Wireless Maintenance Robots Ascend Wind Turbines
With a 13.1 inch tall mid-sized model, Helical Robotics’s HR-MP series robots can scale immense wind turbines to inspect them for damage. Unlike the similar tethered prototype GE and International Climbing Machines began developing last year, these wheeled robots are wireless. Controlled by a radio signal and equipped with digital cameras, the climbing robots may serve to replace high powered telescopes used to inspect wind turbines from the ground, which grow less effective as towers get taller and blades get longer. Remote controlled climbing robots also offer a safer, more practical alternative to inspectors climbing up themselves.
Weighing 42 pounds, the HR-MP20 model (pictured above) can carry up to 20 pounds of sensors and other equipment, has a top climbing speed of 43.6 feet per minute, and, according to Helical Robotics, offers a radio control range of 2500 feet. Using five neodymium magnets, the robot is capable of clinging to curved metal surfaces ranging from 7 feet in diameter to flat planes. Controlled by a technician on the ground, once the HR-MP20 scales a tower, it can navigate onto the blades for inspection.
image via Helical Robotics
More Efficient Solar Power with Gallium Arsenide Nanowires
Nanowires, needle-like crystals about the diameter of a virus, can’t be seen with a light microscope, but can give solar energy a massive boost. Led by Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, researchers in the semiconductor lab at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland are developing flat solar panels covered with nanowires that can collect up to 12 times more light than standard flat solar cells.
Propped up on the panel like bristles, the nanowires concentrate light, capturing even more than Fontcuberta’s team expected; their prototype already captures 10 percent more light, and uses 1,000 times less material, than traditional models.
Nano-scale filaments are not a new development in solar technologies; researchers have been working on this kind of technology for years, like the researchers in UC San Diego, Harvard, and the German universities Jena, Gottingen, and Bremen did in 2008. Unlike some earlier applications of the technology, however, these sun-lit nanowires are made with gallium arsenide, which converts light into power better than silicon.
While gallium arsenide is notoriously expensive, its high conversion efficiency is why the material appears in solar panels on spacecraft like the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit *. Make the gallium arsenide components into upright nanowires, though, and the amount of the pricey compound needed reduces immensely as compared to flat panels of the material.
Fontcuberta’s team are experimenting with additional efficiency boosters as well; they have also dotted the nanowires with indium arsenide, to act as stimulants to increase light absorbtion even further. Although Fontcuberta says, "It might take ten more years before nanowires can be found on the market." The EPFL’s School of Engineering website reports making this technology available on the market remains the team’s goal.
image via EPFL School of Engineering News
[ * Ed note: as a reader pointed out, while Opportunity and Spirit had gallium arsenide solar panels, the current Mars rover Curiosity is nuclear powered]
Soccket Soccer Ball Generator, and Its Critiques
Soccket is a soccer ball that harnesses energy with every kick and volley it gets. Developed by Harvard grads, the toy boasts a successful Kickstarter campaign, surpassing a funding goal of $75,000 by over $17,000 last month. A pendulum inside the Soccket ball swings when the ball moves, generating clean energy for a rechargeable battery stored inside. According to Uncharted Play, Soccket’s makers, thirty minutes of play translates into three hours of light from its companion LED lamp. Pictured above, the little lamp is currently the only appliance it can charge, by being plugged directly into the ball. The ball itself seems relatively unencumbered by its tech features; according to the campaign’s Kickstarter video, Soccket is only about an ounce heavier than a standard soccer ball, and it's filled with specialized foam, so it won’t deflate.
The Soccket is one item among an extensive group of "eco" products that takes an activity usually independent of producing energy (in this case, a fun one) and turns it into an opportunity for clean energy generation. Recalling other kinetic energy devices, like the nPower PEG, which powers handheld electronics while you walk or ride a bike, there’s something immediately appealing about turning play into power. If I want to play soccer anyway during the day, why not get a ball that’ll power a light to read by at night?
However, the primary purpose of the Soccket -- and the main way it’s being marketed, to help poor communities around the world -- has generated some important critiques. There are much more efficiently powered LED lamps available, including these designed and built by a former EcoGeek writer. Is a soccer ball that powers a little lamp truly helpful aid to communities in need, or does it simply sound cool to well-intentioned, privileged individuals?
Aaron Ausland, of the blog Staying for Tea, argues that framing a soccer ball as an eco-friendly "solution" for poor communities "grossly overplays the potential of the ball and misleads investors and buyers about the social impact they get for their money." Ausland, in addition to his thought-provoking list of problems with the Soccket, points out that the Soccket’s generative powers are roughly the equivalent of "four weakly-rechargeable AA batteries." The conversation doesn’t end at his critiques, as Ausland posted a response from Julia C. Silverman, co-founder of Uncharted Play, who emphasized the company’s intent to work with communities, continue their evaluation of the Soccket’s impact, and focus on fun for children, noting that they capped the Soccket’s power so play for kids doesn’t become work for power.
image via Soccket Kickstarter
Open Pit Mine to Be Reused for Pumped Storage
An abandoned open-pit mine in Canada is being proposed to be made useful once more as a pumped storage facility. The Northland Power Marmora Pumped Storage facility offers the possibility of turning a blighted, destroyed piece of land into something with value for advancing renewable power systems.
