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Energy Tech Update: Solar, Beginnings of an EV Charging Sub-Grid, and Kinetic Harvesting

By Mark Devlin

May 3, 2012

Going for a Hike? Wear Your Charging Clothes.

Prof. Eulanda Sanders and Assoc. Prof. Ajoy Sarkar—along with four of their students at Colorado State University—are developing solar-powered clothing. They’re able to charge phones, tablets, GPS units, and other relatively low-power gadgets.

You’re right, this isn’t the first time someone’s announced solar clothes. Others, though, usually use petroleum-based materials, whereas the Colorado State versions utilize natural fibers, namely cotton and linen. Flexible solar panels are then incorporated into the pieces of clothing.

Photo: Colorado State University student Anna Rieder incorporates solar panels into a winter jacket. Credit: Colorado State University Creative Services.

According to this piece at Discovery News

With help from a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the CSU group has already made several prototype jackets and a vest. This weekend, that apparel will go on display at the EPA's National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. The team has also entered a sustainable design competition there, competing with entries from across the nation. Winning means a shot at taking their solar clothing to the market.

Solar Cell Efficiency: It’s About to Jump. Considerably.

One of the reasons that solar power still hasn’t really caught on—at least in major ways—is relatively low efficiency. For years, best-of-breed, commercial photovoltaics have been languishing in the 20+ percent area—and it took a hundred years to get there. A few exceptions in recent years have bumped that efficiency to about 30%. While, yes, there are several ‘efficiency’ considerations when it comes to solar, overall effectiveness of converting fuel (in this case, light) into power, solar’s been bringing up the rear.

That could be changing pretty soon, according to this article.

Supported by the Australian Solar Institute, University of Sydney Researcher Prof. Tim Schmidt—along with the Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Energy have developed a photochemical upconversion process enabling previous-lost energy to be turned into electricity…

"We are able to boost efficiency by forcing two energy-poor red photons in the cell to join and make one energy-rich yellow photon that can capture light, which is then turned into electricity," Professor Schmidt said.

"We now have a benchmark for the performance of an upconverting solar cell. We need to improve this several times, but the pathway is now clear."

The related paper is available here.

Efficiency of the new approach? About 40%. Again, this isn’t the first time that 40% has been reached (Even 60% has been teased.) but, hopefully, this one’ll have the ability to go mainstream at relatively low-cost.

Point A to Point B with Your EV Thanks to G.E.

Unless you’re doing short trips and commutes, all-electric vehicles still don’t make much sense to me. Heck, I’ve got serious, therapy-requiring range anxiety issues and I don’t even have an EV.

Officially launched by GE at last week’s SAE 2012 World Congress, the WattStation comes from the company’s Energy Industrial Solutions business…

It’s got all the expected goodies: lots of monitoring and display alerts, self-cleaning cord management system, outlet protection when not in use and, of course, and a slick pedestal design by Yves Behar. The WattStation is expected to be purchased not only by EV owners, but retailers, fleets and, of course, earth-conscious employers.

“Where’s the credit card swipe slot, I wondered?” It’s not there. Instead, users will pay for their charge-up via cellphone, through WattStation Connect: an iOS and Android app. The app also enables users to find WattStations, as does a desktop, browser-based version. WattStation Connect also integrates APIs such that its backend can be integrated with existing operations to monitor fleet parameters, for instance.

In case your local Wal-Mart, for instance, wants to install a few WattStations to serve customers and make a few more bucks, they can call on Bud the Local Electrician for the installations, but also have the option to make sure Bud’s a GE EV Charger Certified Installer.

Apparently, GE has put an enormous amount of thought and a comprehensive effort into what seems to be not just the WattStation, but an entire, end-to-end, grid-to-charging-station-to-customer solution with a lot more useful metrics involved than good ol’ gassing up.

Range anxiety might be a thing of the past.

I’m withholding a “Bravo, GE!” until there are several hundred thousands of these things up-and-running for a few years.

“I Don’t Have the Power, Captain! …

…so hang a left on that bumpy road!”

Okay, were not talking Star Trek, but new shock absorber tech could bring a shocking new capability: generating electricity.

Another point about which I’m on-the-fence with all-electric cars is concern that we’re fooling ourselves. Vehicles that are designed, developed, sold, and bought on the premise of Earth-friendliness seem to be doing not much more than shifting the ultimate fuel requirement from gasoline or diesel to coal: a much worse situation for the environment overall. Yes, there are more wind, solar, hydro, wave, tidal, and other alternative ‘fuel’ sources powering the grid these days, but most estimates point to coal holding responsibility for a bit more than 50% of the grid. That’s a substantial number, especially considering that all other sources combined fractionally make-up the remaining 50%.

One alternative I can get behind? Harvested kinetic energy. Why? Things around us move all the time, from trees and machines to cars and their suspensions. There’s untapped energy in any moving object, if it’s harvested and captured.

According to this article at Discovery News, SUNY Stony Brook mechanical engineering Prof. Lei Zuo says of his Mechanical Motion Rectifier… …

"While working on vibration energy harvesting at large scale, I was thinking what is the fundamental challenge? What makes this different from the wind energy technology?" He told Discovery News. "It is the irregular velocity-alternating motion. Then we came up this MMR idea, to convert the irregular oscillatory motion into unidirectional rotation."

The MMR is an energy-generating shock absorber which, unlike previous efforts, uses mechanical means instead of magnets. Result? ‘A regenerative suspension system could supply anywhere from 100-400 Watts. What’s that? We already have alternators to supply on-board-required vehicular power? Yes, we do. The more power a car’s using through lights, wipers, etc., the effort (with resulting mpg and hp losses) it takes for the engine to turn the alternator. So…

Removing the load from the engine could save about 4 percent of the gas most drivers use every year, and 8 percent of the gas used in a hybrid vehicle. Recouping the investment in a new part would take three to four years for conventional cars and two to three for a hybrid.

Here’s a prototype, clunky though it seems at this point…

It’s neither going to prevent an energy crisis, nor save each of us thousands per year—but, it’s a step in the right direction, as would be energy-harvesting the steps of human walking. Or, kinetic sidewalks, roadways, and parking lots that move imperceptibly while generating power locally, or even for the grid.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.



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  • John on May 7 2012 12:37:39:000PM

    EV's are hear to stay and much more efficient. I can run my EV for 0.02 / mile. Battery technology is expected to multiply 10x current technology in less than 3 years. 100 miles range becomes 1000 miles. Wake up america...