The quest continues: Alternative paths for energy generation and storage


By: SGN Staff


By Doug Peeples

SGN News Editor


Even a casual observer can see that energy generation and storage research and development for the smart grid has provided a wealth of innovations and possible solutions to nagging problems. No, they're not all good ideas and many will far short of making it to the marketplace. But sometimes we see technologies developing that, while far from perfect, could in time provide those solutions we're looking for. Or be springboards to real advances - or wind up in the discard pile.


We look at some R&D projects and experimentation that could go either way.


Words like "revolutionary" and "breakthrough" seem to crop far more than they should in press releases and news stories in smart grid energy generation and storage technologies. More often, those "breakthroughs" are tweaks and fixes of existing technologies that eliminate one or several problems. Here's an example:


Metal-air battery technology from Israel-based Phinergy addresses a number of problems but also raises a number of questions. The company says its demonstration EV has a range of over 2,000 miles. Bye bye, range anxiety. But it needs to stop every 200 miles or so to be topped off with water. And, its aluminum-air battery isn't rechargeable - once the energy is expended the battery is done, and needs to be replaced. However, the company says it has solved the problem of premature failure found in other metal-air batteries with its air electrode that includes a silver-based catalyst and a design that allows oxygen into the cell, but blocks CO2 which is a typical cause of failure. The company expects its technology will be available in vehicles by 2017, and is also working on a rechargeable zinc-air battery.


It took a while but hydrogen fuel cells seem to be getting a little more respect these days. And a related announcement from Virginia Tech researchers last week has attracted a flurry of attention in science and energy circles. The researchers have come up with a way to pull substantial amounts of hydrogen from plants. "Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels. Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future," said Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and its College of Engineering.


Zhang and his fellow researchers used xylose, the most abundant simple plant sugar, to produce a large amount of hydrogen that had previously been considered only theoretically possible. Other methods used to produce hydrogen are typically expensive and release greenhouse gases. The Virginia Tech researchers say their environmentally friendly way of doing it uses renewable natural resources, releases almost no greenhouse gases and does not need expensive or heavy metals.


It's unclear when the technology would be commercially available (one estimate is three years), but when it is, Zhang said, "The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future. Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone."


Wind turbine developers have produced power generation technologies in all shapes and sizes, from the familiar windmill style turbine to funnel heads connected to large tubes. But taking a look at the EWICON reveals no clues as to what it is or what it does.


It looks a lot like a tennis racket or a grate on a pedestal, not a wind energy generator. But the EWICON (Electrostatic Wind-Energy CONvertor), developed by faculty at Delft University in the Netherlands and architectural company Mecanoo, generates power from the wind. it just does it very differently. It has no moving parts for starters.


The way it works is when wind flows over the grid, positively charged water particles are transported by spraying away from the inner tube mesh, which leaves negatively charged particles behind, according to a Phys.Org story. That results in lower voltage in the system so electricity can be collected. Even with no moving parts, the researchers refer to the EWICON as a windmill, a windmill that can be any shape or size - although they caution that it must be large enough to create more electricity than it uses to pump the water in the system.


So far, the only prototype is on the university campus and researchers have not said how efficient it is, or how it would need to be installed in large farms to be cost-effective.


Monarch Power is building a Solar Electric Van (SEV) for what it says is a new market: an electric van for carrying people and cargo, food vending and other commercial uses. The van will run entirely on solar energy which it collects when the roof and sides are opened and track the sun. The company's Lotus line of products (as shown in the illustration) is a concentrated solar thermal power device that looks much like a fan or the petals on a flower (therefore, Lotus).


As you can see, it isn't easy to second guess the future for these projects. But if you'd like to try, please use the Talk Back comment form below.


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