The pumped storage would be "five times the height of Niagara Falls,"according to the Globe and Mail, though the fact that it would have far less volume than Niagara gets far less attention. Nevertheless, the proposed facility would have the capacity to provide up to 400 megawatts to the grid for up to 5 hours.
Because of their relatively low cost, pumped storage facilities can have the capacity to provide much more power than more technical power storage methods like batteries or flywheels. Pumped storage facilities have both a rated capacity (like the proposed facility's 400 MW), which determines the peak power they are able to deliver, as well as the number of hours they are able to produce power at that level, which is determined by the size of the reservoir.
The location of the proposed facility is well situated in the midst of Ontario's heavily populated southeast, between Ottawa and Toronto, where there is high demand for power. Surplus power from both renewable and conventional sources can be used to pump water up into the upper reservoir during periods of low demand, and then that power can be used in place of costlier peaker power plants during periods of high demand.
Pumped storage is not for power production, but instead provides storage for power from other sources. It makes renewable power generation more effective by allowing surplus production to be stored for later use, rather than being lost at times when demand is low.
link: Northland Power (video)
New Mitsubishi EV Has Improved Range and Style
Mitsubishi, which was one of the first mainline automakers to build a production electric vehicle, has unveiled a concept vehicle, the CA-MiEV, which has twice the range of the Nissan LEAF, and three times the range of its own predecessor, the I-MiEV, and it may do so at a lower price.
The CA-MiEV is supplied with a 28 kWh lithium-ion battery and is driven by an 80 kW (107 horsepower) electric motor. It will have a driving range of 300 kilometers (186 miles). It also has a wireless charging system that will allow the vehicle to recharge when parked in its spot, without having to be physically connected to an outlet.
Like many other EVs and hybrids, this also has the ability to connect with a smartphone or tablet so its cabin can be pre-conditioned before the driver arrives, and charging can be managed remotely. Regenerative braking, improved lightweight materials, and a very aerodynamic shape are also all factors in the improved efficiency of the new vehicle.
It's a better looking car than its predecessor, as well, although that is often the case with concept cars. With its far greater range, Mitsubishi is promoting this as a viable suburban EV, rather than just a city vehicle. There is not yet information about when, or if the CA-MiEV will begin production.
link: Mitsubishi Press Release (PDF)
Enhanced Plant Oil Production May Boost Biofuels
A new development using genes from algae to engineer plants to store oils in their leaves could lead to improvements in both biofuel production and the manufacture of animal feed. Researchers from Michigan State University have made plants with oily leaves, which were demonstrated when worms fed these leaves grew fatter than worms fed the unmodified version of the plants.
Most plant oils are stored in the seeds of the plant, and can be difficult to extract. But plants that store oils in their stems and leaves can be more easily processed to extract those oils. They also may produce greater quantities of oil than the original plants.
In addition to the potential use in biofuels, producing plants that store more oils in their leaves could also be a benefit for animal feed. Greater nutrition density from the same amount of crop could help feed more animals from the same area of cropland.
The lead scientist, MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Christoph Benning, stated, "Many researchers are trying to enhance plants’ energy density, and this is another way of approaching it. It’s a proof-of-concept that could be used to boost plants’ oil production for biofuel use as well as improve the nutrition levels of animal feed."
Ongoing research will next move from demonstration of the concept to begin to explore specific applications "to enhance oil production in grasses and algae that have economic value."
image: by Rosendahl/Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain
Electrolysis Catalyst Could Produce Inexpensive Hydrogen
Two Canadian researchers have announced a breakthrough that could produce catalysts for electrolysis at a fraction of current costs. The University of Calgary scientists are working to commecialize their discovery by 2014.
The FireWater Fuel (FFC) catalyst is more efficient at releasing breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, and can be produced at a fraction of the cost of other exotic material catalysts. The FFC catalyst is based on ferrous oxide - rust. And, according to the researchers, the cost could be 1000 times lower than the cost of current materials.
With an efficient and inexpensive means for cracking water into hydrogen and oxygen, the feasibility increases for fuel cell batteries that can readily charge from renewable sources such as wind and solar when those sources are available and then discharge to provide electricity when demand is high.
The electrolytic catalyst is just one of the components that would be required for an entire system, but it has been an exepensive component of the system. With the FFC catalyst, hydrogen power takes another step towards being a greater part of the power mix in the coming years.
via: CBC News
New Record Setting Wind Turbine
A new construction at a test center in Østerild, Denmark has become the largest wind turbine in the world.
