A Graphene Revolution?

Figure 1 from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/23/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-graphene-battery/index.html

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As our supply of non-renewable energy sources becomes increasingly scarce, it is becoming more and more apparent that the survival of our planet is dependent almost solely on our ability to implement both efficient and conservational practices in our daily energy usage. Researchers at Manchester University in the United Kingdom have made a very progressive step towards this goal with the discovery of graphene––a newfound substance with the same atomic structure as the graphite found in a pencil. Figure 1 shows a graphene sample scaled next to the tip of a graphite pencil.

CNN’s Tomorrow Transformed column calls graphene “the most revolutionary advance in battery technology yet.” The substance earned this praise for its energy-efficient properties with regard to electrical power, such as its ability to conduct electricity even better than copper. In its simplest form, graphene is only one atom thick and more than 1 million times thinner than a human hair. Despite the fact that it is extremely thin and almost weightless (in fact it is the first two dimensional crystal known to science), graphene is harder than a diamond and 200 times stronger than steel, making it extremely durable and long-lasting. Manchester University’s Graham Templeton states, “No known material can approach this combination of abilities.” This makes graphene far superior to other substances (such as copper and steel), which are vital components of the electronic appliances that we use everyday such as smartphones, laptops, television sets, etc. This is because it lasts very long, does not need to be replenished frequently, and conducts electricity with minimal risk of wasted energy. Figure 2 displays the atomic makeup of graphene in its simplest form.

Figure 2 from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/23/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-graphene-battery/index.html

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Arguably the most groundbreaking discovery that Manchester University’s researchers made was a graphene membrane’s ability to literally harvest hydrogen from the atmosphere. The researchers claim that this harvesting “could be combined with fuel cells to create a mobile electric generator fueled simply by hydrogen present in air.” This method of hydrogen generation is far superior to our current method, in which hydrogen is obtained almost entirely from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

Sources consulted:

http://www.graphenea.com/pages/graphene-properties#.VRoE70virwI

http://www.geek.com/science/geek-answers-what-is-graphene-1575393/

http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/23/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-graphene-battery/index.html

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Pictures, Numbers, and Our Imagination

A previous post on How We See The Environment touched on the idea that if carbon emissions were visible to the naked eye, people would feel much more compelled to reduce the ugly sight of billows of black smoke that they are creating. As the post says, calculating one’s own carbon footprint is tedious and not likely to be very effective in convincing one to change his or her habits for the better. Perhaps some companies have noticed this; General Electric has a Data Visualization blog dedicated to giving its viewers a better sense of their how much energy they use.

For those interested in the number of Watts used or the toll their appliances have on their wallet, this page, as shown in Figure 1, gives an estimate of watts, gallons of gas, and cost in dollars to power common household appliances. A smart facet of this page is that each appliance listed applies to most American households and the energy used by each appliance can be compared to others. So even though it is not easy to visualize a Watt, using 100 Watts is certainly easier to put into perspective when you know what using 10 Watts is like.

Figure 1.

For the more carbon-conscious folks, this page, also shown in Figure 2, compares the carbon footprint of more than just appliances, but also that of objects like paper and food. Like the previously mentioned blog page, these numbers are estimates and generalizations, but it helps remind viewers that everything we enjoy had emitted quite a bit of carbon to be created and distributed. Buying local, anyone?

Figure 2.

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In my opinion, these pages are a great way to make people more conscious of the consequences of their actions, but as How We See the Environment blog post mentions, a mere number does not create the same sense of urgency as the sight of smog would. Perhaps, it helps one visualize such a sight, but it’s not like General Electric intended its viewers to consult their blog every time they do something like drive a car or buy a carton of milk. A great addition to their blog however, would be pictures of black smoke next to a phone left overnight to charge.

We Need to Steer in the Right Direction, towards Electric Vehicles

The number of cars on the roads worldwide has surpassed one billion, with the U.S. having the largest car population at about 239.8 million cars. It is estimated that by 2050 the worldwide car population will reach 2.5 billion. This would require a production of 120 million barrels of oil per day, which is 37 million more that we require today. Since transportation currently accounts for 23% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, increasing transportation will only make global warming increasingly worse. In order to compete with these rising emissions, we need to move towards alternative energy vehicles.

