Seeding the oceans with nano-scale fertilizers could create a much-needed, substantial carbon sink. Credit: Stephanie King | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
The urgent need to remove excess carbon dioxide from Earth’s environment could include enlisting some of our planet’s smallest inhabitants, according to an international research team led by Michael Hochella of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Hochella and his colleagues examined the scientific evidence for seeding the oceans with iron-rich engineered fertilizer particles near ocean plankton. The goal would be to feed phytoplankton, microscopic plants that are a key part of the ocean ecosystem, to encourage growth and carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake. The analysis article appears in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
“The idea is to augment existing processes,” said Hochella, a Laboratory fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Humans have fertilized the land to grow crops for centuries. We can learn to fertilize the oceans responsibly.”
In nature, nutrients from the land reach oceans through rivers and blowing dust to fertilize plankton. The research team proposes moving this natural process one step further to help remove excess CO2 through the ocean. They studied evidence that suggests adding specific combinations of carefully engineered materials could effectively fertilize the oceans, encouraging phytoplankton to act as a carbon sink.
The organisms would take up carbon in large quantities. Then, as they die, they would sink deep into the ocean, taking the excess carbon with them. Scientists say this proposed fertilization would simply speed up a natural process that already safely sequesters carbon in a form that could remove it from the atmosphere for thousands of years.
“At this point, time is of the essence,” said Hochella. “To combat rising temperatures, we must decrease CO2 levels on a global scale. Examining all our options, including using the oceans as a CO2 sink, gives us the best chance of cooling the planet.”
Pulling insights from the literature
In their analysis, the researchers argue that engineered nanoparticles offer several attractive attributes. They could be highly controlled and specifically tuned for different ocean environments. Surface coatings could help the particles attach to plankton. Some particles also have light-absorbing properties, allowing plankton to consume and use more CO2.
The general approach could also be tuned to meet the needs of specific ocean environments. For example, one region might benefit most from iron-based particles, while silicon-based particles may be most effective elsewhere, they say.
The researchers’ analysis of 123 published studies showed that numerous non-toxic metal-oxygen materials could safely enhance plankton growth. The stability, Earth abundance, and ease of creation of these materials make them viable options as plankton fertilizers, they argue.
The team also analyzed the cost of creating and distributing different particles. While the process would be substantially more expensive than adding non-engineered materials, it would also be significantly more effective.
More information: Peyman Babakhani et al, Potential use of engineered nanoparticles in ocean fertilization for large-scale atmospheric carbon dioxide removal, Nature Nanotechnology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-022-01226-w
UbiQD, a nanotechnology company, has revealed that its quantum dot solar technology will be used in a Small Business Innovation Research project with the US Air Force. The contract provides funding for two installations of more than 20 windows and additional scale-up and development funds for the product.
“We are seeing strong fiscal support for sustainability initiatives in the built environment right now,” said CEO Hunter McDaniel. “Our expanded contract with the US Air Force couldn’t come at a better time, right as we are scaling and ahead of the upgraded solar investment tax incentives.”
The company uses luminescent quantum dot tinting to concentrate solar energy and generate electricity while maintaining transparency. Quantum dots are photoluminescent particles so small that it would take 100,000 of them to span one fingernail, said UbiQD. The company said the technology has applications in localized DC microgrids and smart building solutions, including integration with sensors for climate and ambient controls.
Commercial buildings account for 36% of all US electricity consumption at a cost of more than $190 billion annually. Additionally, windows represent 30% of a commercial building’s heating and cooling energy, costing US building owners about $50 billion annually, according to the US Department of Energy.
UbiQD’s quantum-dot tinted window, called WENDOW, has recently been installed in a series of demonstrations projects, including a campus building at the Western Washington University, which the company said is the largest solar window installation to date. The WENDOW can be tinted, allowing for colorful designs. The university installation features vibrant yellow and orange windows.
“This technology helps Western Washington University get closer to achieving our sustainability goals on campus,” said David Patrick, vice provost for research. “I was impressed by how easily the windows were installed and love how great they look. I’m hoping to see more projects like this on campus in the near future.”
While the solar windows offer less efficiency than a conventional solar panel, they represent an alternative to blending photovoltaics with the build environment. Read more about solar in uncommon spaces.
UbiQD also builds translucent panels for greenhouses that are integrated with photoluminescent particles that are efficient at converting light into a preferable wavelength. The UbiQD “UbiGro” panels glow a spectrum of color that is optimized for plant growth, absorbing UV and blue light and emitting fruitful orange or red light.
In recent trials, UbiGro led to a 21% boost in flowering in geranium flowers, a 14 to 28% boost in winter strawberry growth, and an 8% yield increase in cannabis production. Increased crop yields are a welcome sign to any grower, and the two companies are set to take that benefit one step further, integrating productive solar PV in the greenhouse-topping modules.
The largest green hydrogen project in the world has just been unveiled! Named Hydrogen City, it will produce several million tons of green hydrogen every year…
With a capacity of 60 GW, Hydrogen City is a project led by the American startup Green Hydrogen International (GHI), which was founded in 2019 by renewable energy expert Brian Maxwell.
This mega-plant will be located in Duval County, a sparsely populated area located in southern Texas. It will be powered by wind and solar energy. Pipelines will transport the hydrogen produced to the port cities of Corpus Christi about 145 km away and Brownsville on the Mexican border.
The project will also have a cavern located inside the Salt Dome of Piedras Pintas that will allow on-site storage of the hydrogen produced. GHI claims that it will be possible to create about fifty similar caves in this area. This will allow Hydrogen City to store up to 6 TWh of energy.
Hydrogen City, Texas – World’s Largest Green Hydrogen Production and Storage Hub
A colossal production
Once finalized, Hydrogen City is expected to produce more than 2.5 million tons of green hydrogen per year, which currently corresponds to nearly 3.5% of global gray hydrogen production.
