Most new technology platforms must walk up the stages of the 'Hype Cycle', and confront our tendency to overestimate short-term change, but underestimate the long term potential.
Fuel cells are this decade's poster child for failing to meet expectations of the Hype Cycle. But there are positive signs of progress.
PC World is reporting that Toshiba plans to release its first commercial version of a Direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) battery recharger by the end of the first business quarter.
Micro Fuel cells help you unplug Micro power applications are widely considered to be the first market application for fuel cells. Dozens of startups and incumbent energy companies are developing micro methanol fuel cells as portable power solutions that help us 'unplug everything'.
Rather than carry around a charger+cord, you could carry a small fuel cell to recharge. Of course the idea of a fuel cell battery recharger is still a strange concept to consumers, and could remain an early adopter niche product.
The inevitable step for micro fuel cells is to replace batteries entirely. To arrive at this future, hardware makers must integrate MFCs into products, and consumers must be able to buy small fuel cartridges (e.g. liquid methanol, solid hydrogen) on every retail shelf. Until that day, the 'recharger' concept is the industry's best option.
Batteries & Fuel cells are like Peanut Butter and Jelly, not Oil and Water
There is an echo chamber of cynicism around the topic of corn ethanol. Unless you are a corn farmer or part of the ethanol lobby, evergyone agrees that this is not a sustainable path.
So the world is moving forward. The conversation is now focused on next generation bioenergy solutions that avoid the problems of 'crop' based biofuels.
The US government has placed a ceiling on future growth for corn derived fuels, and now the Obama administration has announced up to $25 million in funding for research and development of technologies and processes to produce biofuels, bioenergy, and high-value biobased products.
The money will fund projects related to: Feedstocks development; Biofuels and biobased products development; and Biofuels development analysis.
What is happening? 'Biology' is coming of age as a driver of industrial and energy applications.
Why 'Bioenergy'has more to do with Bio-Industrialism than Farming
Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno have completed their first demonstration-scale project using an open pound algae to biofuel system.
Unlike most algae biofuels startups which use closed 'bioreactors', the Nevada-Enegis LLC project (not shown) is designed for open ponds that use a species of algae tolerant to cold-weather and salt basin environments.
The team announced the successful harvest of two 5,000-gallon ponds, and will continue to expand their test selection of algae species and engineering to improve performance.
Open pond systems are generally seen as a lower cost, low maintenance production platform, but have their own set of problems related to optimizing growing conditions.
Related posts on the future of bioenergy on The Energy Roadmap.com
Eco-Energy blogs seem to love stories about cleaner ways of making cement - which accounts for at least 5% global carbon dioxide emissions. Last year the viral story was a novel process developed by MIT students, and now Australian-based Zeobond is gaining a lot of attention. The company uses industry waste materials to reduce the environmental impact of cement material compounds.
The future you hear about on the news is not what it appears.
Yes, the 'electric car' is coming, but do not be fooled by first generation ideas being fed into the mainstream media.
The short term challenges are probably being understated as the transition will take many years to unfold. But the long term disruptive changes are more profound than anything you might see on a 60 Minutes special featuring battery car owners in California.
Electric vehicles are likely to change our energy grid, roads, cities and suburbs in ways that are hard to imagine today.
Software - Drive by Wire & The Digital Driving Experience While stodgy Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pieces continue to characterize electric cars as expensive, wimpy cars- there truth is that electric drive systems offer a lower cost manufacturing platform and a flexible software based driving experience.
Establish software and location based services to vehicles, and you create a foundation for revenue streams based on mobility services in a 'wired and connected vehicle'. (Not to mention 'pay per mile' funding streams for transportation infrastructure instead of paying per gallon taxes.)
Companies like Johnson Controls, Microsoft, Intel, Bosch (et al) are developing 'drive-by-wire' software and microcontroller solutions that can make a car sound and feel like a Ferrari, a Mini-van, or Sedan with the push of a button. There is a huge upside in software-service sales that the digitize the driving experience.
Storage: Vehicle to Grid (V2G) & 'Skateboard' Vehicles on Sidewalks
Once again, we are reminded that the future of energy will be shaped by materials scientists, and that nanoscale engineering gives us plenty of room to innovate around disruptive ideas.
Research teams from the U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory, University of Delaware and Yeshiva University have announced the development of a new catalyst that could make ethanol-powered fuel cells feasible.
Rather than use next generation ethanol in a combustion engine, we can imagine a more efficient conversion into electricity via a fuel cell.
Fuel cells create electricity by breaking chemical bonds into hydrogen ions and electrons then completing the reaction with oxygen binding to hydrogen to create water.
