Welcome to the Technology Buzz! Each month, we will investigate new developments in technology across a range of disciplines and fields. More importantly, we’ll help you understand how it impacts everyday life – especially in how we use energy in our homes and businesses.
This month for the Technology Buzz, we’re going to investigate some recent developments and complications in carbon-free energy ranging from the very small to the earth-shakingly big.
Disposable Paper Power
As we mentioned back in August, developing “transient electronics” or electronics that decay and dissolve once they’re done being used, has become important, especially in situations that are dangerous or offer very limited resources. While progress has been made in printed circuit boards that decompose and decay, batteries are a bit more challenging. That’s usually because they involve a separate membrane sandwiched between two metals or electrolytes which usually don’t just decay away. Back in December, researchers at Binghamton University in New York announced they had developed a battery made out of paper that used bacteria respiration to power the battery.
The battery is made by pouring a ribbon of silver nitrate on one half of a piece of chromatography paper and then covering the silver nitrate with a thin layer of wax. This creates the cathode or negative pole. A reservoir is to hold a conductive polymer on the other half to act as the anode pole. The paper is then carefully folded so the silver nitrate and wax line up with the polymer reservoir. Once that’s done, a few drops of liquid holding the bacteria are added to the battery. Products from the bacteria’s cellular respiration process start the electron flow and generate electricity. Researchers got between 31.51 to 44.85 microwatts depending on the stacks of these bacterial batteries were wired. Folding the batteries had to be done manually in order to ensure the best output.
Solar Hits $1/Watt
Sounds kind of far fetched, doesn’t it? For decades, solar power has been a luxury item restricted to wealthy or haplessly isolated. However, since 2011 when solar installation costs $4/Watt, the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative has been working steady to make solar power more affordable and more competitive with traditional sources of energy without subsidies.
Solar installation prices have been declining markedly in the past few years with reductions coming in part from labor and prices for better inverters (inverters convert DC power from the panels to AC for the home to use). So, the industry’s sense since this summer was that SunShot’s goal of $1/watt was going to happen sooner than later. After all, costs had been falling in all the areas the Department of Energy outlined:
- Technologies for solar cells and arrays
- Power electronics to optimize the performance of the installation
- Improvements in solar manufacturing processes
- Installation, design and permitting for solar energy systems
Knowing that solar prices were falling, analysts over at Green Tech Media did some calculations and on January 26 announced that solar installation had hit the $1/watt barrier three years ahead of the DOE schedule. One detail in particular has been that in the “first half of 2016 module pricing has fallen by 33.8%“.
What’s next? SunShot wants to halve the installation price by 2030 to just $50/Watt for installation, or about $0.05 per kilowatt hour for a residential photovoltaic system.
Given how fast prices fell as the technology developed during the past 6 years, this new goal doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
The Elephant in the Room — NY Nuclear Power
When it comes to producing carbon-free energy, nuclear plants produce 10 times the power output than other power plants. The problem is that many of the current fleet were designed for monopoly energy market, some as long ago as 50 years. Their design currently makes them too expensive too operate and too slow to compete against numerous smaller, agile, and newer generators in a very competitive market. Even some renewable energy projects in other states are successfully competing against cheap natural gas.
In New York State, the owner of three old nuclear plants wants its plants’ operations subsidized if Governor Cuomo wants to include them in the state’s “Clean Energy Standard” where 50% of the state’s energy must come from “clean and renewable energy sources”. While the fate of three New York nuke plants is still being contested, the 2,000 MW Indian Point plant north of Manhattan is slated to be closed by 2021. That closure will cost 1,000 people their jobs and take millions of dollars away from surrounding communities. The plan is to replace it by building a 2,400 MW off-shore wind farm with up to 200 wind turbines and costing $740 million.
Critically Steamed Up
About 700 years ago, the Reykjanes volcano erupted way out on Iceland’s southwest peninsula. The volcano, which lies smack dab on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge has been quiet ever since, making it the perfect place for the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) to bore into the molten magma of the volcano nearly 15,000 feet below the ground (just about 5 kilometers) and harness the steam down there to generate geothermal power.
Steam in a volcano is not the same thing that comes off your cup of hot coffee. Normally when you boil water, it bubbles and any extra heat you apply goes to the water not the steam. Boil water under pressure, however, and more heat energy is transferred to the steam. When the pressure reaches 3199.5 psi and the temperature hits 705°F, water becomes supercritical and flashes directly to steam. The hotter and more compressed supercritical steam is, the more energy that it carries.
In 2014, a previous well, IDDP-1, reached nearly 7,000 feet down but found an unexpected magma chamber. It funneled supercritical steam to surface for months and was estimated to capable of generating 36 MW.
Boring on the IDDP-2 well began on August 11, 2016 and after 176 days was completed recently on February 1. Temperature and pressure readings from the bottom of the bore hole showed supercritical steam at about 800°F (hot enough to melt lead) and at a pressure of 4,931.28 psi. Now that the scientists have the hole they wanted, the next step is to bring the supercritical steam to the surface to spins turbines to generate approximately 50 MW. However, it will take another year for research and testing to see if the well can be safely used to produce power.
Do you have any thoughts or comments about the technology buzz for February? Share with us in the comments!