL JOSHUA, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

On the other hand, renewable energy sources are inconsistent, even at their best. Try powering your grid during dry, overcast (or overnight), and drought-riddled times, and you’re doomed to failure. The sheer magnitude of the battery storage capabilities required to power even a single city during insufficient energy-generation conditions is daunting. Simultaneously, the pollution effects associated with creating solar panels, manufacturing wind or hydroelectric turbines, and (especially) with creating the materials needed to store large amounts of energy are tremendous as well. Even what’s touted as “green energy” isn’t devoid of drawbacks.

Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha. The blue glow is known as Cherenkov radiation, from the faster-than-light-in-water particles emitted.

Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha. The blue glow is known as Cherenkov radiation, from the faster-than-light-in-water particles emitted.CENTRO ATOMICO BARILOCHE, VIA PIECK DARÍO

But there is always the nuclear option. That word itself is enough to elicit strong reactions from many people: nuclear. The idea of nuclear bombs, of radioactive fallout, of meltdowns, and of disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima — not to mention residual fear from the Cold War — make “NIMBY” the default position for a large number of people. And that’s a fear that’s not wholly without foundation, when it comes to nuclear fission. But fission isn’t the only game in town.

Watch the Video: Nuclear Bomb – The First H Bomb Test

 

In 1952, the United States detonated Ivy Mike, the first demonstrated nuclear fusion reaction to occur on Earth. Whereas nuclear fission involves taking heavy, unstable (and already radioactive) elements like Thorium, Uranium or Plutonium, initiating a reaction that causes them to split apart into smaller, also radioactive components that release energy, nothing involved in fusion is radioactive at all. The reactants are light, stable elements like isotopes of hydrogen, helium or lithium; the products are also light and stable, like helium, lithium, beryllium or boron.

 

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun's power is an example of nuclear fusion.

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun’s power is an example of nuclear fusion.BORB / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

So far, fission has taken place in either a runaway or controlled environment, rushing past the breakeven point (where the energy output is greater than the input) with ease, while fusion has never reached the breakeven point in a controlled setting. But four main possibilities have emerged. img_0787

  1. Inertial Confinement Fusion. We take a pellet of hydrogen — the fuel for this fusion reaction — and compress it using many lasers that surround the pellet. The compression causes the hydrogen nuclei to fuse into heavier elements like helium, and releases a burst of energy.
  2. Magnetic Confinement Fusion. Instead of using mechanical compression, why not let the electromagnetic force do the confining work? Magnetic fields confine a superheated plasma of fusible material, and nuclear fusion reactions occur inside a Tokamak-style reactor.
  3. Magnetized Target Fusion. In MTF, a superheated plasma is created and confined magnetically, but pistons surrounding it compress the fuel inside, creating a burst of nuclear fusion in the interior.
  4. Subcritical Fusion. Instead of trying to trigger fusion with heat or inertia, subcritical fusion uses a subcritical fission reaction — with zero chance of a meltdown — to power a fusion reaction.

The first two have been researched for decades now, and are the closest to the coveted breakeven point. But the latter two are new, with the last one gaining many new investors and start-ups this decade.

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot - 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time.

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot – 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time.DAMIEN JEMISON/LLNL

Even if you reject climate science, the problem of powering the world, and doing so in a sustainable, pollution-free way, is one of the most daunting long-term ones facing humanity. Nuclear fusion as a power source has never been given the necessary funding to develop it to fruition, but it’s the one physically possible solution to our energy needs with no obvious downsides. If we can get the idea that “nuclear” means “potential for disaster” out of our heads, people from all across the political spectrum just might be able to come together and solve our energy and environmental needs in one single blow. If you think the government should be investing in science with national and global payoffs, you can’t do better than the ROI that would come from successful fusion research. The physics works out beautifully; we now just need the investment and the engineering breakthroughs.

Special Contribution to Forbes by: Ethan Siegel 

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How a ‘solar battery’ could bring electricity to rural areas – A ‘solar flow’ battery could “Harvest (energy) in the Daytime and Provide Electricity in the Evening


New solar flow battery with a 14.1 percent efficiency. Photo: David Tenenbaum, UW-Madison

Solar energy is becoming more and more popular as prices drop, yet a home powered by the Sun isn’t free from the grid because solar panels don’t store energy for later. Now, researchers have refined a device that can both harvest and store solar energy, and they hope it will one day bring electricity to rural and underdeveloped areas.

The problem of energy storage has led to many creative solutions, like giant batteries. For a paper published today in the journal Chem, scientists trying to improve the solar cells themselves developed an integrated battery that works in three different ways.

It can work like a normal solar cell by converting sunlight to electricity immediately, explains study author Song Jin, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It can store the solar energy, or it can simply be charged like a normal battery.

“IT COULD HARVEST IN THE DAYTIME, PROVIDE ELECTRICITY IN THE EVENING.”

It’s a combination of two existing technologies: solar cells that harvest light, and a so-called flow battery.

The most commonly used batteries, lithium-ion, store energy in solid materials, like various metals. Flow batteries, on the other hand, store energy in external liquid tanks.

What is A ‘Flow Battery’

This means they are very easy to scale for large projects. Scaling up all the components of a lithium-ion battery might throw off the engineering, but for flow batteries, “you just make the tank bigger,” says Timothy Cook, a University at Buffalo chemist and flow battery expert not involved in the study.

