Microbial fuel cell

Image: University illustration / Michael Osadciw

Many researchers agree that microbial fuel cells have a range of promising applications. However, before they can reach widespread applications, researchers need to make them both cheaper and more efficient.

A team of researchers from the University of Rochester believe they’re making progress on that front with the development of a paper electrode.

Microbial fuel cells drive electric current by using bacteria and mirroring bacterial interactions found in nature. In the 21st century, microbial fuel cells found new application in their ability to treat wastewater and harvest energy through anaerobic digestion.

This from University of Rochester:

Until now, most electrodes used in wastewater have consisted of metal (which rapidly corrodes) or carbon felt. While the latter is the less expensive alternative, carbon felt is porous and prone to clogging. Their solution was to replace the carbon felt with paper coated with carbon paste, which is a simple mixture of graphite and mineral oil. The carbon paste-paper electrode is not only cost-effective and easy to prepare; it also outperforms carbon felt.

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Solar-powered Water Purifier

Water purificationIn an effort to purify water, researchers from the University at Buffalo are using carbon-dipped paper to make dirty water drinkable.

Those behind the research believe this new development could be a cheap and efficient way to address a global shortage in drinking water, specifically in developing areas.

(MORE: See what ECS members are doing to address global water and sanitation issues.)

“Using extremely low-cost materials, we have been able to create a system that makes near maximum use of the solar energy during evaporation,” says Qiaoqiang Gan, lead researcher. “At the same time, we are minimizing the amount of heat loss during this process.”

This from University at Buffalo:

The team built a small-scale solar still. The device, which they call a “solar vapor generator,” cleans or desalinates water by using the heat converted from sunlight. Here’s how it works: The sun evaporates the water. During this process, salt, bacteria, or other unwanted elements are left behind as the liquid moves into a gaseous state. The water vapor then cools and returns to a liquid state, where it is collected in a separate container without the salt or contaminants.

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Plastic treeNew technology that mimics the branches and leaves of a cottonwood tree can generate electricity with the help of the wind.

Researchers say that the new technology is not meant to be a replacement for wind turbines, but could offer an alternative electricity source for those looking for small, unobtrusive machines to transform wind into energy.

“The possible advantages here are aesthetics and its smaller scale, which may allow off-grid energy harvesting,” says Michael McCloskey, co-author of the study. “We set out to answer the question of whether you can get useful amounts of electrical power out of something that looks like a plant. The answer is ‘possibly,’ but the idea will require further development.”

On top of efficiency and affordability, consumers are also looking for alternative energy technologies to be aesthetically attractive, as demonstrated in Tesla’s solar roof.

According to McCloskey, cell phone towers in urban locations are sometimes camouflaged as trees to offer better aesthetic properties. The researchers believe that towers such as this, which already host fake leaves, could be greatly improved by implementing this technology to tap energy from the leaves and provide further functionality.

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By: William Messner, Tufts University

Driverless carWhen a May 2016 crash killed the person operating a Tesla Model S driving in Autopilot mode, advocates of autonomous vehicles feared a slowdown in development of self-driving cars.

Instead the opposite has occurred. In August, Ford publicly committed to field self-driving cars by 2021. In September, Uber began picking up passengers with self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, albeit with safety drivers ready to take over.

October saw Tesla itself undeterred by the fatality. The company began producing cars it said had all the hardware needed for autonomous operation; the software will be written and added later. In December, days after Michigan established regulations for testing autonomous vehicles in December, General Motors started doing just that with self-driving Chevy Bolts. And just one day before the end of his term, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx designated 10 research centers as official test sites for automated vehicle systems.

Three of the most significant developments in the industry happened earlier this month. The 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit saw automakers new and old (and their suppliers) show off their plans and innovations in this arena. And the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its report on the Tesla fatality. Together, they suggest a future filled with driverless cars that are both safer than today’s vehicles and radically different in appearance and comfort.

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ToyotaThe ECS Toyota Young Investigator Fellowship kicked off in 2014, establishing a partnership between The Electrochemical Society and Toyota Research Institute of North America, aimed at funding young scholars pursuing innovative research in green energy technology.

The proposal deadline for the year’s fellowship is Jan. 31, 2017. Apply now!

While you put together your proposals, check out what Patrick Cappillino, one of the fellowship’s inaugural winners, says about his experience with the fellowship and the opportunities it presented.


The Electrochemical Society: Your proposed topic for the ECS Young Investigator Toyota Fellowship was “Mushroom-derived Natural Products as Flow Battery Electrolytes.” What inspired that work?