The first phase of 2 GW of the project will begin in 2026 with the creation of two storage caverns.
One of the main causes of water pollution is the contamination of water bodies by industrial effluents. The different types of water contaminants include organic and inorganic dyes that are used as colorants in many industries, such as food, cosmetics, paper, and textiles.
Nanomaterials are tiny particles whose size ranges from 1-100 nm and possess unique physical, chemical, electrical, optical, catalytic, and biological properties.
These particles have a high surface to area ratio and are applied in varied fields of science and technology. Silver (Ag) nanoparticles (NPs) are among the most widely used nanoparticles owing to their superior catalytic activity and antimicrobial properties.
Green Synthesis of Nanoparticles
Various methods are used to synthesize Ag NPs, such as chemical, radiation, electrochemical, and biological methods.
Green synthesis of Ag NPs is a biochemical-based process that utilizes living organisms (e.g., plant, bacteria, algae, or fungi) or their metabolites, as the reducing agent.
Typically, nanoparticles are produced by first reducing the salt containing the metal ion. Following this, the newly synthesized nanoparticles are stabilized via capping techniques.
Phytochemicals extracted from plants and secondary microbial metabolites are often used as reducing and capping agents.
The main advantage of the green synthesis of nanoparticles is that it does not use any hazardous chemicals and does not produce any harmful by-products.
Additionally, this method is cost-effective, eco-friendly, and does not require any stabilizers. Scientists have determined the metabolites, such as alkaloids, that are responsible for the conversion of metallic Ag to Ag nanoparticles.
Green Synthesis of Silver Nanoparticles – A New Study
Coffea arabica is one of the most popular plants, whose beans are used regularly to produce coffee.
In the new study, aqueous extracts of Arabic green coffee (GC) beans were used as the reducing and stabilizing agent for the synthesis of silver nanoparticles.
Researchers investigated the ability of these Ag NPs as antioxidants and catalysts for methylene blue dye reduction by sodium borohydride.
Previous studies have revealed that GC extracts contain many important phytoconstituents such as alkaloids, glycosides, and other phenolic compounds, that can convert metallic silver to silver nanoparticles.
The mechanisms behind the production of silver nanoparticles using GC extract are discussed in the following steps.
The Ag atoms are formed by the reduction of Ag+ ion by GC extract, which nucleates to form Ag NPs.
The size of the nanoparticles is controlled using electrostatic stabilizing agents via the capping process. This process requires a stabilizer that can adsorb onto the surface of the newly synthesized Ag NPs to be capped. The authors used the GC extract as a capping agent as well.
The results of this study are in line with previous studies where researchers have used various plant extracts such as Emblica officinalis (amla), Aloe vera, and Phyllanthus emblica (Indian gooseberry).
Scientists used various analytical tools such as SEM, EDX, FTIR, TEM, DLS, zeta potential, and XRD to characterize the biologically synthesized Ag NPs using GC extract.
Initially, the production of Ag NPs was determined by the color change of the reactants from pale yellow to dark brown.
The synthesis of Ag NPs was further determined by a UV-Visible spectrophotometer where the researchers detected the surface plasmon resonance (SPR) of GC-capped Ag NPs at 425 nm.
The difference in the FTIR spectrum of Ag NPs as well as GC extract signifies the participation of polyphenolic compounds in the reduction process.
FTIR analysis indicated the role of natural metabolites in the reduction of Ag+ and the stabilization of the green-produced Ag NPs. TEM and SEM analysis revealed that Ag NPs were poly-dispersed and were spherical or semi-spherical in shape.
The EDX spectrum also confirmed the presence of Ag signals at 2.983 keV. The crystalline nature of GC-capped Ag NPs was determined using XRD analysis.
The zeta potential of the colloidal sample determined the stability of the Ag NPs.
Hyundai’s luxury brand pledges to stop releasing new ICE-powered models in 2025.
Genesis will lead Hyundai’s electrification efforts, Takata airbag recalls are still a thing and, surprise, the Tesla Roadster has slipped back another year. All this and more in this Thursday edition of The Morning Shift for September 2, 2021.
1st Gear: Genesis Isn’t Waiting Around
Automakers are busy making projections that they’ll stop selling gas-powered vehicles by maybe 2030 or 2035. Genesis in now among them. As a very young brand with just five models on sale in the United States, it doesn’t have a lot of history or buyers entrenched in the brand to please. It’s pretty much free to go in any direction it chooses, when it chooses. Starting in 2025, it’ll stop bringing new ICE cars to market, it announced Wednesday. From Automotive News:
Hyundai Motor Group’s top-shelf brand said that all new vehicles will be electric from 2025 under a dual-pronged approach that focuses on full-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.
The company will drop internal combustion technology from new models beginning that year, meaning Genesis will also bypass hybrids and plug-in hybrids, spokesman Jee Hyun Kim said.
By 2030, the global lineup will consist of eight EV and fuel cell models, he said. Around that time, Genesis plans to achieve worldwide sales of 400,000 vehicles a year. As recently as late 2019, Genesis was expecting annual sales to crest at 100,000 for the first time.
The report notes that Genesis shifted 128,365 cars in 2020. Last year was Genesis’ first in which it offered an SUV — the GV80 — and this year, the company added the GV70. The weird-looking GV60 is next, and will represent the brand’s first EV. Now that it finally has a couple SUVs and crossovers under its belt, I imagine Genesis is well on its way toward that 400,000-car goal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the way I feel about the GV60, which is that it looks like the automotive equivalent of a naked mole rat.
2nd Gear: NHTSA Is Probing Tesla Over That Autopilot Crash With a Police Car In Florida
Last Saturday morning, a Tesla Model 3 in Orlando collided with a parked police car while Autopilot was enabled. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a probe into crashes between Autopilot-enabled Teslas and emergency vehicles last month. The department added this one to the list on Tuesday, making for the 12th incident on the books. From Reuters:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Aug. 16 said it had opened a formal safety probe into Tesla driver assistance system Autopilot after 11 crashes. The probe covers 765,000 U.S. Tesla vehicles built between 2014 and 2021.