“You really simplify how to make the battery grow in capacity,” he adds. “We’re not making flow batteries to power a cell phone, we’re thinking about buildings or industrial sites.

Jin and his team were the first to combine the two features. They have been working on the battery for years, and have now reached 14.1 percent efficiency.

Jin calls this “round-trip efficiency” — as in, the efficiency from taking that energy, storing it, and discharging it. “We can probably get to 20 percent efficiency in the next few years, and I think 25 percent round-trip is not out of the question,” Jin says.

Apart from improving efficiency, Jin and his team want to develop a better design that can use cheaper materials.

The invention is still at proof-of-concept stage, but he thinks it could have a large impact in less-developed areas without power grids and proper infrastructure. “There, you could have a medium-scale device like this operate by itself,” he says. “It could harvest in the daytime, provide electricity in the evening.” In many areas, Jin adds, having electricity is a game changer, because it can help people be more connected or enable more clinics to be open and therefore improve health care.

And Cook notes that if the solar flow battery can be scaled, it can still be helpful in the US.

The United States might have plenty of power infrastructure, but with such a device, “you can disconnect and have personalized energy where you’re storing and using what you need locally,” he says. And that could help us be less dependent on forms of energy that harm the environment.

Researchers Develop Novel Two-Step CO2 Conversion Technology – Could aid in the production of valuable chemicals and fuels


CO2 Help U Delaware 181490_webUD Professor Feng Jiao’s team constructed an electrolyser, pictured here, to conduct their novel two-step conversion process.

 

A team of researchers at the University of Delaware’s Center for Catalytic Science and Technology (CCST) has discovered a novel two-step process to increase the efficiency of carbon dioxide (CO2) electrolysis, a chemical reaction driven by electrical currents that can aid in the production of valuable chemicals and fuels.

The results of the team’s study were published Monday, Aug. 20 in Nature Catalysis.

The research team, consisting of Feng Jiao, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and graduate students Matthew Jouny and Wesley Luc, obtained their results by constructing a specialized three-chambered device called an electrolyser, which uses electricity to reduce CO2 into smaller molecules.

Compared to fossil fuels, electricity is a much more affordable and environmentally-friendly method for driving chemical processes to produce commercial chemicals and fuels. These can include ethylene, which is used in the production of plastics, and ethanol, a valuable fuel additive.

“This novel electrolysis technology provides a new route to achieve higher selectivities at incredible reaction rates, which is a major step towards commercial applications,” said Jiao, who also serves as associate director of CCST.

Whereas direct CO2 electrolysis is the standard method for reducing carbon dioxide, Jiao’s team broke the electrolysis process into two steps, reducing CO2 into carbon monoxide (CO) and then reducing the CO further into multi-carbon (C2+) products. This two-part approach, said Jiao, presents multiple advantages over the standard method.

“By breaking the process into two steps, we’ve obtained a much higher selectivity towards multi-carbon products than in direct electrolysis,” Jiao said. “The sequential reaction strategy could open up new ways to design more efficient processes for CO2 utilization.”

Electrolysis is also driving Jiao’s research with colleague Bingjun Xu, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. In collaboration with researchers at Tianjin University in China, Jiao and Xu are designing a system that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using carbon-neutral solar electricity.

“We hope this work will bring more attention to this promising technology for further research and development,” Jiao said. “There are many technical challenges still be solved, but we are working on them!”

Energy Storage Technologies vie for Investment and Market Share – “And the Winners Are” …


One of the conveniences that makes fossil fuels hard to phase out is the relative ease of storing them, something that many of the talks at Advanced Energy Materials 2018 aimed to tackle as they laid out some of the advances in alternatives for energy storage.

Max Lu during the inaugural address at AEM 2018

“Energy is the biggest business in the world,” Max Lu, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, told attendees of Advanced Energy Materials 2018 at Surrey University earlier this month. But as

Lu, who has held numerous positions on senior academic boards and government councils, pointed out, the shear scale of the business means it takes time for one technology to replace another.

“Even if solar power were now cheaper than fossil fuel, it would be another 30 years before it replaced fossil fuel,” said Lu. And for any alternative technology to replace fossil fuels, some means of storing it is crucial.

Batteries beyond lithium ion cells

Lithium ion batteries have become ubiquitous for powering small portable devices.

But as Daniel ShuPing Lau, professor and head at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and director of the University Research Facility in Materials pointed out, lithium is rare and high-cost, prompting the search for alternatives.

He described work on sodium ion batteries, where one of the key challenges has been the MnO2 electrode commonly used, which is prone to acid attack and disproportionation redox reactions.

Lau described work by his group and colleagues to get around the electrode stability issues using environmentally friendly K-birnessite MnO2 (K0.3MnO2) nanosheets, which they can inkjet print on paper as well as steel.

Their sodium ion batteries challenge the state of the art for energy storage devices with a working voltage of 2.5 V, maximum energy and power densities of 587 W h kgcathode−1 and 75 kW kgcathode−1, respectively, and a 99.5% capacity retention for 500 cycles at 1 A g−1.

Metal air batteries are another alternative to lithium-ion batteries, and Tan Wai Kan from Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan described the potential of using a carbon paper decorated with Fe2O3 nanoparticles in a metal air battery.

