ARPA-EIn a recent post by Bill Gates, the business magnate identified the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, more commonly known as ARPA-E, as his favorite obscure government agency.

Gates cited the agency as a key in solving pressing energy issues, referencing his faith in ARPA-E as demonstrated through his involvement in the $1 billion investment funding created in 2016 through Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV).

BEV was developed as an initiative to provide affordable, clean energy to people across the globe. In order to make that energy future possible, Gates and his partners at BEV knew they would have to depend on public, government funded research.

Since its establishment in 2009 under then U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, ARPA-E has acted as an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy that can help deliver the highly innovative technology that ventures like BEV depend on. From the agency’s REFUEL program, which promotes the development of carbon-neutral fuels to BEEST, funding research in energy storage for transportation, ARPA-E funds high-risk, high-reward endeavors capable of transforming energy landscapes.

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Safer Batteries with Nanodiamonds

BatterySafety concerns regarding lithium-ion batteries have been making headlines in light of smartphone fires and hoverboard explosions. In order to combat safety issues, at team of researchers from Drexel University, led by ECS member Yury Gogotsi, has developed a way to transform a battery’s electrolyte solution into a safeguard against the chemical process that leads to battery fires.

Dendrites – or battery buildups caused by the chemical reactions inside the battery – have been cited as one of the main causes of lithium-ion battery malfunction. As more dendrites compile over time, they can breach the battery’s separator, resulting in malfunction.

(MORE: Read more research by Gogotsi in the ECS Digital Library.)

As part of their solution to this problem, the research team is using nanodiamonds to curtail the electrochemical deposition that leads to the short-circuiting of lithium-ion batteries. To put it in perspective, nanodiamond particles are roughly 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a single hair.

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Renewable grideThe U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a report Wednesday night on electricity markets and grid reliability, stating that the decline in coal and nuclear production has not impacted grid reliability, instead the rise in a diverse energy portfolio has increased the grid’s stability.

The study, commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April, also states that coal plant closures across the country have been due to market pressure and competition from low-priced natural gas plants, not policy changes that support renewables such as wind and solar.

(MORE: Listen to our interview with former U.S. Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu.)

“America is also fortunate to have a variety of fuel sources. We need to consider how to use each effectively while recognizing our differences and unique state and regional circumstances,” Perry says in the report’s cover letter. “We must utilize the most effective combination of energy sources with an ‘all of the above’ approach to achieve long-term, reliable American energy security.”

While the report does not state that there is a current concern with grid reliability, it does warn that future problems could arise if coal and nuclear plants continue to close at the current rate. Many environmental advocates cite this as a last-ditch effort for these companies to remain relevant in the energy landscape. However, the report does go on to highlight the role of renewables in developing a diverse energy infrastructure.

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BiofuelResearchers have created a new method to more efficiently convert potato waste into ethanol. The findings may lead to reduced production costs for biofuel in the future and add extra value for chip makers.

Using potato mash made from the peelings and potato residuals from a Pennsylvania food-processing company, researchers triggered simultaneous saccharification—the process of breaking down the complex carbohydrate starch into simple sugars—and fermentation—the process in which sugars are converted to ethanol by yeasts or other microorganisms in bioreactors.

The simultaneous nature of the process was innovative, according to researcher Ali Demirci, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State. The addition to the bioreactor of mold and yeast—Aspergillus niger and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, respectively—catalyzed the conversion of potato waste to bioethanol.

The bioreactor had plastic composite supports to encourage and enhance biofilm formation and to increase the microbial population. Biofilms are a natural way of immobilizing microbial cells on a solid support material. In a biofilm environment, microbial cells are abundant and more resistant to environmental stress causing higher productivities.

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Juan Pablo EsquivelIn its first Science for Solving Society’s Problems Challenge, ECS partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to leverage the brainpower of electrochemists and solid state scientists, working to find innovative research solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues in water and sanitation. A total of seven projects were selected, resulting in a grand total of $360,000 in funding.

The researchers behind one of those projects recently published an open access paper in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society discussing their results in pursuing a single-use, biodegradable and sustainable battery that minimizes waste. The paper, “Evaluation of Redox Chemistries for Single-Use Biodegradable Capillary Flow Batteries,” was published August 18 and authored by Omar Ibrahim, Perla Alday, Neus Sabaté, Juan Pablo Esquivel (pictured with prototype at right), and Erik Kjeang.