The 12th occurred in Orlando on Saturday, NHTSA said. The agency sent Tesla a detailed 11-page letter on Tuesday with numerous questions it must answer, as part of its investigation.
Like with the latest crash, most of them have happened in dark conditions according to the NHTSA. As part of the probe, Tesla is asked to explain how its software is designed to respond to emergency vehicles and hazard alerts like cones, lights and flares.
Tesla is required to disclose any adjustments it plans to make to Autopilot over the next 120 days, Reuters reports. The company must also answer the NHTSA’s questions by October 22, or risk fines up to $115 million if it doesn’t respond.
3rd Gear: Volkswagen’s Latest Takata Settlement Is Worth $42 Million
Supposedly, every vehicle with a Takata airbag inflator has been recalled. But millions of those cars are still driving around with potentially faulty inflators and automakers have struggled to get them into service — Volkswagen included. From Reuters:
Volkswagen’s U.S. unit has agreed to a $42 million settlement covering 1.35 million vehicles that were equipped with potentially dangerous Takata air bag inflators, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Miami.
The settlement is the latest by major automakers and much of the funding goes to boosting recall completion rates. To date, seven other major automakers have agreed to settlements worth about $1.5 billion covering tens of millions of vehicles.
According to court documents, it’s estimated that 35 percent of the inflators in question in Volkswagen and Audi cars have not been replaced. The main purpose of this settlement is to cover out-of-pocket expenses like rental fees, or cover for wages lost while owners are without their cars.
4th Gear: 2021 Imprezas Recalled For Welding Issue
Speaking of recalls, Subaru will soon reach out to some owners of 2021 Imprezas due to an “improper weld” on the car’s front driver’s side lower control arm. Some 802 vehicles are reportedly affected. If the weld breaks, it could cause the tire to partially detach and strike the inside of the wheel well. From Automotive News:
Subaru on Wednesday said the improper weld is near a connection joint between the lower control arm and the crossmember, and could lead to a partial separation of the two components.
Subaru says it has received no reports of crashes or injuries related to the defect, but is warning owners to have their vehicles checked by Subaru dealers to see if the lot number stamped into the control arm is part of the recall. If it is, consumers are being told not to drive the vehicle until it is repaired.
Subaru will notify owners by mail, but if you’re wondering if your Impreza might be affected and would rather not wait to know for sure, you could visit the NHTSA’s recall tracker or Subaru’s website, enter your car’s VIN number, and find out.
5th Gear: Tesla Roadster Delayed
The Tesla Roadster was announced in 2017. Lots of people made deposits. Then thrusters were added as an optional extra for some reason. Then Elon Musk said around the middle of last year that Roadster production would begin basically now, during mid-to-late 2021. On Wednesday, Musk tweeted that the production target’s been pushed back to next year, and the cars will reach buyers in 2023. The reason? The chip shortage!
I know automotive manufacturing is wholeheartedly broken right now, but considering the Roadster was announced four whole years ago, the “oh, us too” excuse doesn’t quite sound so convincing. I do believe the Roadster will eventually be a real thing that really exists. Because Tesla felt it necessary to announce the car extremely early for some reason, now it feels like vaporware. It’ll continue to feel like vaporware until it’s proven to be otherwise.
Reverse: Let’s Go See The ‘Vettes
The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky opened its doors on September 2, 1994. 120,000 visitors reportedly attended its grand opening during its first weekend. I learned about the existence of this museum the same way I figure a great many people did: when a sinkhole opened up underneath it in 2014 and swallowed up a bunch of cars. Thankfully the Corvette Museum bounced back, and here’s something else: you can actually tour the sinkhole itself from your web browser, right now, in 3D. I’m not kidding.
The battery craze isn’t really about batteries at all. It’s about something far grander than a battery, which is simply a conduit to a much bigger story.
Batteries are like the internet without Wifi.
The holy grail is energy storage.
And while perpetually bigger batteries themselves have emerged as the dominant solution to our energy storage needs, their reliance on rare earths elements and some metals that are controversially sourced, as well as the fact that their product life is quite limited, indicates they are simply a stop along the way to more creative innovations.
Already, there are several challenger solutions that have the potential to rise above the battery as the answer to our energy storage needs.
One of these solutions is gravity. Several companies across the world are using gravity for energy storage or rather, moving objects up and down to store and, respectively, release stored electricity.
One of these, Swiss-based Energy Vault, uses a six headed crane to lift bricks when renewable installations are producing electricity than can be consumed and drop them back down when demand for electricity outweighs supply. The idea may sound eccentric but kinetic energy, according to a Wall Street Journal report on these companies, is getting increasingly popular.
The idea draws on hydropower storage: that involves pushing water uphill and storing it until it is needed to power the turbines, when it is released downhill. On instead of water, these companies use gravity, essentially lifting and dropping heavy objects. Energy Vault uses bricks and says 20 brick towers could power up to 40,000 households for a period of 24 hours. Related: Oil Suppliers Slash Prices To Save Asian Market Share
Another company, in the UK, lifts and drops weights in abandoned mine shafts.
Gravitricity, which last year ran a crowdfunding campaign that raised $978,000 (750,000 pounds), is using abandoned shafts to raise and lower weights of between 500 and 5,000 tons with a system of winches. According to the company, the system could be configured for between 1 and 20 MW peak capacity. The duration of power supply, however, is even more limited than Energy Vault’s, at 15 minutes to 8 hours.
The duration of power supply is an important issue. When the wind dies down and the sky is overcast, this could last more than a day as evidenced by the wind drought in the UK two years ago, when wind turbines were forced to idle for a week.