They increase the surface area of the electrode with a mesh structure to improve the efficiency, while using solid electrolyte KOHZrO2 instead of a liquid helped mitigate against the stability risks of hydrogen evolution for greater reliability and efficiency.

A winning write off for pseudosupercapacitors

Other challenges aside, when it comes to stability, supercapacitors leave most batteries far behind.

Because there is no mass movement, just charge, they tend to stay stable for not just hundreds but hundreds of thousands of cycles

They are already in use in the Shanghai bus system and the emergency doors on some aircraft as Robert Slade emeritus professor of inorganic and materials chemistry at the University of Surrey pointed out.

He described work on “pseudocapacitance”, a term popularised in the 1980s and 1990s to to describe a charge storage process that is by nature faradaic – that is, charge transport through redox processes – but where aspects of the behaviour is capacitive.

MnO2 is well known to impart pseudocapacitance in alkaline solutions but Slade and his colleagues focused on MoO3.

Although MnO3 is a lousy conductor, it accepts protons in acids to form HMoO, and exploiting the additional surface area of nanostructures further helps give access to the pseudocapacitance, so that the team were able to demonstrate a charge-discharge rate of 20 A g-1 for over 10,000 cycles.

This is competitive with MnO2 alkaline systems. “So don’t write off materials that other people have written off, such as MoO3, because a bit of “chemical trickery” can make them useful,” he concluded.

Down but not out for solid oxide fuel cells

But do we gain from the proliferation of so many different alternatives to fossil fuels? According to John Zhu, professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland in Australia, “yes.”

For clean energy we need more than one solution,” was his response when queried on the point after his talk.

In particular he had a number of virtues to espouse with respect to solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), which had been the topic of his own presentation.

Besides the advantage of potential 24-7 operation, SOFCs generate the energy they store. As Zhu pointed out, “With a battery energy the source may still be dirty – so you are just moving the pollution from a high population density area to a low one.”

In contrast, an SOFC plant generates electricity directly from oxidizing a fuel, while at the same time it halves the CO2 emission of a coal-based counterpart, and achieves an efficiency of more than 60%.

If combined with hot water generation more than 80% efficiency is possible, which is double the efficiency of a conventional coal plant. All this is achieved with cheap materials as no noble metals are needed.

Too good to be true? It seemed so at one point as promising corporate ventures plummeted, one example being Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd, which was formed in 1992 by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and a consortium of energy and industrial companies.

After becoming ASX listed in 2004, and opening production facilities in Australia and Germany, it eventually filed voluntary bankruptcy in 2015.

So “Are SOFCs going to die?” asked Zhu.

So long as funding is the lifeline of research apparently not, with the field continuing to attract investment from the US Department of Energy – including $6million for Fuel Cell Energy Inc. Share prices for GE Global Research and Bloom Energy have also doubled in the two months since July 2018, but Zhu highlights challenges that remain.

At €25,000 to install a 2 kW system he suggests that cost is not the issue so much as durability. While an SOFC plant’s lifetime should exceed 10 years, most don’t largely due to the high operating temperatures of 800–1000 °C, which lead to thermal degradation and seal failure. Lower operating temperatures would also allow faster start up and the use of cheaper materials.

The limiting factor for reducing temperatures is the cathode material, as its resistance is too high in cooler conditions. Possible alternative cathode materials do exist and include – 3D heterostructured electrodes La3MiO4 decorated Ba0.5Sr0.3Ce0.8Fe0.3O3 (BSCF with LN shell).

Photocatalysts all wrapped up

Other routes for energy on demand have looked at water splitting and CO2 reduction.

As Lu pointed out in his opening remarks, the success of these approaches hinge on engineering better catalysts, and here Somnath Roy from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, in India, had some progress to report.

“TiO2 is to catalysis what silicon is to microelectronics,” he told attendees of his talk during the graphene energy materials session. However the photocatalytic activity of TiO2 peaks in the UV, and there have been many efforts to shift this closer to the visible as a result.

Building on previous work with composites of graphene and TiO2 he and his colleagues developed a process to produce well separated (to allow reaction space) TiO2 nanotubes wrapped in graphene.

Although they did not notice a wavelength shift in the peak catalytic activity to the visible due to the graphene, the catalysis did improve due to the effect on hole and electron transport.

There was no shortage of ideas at AEM 2018, but as Lu told attendees,

“Ultimately uptake does not depend on the best technology but the best return on investment.”

Speaking to Physics World  he added,

“The route to market for any energy materials will require systematic assessment of the technical advantages, market demand and a number of iterations of property-performance-system optimization, and open innovation and collaboration will be the name of the game for successful translation of materials to product or processes.”

Whatever technologies do eventually stick, time is of the essence. Most estimates place the tipping point for catastrophic global warming at 2050.

Allowing 30 years for the infrastructure overhaul that could allow alternative energies to totally replace fossil fuels leaves little more than a year for those technologies to pitch “the best return on investment”.

Little wonder advanced energy materials research is teaming.

Read More: Learn About:

Tenka Energy, Inc. Building Ultra-Thin Energy Dense SuperCaps and NexGen Nano-Enabled Pouch & Cylindrical Batteries – Energy Storage Made Small and POWERFUL!

Watch the YouTube Video:

New super-battery that doesn’t catch fire described as a ‘paradigm shift’


The latest rechargeable battery technology could drastically improve the capabilities of mobile phones and electric vehicles.

