NuclearMany scientists believe we’re at the tipping point of our energy technology future. With the advancement of new, alternative energy sources, some are left to wonder what will happen to the energy landscape as a whole.

While nuclear power has energized much of the world over the past 50 years, the establishment of new nuclear power plants has been nonexistent in recent times in light of other alternatives such as solar and wind. Now, with California phasing out its last nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon, many are left to wonder just what role nuclear will play in the future of energy.

A turning point

During the oil crisis of the 1970s, global conversations about the future of energy production began to hit the mainstream. If fossil fuels don’t warrant consistent dependency, how would the U.S. power future generations? The answer: nuclear.

“At that time we were thinking we’d build up these nuclear power plants everywhere and they would provide free electricity because it would just be too cheap to meter,” ECS Secretary Jim Fenton previously told ECS.

The thought was nuclear could provide such cheap and plentiful amounts of energy that not only would it be free to the consumer, but there would be an overproduction. This encouraged new research in devices such as flow batteries to store this excess energy.

But those expectations turned out to be wrong.

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solarA team of researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in collaboration with a team from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has developed a method to improve perovskite solar cells – raising both efficiency and reliability levels while make them easier to produce.

Perovskite cells have become one of the more promising technologies in the future of energy. In 2010, the young technology functioned at under 4 percent efficiency. Fast-forward to 2016, and researchers and showing efficiency levels of upwards of 20 percent.

However, it’s been difficult to produce these cells and the lack of stability and dependability has become a focal issue.

This from NREL:

The research involved hybrid halide perovskite solar cells and revealed treating them with a specific solution of methyl ammonium bromide (MABr) would repair defects, improving efficiency. The scientists converted a low-quality perovskite film with pinholes and small grains into a high-quality film without pinholes and with large grains. Doing so boosted the efficiency of the perovskite film in converting sunlight to 19 percent.

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Energy GridA new study published by researchers from Michigan State University reveals a new biofilm that can feed on waste and produce energy as a byproduct.

The novel biofilm was discovered and patented by ECS member and Science for Solving Society’s Problems grantee Gemma Reguera.

(MORE: Listen to our Science for Solving Society’s Problems Round Table podcast to hear how Reguera is applying microbial science to solving pressing issues in water and sanitation.)

Reguera’s biofilm works in a way very similar to the electric grid, where each cell acts as an individual power plant – generating electricity to be delivered to the underlying electrodes using a sophisticated microbial network. One part of that network, the cytochromes, act as transformers and towers that supply electricity to a city. The other part, the pili, acts as the powerlines connecting the towers so all have access to the grid.

“The pili do all of the work after the first 10 layers, and allow the cells to continue to grow on the electrode, sometimes beyond 200 cell layers, while generating electricity,” Reguera says, associate professor of microbiology at Michigan State University. “This is the first study to show how electrons can travel such long distances across thick biofilms; the pili are truly like powerlines, at the nanoscale.”

Each individual part of the biofilm is essential to the development of the working whole, much like the power grid.

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Lithium-oxygen battery

Image: MIT

New lithium-oxygen battery technology proposed by researchers from MIT, Argonne National Laboratory, and Peaking University, promises a scalable, cheap, and safe option in energy storage.

There is immense promise for lithium-oxygen batteries in such applications as electric cars and portable electronics. In fact, they are between five and 15 times more efficient than lithium-ion batteries in transportation applications due to their high energy output potential in proportion to their weight.

But there have been complications in developing and especially implementing these batteries in the marketplace. Primarily, they’ve been known to waste energy and degrade quickly.

But this new study, co-authored by ECS member and past IMLB chair Khalil Amine, states that the theoretical potential for lithium-oxygen batteries could be met while overcoming some of the biggest barriers prohibiting the technology.

Once of the primary focuses of the group was overcoming the mismatch in voltages that happens in charging and discharging the battery. Because the output voltage is more than 1.2 volts lower that that used to charge, there is typically a significant power loss.

“You waste 30 percent of the electrical energy as heat in charging,” says Ju Li, professor at MIT and co-author of the paper. “It can actually burn if you charge it too fast.”

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Two researchers from Cornell University recently put forward research describing their development of an aluminum-based electrochemical cell that has the potential to capture carbon emissions while simultaneously generating electricity.