An excellent alternative to the regular “gas-guzzling” cars are the All-Electric Vehicles (EVs). EVs run on electricity only and are powered by rechargeable batteries that propel the electric motors in the car, allowing it to move. EVs are much more energy efficient, environmentally friendly, require less maintenance, have better performance, and have reduced energy dependence over vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICEs); which are the cars that require gasoline. EVs are very energy efficient in terms of how much energy they convert from their source to power the wheels. EVs convert about 59%-62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power the car, while ICE only convert 17%-21% of the energy from gasoline to power the car. EVs are much more environmentally friendly than ICEs because they emit no tailpipe pollutants and if the electricity is from nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, or wind power plants there are also no air pollutants. EV’s energy costs are also less than ICE’s energy costs. The cost to drive an EV 100 miles is significantly less than the cost to drive an ICE 100 miles (Figure 1.).

Additionally, as a bonus, EV’s motors are very quiet, have stronger accelerations, and require less maintenance than ICEs.

Yet, of course, there are some downsides to the EVs. Two of the main downsides that most people would worry about if deciding to buy an EV is it’s driving range abilities and recharge time. Most EVs can go only about 100-200 miles before needing to be recharged, while ICEs can drive for over 300 miles without needing to be refueled with gasoline. Also, fully recharging the battery can take from 4-8 hours. EVs can either be charged at the house or at a charging station (Figure 2.).

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Figure 2. shows an example of an EV at a charging station.

There are also other downsides to EVs, which are the high cost to replace a car battery (which may need to be replaced) and the heavy weight and consuming size of the battery packs.

As usual, whenever there is a technology that is an alternative to help save energy, there are usually downsides. Yet, with EVs, there aren’t downsides that are un-manageable or “not worth it.” I believe EVs are rare, but exciting, because they truly benefit the community, and more importantly, the environment. With technology advancing everyday, the small issues of the driving range, recharging time, and battery weight, size, and cost will eventually become irrelevant, and soon enough All-Electric Vehicles will be the obvious choice, not that they aren’t already!

For the First Time in 40 Years… Economic Growth Hasn’t Lead to an Increase in CO2 Emissions.

On an average, people tend to commonly associate CO2 emissions with the economy. So, what I am trying to get at is that many people think that if there is a global economic growth, in correlation, we expect to see an increase int he CO2 emissions as well. However, for the first time in over 40 years, we are seeing that this is not the case. This my friends is amazing news for all of us who care about the environment. While this is great news, the question still remains; what has triggered this trend to finally changed? Well, there are several factors and the International Energy Agency has evaluated all of the reasons that they believe that there hasn’t been an increase, but rather a decrease in the CO2 emissions, even though there was an increase in economic growth.

China is the worlds largest CO2 emitter and it is also the country where a majority of the worlds industrial work takes place. Over the past two years, China has taken an initiative to reduce the amount of CO2 that they emit by shifting towards using renewable sources of energy, rather than using non-renewable sources of energy. In China’s case, they have led the world in the amount of solar installations with the hope of cleaning up the countries polluted air. In figure 1, you will see that by the end of 2015, China hopes to add as much as 15 gigawatts of solar energy, which will power around 16 million houses. They want to accomplish this task by installing cheap solar panels on top of commercial buildings, rather than just confiding panels in the rural areas.

Figure 1.

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Additionally, the second factor that has attributed for there to be a decrease in the amount of energy used is the idea that awareness causes people to change their behaviors. People are greedy. Unfortunately,  this is the hard truth. If you tell them that they will save money by buying certain types of technology, they will be willing to do it. This has been happening all over the U.S. The more aware people become about the energy that they are using, the more willing they are to change their behaviors and their electronics. Over the past year, home energy efficiency has decreased drastically, causing there to be an overall decrease in energy. In figure 2, you will see that there is a decrease in the amount of energy in a per capita basis as well as a GDP basis. 

Figure 2.

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The third, which can be overruled, but it is still just as important. The IEA has reported that one of the reasons there is a decrease in CO2 emissions is because transportation has become more efficient. Cars are now being made in order to be more efficient.