It seems that nearly every household electronic item these days requires a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, from a vacuum cleaner to a pair of headphones.

This results in many of us having a multitude of different devices hooked up to various chargers at any given time, which isn’t exactly ideal.

Now, however, a team of scientists from the University of Michigan is heralding a major breakthrough that could drastically increase the power of rechargeable batteries, with the added bonus of not catching on fire.

Existing rechargeable batteries are made from lithium-ion, a technology that enables a quick charge but has the massive drawback of its exposure to open air causing it to explode and catch fire. It also requires regular charging and can degrade quickly due to overcharging.

But, in a paper soon to be published to the Journal of Power Sources, the research team describe how by using a ceramic, solid-state electrolyte, it was able to harness the power of lithium-metal batteries without any of the traditional negatives of lithium-ion.

In doing so, it could double the output of batteries, meaning a phone could run for days or weeks without charging, or an electric vehicle (EV) could rival fossil fuel-powered cars in range.

Jeff Sakamoto, leader of the research team, said: “This could be a game-changer, a paradigm shift in how a battery operates.”

In the 1980s, lithium-metal batteries were seen as the future, but their tendency to combust during charging led researchers to switch to lithium-ion.

10 times the charging speed

These batteries replaced lithium metal with graphite anodes, which absorb the lithium and prevent tree-like filaments called dendrites from forming, but also come with performance costs.

For example, graphite has a maximum capacity of 350 milliampere hours per gram (mAh/g), whereas lithium metal in a solid-state battery has a specific capacity of 3,800 mAh/g.

To get around the ever so problematic exploding problem in lithium-metal batteries, the team created a ceramic layer that stabilises the surface, keeping dendrites from forming and preventing fires.

With some tweaking, chemical and mechanical treatments of the ceramic provided a pristine surface for lithium to plate evenly.

Whereas once it would take a lithium-metal EV up to 50 hours to charge, the team said it could now do it in three hours or less.

“We’re talking a factor of 10 increase in charging speed compared to previous reports for solid-state lithium-metal batteries,” Sakamoto said.

“We’re now on par with lithium-ion cells in terms of charging rates, but with additional benefits.”

MIT Technology Review: Sustainable Energy: The daunting math of climate change means we’ll need carbon capture … eventually


 

MIT CC Friedman unknown-1_4

 Net Power’s pilot natural gas plant with carbon capture, near Houston, Texas.

An Interview with Julio Friedmann

At current rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, the world could lock in 1.5 ˚C of warming as soon as 2021, an analysis by the website Carbon Brief has found. We’re on track to blow the carbon budget for 2 ˚C by 2036.

Amid this daunting climate math, many researchers argue that capturing carbon dioxide from power plants, factories, and the air will have to play a big part in any realistic efforts to limit the dangers of global warming.

If it can be done economically, carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers the world additional flexibility and time to make the leap to cleaner systems. It means we can retrofit, rather than replace, vast parts of the global energy infrastructure. And once we reach disastrous levels of warming, so-called direct air capture offers one of the only ways to dig our way out of trouble, since carbon dioxide otherwise stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Julio Friedmann has emerged as one of the most ardent advocates of these technologies. He oversaw research and development efforts on clean coal and carbon capture at the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy under the last administration. Among other roles, he’s now working with or advising the Global CCS Institute, the Energy Futures Initiative, and Climeworks, a Switzerland-based company already building pilot plants that pull carbon dioxide from the air.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Friedmann argues that the technology is approaching a tipping point: a growing number of projects demonstrate that it works in the real world, and that it is becoming more reliable and affordable. He adds that the boosted US tax credit for capturing and storing carbon, passed in the form of the Future Act as part of the federal budget earlier this year, will push forward many more projects and help create new markets for products derived from carbon dioxide (see “The carbon-capture era may finally be starting”).

But serious challenges remain. Even with the tax credit, companies will incur steep costs by adding carbon capture systems to existing power plants. And a widely cited 2011 study, coauthored by MIT researcher Howard Herzog, found that direct air capture will require vast amounts of energy and cost 10 times as much as scrubbing carbon from power plants.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

In late February, you wrote a Medium post saying that with the passage of the increased tax credit for carbon capture and storage, we’ve “launched the climate counter-strike.” Why is that a big deal?

It actually sets a price on carbon formally. It says you should get paid to not emit carbon dioxide, and you should get paid somewhere between $35 a ton and $50 a ton. So that is already a massive change. In addition to that, it says you can do one of three things: you can store CO2, you can use it for enhanced oil recovery, or you can turn it into stuff. Fundamentally, it says not emitting has value.

As I’ve said many times before, the lack of progress in deploying CCS up until this point is not a question of cost. It’s really been a question of finance.

The Future Act creates that financing.

I identified an additional provision which said not only can you consider a power plant a source or an industrial site a source, you can consider the air a source.

Even if we zeroed out all our emissions today, we still have a legacy of harm of two trillion tons of CO2 in the air, and we need to do something about that.

And this law says, yeah, we should. It says we can take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into stuff.

At the Petra Nova plant in Texas, my understanding is the carbon capture costs are something like $60 to $70 a ton, which is still going to outstrip the tax credit today. How are we going to close that gap?