Patrick Cappillino: This research was inspired by a conversation with a colleague. I was relating the problem of redox instability in flow battery electrolytes. He told me his doctoral work had focused on an interesting molecule called Amavadin, produced by mushrooms, that was extremely stable and easy to make. The lightbulb really went off when we noticed that the starting material was the decomposition product of another flow battery electrolyte that has problems with instability.

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Catalysts

Image: MIT

The future of renewable energy heavily depends on energy storage technologies. At the center of these technologies are oxygen-evaluation reactions, which make possible such processes as water splitting, electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction, and ammonia production.

However, the kinetics of the oxygen-evolution reactions tend to be slow. But metal oxides involved in this process have catalytic activities that vary over several orders of magnitude, with some exhibiting the highest such rates reported to date. The origins of these activates are not well-understood by the scientific community.

A new study from MIT, led by 2016 winner of the Battery Division Research Award, Yang Shao-Horn, shows that in some of these catalysts, the oxygen does not only come from surrounding water molecules – some actually come from within the crystal lattice of the catalyst material itself.

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BiofuelBiofuels have become a promising potential alternative for traditional fossil fuels. However, producing biofules only make sense if the greenhouse gasses emitted are less than other means of producing energy.

According to new research, sugarcane and nepiegrass could be two of the most promising candidates for biofuel production due to their ability to isolate more carbon dioxide in the soil than is lost in the atmosphere.

Sugarcane and nepiegrass both have large carbon-storing root biomass that can offset the carbon dioxide emitted during cultivation. To test this, researchers observed these plants in Hawaii over a two year period, measuring both the above- and below-ground biomass and resulting greenhouse gas flux.

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Renewable liquid fuelRenewable energy is on the rise, but how we store that energy is still up for debate.

“Renewable energy is growing, but it’s intermittent,” says Grigorii Soloveichik, program director at the United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. “That means we need to store that energy and we have two ways to do that: electricity or liquid fuels.”

According to Soloveichik, electricity and batteries are sufficient for short term energy storage, but new technologies such as liquid fuels derived from renewable energy must be considered for long term storage.

During the PRiME 2016 meeting in October, Soloveichik presented a talk titled, “Development of Transformational Technologies,” where he described the advantages that carbon neutral liquid fuels have over other convention means – such as batteries – for efficient, affordable, long term storage for renewable energy sources.

Rise of renewables

In the United States, 16.9 percent of electricity generation comes from renewables – a 9.3 percent increase since 2015. Globally, climate talks such as the Paris Agreement help bolster the rise of renewable energy around the world. Soloveichik expects that growth to continue in light of the affordability of clean energy technologies and government mandates that aim at environmental protection and a reduction of the carbon footprint. However, the continued rise in renewable dependence will impact the current grid infrastructure.

“More renewables will result in more stress on the grid,” Soloveichik says. “All of these new sources are intermittent, so we need to be able to store huge amounts of energy.”

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EnergyBill Gates is taking climate change head on with his newly formed Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund. Gates is leading the fund along with a network of investors worth $170 billion, including Virgin’s Richard Branson and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

BEV will donate more than $1 billion into clean energy innovation projects over the next 20 years, focusing on its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Anything that leads to cheap, clean, reliable energy we’re open-minded to,” Gates says.

This move by Gates comes after his commitment last year to personally invest an additional $1 billion into clean energy.

However, this move will shift Gates away from his home turf of information technology.

“People think you can just put $50 million in and wait two years and then you know what you got,” Gates says. “In this energy space, that’s not true at all.”

A driving force behind the fund is to take innovative new technologies from the lab to the marketplace. Currently, the federal government funds a huge percentage of fundamental research efforts in fields such as energy storage, which are the subsequently commercialized by private investors.

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Flow batteryA team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University is building a flow battery prototype to provide cleaner, cheaper power.

The team, co-led by ECS member Bob Savinell, is working to scale up the technology in order develop a practical, efficient energy storage device that can store excess electricity and potentially augment the grid in light of a shift toward renewables.

With a $1.17 million federal grant, the team has started to build a 1-kilowatt prototype with enough power to run various, high-powered household devices for six hours.

“Intermittent energy sources, such as solar and wind, combined with traditional sources of coal and nuclear power, are powering the grid. To meet peak demand, we often use less-efficient coal or gas-powered turbines,” says Savinell, ECS Fellow and editor of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society. “But if we can store excess energy and make it available at peak use, we can increase the overall efficiency and decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and lower the cost of electricity.”

One of the biggest barriers preventing the large-scale use of electrochemical energy storage devices has been the cost. To address this, Savinell and his team have been developing the flow battery with cheaper materials, such as iron and water.

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