Gravity-base storage is one alternative to batteries, some of it cheaper than batteries, but for the time being, less reliable than batteries if we are thinking about a 100-percent renewable-powered grid. Another solution is thermal storage.
EnergyNest is one developer of thermal energy storage. It works by pumping a heated fluid along a system of pipes and storing it in a solid material. The heat flows into the material from top to bottom and is released into this material where it stays until it is needed again. Then, the flow gets reversed, with cold fluid (thermal oil or water) flowing from the bottom up, heating up in the process and exiting the storage system. Related: Restarted Saudi, Kuwaiti Oilfields To Pump 550,000 Bpd By End-2020
Then there is liquid air storage as an alternative to batteries. It works by separating the carbon dioxide and the oxygen from the nitrogen in the air and then storing this nitrogen in liquefied form. When needed to generate electricity, it is regasified. The process of liquefaction is powered by the excess electricity that needs to be stored and when a peak in demand requires more electricity generation, it is reheated and regasified, and used to power a turbine. According to experts, the process is not 100-percent efficient, with rates ranging from 25 percent to 70 percent.
Yet another potential alternative to batteries for energy storage is using geothermal energy to store heat and then releasing it to generate more electricity. The so-called sensitized thermal cells developed by researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology are technically batteries, as they use electrodes to move electrons. But on the flip side, it does not work with intermittent energy such as solar or wind. It taps the potential of geothermal energy, an underused renewable source.
Not all of these energy storage idea swill take off. Not all of them will prove viable enough to become widely adopted. Yet some alternatives to batteries will likely work well enough to provide an alternative to the dominant technology. Alternatives are important when you are aiming for 100-percent renewable electricity.
Failing that, we could simply use our EV batteries as energy storage for excess power from solar and wind installations, as the International Renewable Energy Agency said earlier this month. While a strain on the grid when they charge, IRENA said, electric cars could juice up at the right time to take in surplus power and then release it back into the grid if that grid is a smart one. In 2050, around 14 terawatt-hours (TWh) of EV batteries would be available to provide grid services, compared to 9 TWh of stationary batteries, according to the agency. One way or another, slowly and with difficulty, we are heading into a much more renewable energy future.
Researchers propose a gravity-based system for long-term energy storage.
A new paper outlines using the the Mountain Gravity Energy Storage (or MGES) for long-term energy storage.
This approach can be particularly useful in remote, rural and island areas.
Gravity and hydropower can make this method a successful storage solution.
Can we use mountains as gigantic batteries for long-term energy storage? Such is the premise of new research published in the journalEnergy.
The particular focus of the study byJulian Huntof IIASA (Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) and his colleagues is how to store energy in locations that have less energy demand and variable weather conditions that affect renewable energy sources.
The team looked at places like small islands and remote places that would need less than20 megawattsof capacity for energy storage and proposed a way to use mountains to accomplish the task.
Hunt and his team want to use a system dubbedMountain Gravity Energy Storage (or MGES). MGES employes cranes positioned on the edge of a steep mountain to move sand (or gravel) from a storage site at the bottom to a storage site at the top.
Like in a ski-lift, a motor/generator would transport the storage vessels, storing potential energy. Electricity is generated when the sand is lowered back from the upper site.
How much energy is created? The system takes advantage of gravity, with the energy output beingproportional to the sand’s mass, gravity and the height of the mountain. Some energy would be lost due in the loading and unloading process.
Hydropowercan also be employed from any kind of mountainous water source, like river streams. When it’s available, water would be used to fill storage containers instead of sand or gravel, generating electricity in that fashion.
Utilizing the mountain, hydropower can be invoked from any height of the system, making it more flexible than usual hydropower, explains thepress releasefrom IIASA.
There are specific advantages to using sand, however, as Hunt explained:
“One of the benefits of this system is that sand is cheap and, unlike water, it does not evaporate – so you never lose potential energy and it can be reused innumerable times,”said Hunt.“This makes it particularly interesting for dry regions.”
Energy From Mountains | Renewable Energy Solutions
Where would be the ideal places to install such a system? The researchers are thinking of locations with high mountains, like the Himalayas, Alps, and Rocky Mountains or islands like Hawaii, Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Pacific Islands that have mountainous terrains.
The scientists use the Molokai Island in Hawaii as an example in their paper, outlining how all of the island’s energy needs can be met with wind, solar, batteries and their MGES setup.
The MGES system.
“It is important to note that the MGES technology does not replace any current energy storage options but rather opens up new ways of storing energy and harnessing untapped hydropower potential in regions with high mountains,”Hunt noted.
In this diagram of the new system, air entering from top right passes to one of two chambers (the gray rectangular structures) containing battery electrodes that attract the carbon dioxide. Then the airflow is switched to the other chamber, while the accumulated carbon dioxide in the first chamber is flushed into a separate storage tank (at right). These alternating flows allow for continuous operation of the two-step process. Image courtesy of the researchers
The process could work on the gas at any concentrations, from power plant emissions to open air
A new way of removing carbon dioxide from a stream of air could provide a significant tool in the battle against climate change. The new system can work on the gas at virtually any concentration level, even down to the roughly 400 parts per million currently found in the atmosphere.
Most methods of removing carbon dioxide from a stream of gas require higher concentrations, such as those found in the flue emissions from fossil fuel-based power plants. A few variations have been developed that can work with the low concentrations found in air, but the new method is significantly less energy-intensive and expensive, the researchers say.
The technique, based on passing air through a stack of charged electrochemical plates, is described in a new paper in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, by MIT postdoc Sahag Voskian, who developed the work during his PhD, and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering.
The device is essentially a large, specialized battery that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air (or other gas stream) passing over its electrodes as it is being charged up, and then releases the gas as it is being discharged. In operation, the device would simply alternate between charging and discharging, with fresh air or feed gas being blown through the system during the charging cycle, and then the pure, concentrated carbon dioxide being blown out during the discharging.
