EarthTechling Tue, 01 Sep 2015 16:03:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Could our Future World be Made of CO2 from Air? Tue, 01 Sep 2015 16:03:37 +0000  

via FlickR under Creative Commons

via FlickR under Creative Commons

Researchers at George Washington University in Washington, DC have devised a way to pull CO2 out of air and turn the carbon into carbon nanofibers, the wonder material that now makes racing bikes and other high tech sporting goods so lightweight.

Being able to make carbon fiber out of air, using less energy, has impressed other researchers for its much more economical and climate-friendly technique.d

The way carbon nanofibers are made now uses a lot of energy to heat up concentrated carbon to 1,380° F (750° C). It involves a complex procedure using vapor deposition. The carbon is heated to turn it into gas, and then cooled to form the fibers.

Heated with Solar Energy

But Professor Stuart Licht and graduate students Jessica Stuart and Jason Lau at George Washington University have developed an electrochemical process to simply extract CO2 from the air, heat it using solar energy instead of fossil fuels to liquify it and then apply a small electrical current to pull out the carbon nanofibers.

Because this uses so little energy, and that from solar power; a clean energy source, and simply pulls CO2 directly from the air as the feedstock; this is a real breakthrough.

Carbon fibers from CO2 in air

Image credit: 21st Centech

Their discovery is published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) (August, 2015) A new approach to carbon dioxide utilization: The carbon molten air battery. Licht, H Wu et al. 

Other researchers, however, say that at least for now, the market for carbon nanofibers is insufficient to create a market reason to pull CO2 from the atmosphere, because current uses for carbon nanofibers require less than a million tons while the excess carbon in the global atmosphere is in the billions of tons.

And they have a point – for now… the market for – currently very expensive – carbon nanofibers is fairly small. It is used to build lightweight racing cars, the blades for wind turbines, and to construct much more energy-efficient airplanes.

Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment scoffed at the idea that this market would ever be on a large enough scale to make a difference to the global climate problem of escalating amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere slowly blanketing earth with a greenhouse effect.

“If it isn’t in the billions of tons of carbon, I’m not interested from a climate perspective.” he told Inside Climate News.


Image credit: Skyscraper City

Carbon fiber is the raw material to make super-strong, super lightweight composites that are stronger and lighter than steel.

Currently, none of our bridges and skyscrapers, high-speed trains, cargo ships, mars landers, freeways, boats, cars and space ships are made from carbon fibers.

The way that carbon fibers are made now, from concentrated carbon, using fossil fuels, this would be far too expensive.

So it is a just niche market now.

But of course, we have seen how the stuff things are made of can change over time. We don’t make roofs from straw any more, or make shoes and false teeth and the calculator beads on an abacus for computing out of wood.

If there was a good reason to switch, wouldn’t it make sense to change what we make a lot of our things out of. Especially if there was suddenly a way to make them cheaper?

There is already a rather big ‘market’ reason to pull CO2 from air; having a liveable climate for the next few thousand years. So this could be a world-changing discovery; because this new technique for making the carbon nanofibers is so economical.

Credit: Carbon fiber made from air could be used to build a space elevator

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LEDs Are Changing the Look of Indoor Farming Mon, 31 Aug 2015 12:30:00 +0000
Plants growing indoors under LEDs

Plants growing indoors under LEDs

Indoor farming isn’t a new concept, but bringing LEDs into it is making the process more cost-effective.

Traditional farmers are hostages to the weather. Drought, flood, or an early frost can destroy entire harvests and cost the agricultural sector millions of dollars in lost revenue. Bringing crops indoors can remove some of the risks of working in an unpredictable environment: since an indoor farm doesn’t need the sun at all, it can be set up anywhere. Unlike familiar sprawling greenhouses, modern indoor farming makes use of the vertical axis. Stacking plants on tall racks of well-lit shelves provides layer after layer of productive growing space.

The compact nature of LED lighting allows producers to pack many more bulbs into a smaller space, leaving more room for valuable plants. Energy-efficient LEDs emit much less heat than traditional incandescent lights, and can safely be placed much closer to the plants. That makes it possible for growing racks to be squeezed closer together, boosting productivity per square foot. Eliminating extra heat also means buildings housing indoor farms don’t need to be as heavily cooled, lowering energy use and operating costs.

Growing crops in indoor vertical spaces makes it possible to move farms closer to the populations they feed. It’s easier to eat local and keep your carbon footprint smaller if you’re able to get fresh veggies to your table without needing them brought in by a fleet of gasoline-powered trucks. If the local farm is in a 20-story building down the block, instead of a 20-mile drive out-of-town, it’s that much more accessible.

