BatteryTaking a detailed look inside energy storage systems could help solve potential issues before they arise. A team of researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory are doing just that by imaging the inner workings of a sodium-metal sulfide battery, leading them to understand the cause of degraded performance.

“We discovered that the loss in battery capacity is largely the result of sodium ions entering and leaving iron sulfide—the battery electrode material we studied—during the first charge/discharge cycle,” says Jun Wang, co-author of the study. “The electrochemical reactions involved cause irreversible changes in the microstructure and chemical composition of iron sulfide, which has a high theoretical energy density. By identifying the underlying mechanism limiting its performance, we seek to improve its real energy density.”

Performance degradation in charge/discharge cycles has been the main problem researchers encounter when pursuing sodium-ion battery research. While the battery’s performance points to degradation issues, not much was previously known about what caused this degradation.

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From Bacteria to Electrical Generator

BacteriaThe estimated total number of bacteria of the planet is estimated at five nonillion, and the world of bacteria is stocked with potential, including electrical production.

Researchers from the University of California are looking to tap into some of that potential by looking at “electrogenic” bacteria, which generate current as part of their metabolism. The research team has found a new way to mimic that ability upon non-electrogenic bacteria, opening up opportunities for new developments in sustainable electricity generation and wastewater treatment.

“The concept here is that if we just close the lid of the wastewater treatment tank and then give the bacteria an electrode, they can produce electricity while cleaning the water,” says Zach Rengert, co-first author of the study. “And the amount of electricity they produce will never power anything very big, but it can offset the cost of cleaning water.”

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GridA new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts that as climate change continues to accelerate average temperatures, electrical grids may be unable to meet peak energy needs by the end of the century.

The electrical grid is the central component of energy distribution and consumption. In order to upgrade this massive infrastructure to meet increasing demands, the researchers behind the study estimate nearly $180 billion would have to be invested in the U.S. grid.

This from the study:

As the electricity grid is built to endure maximum load, our findings have significant implications for the construction of costly peak generating capacity.

Read the full paper.

On top of acknowledging the correlation between increasingly hot days and higher demand for electricity (i.e. increased use of air conditioners and other cooling units), the study also acknowledges how the grid could react to this extra demand for electricity during peak hours of the day.

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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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“We all need to understand each other and what we can do together to benefit the greater community.”
-Way Kuo

Way Kuo is president of the City University of Hong Kong. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and Russian Academy of Engineering.

He was the first foreign expert invited to discuss nuclear safety following the Fukushima incident. He argues that a holistic view of energy development is required, one that prioritizes the production and use of reliable energy sources over that of polluting and volatile ones. He maps out a policy that encourages and rewards the conservation of energy and efficiency in energy use.

You can meet Kuo in person at the 231st ECS Meeting this May in New Orleans, LA, where he will deliver the ECS Lecture, entitled “A Risk Look at Energy Development.”

Listen to the podcast and download this episode and others for free through the iTunes Store, SoundCloud, or our RSS Feed. You can also find us on Stitcher.

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HydrogenNew research led by ECS Fellow John Turner, researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, demonstrates a pioneering, efficient way to make renewable hydrogen.

Hydrogen has many highly sought after qualities when he comes to clean energy sources. It is a simple element, high in energy, and produces almost zero pollution when burned. However, while hydrogen is one of the most plentiful elements in the universe, it doesn’t occur naturally as a gas – instead, it’s always combined with other elements. That’s where efforts in water-splitting come in.

If researchers can effectively split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, new branches of hydrogen production could emerge.

Turner and his team are working on a method to boost the longevity of highly efficient photochatodes in photoelectrochemical water-splitting devices.

“Electrochemistry nowadays is really the key,” Turner told ECS during a podcast in 2015. “We have fuel cells, we have electrolyzers, and we have batteries. All of the things going on in transportation and storage, it all comes down to electrochemical energy conversion.”

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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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Waste waterA new study led by ECS member Haluk Beyenal reveals a novel type of cooperative photosynthesis with potential applications in waste treatment and bioenergy production.

The research details a unique metabolic process observed for the first time in a pair of bacteria, which could be used to engineer microbial communities. Beyenal and his team honed in on a bacterium known as Prosthecochloris aestaurii, which is able to photosynthesize by using sunlight and elemental sulfur or hydrogen sulfide.

This from Washington State University:

The researchers noticed that P. aestuarii tended to gather around a carbon electrode, an electricity conductor that they were operating in Hot Lake. The researchers isolated and grew P. aestuarii and determined that, similar to the way half of a battery works, the bacterium is able to grab electrons from a solid electrode and use them for photosynthesis. The pink-colored Geobacter sulfurreducens meanwhile, is known for its ability to convert waste organic matter to electricity in microbial fuel cells. The bacterium is also used in environmental cleanup.

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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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