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Carbon dioxideWhile pursing work on the highly desirable but technically challenging lithium-air battery, researchers unexpectedly discovered a new way to capture and store carbon dioxide. Upon creating a design for a lithium-CO2 battery, the research team found a way to isolate solid carbon dust from gaseous carbon dioxide, all while being able to separate oxygen.

As global industry, technology, and transportation grows, the consumption of fossil fuels has increased. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the burning of petroleum-based products has resulted in 6,587 million of metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the environment in 2015. The emission of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere, which researches have linked the global warming. Because of this, capturing and converting carbon emissions has become a highly researched area.

“The problem with most physical and chemical pathways for CO2 fixation is that their products are gases and liquids that need to be further liquefied or compressed, and that inevitably leads to additional energy consumption and even more CO2 emissions,” says Haoshen Zhou, senior author of the recently published research. “Instead, we are demonstrating an electrochemical strategy for CO2 fixation that yields solid carbon products, as well as a lithium-CO2 battery that can provide the energy necessary for that process.”

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By: Timothy H. Dixon, University of South Florida

Climate marchThis summer I worked on the Greenland ice sheet, part of a scientific experiment to study surface melting and its contribution to Greenland’s accelerating ice losses. By virtue of its size, elevation and currently frozen state, Greenland has the potential to cause large and rapid increases to sea level as it melts.

When I returned, a nonscientist friend asked me what the research showed about future sea level rise. He was disappointed that I couldn’t say anything definite, since it will take several years to analyze the data. This kind of time lag is common in science, but it can make communicating the issues difficult. That’s especially true for climate change, where decades of data collection may be required to see trends.

A recent draft report on climate change by federal scientists exploits data captured over many decades to assess recent changes, and warns of a dire future if we don’t change our ways. Yet few countries are aggressively reducing their emissions in a way scientists say are needed to avoid the dangers of climate change.

While this lack of progress dismays people, it’s actually understandable. Human beings have evolved to focus on immediate threats. We have a tough time dealing with risks that have time lags of decades or even centuries. As a geoscientist, I’m used to thinking on much longer time scales, but I recognize that most people are not. I see several kinds of time lags associated with climate change debates. It’s important to understand these time lags and how they interact if we hope to make progress.

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Lithium-ionResearchers have found a new method for finding lithium, used in the lithium-ion batteries that power modern electronics, in supervolcanic lake deposits.

While most of the lithium used to make batteries comes from Australia and Chile, but scientists say there are large deposits in sources right here in America: supervolcanoes.

In a recently published study, scientists detail a new method for locating lithium in supervolcanic lake deposits.

The findings represent an important step toward diversifying the supply of this valuable silvery-white metal, since lithium is an energy-critical strategic resource, says study coauthor Gail Mahood, a professor of geological sciences at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

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Bacteria-powered Paper Battery

Batteries made of lemons and oranges have been gracing grade school laboratories for years. In addition to fruit-based batteries, now you can make a battery using spit.

The new paper-based bacteria-powered battery can be activated with a single drop of saliva, generating enough power to power an LED light for around 20 minutes.

“The battery includes specialized bacterial cells, called exoelectrogens, which have the ability to harvest electrons externally to the outside electrode,” Seokheun Choi, co-author of the new study, tells Nexus Media. “For the long-term storage, the bacterial cells are freeze-dried until use. This battery can even be used in challenging environmental conditions like desert areas. All you need is an organic matter to rehydrate and activate the freeze-dried cells.”

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Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) are taking a closer look at fuel cell catalysts in hopes of finding a viable alternative to the expensive platinum and platinum-group metal catalysts currently used in fuel cell electrodes. Developments in this area could lead to more affordable next-generation polymer electrolyte fuel cells for vehicles.

The research, led by ECS fellow Piotr Zelenay, looks at the fuel cell catalysts at the atomic level, providing unique insight into the efficiency of non-precious metals for automotive and other applications.

“What makes this exploration especially important is that it enhances our understanding of exactly why these alternative catalysts are active,” Zelenay says. “We’ve been advancing the field, but without understanding the sources of activity; without the structural and functional insights, further progress was going to be very difficult.”

This from LANL:

Platinum aids in both the electrocatalytic oxidation of hydrogen fuel at the anode and electrocatalytic reduction of oxygen from air at the cathode, producing usable electricity. Finding a viable, low-cost PGM-free catalyst alternative is becoming more and more possible, but understanding exactly where and how catalysis is occurring in these new materials has been a long-standing challenge. This is true, Zelenay noted, especially in the fuel cell cathode, where a relatively slow oxygen reduction reaction, or ORR, takes place that requires significant ‘loading’ of platinum.

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