As the battery charges, an electrochemical reaction takes place at the surface of each of a stack of electrodes. These are coated with a compound called poly-anthraquinone, which is composited with carbon nanotubes. The electrodes have a natural affinity for carbon dioxide and readily react with its molecules in the airstream or feed gas, even when it is present at very low concentrations. The reverse reaction takes place when the battery is discharged — during which the device can provide part of the power needed for the whole system — and in the process ejects a stream of pure carbon dioxide. The whole system operates at room temperature and normal air pressure.
“The greatest advantage of this technology over most other carbon capture or carbon absorbing technologies is the binary nature of the adsorbent’s affinity to carbon dioxide,” explains Voskian. In other words, the electrode material, by its nature, “has either a high affinity or no affinity whatsoever,” depending on the battery’s state of charging or discharging. Other reactions used for carbon capture require intermediate chemical processing steps or the input of significant energy such as heat, or pressure differences.
“This binary affinity allows capture of carbon dioxide from any concentration, including 400 parts per million, and allows its release into any carrier stream, including 100 percent CO2,” Voskian says. That is, as any gas flows through the stack of these flat electrochemical cells, during the release step the captured carbon dioxide will be carried along with it. For example, if the desired end-product is pure carbon dioxide to be used in the carbonation of beverages, then a stream of the pure gas can be blown through the plates. The captured gas is then released from the plates and joins the stream.
In some soft-drink bottling plants, fossil fuel is burned to generate the carbon dioxide needed to give the drinks their fizz. Similarly, some farmers burn natural gas to produce carbon dioxide to feed their plants in greenhouses. The new system could eliminate that need for fossil fuels in these applications, and in the process actually be taking the greenhouse gas right out of the air, Voskian says. Alternatively, the pure carbon dioxide stream could be compressed and injected underground for long-term disposal, or even made into fuel through a series of chemical and electrochemical processes.
The process this system uses for capturing and releasing carbon dioxide “is revolutionary” he says. “All of this is at ambient conditions — there’s no need for thermal, pressure, or chemical input. It’s just these very thin sheets, with both surfaces active, that can be stacked in a box and connected to a source of electricity.”
“In my laboratories, we have been striving to develop new technologies to tackle a range of environmental issues that avoid the need for thermal energy sources, changes in system pressure, or addition of chemicals to complete the separation and release cycles,” Hatton says. “This carbon dioxide capture technology is a clear demonstration of the power of electrochemical approaches that require only small swings in voltage to drive the separations.”
In a working plant — for example, in a power plant where exhaust gas is being produced continuously — two sets of such stacks of the electrochemical cells could be set up side by side to operate in parallel, with flue gas being directed first at one set for carbon capture, then diverted to the second set while the first set goes into its discharge cycle. By alternating back and forth, the system could always be both capturing and discharging the gas. In the lab, the team has proven the system can withstand at least 7,000 charging-discharging cycles, with a 30 percent loss in efficiency over that time. The researchers estimate that they can readily improve that to 20,000 to 50,000 cycles.
The electrodes themselves can be manufactured by standard chemical processing methods. While today this is done in a laboratory setting, it can be adapted so that ultimately they could be made in large quantities through a roll-to-roll manufacturing process similar to a newspaper printing press, Voskian says. “We have developed very cost-effective techniques,” he says, estimating that it could be produced for something like tens of dollars per square meter of electrode.
Compared to other existing carbon capture technologies, this system is quite energy efficient, using about one gigajoule of energy per ton of carbon dioxide captured, consistently. Other existing methods have energy consumption which vary between 1 to 10 gigajoules per ton, depending on the inlet carbon dioxide concentration, Voskian says.
The researchers have set up a company called Verdox to commercialize the process, and hope to develop a pilot-scale plant within the next few years, he says. And the system is very easy to scale up, he says: “If you want more capacity, you just need to make more electrodes.”
This work was supported by an MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund grant and by Eni S.p.A.
This is Part II of MIT’s 10 Technology Breakthroughs for 2019′ Re-Posted from MIT Technology Review, with Guest Curator Bill Gates. You can Read Part I Here
Part I Into from Bill Gates: How We’ll Invent the Future
I was honored when MIT Technology Review invited me to be the first guest curator of its 10 Breakthrough Technologies. Narrowing down the list was difficult. I wanted to choose things that not only will create headlines in 2019 but captured this moment in technological history—which got me thinking about how innovation has evolved over time.
Why it matters If robots could learn to deal with the messiness of the real world, they could do many more tasks.
Key Players OpenAI
Carnegie Mellon University
University of Michigan
Availability 3-5 years
Robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world.
For all the talk about machines taking jobs, industrial robots are still clumsy and inflexible. A robot can repeatedly pick up a component on an assembly line with amazing precision and without ever getting bored—but move the object half an inch, or replace it with something slightly different, and the machine will fumble ineptly or paw at thin air.
But while a robot can’t yet be programmed to figure out how to grasp any object just by looking at it, as people do, it can now learn to manipulate the object on its own through virtual trial and error.
One such project is Dactyl, a robot that taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Dactyl, which comes from the San Francisco nonprofit OpenAI, consists of an off-the-shelf robot hand surrounded by an array of lights and cameras. Using what’s known as reinforcement learning, neural-network software learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. The software experiments, randomly at first, strengthening connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal.
It usually isn’t possible to transfer that type of virtual practice to the real world, because things like friction or the varied properties of different materials are so difficult to simulate. The OpenAI team got around this by adding randomness to the virtual training, giving the robot a proxy for the messiness of reality.
We’ll need further breakthroughs for robots to master the advanced dexterity needed in a real warehouse or factory. But if researchers can reliably employ this kind of learning, robots might eventually assemble our gadgets, load our dishwashers, and even help Grandma out of bed. —Will Knight
New-wave nuclear power
Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality.