There are many different ways to go about it. For example, the state of New Jersey today passed a 90 percent clean energy portfolio standard. Changing the policy from a renewable portfolio standard [which would exclude CCS technologies] to a clean energy standard [which would allow them] allowed higher ambition.

In that context, somebody who would build a CCS project and would get a contract to deliver that power, or deliver that emissions abatement, can actually again get staked, get financed, and get built. That can happen without any technology advancement.

The technology today is already cost competitive. CCS today, as a retrofit, is cheaper than a whole bunch of stuff. It’s cheaper than new-build nuclear, it’s cheaper than offshore wind. It’s cheaper than a whole bunch of things we like, and it’s cheaper than rooftop solar, almost everywhere. It’s cheaper than utility-scale concentrating solar pretty much everywhere, and it is cheaper than what solar and wind were 10 years ago.

What do you make of the critique that this is all just going to perpetuate the fossil-fuel industry?

The enemy is not fossil fuels; the enemy is emissions.

In a place like California that has terrific renewable resources and a good infrastructure for renewable energy, maybe you can get to zero [fossil fuels] someday.

If you’re in Saskatchewan, you really can’t do that. It is too cold for too much of the year, and they don’t have solar resources, and their wind resources are problematic because they’re so strong they tear up the turbines. Which is why they did the CCS project in Saskatchewan. For them it was the right solution.

Shifting gears to direct air capture, the basic math says that you’re moving 2,500 molecules to capture one of CO2. How good are we getting at this, and how cheaply can we do this at this point?

If you want to optimize the way that you would reduce carbon dioxide economy-wide, direct air capture is the last thing you would tackle. Turns out, though, that we don’t live in that society. We are not optimizing anything in any way.

So instead we realize we have this legacy of emissions in the atmosphere and we need tools to manage that. So there are companies like ClimeworksCarbon Engineering, and Global Thermostat. Those guys said we know we’re going to need this technology, so I’m going to work now. They’ve got decent financing, and the costs are coming down and improving (see “Can sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere really work?”).

The cost for all of these things now today, all-in costs, is somewhere between $300 and $600 a ton. I’ve looked inside all those companies and I believe all of them are on a glide path to get to below $200 a ton by somewhere between 2022 and 2025. And I believe that they’re going to get down to $100 a ton by 2030. At that point, these are real options.

At $200 a ton, we know today unambiguously that pulling CO2 out of the air is cheaper than trying to make a zero-carbon airplane, by a lot. So it becomes an option that you use to go after carbon in the hard-to-scrub parts of the economy.

Is it ever going to work as a business, or is it always going to be kind of a public-supported enterprise to buy ourselves out of climate catastrophes?

Direct air capture is not competitive today broadly, but there are places where the value proposition is real. So let me give you a couple of examples.

In many parts of the world there are no sources of CO2. If you’re running a Pepsi or a Coca-Cola plant in Sri Lanka, you literally burn diesel fuel and capture the CO2 from it to put into your cola, at a bonkers price. It can cost $300 to $800 a ton to get that CO2. So there are already going to be places in some people’s supply chain where direct air capture could be cheaper.

We talk to companies like Goodyear, Firestone, or Michelin. They make tires, and right now the way that they get their carbon black [a material used in tire production that’s derived from fossil fuel] is basically you pyrolize bunker fuel in the Gulf Coast, which is a horrible, environmentally destructive process. And then you ship it by rail cars to wherever they’re making the tires.

If they can decouple from that market by gathering CO2 wherever they are and turn that into carbon black, they can actually avoid market shocks. So even if it costs a little more, the value to that company might be high enough to bring it into the market. That’s where I see direct air actually gaining real traction in the next few years.

It’s not going to be enough for climate. We know that we will have to do carbon storage, for sure, if we want to really manage the atmospheric emissions. But there’s a lot of ground to chase this, and we never know quite where technology goes.

In one of your earlier Medium posts you said that we’re ultimately going to have to pull 10 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. Climeworks is doing about 50 [at their pilot plant in Iceland]. So what does that scale-up look like?

You don’t have to get all 10 billion tons with direct air capture. So let’s say you just want one billion.

Right now, Royal Dutch Shell as a company moves 300 million tons of refined product every year. This means that you need three to four companies the size of Royal Dutch Shell to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The good news is we don’t need that billion tons today. We have 10 or 20 or 30 years to get to a billion tons of direct air capture. But in fact we’ve seen that kind of scaling in other kinds of clean-tech markets. There’s nothing in the laws of physics or chemistry that stops that.

High efficiency solar power conversion allowed by a novel composite material


A composite thin film made of two different inorganic oxide materials significantly improves the performance of solar cells, as recently demonstrated by a joint team of researchers led by Professor Federico Rosei at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS), and Dr. Riad Nechache from École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), both in the Montreal Area (Canada).

Following an original device concept, Mr. Joyprokash Chakrabartty, the researchers have developed this new composite thin film material which combines two different crystal phases comprising the atomic elements bismuth, manganese, and oxygen.

The combination of phases with two different compositions optimizes this material’s ability to absorb solar radiation and transform it into electricity. The results are highly promising for the development of future solar technologies, and also potentially useful in other optoelectronic devices.

The results of this research are discussed in an article published in Nature Photonics (“Improved photovoltaic performance from inorganic perovskite oxide thin films with mixed crystal phases”) by researchers and lead author Mr. Joyprokash Chakrabartty.