Globally, carbon dioxide is the number one contributor to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions accelerate climate change, leading to such devastating effects as rising sea levels that can dislocate families and radical local climates that hurt food production levels.

(MORE: Read past meeting abstracts by co-author of the research, Lynden A. Archer, for free.)

While there have been efforts to reduce the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere, the current levels are still far too high. Because of this, some researchers – including the duo from Cornell – have turned their attention to capturing carbon.

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Grass could become an affordable source of clean, renewable energy, according to a team of researchers from Cardiff University.

A recently published study states that significant amounts of hydrogen could be extracted from grass with the help of sunlight and a cheap catalyst.

This from Cardiff University:

It is the first time that this method has been demonstrated and could potentially lead to a sustainable way of producing hydrogen, which has enormous potential in the renewable energy industry due to its high energy content and the fact that it does not release toxic or greenhouse gases when it is burnt.

Read the full article.

“Hydrogen is seen as an important future energy carrier as the world moves from fossil fuels to renewable feedstocks,” says Michael Bowker, co-author of the study, “and our research has shown that even garden grass could be a good way of getting hold of it.”

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Does this summer feel a little warmer than usual? Well, that’s because it is.

According to NASA, the first six months of 2016 have been the warmest half-year ever recorded. Pair that with the smallest monthly Artic Sea ice extent in that same period of time, and these two indicators give a grim image of the accelerating pace of climate change.

In a report, NASA states that the global temperature has increased by 2.4°F since record keeping began in the 1800s. Additionally, Artic Sea ice has been declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade.

“It has been a record year so far for global temperatures, but the record high temperatures in the Arctic over the past six months have been even more extreme,” says Walt Mkeier, a sea ice researcher with NASA. “This warmth as well as unusual weather patterns have led to the record low sea ice extents so far this year.”

If climate continues down this same path, the effects could be devastating for the world. However, electrochemical and solid state science may have some of the answers to mitigate climate change.

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As the landscape of energy harvesting evolves, so do the devices that store that energy. According to researchers from Toyohashi University, all-solid-state lithium rechargeable batteries are at the top of the list of promising future energy storage technologies due to their high energy density, safety, and extreme cycle stability.

ECS member Yoji Sakurai and a team from the university’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Information Engineering recently published a paper detailing their development to advance the all-solid-state batteries, which pushes past barriers related to electrochemical performance.

(MORE: Read Sakurai’s previously published paper in ECS Electrochemistry Letters.)

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Fuel cells have existed (at least in theory) since the early 1800s, but have spent much of their existence as laboratory curiosities. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that fuel cells finally got their time in the spotlight with the first major application in the Gemini and Apollo space flights.

While fuel cells have moved forward in the competitive field of energy storage, there are still many barriers that researchers are attempting to overcome. Especially today, with society making a conscious effort to move toward more sustainable types of power, much emphasis has been put on solid oxide fuel cells and moving them from the lab to the market.

(MORE: Get additional information on the evolution of fuel cell technology.)

A team of researchers from Washington State University believes they may have taken a crucial step in doing just that.

Moving fuel cells forward

The team recently published a paper detailing what they believe to be a key step in SOFC improvement and eventually implementation in the marketplace. These small improvements could mean big changes.
SOFCs, unlike other types of fuel cells, do not require the use of expensive materials (i.e. platinum) to develop.

“Solid oxide fuel cells are very fuel flexible in contrast to other kinds of fuel cells, like alkaline fuel cells,” Subhash Singhal, Battelle Fellow Emeritus at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and esteemed fuel cell expert, told ECS in a previous interview. “Solid oxide fuel cells can use a variety of fuel: natural gas, coal gas, and even liquid fuels like diesel and gasoline.”

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A new breakthrough in the measurement of solar energy flow has emerged from Lund University.

For the first time ever, researchers have successfully demonstrated the accurate measurement of solar energy in and between different parts of a photosynthetic organism. Gaining this basic understanding could potentially open doors to the development of solar energy technologies with much higher efficiency levels.

Researchers have known about the photochemical reactions inside organisms for over 80 years, but have not understood exactly how solar energy is transported to the organism.

“Not even the best solar cells that we as humans are capable of producing can be compared to what nature performs in the first stages of energy conversion,” says Donatas Zigmantas, co-author of the study. “That is why new knowledge about photosynthesis will become useful for the development of future solar technologies.”

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