Well, that title depends on which criteria determine "largest." If rotor diameter is your rule, Siemens's latest, the SWT-6.0-154, has surpassed the previous holder, the second-generation Enercon E126, by over two dozen feet. While the E126 has approximately a 127-meter rotor diameter, Siemens's new offshore wind turbine boasts a 154-meter rotor diameter--and its immense 75-meter long blades combined with its 4-meter wide hub means a massive swept area of 18,600 square meters.
With a 6MW turbine, under the most optimal conditions, the new model will produce around 65 percent more electricity than earlier models from the company. This SWT-6.0-154 won't be a lonely giant for long; according to Gizmodo, Siemens plans to construct 300 more of these massive machines.
The massive blades for this new turbine are built as a single piece, without heavy fittings and connections, allowing a weight savings of 20 percent. This will likely be a greater benefit for offshore turbines like this, since enormously long single piece blades are hard to transport over land.
The size isn't simply for world-record showiness. The larger the wind turbine, the more energy produced, according to a study by Swiss and Dutch Scientists, accounting for both size and the improved technology over time. Constructing massive offshore wind farms makes scaling up easier and makes harnessing wind energy more cost effective. Since expensive underwater foundations are needed to support these turbines, having larger but fewer wind turbines will reduce production costs.
Image via Siemens
Bacteria May Provide More Sustainable Biofuel Production
Biofuel, like many alternative energy sources that are on the rise, faces its share of criticism. While it sounds ideal to create fuel from plants rather than limited fossil fuels, many methods of producing biofuel come at a high environmental cost all their own. Land used for biofuel production, for example, could be better put to use growing consumable crops instead of “sustainable” power for our cars.
Although biofuels from wood or grass may have a better future than less sustainable sources like corn, they are much more difficult to produce. The first step in turning biomass from grasses, trees, and certain algae into biofuel is getting through lignin, the tough material of their cell walls, and the compound isn’t an easy one to break down.
However there are some bacteria that digest lignin quite well, and harnessing the chomping power of these microorganisms could eventually lead to easier and more sustainable biofuel creation. While researchers at Mississippi State University had focused on identifying the digestive bacteria in panda poop, researchers at Brown University are also studying microorganisms that can break down lignin--and have figured out the chemical switch to start the lignin digestive process in the bacteria Streptomyces.
One of the few microorganisms that can consume lignin, Streptomyces begins the digestion process by releasing enzymes to break lignin down into its constituent compounds. This lignin-derived carbon, which the bacteria uses for growth and reproduction, is also where the magic begins for biofuel production: Streptomyces converts some of it into triglycerides, essential components of biodiesel, as well as other useful compounds. The Brown researchers’ previous work showed which genes encode enzymes to break down one particular compound: protocatechuate. When Streptomyces was grown where protocatechuate was present, PcaV, a protein usually attached to the DNA that stops those genes clusters from encoding, lost its affinity for DNA--and those unblocked genes gave the green light for enzyme production.
While being able to kickstart the lignin digestion process could lead to an easier transformation of woody biomass into biofuel, producing biofuel through Streptomyces on a commercial scale is still a long way away. Nevertheless, this research is a step forward for bacteriology as well as sustainable bioenergy.
Image via Sello lab/Brown University
Mapping a Better Walking Route
We've discussed the pedestrian resource Walk Score before, but there's a new company taking a different angle on rating the walkability of communities. While Walk Score rates addresses, Walkonomics rates streets. The UK-based company has only covered locations in England as well as US cities New York and San Francisco so far, but Walkonomics has the ambitious goal to rate every street in the world, according to criteria that go way beyond distance traveled. Using publically available data and user ratings to fill in the gaps, Walkonomics attempts to account for everything from hilliness and crime statistics to how much fun or relaxing it is to walk in any given area. Eight criteria are rated individually and tallied into a street's total score, so if some factors are more important than others to users, the score's breakdown is readily available.
Adam Davies, the company's founder, envisions Walkonomics will eventually offer customized directions based on each user's needs. Unfortunately, as Pando Daily reports, the company has a long way to go before this is possible. If they continue to rely heavily on publicly available data, opening in places like my small Connecticut city seems to be far off. However, if the company can continue to expand and gain more resources, they'd serve as another widely-available source that helps pedestrians, encourages walking, and emphasizes the importance of designing more pedestrian-friendly communities.
That last one's a stretch, to be sure--of course no app alone can engender or even promote changes in urban design. However, the more pedestrians literally take to the (safe to walk) streets, perhaps the more communities will increase their walkability and make structural changes to accommodate. Any technology that can empower pedestrians seems (pardon the obvious pun) a step in the right direction.
If you happen to live in New York City, San Francisco, England, or plan on walking through these places anytime soon and have a smartphone, you may find some use in their iPhone or Android app. According to their website, they've rated over 600,000 streets in these locations.
image: screen capture via Walkonomics website