The key discovery consists in the observation that the composite thin film—barely 110 nanometres thick—absorbs a broader portion of the solar spectrum compared to the wavelengths absorbed in the thin films made of the two individual materials. The interfaces between the two different phases within the composite film play a crucial role in converting more sunlight into electricity. This is a surprising, novel phenomenon in the field of inorganic perovskite oxide-based solar cells.

The composite material leads to a power conversion efficiency of up to 4.2%, which is a record value for this class of materials.

Source: INRS

SWEDISH START-UP ENABLES FULL-SCALE IMPLEMENTATION OF GRAPHENE


A breakthrough at Uppsala University has solved the practical implementation issues of the world’s strongest material graphene.

Up until now a major challenge has been agglomeration under upscaling that has effectively prevented utilization of the fantastic properties of graphene in real-life applications.

The novel hybrid ionic graphene material named Aros Graphene® solves this and is expected to revolutionize the way we design electronics, energy storage and mechanical systems. The highly anticipated revolution of graphene just came one step closer.

Graphene is a two-dimensional carbon material that is only one atom thick and it is the strongest and thinnest material ever known. It is also extremely conductive for heat and electricity as well as ultra-light and transparent. It was first isolated in 2004 and was rewarded with the Nobel prize in 2010.

Graphene is predicted to revolutionize the energy sector and electronics and we could even build lightweight aircraft of graphene composites in the future.

But until now there has been one major challenge with graphene. More than 10 years after the first isolation of graphene we can still use it in very limited applications. Graphene’s properties dramatically degrades under upscaling.

Researchers all over the world have been struggling with this challenge and recently a breakthrough was made at the Ångström Laboratory, Uppsala University in Sweden.

A major challenge of working with graphene was the agglomeration under upscaling. We had fantastic properties at the nano-scale and less encouraging properties at macro-scale. The challenges have driven me to intensively think about solutions to bring such a wonder-material to industrial products while keeping its amazing properties, says Dr. Mamoun Taher.

Dr. Mamoun Taher is a material scientist of Syrian origin, who came to Sweden in 2010 for his masters and PhD studies. Since 2015 he has been doing research at the Ångström Laboratory at Uppsala University and has also been working on graphene related projects with ABB, one of the largest engineering companies in the world.

Aros Graphene® is a hybrid ionic graphene material that is easy and eco-friendly to manufacture and can be applied as an additive into a matrix, a coating or even by 3D printing.

With Aros Graphene® we can finally realize the full potential of graphene and we have already shown that in preliminary tests with potential customers. The first commercial applications will be available in 2019.

The most remarkable discovery was, however, not that we had produced a new material but the striking properties we found that this novel material possessed.

It turns out that Aros Graphene® has the electrical and thermal properties of graphene not only in two dimensions but in 3D, and furthermore the surface has extremely low friction and high wear resistance.

This novel material is expected to pave the way for new sustainable products in a number of industrial applications, says Björn Lindh, entrepreneur, previously in Disruptive Materials with the famous material Upsalite®, and now co-founder of Graphmatech, which will commercialize Aros Graphene®.

Graphmatech has been accepted both to the EU-sponsored incubator program InnoEnergy and ABB’s Innovation and Growth hub SynerLeap and got initial funding from Vinnova. The next step is to prove Aros Graphene® in different customer applications.

Additional information, pictures and data about Aros Graphene®, Graphmatech can be found at www.graphmatech.com

Graphene Research and the World’s 5 Biggest Problems: From Clean Water and Healthcare to Energy and Infastructure – Solutions based in Graphene may Hold the Key


In September 2015, world leaders gathered at a historic UN summit to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are 17 ambitious targets and indicators that help guide and coordinate governments and international organizations to alleviate global problems. For example, SDG 3 is to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Others include access to clean water, reducing the effects of climate change, and affordable healthcare.

If you think these goals might be difficult to meet, you’re right. Reports show progress is lacking in many of the 17 categories, implying they may not be met by the target date of 2030. However, paired with progress in social and political arenas, advances in science and technology could be a key accelerant to progress too.

Just one example? Graphene, a futuristic material with a growing set of potential applications.

Graphene is comprised of tightly-knit carbon atoms arranged into a sheet only one atom thick. This makes it the thinnest substance ever made, yet it is 200 times stronger than steel, flexible, stretchable, self-healing, transparent, more conductive than copper, and even superconductive. A square meter of graphene weighing a mere 0.0077 grams can support four kilograms. It is a truly remarkable material—but this isn’t news to science and tech geeks.

Headlines touting graphene as the next wonder material have been a regular occurrence in the last decade, and the trip from promise to practicality has felt a bit lengthy.

But that’s not unexpected; it can take time for new materials to go mainstream. Meanwhile, the years researching graphene have yielded a long list of reasons to keep at it.

Since first isolated in 2004 at the University of Manchester—work that led to a Nobel Prize in 2010— researchers all over the world have been developing radical ways to use and, importantly, make graphene. Indeed, one of the primary factors holding back widespread adoption has been how to produce graphene at scale on the cheap, limiting it to the lab and a handful of commercial applications. Fortunately, there have been advances toward mass production.

