Tag Archives: energy

Steaming Ahead

3 Nov
Coal, one of the fossil fuels.

Image via Wikipedia

Think of steam power and you might imagine big, black locomotives puffing white clouds as they chug across the tracks, or steam boats paddle-wheeling down the Mississippi, or maybe dark, dirty, coal-choked factories of the Industrial Age.

In other words, steam–and the coal furnaces that produced it–may seem like a relic of the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Especially in our new, post-industrial age of software and fiber-optic cables, it’s difficult to consider coal and steam as still relevant to how things work in our seemingly clean, computerized, wireless world.

And yet, of course, burning coal to produce steam is still the basis of nearly every contemporary technology. Using voice recognition software on your iPhone to schedule a teleconference meeting next Thursday may seem entirely removed from the age of coal, but firing up the phone and activating its microprocessors requires electricity–electricity produced by and large in power plants that burn coal to superheat water to create steam under sufficient pressure to spin giant turbines that produce electricity.

In other words, the base sources of energy haven’t really changed over the past few centuries. Power plants have become more efficient, and renewables like solar and wind are growing in scope and capacity, but for the most part, the great bulk of the electricity we consume nearly every minute of every day depends directly on coal/steam power.

This is not a secret, exactly. But I bet that if I were to poll random people in the street, 9 out of 10 would have only a vague sense of how electricity is made and where it comes from. And I bet they’d be shocked to learn that the vast majority of it comes from coal.

Glimpsing the Future of Solar Energy

15 Sep

One thing I like about being a science writer, and about writing a book about renewable energy, is that I get to talk with (and learn from) some of the smartest people on the planet.

For example, this morning I spoke with Michael Strano, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT.  After a twenty minute phone call, I came away with nothing less than a glimpse into the future of solar energy.

Strano works with carbon nanotubes–tiny, microns-wide structures that can channel atomic and subatomic particles in ways that have all sorts of industrial and technological applications.  I was interested in Strano’s work on using carbon nanotubes to enhance the absorptive power and hence efficiency of solar cells.  The science is complex, but in a nutshell in involves using carbon nanotubes as antenna or funnels to attract and channel sunlight in concentrated form onto the semiconducting surface of a solar cell.

The implications of this research are far reaching.  One of the holy grails of solar PV research is figuring out ways to make solar cells more powerful and efficient without making them more expensive.  Some solutions involve using mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto PV panels or boilers.  Strano’s method does essentially the same thing, only without the need for expensive and delicate mirrors.

Carbon nanotubes are relatively easy and inexpensive to make.  Large companies like Bayer are not manufacturing them in bulk for all sorts of commercial purposes.  PV cells enhanced with carbon nanotubes are still a ways off, but if what Strano was telling me is accurate, they’re coming.  And they very might might blaze an entirely new path in solar PV development.

You can listen to my interview with Strano here.  And learn more about Strano’s research here.

Solar Umbrellas

20 Aug

Cool article in MIT Tech Review on thin sheets of printed solar cells used to coat umbrellas that can then provide power for cell phones, laptops, etc.

Read the article here.

Yet another example of how alt energy is making small but intriguing inroads into daily life.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that to really get renewable energy, you have to think both globally and locally. The big energy companies and government centers are leading the way. But there’s just as much if not more renewable energy innovation happening in small start ups and small towns.

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