Now, the final reason that CO2 emissions have decreased, while the economy prospers, is due to the fact that there was a natural gas boom, due to fracking. Robert Starvins, a leading environmental economist said, “This has, in turn, led to significant increases in dispatch of gas-fired electricity generation, relative to dispatch of coal-fired generation, as well as increased investment in new gas-fired electric generation capacity, and cessation of investment in new coal generation in the United States.” 

Now, lets rejoice. While the world still needs to make huge strides to bettering the environmental conditions, the progress we are making is incredible. China, the worlds leading CO2 emitter has come to its senses and so is the rest of the world.

Workouts to Watts

Becoming environmentally friendly is rewarding, yet it can also be a pain. Turning down the heat to face the cold, carpooling, unplugging your devices, and always remembering to turn off the lights are everyday “energy savers” that are beneficial, but not everyone does them. it could be because of laziness, lack of knowledge, lack of interest, or even forgetfulness, but either way, energy is still being wasted every day, and A LOT of it. So what if I were to tell you that there was a way of saving energy without even knowing you were? Too good to be true? Well clearly you haven’t been to the New York Sports Club on Eight Avenue, The Cadbury House Club, California Fitness in Hong Kong, The Great Outdoor Gym Company or to the other few human powered gyms around the world!

These gyms have invested a lot of money into new workout equipment that allows your sweat to power the machine your on, a T.V. in the gym, or even the gym itself! These companies have already converted several hundred machines at dozens of U.S. health clubs and university gyms. Each machine has a generator that converts the motion of the wheels into electricity, which is then fed into the power grid. In some pf these gyms, the generators ate noticeable, with each being attached to a black box with wires running out of it. (Figure 1.).

Figure 1. People at the gym working out on bikes that can generate electricity from the motion of the wheels due to the attached generators. The generators can be seen at the front-bottom of the bike, and wires (covered by the strip of black mat) can be seen running from each of the machines.

Figure 1. People at the gym working out on bikes that can generate electricity from the motion of the wheels due to the attached generators. The generators can be seen at the front-bottom of the bike, and wires (covered by the strip of black mat) can be seen running from each of the machines.

There are many positives to these gyms green initiative. The first, obviously being that the gyms are being more energy efficient by using the immediate energy generated by the exercise machines to power materials in the gym and less energy wasteful by not wasting all the energy that the gym-goers work so hard for. Second, it is great for business because the gyms are able to promote themselves as environmentally friendly, which is appealing to many people. Also, a lot of the equipment shows on the screen attached how much energy you are generating while working out, which is an extra motivation to work out for longer, faster, and harder (Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Screen on exercise machine that shows the amount of watts the person has generated.

Figure 2. Screen on exercise machine that shows the amount of watts the person has generated.

Lastly, this new equipment also helps the gyms cut down on their energy bills because of the gym goers producing their own energy needed to power their machines.

Sadly, this method of saving energy is not as perfect as it may sound. The energy output from each machine is quite small, and it takes decades to make up the money spent on all the new workout equipment through the energy being saved through the new machines. For example, The Canterbury House Club in England spent $981,120 in order to install the new machines in the gym. The new machines installed in this facility are capable of generating 100 watts of electricity, which is about enough to power an 18-inch standing fan at the highest setting, a desktop computer, a large stereo system, or two laptop computers. While this is not much energy, we still have to remember how this energy can add up. It is only a matter of time when the majority of exercise equipment will have attached generators. This could lead to thousands of gyms using this technology, and millions of machines, and with all produced energy from these machines added up, it becomes an appreciable amount of energy saved.

Overall, these new, innovative ways to save energy are just the beginning of an amazing energy efficient future. With these machines already using 30% less energy than regular exercise machines, the main problem is the economics, which can be fixed in the future. If all the gyms in the work used these machines, all our hard work, sweat, tears, and calories burned would not only be benefitting us, but it would be greatly benefitting our planet.