Astronaut Steve Swanson and the Veggie module aboard the ISS

Astronaut Steve Swanson and the Veggie module aboard the ISS

Using LED Science to Maximize Yield

It’s easy to control light color with LED bulbs, so a producer can target the ideal wavelength for a specific crop. Years of research have gone into pinpointing the best type of light for indoor crop production, because agriculture is big business and if we’re going to continue feeding the growing global population, we’ll need to be working as efficiently as possible. It turns out that the sugar-producing chlorophyll in plants absorbs pink light best (the absorption peak is ~660 nanometers), but adding a small amount of blue light to it gets the best results. Why use a broad-spectrum light on your plants and waste all those other wavelengths, when you can install rows of purple LEDs and give the plants exactly what they need?

Space exploration stands to benefit from LED-lit farming, because if we’re ever going to get astronauts to Mars or beyond, they’re going to need to grow some of their own food. Seeds weigh less than plants and are cheaper to send up into orbit, so NASA has been running experiments to see whether edible plants can be efficiently grown in space. NASA’s Vegetable Production System (Veggie) experiment had astronauts growing red romaine lettuce under magenta LEDs on the International Space Station. The experiment was a success, and crew members of ISS Expedition 44 enjoyed their first zero-gravity salad in August. The team reported that it tasted “fresh,” and with that success NASA plans to expand their experiments to other vegetables in the near future.


Photo credits: via Wikimedia under Creative Commons License


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New Device Lets You Access Solar Power Without Panels Tue, 25 Aug 2015 13:30:11 +0000 SunPort Device

SunPort Device

A new Kickstarter project is hoping to shift more people into using solar power, one plug at a time.

The SunPort device separates the production and consumption of solar energy, so that everyone who wants to use more solar power can do so without producing it themselves.

Solar panels are a fantastic energy source, but are not available to everyone (renters, those with low credit scores, or people who live in something other than single-family homes). Some government initiatives are encouraging development of shared solar installations, so many who couldn’t otherwise install solar panels can still benefit from them, but a new gadget promises immediate access to solar energy without installing any panels. It’s called a SunPort, and its developers are running a Kickstarter campaign to get production underway.

A SunPort device doesn’t increase the actual amount of solar energy coming out of the plugs in your home, but it gives you preferential access to it. Once electricity is generated and fed into the electrical grid, solar power is indistinguishable from all other types. What this device proposes to do is allow American consumers to make use of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs), each of which represents a thousand kilowatt-hours (kWh) of solar energy produced by an eligible solar installation. These certificates were designed to be traded and sold between energy producers and industry, as a way to promote more solar power production. Every time an SREC is purchased from an energy producer, it’s encouraging the production of solar power over other methods. Businesses who claim to be run on 100% renewable energy do so by buying up SRECs.

SunPort Device

Making Solar Power Easier to Purchase

A 1000 KWh SREC is more than the average consumer can purchase, but that’s where SunPort is trying to make a difference. With the help of a nonprofit organization called ReChoice, they’re acquiring SECs and breaking them up into fractions they’ve called SunJoules. When you power a device through your SunPort, it measures your energy use and converts it into SunJoules, each of which is equivalent to 1 kilojoule (kJ) of energy taken from the grid. For every kilojoule of energy fed through a SunPort device, a SunJoule is retired from the pool. It’s a small amount, but the SunJoules all add up to SRECs, and the more of those that are purchased from energy producers, the more solar power they’re encouraged (and funded) to make.

Buying up SRECs also sends a message to the market that there’s a demand for this sort of clean energy. Without a system like the SunJoules to make it possible for individual consumers to vote with their wallets, only big corporations like Starbucks and Google could claim to be 100% renewably-powered. There’s an annual fee associated with using a SunPort, which funds the purchase of SRECs for the SunJoule pool. But if clean energy matters to you, this is one way to tell the energy companies. Your extra money helps the solar energy producers keep producing, and shows others that there’s a demand to be met and a profit to be made.

Via and

Image courtesy of SunPort, used with permission


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Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign Pushes Ambitious Green Energy Goals Sun, 23 Aug 2015 13:30:39 +0000

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton has made renewable energy a big part of her election platform, and has some very ambitious plans to reshape the energy landscape of the United States.

As the 2016 election season approaches and the presidential hopefuls start attracting more and more media attention, they’re making big promises about how they will move the country forward if they are elected to office. Energy policy is an important part of any candidate’s platform, and Hillary Clinton has shown her green side by setting ambitious renewable energy goals right from the start. Her energy policy aims to “combat climate change, create jobs, protect the health of American families and communities, and make the United States the world’s clean energy superpower.” She’s already put forward her first two specific goals in a campaign ad on YouTube: to have over half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of her first term as president, and to generate enough energy from renewable sources to power every home in America within 10 years of her taking office.

