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Pyrolysis: the third way to biofuels

Imagine a giant pile of biomass – lets say wood chips for simplicity sake. And next to the wood chips is a big pile of money (likely from investors, whose patience for payback may vary). In a third pile is a group of job candidates: engineers, chemists & microbiologists.

To get useful energy from the first pile of feedstocks requires careful consideration of all your piles. The wood chips can be burned, fermented, or – bear with me now – squeezed. Each approach requires different amounts of feedstock, cash up front, and expertise to get a particular type and amount of fuel or energy.

C&EN’s own Craig Bettenhausen has taken a look at the benefits – and potential downsides – of squeezing the wood chips to make liquid fuels, specifically hydrocarbons that can be made into drop-in biofuels (the best kind!). Of course he doesn’t say “squeezing” – experts call it pyrolysis. Bettenhausen explains that the biomass is subjected to high temperature and pressure in an oxygen-free environment (imagining this is making me feel a little breathless and claustrophobic). Check out the free story to learn what happens next.

Meanwhile a press release from our friends at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, nicely illustrates one way pyrolysis might pull ahead of other technologies (i.e., fermentation into ethanol or gasification into syngas). A group of Battelle engineers and scientists have built a mobile factory that can travel to the site of your big pile of wood chips and convert it into up to 130 gal of oily hydrocarbons per ton of chips per day. The little factory is installed on the flatbed trailer of an 18 wheeler.

“This feature makes it ideal to access the woody biomass that is often left stranded in agricultural regions, far away from industrial facilities,” the press release notes. “It’s potentially a significant cost advantage over competing processes represented by large facilities that require shipment of the biomass from its home site.”

Still, as Bettenhausen explains, pyrolysis – as it is being scaled up today – has not yet proven itself at scale or made profits for anyone. Stay tuned.

Harnessing Entropy

In Solar, a novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, the protagonist, a physicist named Michael Beard, has been tasked to evaluate submissions from the public sent to a UK panel looking for new ideas for clean energy. He divides them into piles: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics, those that violate the second law, and those that violate both. This cleantech reporter could relate.

That’s why ideas that start with the laws of thermodynamics – rather than those that have to account for them later – are so attractive. Take entropy, for example. In our daily life we struggle against entropy – the iPod headphone wires that get totally knotted up in my handbag, the fact that the neatest person you know still has a junk drawer, and so on.

This week’s issue of C&EN explores research that tries to harness the universe’s arrow-like movement to disorder. When CO2 laden emissions from power plants are released into the atmosphere, the CO2 mixes into the ambient air mass. As Naomi Lubick explains, an electrochemical cell could harvest the energy that is released when these two gases mix. Researcher Bert Hamelers of the Dutch water treatment tech center Wetsus, has developed a lab scale device to do just that.

But Lubick points out that to implement such a solution would require overcoming at least two hurdles – one, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides may foul the system’s membranes. And two, it is no easy task to dissolve huge amounts of CO2 in liquid.

Dissolving gas in liquid requires toil and trouble. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dissolving gas in liquid requires toil and trouble. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, dissolving the gas uses quite a bit of energy. Which reminds me of another literary reference: the witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – indeed, there is some toil and trouble involved.

I know that many other researchers and technology companies are working on these two problems. For example, there are programs working on carbon capture and storage that are using liquids, catalysts and membranes to grab components of power plant emission gases. And firms such as Calysta Energy and Lanzatech have plans to use microbes to make useful products out of gases such as methane and flue gas. For that, they need to dissolve the gas in water. It is not a trivial problem.

 

Ineos Bio – First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in U.S.

The prize for the first company to get a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant up and running in the U.S. goes to Ineos Bio. Ineos Bio is a Swiss firm, a subsidiary of the chemical company Ineos.

The facility is located in Vero Beach, Fla. and has a capacity of 8 million gal of ethanol per year. It also produces 6 MW of renewable biomass power. Vero Beach is on the Eastern coast of the state (a bit more than halfway down), near Port St. Lucie.

Ineos Bio has started up this cellulosic ethanol plant in Fla. Credit: Ineos Bio

Ineos Bio has started up this cellulosic ethanol plant in Fla. Credit: Ineos Bio

Folks following cellulosic ethanol might have thought the U.S. would be the first in the world to get a cellulosic ethanol plant, but that distinction goes to Italy, where Beta Renewables owns a 20 million gal per year facility running on wheat straw and giant reed (Arundo donax).