New nuclear designs that have gained momentum in the past year are promising to make this power source safer and cheaper. Among them are generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach. Developers of generation IV fission designs, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, have entered into R&D partnerships with utilities, aiming for grid supply (somewhat optimistically, maybe) by the 2020s.
Small modular reactors typically produce in the tens of megawatts of power (for comparison, a traditional nuclear reactor produces around 1,000 MW). Companies like Oregon’s NuScale say the miniaturized reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.
From sodium-cooled fission to advanced fusion, a fresh generation of projects hopes to rekindle trust in nuclear energy.
There has even been progress on fusion. Though no one expects delivery before 2030, companies like General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout, are making some headway. Many consider fusion a pipe dream, but because the reactors can’t melt down and don’t create long-lived, high-level waste, it should face much less public resistance than conventional nuclear. (Bill Gates is an investor in TerraPower and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.) —Leigh Phillips
Why it matters 15 million babies are born prematurely every year; it’s the leading cause of death for children under age five
Key player Akna Dx
Availability A test could be offered in doctor’s offices within five years
A simple blood test can predict if a pregnant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely.
Our genetic material lives mostly inside our cells. But small amounts of “cell-free” DNA and RNA also float in our blood, often released by dying cells. In pregnant women, that cell-free material is an alphabet soup of nucleic acids from the fetus, the placenta, and the mother.
Stephen Quake, a bioengineer at Stanford, has found a way to use that to tackle one of medicine’s most intractable problems: the roughly one in 10 babies born prematurely.
Free-floating DNA and RNA can yield information that previously required invasive ways of grabbing cells, such as taking a biopsy of a tumor or puncturing a pregnant woman’s belly to perform an amniocentesis. What’s changed is that it’s now easier to detect and sequence the small amounts of cell-free genetic material in the blood. In the last few years researchers have begun developing blood tests for cancer (by spotting the telltale DNA from tumor cells) and for prenatal screening of conditions like Down syndrome.
The tests for these conditions rely on looking for genetic mutations in the DNA. RNA, on the other hand, is the molecule that regulates gene expression—how much of a protein is produced from a gene. By sequencing the free-floating RNA in the mother’s blood, Quake can spot fluctuations in the expression of seven genes that he singles out as associated with preterm birth. That lets him identify women likely to deliver too early. Once alerted, doctors can take measures to stave off an early birth and give the child a better chance of survival.
Complications from preterm birth are the leading cause of death worldwide in children under five.
The technology behind the blood test, Quake says, is quick, easy, and less than $10 a measurement. He and his collaborators have launched a startup, Akna Dx, to commercialize it. —Bonnie Rochman
Gut probe in a pill
Why it matters The device makes it easier to screen for and study gut diseases, including one that keeps millions of children in poor countries from growing properly
Key player Massachusetts General Hospital
Availability Now used in adults; testing in infants begins in 2019
A small, swallowable device captures detailed images of the gut without anesthesia, even in infants and children.
Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) may be one of the costliest diseases you’ve never heard of. Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height. No one knows exactly what causes EED and how it could be prevented or treated.
Practical screening to detect it would help medical workers know when to intervene and how. Therapies are already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying illnesses in the guts of such young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat. It’s expensive, uncomfortable, and not practical in areas of the world where EED is prevalent.
So Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small devices that can be used to inspect the gut for signs of EED and even obtain tissue biopsies. Unlike endoscopes, they are simple to use at a primary care visit.
Tearney’s swallowable capsules contain miniature microscopes. They’re attached to a flexible string-like tether that provides power and light while sending images to a briefcase-like console with a monitor. This lets the health-care worker pause the capsule at points of interest and pull it out when finished, allowing it to be sterilized and reused. (Though it sounds gag-inducing, Tearney’s team has developed a technique that they say doesn’t cause discomfort.) It can also carry technologies that image the entire surface of the digestive tract at the resolution of a single cell or capture three-dimensional cross sections a couple of millimeters deep.
The technology has several applications; at MGH it’s being used to screen for Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. For EED, Tearney’s team has developed an even smaller version for use in infants who can’t swallow a pill. It’s been tested on adolescents in Pakistan, where EED is prevalent, and infant testing is planned for 2019.
The little probe will help researchers answer questions about EED’s development—such as which cells it affects and whether bacteria are involved—and evaluate interventions and potential treatments. —Courtney Humphrie
Custom cancer vaccines
Why it matters Conventional chemotherapies take a heavy toll on healthy cells and aren’t always effective against tumors
Key players BioNTech
Availability In human testing
The treatment incites the body’s natural defenses to destroy only cancer cells by identifying mutations unique to each tumor
Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. If it works as hoped, the vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers.
By using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapies, limits damage to healthy cells. The attacking immune cells could also be vigilant in spotting any stray cancer cells after the initial treatment.
The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008, five years after the Human Genome Project was completed, when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumor cell.
Soon after, investigators began to compare the DNA of tumor cells with that of healthy cells—and other tumor cells. These studies confirmed that all cancer cells contain hundreds if not thousands of specific mutations, most of which are unique to each tumor.
A few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided compelling evidence that a vaccine containing copies of these mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T cells primed to seek out, attack, and destroy all cancer cells harboring them.
In December 2017, BioNTech began a large test of the vaccine in cancer patients, in collaboration with the biotech giant Genentech. The ongoing trial is targeting at least 10 solid cancers and aims to enroll upwards of 560 patients at sites around the globe.
The two companies are designing new manufacturing techniques to produce thousands of personally customized vaccines cheaply and quickly. That will be tricky because creating the vaccine involves performing a biopsy on the patient’s tumor, sequencing and analyzing its DNA, and rushing that information to the production site. Once produced, the vaccine needs to be promptly delivered to the hospital; delays could be deadly. —Adam Pior
The cow-free burger
Why it matters Livestock production causes catastrophic deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions
Key players Beyond Meat
Availability Plant-based now; lab-grown around 2020
Both lab-grown and plant-based alternatives approximate the taste and nutritional value of real meat without the environmental devastation.