Last year, for example, a team from Kansas State University used explosions to synthesize large quantities of graphene. Their method is simple: Fill a chamber with acetylene or ethylene gas and oxygen. Use a vehicle spark plug to create a contained detonation. Collect the graphene that forms afterward. Acetylene and ethylene are composed of carbon and hydrogen, and when the hydrogen is consumed in the explosion, the carbon is free to bond with itself, forming graphene. This method is efficient because all it takes is a single spark.

Whether this technique will usher in the graphene revolution, as some have claimed, remains to be seen. What’s more certain is there will be no shortage of problems solved when said revolution arrives. Here’s a look at the ways today’s research suggests graphene may help the UN meet its ambitious development goals.

Clean Water

SDG 6 is to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” As of now, the UN estimates that “water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the global population and is projected to rise.”

Graphene-based filters could very well be the solution. Jiro Abraham from the University of Manchester helped develop scalable graphene oxide sieves to filter seawater. He claims, “The developed membranes are not only useful for desalination, but the atomic scale tunability of the pore size also opens new opportunity to fabricate membranes with on-demand filtration capable of filtering out ions according to their sizes.”

Furthermore, researchers from Monash University and the University of Kentucky have developed graphene filters that can filter out anything larger than one nanometer. They say their filters “could be used to filter chemicals, viruses, or bacteria from a range of liquids. It could be used to purify water, dairy products or wine, or in the production of pharmaceuticals.”

Carbon Emissions

SDG 13 focuses on taking “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Of course, one of the main culprits behind climate change is the excessive amount of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Graphene membranes have been developed that can capture these emissions.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina and Hanyang University in South Korea independently developed graphene-based filters that can be used to separate unwanted gases from industrial, commercial, and residential emissions. Henry Foley at the University of Missouri has claimed these discoveries are “something of a holy grail.”

With these, the world might be able to stem the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, especially now that we have crossed the important 400 parts per million threshold.

Healthcare

Many around the world do not have access to adequate healthcare, but graphene may have an impact here as well.

First of all, graphene’s high mechanical strength makes it a perfect material for replacing body parts like bones, and because of its conductivity it can replace body parts that require electrical current, like organs and nerves. In fact, researchers at the Michigan Technological University are working on using 3D printers to print graphene-based nerves, and this team is developing biocompatible materials using graphene to conduct electricity.

Graphene can also be used to make biomedical sensors for detecting diseases, viruses, and other toxins. Because every atom of graphene is exposed, due to it being only one atom thick, sensors can be far more sensitive. Graphene oxide sensors, for example, could detect toxins at levels 10 times less than today’s sensors. These sensors could be placed on or under the skin and provide doctors and researchers with vast amounts of information.

Chinese scientists have even created a sensor that can detect a single cancerous cell. Further, scientists at the University of Manchester report graphene oxide can hunt and neutralize cancer stem cells.

Infrastructure

SDG 9 is to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.” Graphene-enhanced composites and other building materials could bring us closer to meeting this goal.

Recent research shows that the more graphene is added, the better the composite becomes. This means graphene can be added to building materials like concrete, aluminum, etc., which will allow for stronger and lighter materials.

Resins are also getting better thanks to the addition of graphene. Research by Graphene Flagship, the EU’s billion-euro project to further graphene research, and their partner Avanzare suggests “graphene enhances the functionality of the resin, combining graphene’s electrical conductivity and mechanical strength with excellent corrosion resistance.” Some uses for this are making pipes and storage tanks corrosion-resistant, and making stronger adhesives.

Energy

SDG 7 is to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” Because of its light weight, conductivity, and tensile strength, graphene may make sustainable energy cheaper and more efficient.

For example, graphene composites can be used to create more versatile solar panels. Researchers at MIT say, “The ability to use graphene…is making possible truly flexible, low-cost, transparent solar cells that can turn virtually any surface into a source of electric power.”

We’ll also be able to build bigger and lighter wind turbines thanks to graphene composites.

Further, graphene is already being used to enhance traditional lithium-ion batteries, which are the batteries commonly found in consumer electronics. Research is also being done into graphene aerogels for energy storage and supercapacitors. All of these will be essential for large-scale storage of renewable energy.

Over the next decade, graphene is likely to find more and more uses out in the real world, not only helping the UN and member states meet the SDGs, but enhancing everything from touch screens to MRI machines and from transistors to unknown uses as a superconductor.

New research is being published and new patents being filed regularly, so keep an eye out for this amazing material.

Brookhaven National Lab: The rapid self-assembly of nanoscale patterns for next-generation materials: From Electronics and Computing to Energy and Medicine


Brookhaven II 10-nanoparticleThe ability to quickly generate ultra-small, well-ordered nanopatterns over large areas on material surfaces is critical to the fabrication of next-generation technologies in many industries, from electronics and computing to energy and medicine. For example, patterned media, in which data are stored in periodic arrays of magnetic pillars or bars, could significantly improve the storage density of hard disk drives.

Scientists can coax thin films of self-assembling materials called block copolymers—chains of chemically distinct macromolecules (polymer “blocks”) linked together—into desired nanoscale patterns through heating (annealing) them on a substrate. However, defective structures that deviate from the regular pattern emerge early on during self-assembly.