The feedstock for the Vero Beach facility is “vegetative and wood waste.”  I’m hoping to learn a bit more about what’s going in there. Because Ineos Bio’s front end process involves gasification, it is likely not terribly picky about the biomass – apparently it has converted vegetative and yard waste, and citrus, oak, pine, and pallet wood waste.

Projecting when the cellulosic ethanol industry will really take off has historically been a fools’ errand. But clearly, having two facilities in existence is infinitely more than zero, which is what we had in 2012. You can review my feeble attempt to forecast the 2013 crop of ethanol makers and check out the list of other facilities set to come online soon.

Solar Impulse: Moving solar energy from poetry to practicality

Solar Impulse is spending the week in Washington, DC, and the C&EN headquarters is slightly abuzz with geeky giddiness. So, living a mere 15 minutes from the solar plane’s temporary home in a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles International Airport, I couldn’t resist the invitation to a Solvay-sponsored event with the pilots and crew on Tuesday evening. Melody twisted my arm kindly invited me to write about my visit for the Cleantech crowd.

Solar Impulse in DC

Solar Impulse in its temporary home at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia Credit: Rachel Pepling

I had to walk past the ginormous Discovery space shuttle, which is spending retirement at the Udvar-Hazy Center, then dodge raindrops to get to the the temporary hangar housing Solar Impulse just outside of the museum. The rainy weather and mugginess of the hangar didn’t exactly create the setting you’d expect for admiring a plane that runs on energy from the sun. But I digress. Compared to the robust space shuttle, the solar plane looks like an oversized toy glider. As Alex Scott pointed out in his article on the chemistry behind Solar Impulse, the plane has a wingspan about the same as a 747′s but weighs about the same as a small sedan. There is no other way to describe the cockpit than as tiny. It’s basically a chair with a bubble over it. And, of course, there are lots and lots of solar panels.

Before the pilots’ presentation, I was in a group chatting with a member of Solar Impulse’s communications team. When asked about the plane’s assembly at Moffett Airfield near San Francisco, she explained that it took the team basically three days to put the plane together and equated the process to assembling furniture from IKEA. No nails, just glue. Hopefully, no leftover parts. It is, apparently, that amazingly simple.

Bertrand Piccard was the first of the two pilots to speak. His psychiatry background came through as he talked about changing your altitude in order to fight against the winds while in a balloon. My mind was starting to drift away a bit when he brought me back with this line: “This is all very poetic, but useless. Let’s make it practical.” He then showed a picture taken at the end of his around-the-world-in-a-balloon mission in 1999. “Many people think this is the last picture of a balloon trip,” he said. “In fact, it is the first picture of Solar Impulse.” Piccard then shared that it was the amount of fuel spent on the trip and that there was only 40 kilos left at the end that ignited the Solar Impulse project.

André Borschberg spoke more about how the plane actually works. While listening to him, I came to realize that Solar Impulse epitomizes the theme of the fall national meeting in Indy: Chemistry in Motion. Without chemistry (again, read Alex’s excellent article), this plane would have never taken flight.

Hearing Piccard and Borschberg speak and looking up-close at the plane was all very cool, but I’m left with the feeling of “What next?” Borcshberg pointed out that they had considered making the plane large enough to accommodate two people, but safety became an issue. So to me, at this point, Solar Impulse is really just a proof of concept. Under certain conditions, one can indeed travel long distances at both night and day using only solar power. But I go back to Piccard’s statement earlier and wonder how do we move from poetic to practical? Certainly, the materials created for this plane will find new uses elsewhere and to make our current vehicles greener, but we’re still pretty far away from using only solar to get us in motion. Or is Solar Impulse’s role as a solar energy, nay, innovation ambassador enough for now?

IEA Looks To Fossil Fuel Industry to Control Climate Change

Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing.

When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries.

But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes.

(You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html)

IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by:

1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut.
2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut.
3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings)
4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies (12%)

Never Mind All That: Solar on the upswing

I’m going to have to start posting more frequently. My last post was about solar firms going bankrupt in China and now my cleantech news is about how solar is set to rebound. Seems like something should have happened in between that post and this one.

Actually, a few biobased chemical deals were announced. Thanks BASF and Evonik!

Stuttgart solar cell project

Making a better solar cell. Credit: University of Stuttgart Institute of Photovoltaics

Anyway – back to solar. Earlier this week, Lux Research (a rather skeptical gang generally) put out a summary of a new research report titled “Solar’s Great Recovery: Photovoltaics Reach $155 Billion Market in 2018.”