The UN expects the world to have 9.8 billion people by 2050. And those people are getting richer. Neither trend bodes well for climate change—especially because as people escape poverty, they tend to eat more meat.
By that date, according to the predictions, humans will consume 70% more meat than they did in 2005. And it turns out that raising animals for human consumption is among the worst things we do to the environment.
Depending on the animal, producing a pound of meat protein with Western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, and 6 to 20 times more fossil fuels than producing a pound of plant protein.
The problem is that people aren’t likely to stop eating meat anytime soon. Which means lab-grown and plant-based alternatives might be the best way to limit the destruction.
Making lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors. The end product looks much like what you’d get from an animal, although researchers are still working on the taste. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who are working to produce lab-grown meat at scale, believe they’ll have a lab-grown burger available by next year. One drawback of lab-grown meat is that the environmental benefits are still sketchy at best—a recent World Economic Forum report says the emissions from lab-grown meat would be only around 7% less than emissions from beef production.
Meat production spews tons of greenhouse gas and uses up too much land and water. Is there an alternative that won’t make us do without?
The better environmental case can be made for plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor in both companies), which use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, and plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.
Beyond Meat has a new 26,000-square-foot (2,400-square-meter) plant in California and has already sold upwards of 25 million burgers from 30,000 stores and restaurants. According to an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a Beyond Meat patty would probably generate 90% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than a conventional burger made from a cow. —Markkus Rovito
Carbon dioxide catcher
Why it matters Removing CO2 from the atmosphere might be one of the last viable ways to stop catastrophic climate change
Key players Carbon Engineering
Availability 5-10 years
Practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air can soak up excess greenhouse-gas emissions.
Even if we slow carbon dioxide emissions, the warming effect of the greenhouse gas can persist for thousands of years. To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.
In a surprise finding last summer, Harvard climate scientist David Keith calculated that machines could, in theory, pull this off for less than $100 a ton, through an approach known as direct air capture. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than earlier estimates that led many scientists to dismiss the technology as far too expensive—though it will still take years for costs to fall to anywhere near that level.
But once you capture the carbon, you still need to figure out what to do with it.
Carbon Engineering, the Canadian startup Keith cofounded in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to ramp up production of its synthetic fuels, using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient. (Bill Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.)
Zurich-based Climeworks’s direct air capture plant in Italy will produce methane from captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen, while a second plant in Switzerland will sell carbon dioxide to the soft-drinks industry. So will Global Thermostat of New York, which finished constructing its first commercial plant in Alabama last year.
Klaus Lackner’s once wacky idea increasingly looks like an essential part of solving climate change.
Still, if it’s used in synthetic fuels or sodas, the carbon dioxide will mostly end up back in the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to lock greenhouse gases away forever. Some could be nested within products like carbon fiber, polymers, or concrete, but far more will simply need to be buried underground, a costly job that no business model seems likely to support.
In fact, pulling CO2 out of the air is, from an engineering perspective, one of the most difficult and expensive ways of dealing with climate change. But given how slowly we’re reducing emissions, there are no good options left. —James Temple
An ECG on your wrist
Regulatory approval and technological advances are making it easier for people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.
Fitness trackers aren’t serious medical devices. An intense workout or loose band can mess with the sensors that read your pulse. But an electrocardiogram—the kind doctors use to diagnose abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack— requires a visit to a clinic, and people often fail to take the test in time.
ECG-enabled smart watches, made possible by new regulations and innovations in hardware and software, offer the convenience of a wearable device with something closer to the precision of a medical one.
An Apple Watch–compatible band from Silicon Valley startup AliveCor that can detect atrial fibrillation, a frequent cause of blood clots and stroke, received clearance from the FDA in 2017. Last year, Apple released its own FDA-cleared ECG feature, embedded in the watch itself.
Making complex heart tests available at the push of a button has far-reaching consequences.
The health-device company Withings also announced plans for an ECG-equipped watch shortly after.
Current wearables still employ only a single sensor, whereas a real ECG has 12. And no wearable can yet detect a heart attack as it’s happening.
But this might change soon. Last fall, AliveCor presented preliminary results to the American Heart Association on an app and two-sensor system that can detect a certain type of heart attack. —Karen Hao
Sanitation without sewers
Why it matters 2.3 billion people lack safe sanitation, and many die as a result
Key players Duke University
University of South Florida
California Institute of Technology
Availability 1-2 years
Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.
About 2.3 billion people don’t have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. Diarrhea causes one in nine child deaths worldwide.
Now researchers are working to build a new kind of toilet that’s cheap enough for the developing world and can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well.
In 2011 Bill Gates created what was essentially the X Prize in this area—the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Since the contest’s launch, several teams have put prototypes in the field. All process the waste locally, so there’s no need for large amounts of water to carry it to a distant treatment plant.
Most of the prototypes are self-contained and don’t need sewers, but they look like traditional toilets housed in small buildings or storage containers. The NEWgenerator toilet, designed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants with an anaerobic membrane, which has pores smaller than bacteria and viruses. Another project, from Connecticut-based Biomass Controls, is a refinery the size of a shipping container; it heats the waste to produce a carbon-rich material that can, among other things, fertilize soil.
One drawback is that the toilets don’t work at every scale. The Biomass Controls product, for example, is designed primarily for tens of thousands of users per day, which makes it less well suited for smaller villages. Another system, developed at Duke University, is meant to be used only by a few nearby homes.