Her proposed expansion of solar power would mean an increase of 700% in the amount of installed solar capacity in the United States, roughly the equivalent of having rooftop solar installations on 25 million homes. And her plan to add more solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal power to the national grid will make the country less dependent on any one form of energy. Diversifying the country’s energy sources is a necessary step towards reducing fossil fuel consumption and its associated environmental impacts.

Engaging America in the Climate Problem

While some other candidates continue to deny that there’s a looming climate crisis, Clinton is going beyond green energy and taking aim at climate change. Her agenda calls for scaling back coal production, reducing oil consumption, and making fossil fuel production safer and cleaner. It also pushes for investment in research and development of infrastructure improvements, energy storage technologies, and carbon capture and sequestration.

She’ll have more to say in the coming months about how she plans to achieve those goals, but it’s clear that she isn’t expecting the federal government to do all the heavy lifting. She also wants to launch a Clean Energy Challenge, getting individual states, cities, and rural communities involved in improving the electrical grid and cleaning up the country’s energy profile. The plan is still light on concrete details, but the Challenge will include competitive grants for communities that exceed the current federal carbon pollution standards, and solar “X-prizes” for communities who can get solar projects working quickly and cost-effectively.

In election campaign season, promises and proposals are often thick with optimism while light on practical details. Hillary Clinton’s renewable energy and climate agenda is full of big, important steps towards cleaner energy and a healthier planet, but it’s not quite clear yet how these steps can be achieved. Hopefully her campaign will move quickly from a list of commendable goals to a concrete action plan – we like where she’s trying to take us, but it’s important to understand how she’s going to get us there.


Photo via FlickR

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Solar Desalination to Ramp up in California Tue, 18 Aug 2015 15:17:13 +0000 WaterFX pilot

For making steam, solar thermal is already cheaper than fossil fuels. Desalination puts this cheap steam tech to great use.

An innovative solar thermal desalination project in California will clean agricultural water through solar distillation, using the sun’s heat to evaporate out selenium and other agricultural impurities that build up in drainage water.

“We are efficiently boiling the water and separating the steam and then condensing it,” WaterFX founder Aaron Mandell told EarthTechling.

“But the key to what we’re doing is having the energy coming from solar rather than burning fossil fuels.”

Boiling water to make steam using sunlight for the distillation process is much cheaper than traditional desalination, which takes a lot of energy. There is no power block needed, as there is in fossil-fueled electricity. The steam is simply used directly in a solar still to evaporate out the waste.

Using solar thermal energy to make steam is even cheaper than solar thermal energy used to make electricity – because there are no turbines.

“When you remove the power block the troughs get pretty inexpensive and the type of trough we’re using doesn’t have mirrors,” he said. “They’re basically aluminium sheets that have a very thin film on them which makes them less expensive.”

SkyFuel makes the thin film trough for WaterFX

This kind of solar, using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat to boil water, is different from solar PV which turns photons of light into electrons to make electricity directly.

Instead of using traditional fossil-fueled desalination, WaterFX will harvest this heat by reflecting it onto a pipe carrying water heated by sunlight reflected off of super lightweight parabolic trough-shaped reflective sheets of aluminium built by SkyFuel. The direct steam this produces will run multi-effect distillation.

WaterFX has sized their first commercial solar desalination project to make 5 million gallons of water a day, enough to irrigate 2,000 acres of agricultural land each year, using a 24 megawatt field of solar collectors. But since it is a completely modular design, it could be scaled up to any size – you’d just add more solar collectors.

“Our approach is actually to build many distributed smaller scale plants rather than just large-scale plants,” he said.

Mandell chose to focus on agricultural desalination because almost 90% of California’s water is used to grow food. He is familiar with water treatment technology as the founder of Oasys Water  in Massachusetts.

First WaterFX had built a solar desalination pilot project to demonstrate that solar desalination works and what it would cost.

The success of the pilot project convinced the Panoche Water District in California’s parched farming region to sign up to buy the water as soon as the 5 million gallon plant is completed in 2016. They will buy the solar desalinated water by the acre-foot and then sell it on to California farmers.

The concentrated sediment left over has a commercial value too. Selenium and boron are used in semi conductors, and gypsum is used to make sheetrock.

“This is going to be a much more sustainable approach to farming in water scarce regions like California,” said Mandell. “And this is a model that can be replicated around the world.”