Actually, solar had a great 2012 – at last in the U.S. – but that was mainly due to installations of several large utility projects. The business of producing those solar modules had hit some major potholes. Around five years ago, solar demand was hindered by high prices – held up by shortages of key polysilicon raw material, but balanced by huge subsidies in Europe, especially in Spain and Germany. Then – in the nature of boom and bust cycles – the high prices prompted huge polysilicon capacity increases. Then prices fell, Europe cut subsides, the recession hit… and all that new capacity made solar prices tank and inventories piled up. Whew – what a tale.

In a fun new twist, according to Lux analyst Ed Cahill, the solar crisis will become a boon as record low prices boost demand. (And after that what will happen? Stay tuned).

The rise will take place as those cheaper installations (especially utility and commercial rooftop) become routine and spread into new markets. U.S., China, Japan, and India are expected to speed up installations. That will help to power (no pun intended) a compound annual growth rate in the industry of 10.5% over the next three years.

A few other things might help – according to this New York Times article, the U.S. and Europe are both working to smooth over trade disputes with China. Regional pricing schemes may take the place of tariffs. China had been accused of exporting solar modules at prices less than the cost of production (a practice called “dumping”). China, in turn, accused polysilicon makers in the U.S. and Europe of doing the same thing.

All of this fun news is not likely to help revive solar module manufacturing in the U.S. or in Germany. But new technology might. My colleague Alex Scott flagged a news item from the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Photovoltaics. Researchers there have tested a crystalline silicon solar cell with a 22% sunlight conversion efficiency. It is difficult to say how much a module made of these cells would convert, but a traditional module is normally around 15%.

The secret to the team’s work is a design that puts the metal contacts on the back layer of the cell, using a laser. While hanging out on the back of the cell, the material will not block light hitting the front of the cell. Ta-da! More electrons.

 

 

Solar Boom in Japan, with Battery to Match

Japan has been making large strides in solar since the Fukushima disaster, and those efforts look set to accelerate, at least in the near term. The country, which is not blessed with a wealth of fossil fuel resources, had relied heavily on nuclear energy, but it is now spending big for solar installations as well as energy storage.

Just in time for Earth Day, Bloomberg is reporting that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to spend around $204 million on a battery system to stabilize the flow of solar power on the northern island of Hokkaido. The location’s less expensive land has attracted ground module solar power systems. The report did not state what type of battery will be used, though Cleantech Chemistry will be looking for updates. The ministry is targeting 2015 for the system to be up and running (up and storing?)

The country began a generous feed in tariff for solar in July, which attracted just over 1.33 GW of installations through the end of January of this year. According to IHS iSuppli, the FIT is around 42 cents (in U.S. currency) per kilowatt hour, which is quite generous.

Though the tariff may be scaled back as systems come online, IHS forecasts that Japan will install 5 GW of solar capacity this year. To put that figure in perspective, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association reports that 30 GW of grid-connected solar was installed globally in 2012, about the same as in 2011.

Natural Gas and Cleantech

Cleantech fans: it is time to educate yourselves. Set aside for a moment your interest in wind energy, solar, bio-based chemicals, biofuels, and electric vehicles and read this week’s story about what the U.S. may do with its abundant natural gas.

Here are some things that the country can do with natural gas: it can make electricity, upgrade it to useful chemicals, use it as a transportation fuel, or export it. The U.S. has access to so much natural gas that it could do all four things. And do them all cheaply, and profitably compared to our trade partners.

At this point, even if you only use your knowledge about the promise of cleantech at cocktail parties, you should start to think about the impact of abundant natural gas on your favorite technologies.

My colleagues Jeff Johnson and Alex Tullo’s feature asks what effect DOE policies on liquefied natural gas exports might have on the chemical industry and the wider economy. The flip question – not addressed in the story — is what impact natural gas that stays in the U.S. will have on the competitiveness of renewable energy and materials innovations.

At the recent ARPA-E show, I saw energy technology that is seeking to take advantage of abundant natural gas – and the speakers at the conference were rather fixated on the topic. (see my story on the ARPA-E Show in this week’s issue). Alert readers will recognize which minority member of the Senate appears in both articles.

I hate to give away the ending of the natural gas story but (spoiler alert!) U.S. natural gas prices will stay low even if we ramp up exports. When I was in school and my class learned about the Panama Canal, one of my classmates couldn’t understand why engineers had to build locks to compensate for the different sea levels between the Pacific and Atlantic. Once you connected the two oceans, wouldn’t they level out? Well, no.