So the challenge now is to make these toilets cheaper and more adaptable to communities of different sizes. “It’s great to build one or two units,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, who led the NEWgenerator team. “But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.” —Erin Winick
Smooth-talking AI assistants
Why it matters AI assistants can now perform conversation-based tasks like booking a restaurant reservation or coordinating a package drop-off rather than just obey simple commands
Key players Google
Availability 1-2 years
New techniques that capture semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.
We’re used to AI assistants—Alexa playing music in the living room, Siri setting alarms on your phone—but they haven’t really lived up to their alleged smarts. They were supposed to have simplified our lives, but they’ve barely made a dent. They recognize only a narrow range of directives and are easily tripped up by deviations.
But some recent advances are about to expand your digital assistant’s repertoire. In June 2018, researchers at OpenAI developed a technique that trains an AI on unlabeled text to avoid the expense and time of categorizing and tagging all the data manually. A few months later, a team at Google unveiled a system called BERT that learned how to predict missing words by studying millions of sentences. In a multiple-choice test, it did as well as humans at filling in gaps.
These improvements, coupled with better speech synthesis, are letting us move from giving AI assistants simple commands to having conversations with them. They’ll be able to deal with daily minutiae like taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online.
Some are already here. Google Duplex, the eerily human-like upgrade of Google Assistant, can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. It can also make calls for you to schedule restaurant reservations or salon appointments.
In China, consumers are getting used to Alibaba’s AliMe, which coordinates package deliveries over the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.
But while AI programs have gotten better at figuring out what you want, they still can’t understand a sentence. Lines are scripted or generated statistically, reflecting how hard it is to imbue machines with true language understanding. Once we cross that hurdle, we’ll see yet another evolution, perhaps from logistics coordinator to babysitter, teacher—or even friend? —Karen Hao
Renewable energy is the cleanest and inexhaustible source of energy. They are a great alternative to fossil fuels.
Renewable energy doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases in the environment. They are environment-friendly and help us tackle the most important concern of the 21st Century – Climate Change.
Solar is one of the most important forms of renewable energy. Sun is an inexhaustible source of energy and solar cells help capture that clean energy for both commercial and domestic purposes. Despite all these advantages, Solar cells are not efficient when it comes to producing energy during rainy seasons. Since the input energy gets reduced, solar cells become practically useless when rain clouds are overhead.
But what if we could overcome this problem? What if we could actually generate energy from raindrops?
Scientists from the University of Soochow,Chinahave overcome the design flaw of solar cells by allowing them to generate energy both in the sunny and rainy season.
This technology holds the potential of revolutionizing renewable energy completely.
The key part of this new Hybrid solar technology is the triboelectric nanogenerator or TENG. A device capable of producing an electric charge from the friction of two materials rubbing together.
How Hybrid solar cells work?
These new hybrid solar cells works using a material called Graphene. It has the ability to produce energy from raindrops.
Like any other solar panel, these hybrid solar cells also generate electricity during a normal sunny day using the current technology, but when cloud gathers and raindrop falls, thissolar panels system switch to its graphene system.
Graphene, in its liquid form, can produce electricity due to the presence of delocalized electrons that help us create a pseudocapacitor framework. This pseudo framework helps us generate electricity.
When raindrops fall on hybrid solar panels, they get separated as positive ions and negative ions.
These positive ions are mainly salt-related ions, like sodium and calcium which accumulates on the surface of graphene. These positive ions interact with the loosely associated negative ions in graphene and create a system that acts like a pseudocapacitor.
The difference in potential between these ions produces current and voltage.
Although, it is important to mention that this is not a first attempt to invent all-weathered Solar panels. Earlier, researchers created a solar panel with triboelectric nanogenerator on top, an insulating layer in the middle and solar panel at the bottom. But this system possessed too much electrical resistance and sunlight was not able to reach the solar cells due to the opaque nature of insulators.
The newly designed hybrid solar panel is an efficient device, where the triboelectric nanogenerator and the solar panel share a common and transparent electrode. There are special grooves incorporated in the material which increases the efficiency of both raindrops and sunlight captured.
According to the researchers, the idea of special grooves was derived from commercial DVD’s. DVD’s come pre-etched with parallel grooves just hundreds of nanometer across. Designing the device with this grooves helps to boost the surface interaction of raindrops and sunlight that would be otherwise lost to reflection.
Benefits of Solar Hybrid Panels
Until now solar cells have this drawback of producing energy only in the presence of sunlight, making it impossible to harness energy during the rainy season. Countries in the northern hemisphere were not able to switch to solar energy due to the presence of low-intensity sunlight.
With hybrid solar panels, anyone in the world could harness solar power. Researchers expect that in a few years, these panels will be efficient enough to provide electricity for homes and businesses and thus ending our dependency on fossil fuels.
They will also save a lot of money on daily electricity bills. Even though the initial setup costs are higher, countries with good exposure to both sunlight and rain can expect a good ROI.
Hurdles in Solar hybrid panels
The current designs are not efficient enough to be used commercially. The device was tested in various simulated weather conditions, in sunlight, the device was able to produce around 13% efficiency and simulated raindrops had an efficiency of around 6%.
Currently used commercial solar cells gives an efficiency of around 15%, thus the new design is a viable option for presently used solar panels. However, the efficiency of triboelectric nanogenerators was not reported.
With continuous depletion of non-renewable sources and the disastrous climate change occurring due to fossil fuels, many countries are moving towards eco-friendly alternatives. Solar energy is one of the cleanest energy available. With the advent of new technology like the hybrid solar panels, we can hope to achieve a viable method of electricity generation.
Researchers are continuously trying to improve the efficiency of hybrid solar cells in order to make it commercially available. This will boost our efforts of producing energy in all-weather condition, which is not possible with the currently available technology. With the expansion of solar energy projects worldwide, researchers of hybrid solar cells are expecting to roll out commercial designs in next five years.
Researchers at china are even trying to integrate this new technology into mobile and electronic device such as electronic clothing.