Brookhaven6-acceleratingMaterials scientist Gregory Doerk preparing a sample for electron microscopy at Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials. The scanning electron microscope image on the computer screen shows a cross-sectional view of line …more

The presence of these defects inhibits the use of block copolymers in the nanopatterning of technologies that require a nearly perfect ordering—such as magnetic media, computer chips, antireflective surfaces, and medical diagnostic devices. With continued annealing, the block copolymer patterns can reconfigure to remove the imperfections, but this process is exceedingly slow. The polymer blocks do not readily mix with each other, so they must overcome an extremely large energy barrier to reconfigure.

Adding small things with a big impact

Now, scientists from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN)—a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven National Laboratory—have come up with a way to massively speed up the ordering process. They blended a line-forming block copolymer with significantly smaller polymer chains made of only one type of molecule (homopolymers) from each of the two constituent blocks. The electron microscopy images they took after annealing the films for only a few minutes show that the addition of these two smaller homopolymers dramatically increases the size of well-ordered line-pattern areas, or “grains.”

Accelerating the self-assembly of nanoscale patterns for next-generation materials
As shown in the illustration, a block copolymer consists of different molecule chains (red and blue) linked together; a homopolymer chain consists of identical molecules (red or blue). In this study, scientists blended a block copolymer …more

“Without the homopolymers, the same block copolymer cannot produce grains with these sizes,” said CFN materials scientist Gregory Doerk, who led the work, which was published online in an ACS Nano paper on December 1. “Blending in homopolymers that are less than one-tenth of the size of the block copolymer greatly accelerates the ordering process. In the resulting line patterns, there is a constant spacing between each of the lines, and the same directions of line-pattern orientations—for example, vertical or horizontal—persist over longer distances.”

Doerk and coauthor Kevin Yager, leader of the Electronic Nanomaterials Group at CFN, used image analysis software to calculate the grain size and repeat spacing of the line patterns.

While blending different concentrations of homopolymer to determine how much was needed to achieve the accelerated ordering, they discovered that the ordering sped up as more homopolymer was added. But too much homopolymer actually resulted in disordered patterns.

Accelerating the self-assembly of nanoscale patterns for next-generation materials
The scanning electron microscope images taken after thermal annealing at around 480 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes show that the block copolymer/homopolymer blend generates a line pattern with a significantly higher degree of …more

“The homopolymers accelerate the self-assembly process because they are small enough to uniformly distribute throughout their respective polymer blocks,” said Doerk. “Their presence weakens the interface between the two blocks, lowering the energy barrier associated with the block copolymer reconfiguring to remove the defects. But if the interface is weakened too much through the addition of too much homopolymer, then the blocks will mix together, resulting in a completely disordered phase.”

Guiding the self-assembly of useful nanopatterns in minutes

To demonstrate how the rapid ordering in the blended system could accelerate the self-assembly of well-aligned nanopatterns over large areas, Doerk and Yager used line-pattern templates they had previously prepared through photolithography. Used to build almost all of today’s digital devices, photolithography involves projecting light through a mask (a plate containing the desired pattern) that is positioned over a wafer (usually made of silicon) coated with a light-sensitive material. This template can then be used to direct the self-assembly of block copolymers, which fill in the spaces between the template guides. In this case, after only two minutes of annealing, the polymer blend self-assembles into lines that are aligned across these gaps. However, after the same annealing time, the unblended block copolymer self-assembles into a mostly unaligned pattern with many defects between the gaps.

Accelerating the self-assembly of nanoscale patterns for next-generation materials
The unblended block copolymer aligns well close to the template guides (“sidewalls”), but this alignment degrades further in, as evident by the appearance of the fingerprint-like pattern in the center of the scanning electron microscope …more

“The width of the gaps is more than 80 times the repeat spacing, so the fact that we got this degree of alignment with our polymer blend is really exciting because it means we can use templates with huge gaps, created with very low-resolution lithography,” said Doerk. “Typically, expensive high-resolution lithography equipment is needed to align block copolymer patterns over this large of an area.”

For these patterns to be useful for many nanopatterning applications, they often need to be transferred to other more robust materials that can withstand harsh manufacturing processes—for example, etching, which removes layers from silicon wafer surfaces to create integrated circuits or make the surfaces antireflective. In this study, the scientists converted the nanopatterns into a metal-oxide replica. Through chemical etching, they then transferred the replica  into a silicon dioxide layer on a silicon wafer, achieving clearly defined line patterns.

Doerk suspects that blending homopolymers with other  will similarly yield accelerated assembly, and he is interested in studying blended polymers that self-assemble into more complicated patterns. The x-ray scattering capabilities at the National Synchrotron Light Source II—another DOE Office of Science User Facility at Brookhaven—could provide the structural information needed to conduct such studies.

Accelerating the self-assembly of nanoscale patterns for next-generation materials
A scanning electron microscope image showing a cross-sectional view of the line patterns transferred into a silicon dioxide layer. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

“We have introduced a very simple and easily controlled way of immensely accelerating self-assembly,” concluded Doerk. “Our approach should substantially reduce the number of defects, helping to meet the demands of the semiconductor industry. At CFN, it opens up possibilities for us to use block copolymer self-assembly to make some of the new functional materials that we envision.”

 Explore further: Self-assembling polymers provide thin nanowire template

More information: Gregory S. Doerk et al. Rapid Ordering in “Wet Brush” Block Copolymer/Homopolymer Ternary Blends, ACS Nano (2017). DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b06154