Nano-catalysts break carbon bonds One of the challenges of (hydrogen rich) ethanol as a feedstock for fuel cells is the presence of carbon molecules.
“The ability to split the carbon-carbon bond and generate CO2 at room temperature is a completely new feature of catalysis,” says Brookhaven chemist Radoslav Adzic “There are no other catalysts that can achieve this at practical potentials.”
The 'nanostructured' catalyst achieves faster oxidation using the combination of platinum and rhodium atoms on carbon-supported tin dioxide nanoparticles. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the reaction but it is signficantly less than traditional combustion based conversion (and assuming more non-food crop biomass is planted it is 'carbon neutral'.)
“Ethanol is one of the most ideal reactants for fuel cells,” said Brookhaven chemist Radoslav Adzic. “It’s easy to produce, renewable, nontoxic, relatively easy to transport, and it has a high energy density. In addition, with some alterations, we could reuse the infrastructure that’s currently in place to store and distribute gasoline.”
Why catalysis is so important &Related Posts on The Energy Roadmap.com
One of the biggest business opportunities of the next few decades will be enabling the convergence of Energy and Information systems to lower costs and improve efficiencies.
Companies such as Johnson Controls and IBM have been very vocal about their vision of a 'smart infrastructure' future. And there are a number of 'Smart Grid' startups offering utility-scale and building/home energy management solutions.
Cisco: 'Smarter' Energy Networks Cisco Systems is widely associated with the hardware 'backbone' (e.g. routers) of the Internet, but the company is expanding into new web-based services like video collaboration and energy management.
Cisco has a very simple vision of the future of energy efficiency: If it is on the 'network', then we can make it more efficient. Why is this important? Because within a decade or two most everything that produces and consumes power will be integrated into an information (web) network.
The company has announced its new Cisco EnergyWise [PDF] technology platform that will help its customers reduce energy consumption of Internet Protocol (IP) devices such as phones, computers, and digital access points. The next step for Cisco will be offering software solutions to help manage building systems (lighting, air conditioning and heating).
The offering puts Cisco in a strong position to compete in a fully 'embedded' world where all objects and devices are on the web and energy is never wasted.
Beyond the occassional post (or two), I have avoided 'Peak Oil' production issues because of its association with those who must always (and only) describe the future in apocalyptic terms.
But based on the IEA World Energy Outlook 2008 report, it has become clear that energy leaders have been using poor data of oil field decline rates (based on a lack of transparency) to support inaccurate forecasts.
Whether peak production has already happened, or will happen in 15 years is irrelevant since we are not prepared for either transition. So it is time to explore implications regarding the world's use of coal, nuclear energy, tar sands, and oil shale. (For those focused on Climate Change, the replacements for oil are not good news for carbon emissions.)
I do not believe that Peak Oil will destroy our civilization, but it certainly has the potential to make us humble, and to serve as 'the' catalyst for evolving our policies from a resource extraction to resource creation paradigm.
The following 40 minute interview is dated (January 2008) but gives a solid overview of peak oil's core issues: field decline rates, discovery rates, production time and costs and lack of real liquid fuel alternatives. [A more current hard edged interview by George Monbiot w/ Dr Fatih Birol: Link to video]
Extracting energy from the tar sands is not a pretty equation.
It isn' cheap. It isn't energy efficient.
And it is becoming increasingly politically charged given its heavy carbon footprint.
But the tar sands remain a massive reserve that has the interest of very large, innovative energy development companies. And the dollars and desire to exploit these non-conventional hydrocarbon resources could grow exponentially in the years ahead as companies try to change the cost equation.
Can Bitumen derived syngas lower costs? Some of the largest non-conventional energy reserves in the world are found in North America's tar sands and oil shales.
The problem is that we are a bit early. These reserves still need a few more million years of natural bio-geological processes to rearrange the chemical bonds to make extraction easier. But instead of waiting, energy companies are developing ways to lower the costs of processing this carbon heavy resource. One of the reasons for high cost is the demand for outside energy needed to reform the tar sands into a usable form of liquid oil.
The Al Fin Energy blog is reporting on a new technique for substituting high priced natural gas with synthetic gas (syngas) derived from waste bitumen which is currently a byproduct. The process, developed by Nexen Inc. and OPTI Canada at the Long Lake Project, could change the price equation of exploiting the tar sands.
Good, bad or ugly - the tar sands cannot be ignored in a future where issues of climate change, 'energy independence', and peak oil production converge. The conversation about the future of the tar sands is just getting started.