The Evolution of Solar Energy

Almost all non-nuclear energy on earth comes from the sun in one way or another. Gasoline and other fossil fuels come from plant matter, which gains its energy from the sun. Hydroelectric and wind power both come from the sun through complex processes. Direct and conscious of manipulation of solar energy has been around for a very long time, at least since the time of Socrates, who said

“In houses that look toward the south, the sun penetrates the portico in winter, while in summer the path of the sun is right over our heads and above the roof so that there is shade”

Humans have been trying to figure out how to improve our efficiency for a very long time, and passive solar design is one of the first ways that we actively made use of the sun. Passive solar energy is when a building is constructed in a way that maximizes the possible heat from the sun. It is one of the earliest ways that humans made use of the suns energy directly. One of the first uses of active solar power was a steam-powered engine that powered a water pump. The concept of solar radiation powering a steam engine translated into a steam engine powering a turbine, which paved the way for industrial solar-powered electricity generation. The concept of solar powered steam generators is one that is still used to this day.

solar-energy

The next innovation in solar power was photovoltaic cells. Photovoltaic cells are what we usually refer to as solar cells. Photovoltaic cells can be put almost anywhere sunny, and are far more practical for private use than steam generators. Photovoltaic are now a major contributor to the solar industry. Today, solar energy is growing faster than all nonrenewable energy sources combined, which bodes well for the future of clean energy. 

Flying Where The Sun Don’t Shine

As most already know, solar energy is the energy released by the sun, which is used to heat and light Earth’s surface.  However, it is less likely that many of us know much specifically about the invention of the solar-powered aircraft!  I recently was intrigued by this phenomenon after coming across an article titled, “Solar Powered Aircraft: A Flight Of Fancy?” written by Anmar Frangoul, that focuses on the exciting journey of two “innovators” (paragraph 1), as Frangoul puts it, who plan to fly all the way around the world (beginning in Abu Dhabi) aboard the “Si2” or the “Solar Impulse 2”.

“The Solar Impulse 2”:

Figure 1: Nighttime                                                    Figure 2: Daytime:

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Figure 3: Carbon Fiber:

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The Si2 (shown above in Figure 1 and 2) was built with a 72-meter wingspan (designed using carbon fiber- see Figure 3 above), and receives its power to charge its 633-kilogram lithium batteries by use of sunlight energy.  Therefore, it can be inferred that the batteries for the solar-powered aircraft are only able to charge during the daytime when the sun is out and shining.  Remember, the plane’s wingspan is 72 meters – that’s more than 220 feet!  This giant wingspan is covered with cells that collect the sun’s rays.  With the help of its 17, 000 solar cells, the plane actually receives enough charge throughout the day, and the powerful batteries charge quickly enough, so that the plane could continue to successfully run during the entire night, without help from the sun.

The solar powered aircraft is interesting to me mainly because it is different from other vehicles that run on sunlight energy.  For example, in comparison with solar-powered cars, the aircraft is not hybrid. Instead, it is completely electric and solely powered by solar energy.  This means that it really is totally clean when it runs, and emits no pollution.  And because it’s efficient enough, with enough charging capability and capacitance or storage, it can go seemingly forever.  I wonder about the lithium batteries, if they need to be discarded now and then replaced, and what the pollution impact is from one of these batteries. In addition to its uniqueness, the future capabilities of the solar-powered aircraft (such as the Si2) excite me because of the potential benefits.

Figure 4: The “innovators”- Bertrand Piccard (left) and Andre Borschberg (right):

Test flight Pilot equipement

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg (pictured in Figure 4 above), who invented the plane’s technology, are currently flying it around the world. One of the goals of this flight is to demonstrate the amazing storage power of the batteries, and that the plane can fly across an entire ocean overnight, with no sunlight.   If this Si2 mission is successful, then a whole new window will open up for solar energy.  Solar energy, which is currently determined to be clean, but extremely inefficient and costly, (low percentage of solar energy actually gets converted into electricity and used, especially compared to energy powered by gas or coal), will suddenly be deemed a cost-effective form of energy.  The Si2 plane is quite large, but if we can make the solar cells be twice as efficient as they are now, then we only would need half those cells.  If solar energy were made more efficient, we could do a lot more with it, for other than the efficiency issue, solar energy is quite remarkable!