Similarly, there is a small aperture through which natural gas would escape U.S. borders via the export market. Liquification imposes a significant surcharge on every unit of gas, it costs a lot to build a plant to do it, the export hubs need to be brought online, and there is a backlog in approving facilities. But read the full story and get the full picture.

There’s Still Hope for Energy & Materials Start-ups

Funding for cleantech and related start-ups can be feast or famine. Government, venture capital, and corporate backing ebbs and flows. One constant, though, is that technology entrepreneurs should never miss a chance to get in front of investors.

On February 25, start up executives will pitch to investors at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. An event run by Future Energy will provide the space, a slide template, and a panel of experts for Q&A. In the audience will be people from corporations and other kinds of investors who will be attending the ARPA-E gathering to hear from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and the folks who dispense money from DOE.

Future Energy is a part of a larger organization called Ultralight Startups. Shell, through its program Shell Game Changer, is the main sponsor. Future Energy founder Graham Lawlor tells Cleantech Chemistry that unlike internet startups which are legion and fill to overflowing many investor pitch events, his events are specific to energy and cleantech and he has to go out and find tech start-ups for the slots. But he’s not worried, because the scientists and engineers are out there with good ideas.

In 2012, Future Energy held two events in Boston and two in New York. This year they’ll head also to Silicon Valley. At the ARPA-E event in DC, two of the companies pitching won their slots through an online voting mechanism. You can go to their website to apply for future events through the first half of the year (tell your friends!). You can see a video of United Catalyst at an event last year pitching technology for inorganic catalysts designed for cellulosic ethanol production. The pitches are only 3 minutes long, so its good to pare down your story to bare essentials.

Also investing seed money in energy start-ups is Lux Capital, which today announced commitments totally $245 million for its third venture fund. The fund is fairly broad- the firm is looking for unusual opportunities in energy, healthcare and technology.

The ever-enthusiastic Josh Wolfe, Lux Capital co-founder and managing partner, describes his strategy this way:

“At Lux, we are sticking to our knitting to build a concentrated portfolio of extraordinary companies in unconventional areas,” says Wolfe. “Many of the themes and entrepreneurs we’re excited about—in 3D printing, metamaterials, robotics and breakthroughs in solid-state electronics—are non-obvious, and that’s by design. We believe the combination of brilliant entrepreneurs and deep scientific innovation drives immense industry shifts and profits. Both at Lux and our companies, we’re growing rapidly and calling for the boldest and brightest that want to invent and invest in the future.”

 

Thin film solar maker Miasolé bought by China’s Hanergy

Hanergy, a China-based renewable energy company, announced today that it has completed its acquisition of thin-film solar firm Miasolé. The buyer first reached a purchase agreement with Miasolé’s investors in September.

Of the many photovoltaic manufacturers out there – and/or recently bankrupt – Miasolé is one of the most elegant. And not just because of its attractive-sounding name (news reports online have stripped it of the accent aigu — it’s pronounced MiasolA).

Miasolé makes thin film solar cells of the copper indium gallium selenide variety. This is an attractive technology because it is possible to make CIGS as efficient as heavier traditional polysilicon solar PV. The first thin-film technology was based on amorphous silicon (a technology that Hanergy plans to abandon), which was much less efficient than traditional solar cells. In theory, CIGS can be manufactured in long, flat, flexible sheets and installed in places that cannot support other kinds of solar panels.

For now, CIGS material on the market has an upper-bound efficiency of about 12% or so, while traditional solar starts there and goes up a bit. CIGS are more expensive, and are much more difficult to manufacture.

For Miasolé’s part, in May the company reported that NREL confirmed a 15.5% efficiency on its newest commercial, flexible CIGS cells. It is not clear what the efficiency of a fully installed system would be. But it shows that this firm has been pushing the technology. Back in 2011, it worked with semiconductor maker Intel to help it ramp up its manufacturing. At the time, the company said it was using a low-cost sputtering technology for materials deposition.

News reports have estimated that Hanergy spent about $120 million to buy Miasolé’, a company that was valued as high as $1.2 billion in 2008. Hanergy makes most of its money by generating power from hydroelectric installations. Last year it also snapped up Solibro, a unit of Germany’s solar manufacturer Q-Cells.

Hanergy says it will keep the Miasolé CIGS manufacturing operations going in California. Meanwhile, another CIGS start-up, SoloPower, recently began production in Portland, Oregon.