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Energy Update: ‘Record Breaking’ Stuff, World’s Largest Thermal Solar Plant, Better Battery Breakthrough, Building Material Discovery

By Mark Devlin

June 7, 2012

Small-Scale Fuel Cell Could Power 50-100 Homes

Fuel cells are interesting systems…

Like batteries, fuel cells use anodes, cathodes and electrolytes to produce electricity. But unlike most batteries, fuel cells can continuously produce electricity if provided with a constant fuel supply. Fuel cells are characterized by their electrolyte material, which in the case of SOFCs is a solid oxide or ceramic. Ceramic materials also form the anode and cathode which, along with the electrolyte, form three layers.

That’s from this Gizmag article about a new, small-scale, solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) that achieves efficiency of about 57% compared to its predecessors’ 30 to 50.

Except for the fairly recent pursuit of fuel cells to power gadgets, fuel cell developers have often…

…focused on larger systems that produce 1 megawatt of power or more and can replace traditional power plants," said Vincent Sprenkle, chief engineer of PNNL's solid oxide fuel cell development program. "However, this research shows that smaller solid oxide fuel cells that generate between 1 and 100 kilowatts of power are a viable option for highly efficient, localized power generation."


Fueled by methane, the new ‘record breaking’ enriched SOFC was developed at the DoE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Engineering and design of the SOFC is pretty interesting, so hit the above Gizmag link for more details.

‘World’s Largest’ Solar Thermal Installation Shaping Up

It’s been a long haul for the BrightSource solar thermal power plant that uses more than 3,600 acres near Ivanpah, California. The first application for the installation was filed in 2007; Ground was broken for the project three years later. The plant’s expected to be completed next year.


There’s a very worthwhile image gallery of the project over at over here at MIT’s Technology Review starting off with the above overall, aerial shot to show the installation’s enormity. Maybe size does matter, as the plant is expected to produce 370 MW on sunny days. Within the overall installation are the three units shown. Each uses concentric circles of mirrors to focus sunlight onto a central tower.

With photovoltaic systems becoming more efficient and less expensive every day, the future of solar thermal is unclear. (See this brief comparison of solar thermal and solar PV).

Partners include a Princeton-based utility, NRG Energy, Inc., that’s putting $300 million into the project, as well as another company you may have heard of: Google. They’ve so far put $168 million into the venture. They also have a $10 million equity stake in BrightSource.

Meanwhile, Back In Germany...

…solar (PV) power plants have net a new record, according to this article at PhysOrg.

“Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity," said Norbert Allnoch, Germany’s director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry in Muenster. The plants peaked at 22 gigawatts of output for a few hours over the weekend, on Friday and Saturday. The numbers are important in that they yielded almost half the country's energy mid-day electricity needs. The 22 gigawatts is up from 14 GW a year ago. Also, this 22 gigawatts of output is equal to about 20 nuclear plants.

As is the case in Japan where the Fukushima crisis is driving the country to shut-down its nuclear facilities, Germany also wants to flip-off their own remaining nine nukes. The absence of nuclear will create an energy gap in most countries; Gemany’s betting on alternatives such as solar, wind, and biomass.

Better Battery Breakthrough?

We can all quite easily imagine a world in which batteries are considerably more powerful and longer-lasting than even the best we currently have. With each, real-world jump of battery chemistry, we’ve made improvements but they’ve been incremental.

Jerry Martin, CEO and cofounder of a small, young Colorado startup called Boulder Ionics thinks he can do better. Much better. He also thinks that he’s identified the problem: currently-used electrolytes.

According to this Technology Review article

Replacing conventional electrolytes with ionic liquids could double the energy storage capacity of ultracapacitors by allowing them to be charged to higher voltages. That could make it possible to replace a starter battery in a car with a battery the size of a flashlight, Martin says.

…or, up to 10X more energy storage than conventional lithium ion batteries.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

The secret, apparently, is electrolytes in the form of ionic liquids…

…salts that are molten below 100°C—can operate at high voltages and temperatures, isn't flammable, and doesn't evaporate. Ionic liquids are normally expensive to produce, but Boulder Ionics is developing a cheaper manufacturing process.

Here’s a shot of a piece of that new process equipment, as well as a vial of ionic liquid at the upper left.


More than an ionic flash-in-the-pan, the company has already designed, built, and demo’d evaluation samples—made with key pieces of new, already developed process equipment—for battery manufacturers. Samples of the ionic liquids are also available now from the company.

Oregon State’s ‘Cool Blue’ Could Increase Building Energy Efficiency

Said to be a ‘new candidate’ for energy efficiency, a blue pigment—discovered about thee years ago ‘almost by chance’ was recently awarded a patent.

Heat reflectivity of ‘cool blue’ is about 40%, ‘significantly higher than most blue pigments now being used.’

In general, any darker color of the type often used for roofs, houses, automobiles or other applications will tend to absorb more heat. But some compounds, like the one discovered at OSU, have dark tones but also the ability to reflect heat in the infrared spectrum, which is responsible for most of the heat energy absorbed from sunlight.

The material created at OSU, researchers say, is probably the best blue pigment humans have produced since ancient times – going back to efforts by the Egyptians, the Han dynasty in China and Mayan cultures. Blue pigments have been sought through history but often had serious drawbacks, such as decaying quickly, being toxic, costly or carcinogenic.

For more details, see the source material at Oregon State here.

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