Solar panels on the moon and bugs that make fuel: sci-fi or smart grid?
By: SGN Staff
By Doug Peeples
SGN News Editor
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Brilliant, innovative research and development have spawned numerous smart grid technologies that will help make an intelligent 21st century electric grid a reality. The flip side is that some concepts floating around are, well, pretty strange. But who knows? Who would have thought major oil companies would be spending millions to turn pond scum into fuel. Here are some of our favorite seemingly oddball efforts to come up with new sources of energy to power the smart grid.
First stop: the moon
Shimizu, a well-established Japanese construction company, doesn't just build skyscrapers and wind farms â€" and it doesn't necessarily see any reason to confine its brainstorming to planet Earth. The company routinely has come up some pretty futuristic projects, like offshore pyramid cities. But our favorite is solar panels on the moon. The panels would ring the moon's equator and shoot solar energy back home. We have no idea what the price tag would look like for a project like this, but Tokyo's planning to build a $2 billion robot moon base. Gotta give 'em credit for thinking (dreaming?) on a grand scale.
Let's stay in space just a little longer. In early 2009, California's Pacific Gas & Electric was asking regulators for approval to buy power from Solaren Corp., that is if the technology comes through. If it does, Solaren would launch huge solar collectors 23,000 miles into space to orbit over Fresno, and use communications satellite technology to ship the collected solar energy to a surface receiving station where it would be converted into electricity. We haven't heard much about this one lately, but PG&E made it pretty clear from the get-go that it wasn't putting any seed money into the project. Solaren acknowledged that there were more than a few challenges, not to mention lots of say so from the FCC, FAA and federal and state regulators.
Back to Earth
Is it possible to get free electricity out of thin air? A Brazilian scientist recently told the American Chemical Society that tests have shown that metals can be used to harvest the electric charges in humid air. The catch, unfortunately, is that the amount of power that can be harvested is incredibly small. While some supporters say it's a promising research topic, others say it's mostly an opportunity for scientists to argue with each other.
And remember Bloom Energy's Bloom Box, the distributed fuel cell that was going to replace power generation and transmission as we know it? The news broke early this year, and if you thought the box was long gone, you'd be wrong. Google and Walmart among other major corporations are using them, but unless you've got a lot of disposable income and some room, you might want to reconsider getting one. At this point, they're roughly the size of a parking space and cost about $750,000 (although the price is supposed to drop dramatically over the next 5 to 10 years). ADAN News reported recently that an IPO for Bloom Energy could be about 10 years away. We'll see. Some pretty bright people have directed some pretty harsh criticisms at the box.
And let's not forget about one of the pesky aspects of lithium ion batteries, the current power plant of choice for EVs. They cost way too much. But researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently said they might have uncovered a way to make battery electrodes with cheaper metals by using two common items: soap and wax. An explanation of the technology would make most of us scream, but PNNL's researchers think their work could lead the way to simpler technologies for making cheaper batteries.
Since biofuels are big in renewable energy circles these days and only going to get bigger, energy crop developer Ceres Inc.'s focus on "energy grasses" isn't really far-fetched at all, but it does underscore the vitality of this relatively new area of research in renewable energy technologies. The company is exploring how to get the most out of low-carbon energy grasses and improve biofuel yield. The cool thing here is the grasses can do quite well on marginal land that no self-respecting farmer would touch. Keep in mind that last year Sandia Laboratories said plant fibers could, and the number is conservative, produce 75 billion gallons of biofuel a year in the U.S.
Genetically modified bugs and oil
This is a favorite, even though it's a little old and the technology hasn't exactly been well-publicized. Silicon Valley scientists came up with a way to genetically modify insects to excrete crude oil after they (the insects) chow down on agricultural waste. The positives: The oil is renewable and carbon negative. And while early reports said the technology is expected to crank up to commercial scale by next year, we haven't seen much about it lately.
So, what do you think? Which of these concepts or technologies are winners, and which ones are, well, not? Add your comments in the Talk Back form below.
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