Exclusive to EarthTechling
Photo credit: WaterFX

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Australia’s Prime Minister Cuts Funding for Wind Power Thu, 13 Aug 2015 15:53:40 +0000 Albany Wind Farm in Western Australia

Albany Wind Farm in Western Australia

Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, doesn’t like wind turbines. He has made dramatic cuts in government subsidies for wind farms, in a move that’s sure to hold back Australia’s renewable energy sector.

Tony Abbott has made it clear where he stands on wind farms, with The Guardian reporting that Abbott called wind turbines noisy and “visually awful” in a recent radio interview. Australia’s government-funded Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) has been given instruction to cease investment in future wind farm projects. Wind power is Australia’s second-largest source of green energy after hydropower, and eliminating government subsidies for wind projects is likely to hobble the country’s renewable energy industry. CEFC planned to subsidize a 1,200-megawatt wind farm, Kennedy Energy Park in Queensland, but new restrictions on their spending might keep the project from moving forward.

Wind Turbine Health Concerns are Unfounded

Besides hating the noise and “awful” appearance of wind farms, Abbott also believes that Australians may face health risks if they live near turbines. He has committed to appointing a “wind farm commissioner” who will handle noise complaints and publish data on the country’s existing wind turbines. He also plans to establish an independent committee to examine the health impact of wind farms on the environment and human health.

The Australian Government’s National Health and Research Council has already examined how wind farms affect the health of those living near them, and the conclusions published in February 2015 show no consistent evidence that wind turbines cause any adverse effects in humans whatsoever. The Australian Medical Association concurs and has put out its own statement, going so far as to say that “individuals who experience heightened anxiety or diminished health and well-being in the context of local wind farms should seek medical advice.”

Backing off Renewables

Australia is still largely coal-powered. It’s the fifth largest coal producer on the planet, behind China, the United States, India, and Indonesia, and also holds position at the top of the list of global carbon emitters, at 16.9 tons per capita. With so much local material available to run coal power plants, it’s not surprising that only 13% of Australia’s current power production is from renewable sources. Much of that comes from aging hydroelectric installations, with the rest made up of wind and solar power. And that percentage isn’t likely to increase much for a while, especially with the government’s current stance on green energy.

Earlier this summer, the Australian parliament passed legislation cutting the country’s renewable-energy target from 41 thousand GW-hours to 30 thousand: a twenty percent decrease. Abbott’s Labor government argues that the cuts were made in order to reduce the target to a more achievable level and to avoid the carbon penalties associated with missing the goal, but critics argue that investment in the technology is critical to Australia’s future. With other countries like Japan and the US continuing to invest in innovative renewable energy projects, and making renewable energy more accessible to the average resident, Australia risks falling behind in the global push for green.

Via The Guardian

Photo credit: via Wikimedia under Creative Commons Licence

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Old Golf Courses in Japan Find New Life as Solar Farms Tue, 04 Aug 2015 13:30:17 +0000 japan_golf_course_solar

An abandoned golf course in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture will soon have a new life as a solar farm. Once construction is completed in 2018, The 92-MW Kanoya Osaki Rolling Solar Hills project is expected to provide power for approximately 30,500 local households.

The sport of golf is in decline across much of the world, with Japan in particular seeing a drop in participation of up to 40% since the days of peak golf popularity in the 1990s. Golf courses are expensive to maintain and take remarkable amounts of water to keep green, so with fading interest in the sport, it’s getting harder for the course owners to stay in business. Over the past decade, some of Japan’s golf courses, no longer profitable for their owners, have been razed into residential developments. Flat or gently sloped ground and lack of trees makes golf course land good for home-building, but it also makes it an excellent place to lay out some solar panels and gather some sun.

From Fairways to Solar Farms

The Rolling Solar Hills installation, which will spread over two million square meters of land and feature over 340 thousand high-efficiency Kyocera solar modules, will be designed and constructed in a joint venture by Kyudenko Corporation and Gaia Power. The land they are building on was designated for a golf course thirty years ago, but that course was never built. Converting the unused land into a solar farm is expected to bring many jobs to nearby Kanoya City and Osaki Town, and increase tax revenues for those municipalities. The companies plan to build using environmentally-friendly construction methods in order to reduce environmental impact, and once the project is working at full capacity, it has the potential to offset approximately 35,700 tons of CO2 emissions per year.

Kyocera and other partners have already begun construction on a similar installation at another abandoned golf course in Kyoto prefecture. The Fushimi Ward project is smaller, with approximately 90 thousand Kyocera solar modules planned, but will be providing enough power for approximately eight thousand households.



Photo credit: Zach Dischner via Flickr under Creative Commons license

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