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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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.

Wireless Energy Transmissions: Making the Seemingly Impossible Possible

 In 1901, Nikola Tesla began the creation of the Wardenclyffe, a “power tower”, foreseen to one day be able transfer energy wirelessly in all directions around it. But, soon after this project had begun it was scrapped, and the tower with it, due to low funding and lack of investors.

Fig. 1 Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower

One hundred and fourteen years later, scientists have finally taken Tesla’s work to the next step, and have succeeded in transmitting energy wirelessly. JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or the Japanese equivalent of NASA) has harnessed the power of microwaves, directed this power at pinpoint accuracy at a small target, and delivered 1.9 kilowatts of power 55 meters away for the very first time, no wires attached. Scientists aim to use this technology for the generation of solar power in outer space. But 55 meters is miniscule compared to the 22,300 miles away that scientists aim to place these solar stations. Yet, this could be a major breakthrough in renewable energy: humans may one day be able to harness a virtually undisturbable, inexhaustible source of energy. In space, there is never a time of day or type of weather that is unfit for the capture of solar rays. And we still have billion years, give or take a few, until our sun begins to die. 

Fig 2. What the solar panels in space may end up looking like

Technology like this has existed previous, but in different forms. First of all, typically, energy, or in it’s usable form, electricity, is transmitted via power or distribution lines or wires. In addition to wired transfer, there are also two different types of wireless energy transmission: near-field or non radiative, and far-field or radiative. Near-field is somewhat newly conventionalized, but nonetheless relatively commonly used for charging devices, such as phones, electric toothbrushes, and cardiac pacemakers. You may have see this method in your local technology store as a mat that you can place your phone on to wirelessly charge.

Fig. 3 An example of near-field non-radiative technology: the wireless charging mat

The type of wireless energy conveyance that JAXA has just now harnessed is far-field, or radiative transmission. Also known as “power beaming”, radiative transmission occurs via beams of electromagnetic radiation, such as microwaves or laser beams. The solar space stations would use the microwave technique to beam precisely pinpointed streams of energy down to earth.

Fig. 4 Another idea of what the wireless space solar panels may look like

Though inexhaustible radiative wireless energy seems to be faultless, as with any new innovation there are challenges as well as possible flaws. How will JAXA move this gigantic solar system into space? How will they choose to construct it? Maintain it? I assume that this process of but moving from the earth into space, and position will take years. And, what will it look like from earth? Will we be able to see it?

Will it be efficient, more so than existing solar panels? Though they will certainly generate a massive increase in amount, I hypothesize that there will be energy lost along the way, as 22,300 miles is an extremely long distance. And if the beam is concentrated and powered high enough not to be inefficient, what will become of the people, animals or objects that get in it’s way? After reading comments on what informed readers believe will occur, I have come to the conclusion that, because this beam will be incredibly hot, it could cook or vaporize anything in it’s way. Though a JAXA spokesman has said that this beam will not fry a bird or airplane in it’s path due to low-energy density, it is hard to make solid conclusions when this method has only been tested in the range of 55 meters and not yet an exponentially larger scale.

Fig. 5 A third layout of how these panels may be aligned, and how they function

The station itself is bound to cost millions, if not billions of dollars, which will either drive taxes or the cost of energy itself up. In addition, JAXA has been working on this Space Solar Power Systems idea for years, and has only made it to the first, vital step: transmission itself, and for only a short distance. A representative from the Agency has stated that it could take decades before the practical application of the technology becomes a reality. News providers and science enthusiasts have speculated no earlier than the year 2030 or 40.

Fig. 6 A group of JAXA Scientists

Though wirelessly transmitted energy will not be an innovation of the near future, I believe that when the Space Solar Power System is implemented, and the method is working, that it will change the way we think of energy altogether. In fifteen years, nonrenewable resources will begin to dwindle. There will be unrest, and slowly our beautiful earth will begin to be saturated with turbines and panels, streaking across the landscape. An alternate option will be desired, if not necessary. And what better option than putting these energy collectors outside of our world entirely, and making them infinite? It is unavoidable to state that wireless solar space energy could very well be our future. And if so, it will certainly be a bright one.

Bringing Beauty back into Green

It is projected that by 2088, the world will run out of fossil fuels. We could even deplete our oil by 2040, or our natural gas by 2060. This may seem inconceivable, but taking into account the rate that we are guzzling energy, and the fact that this rate is constantly increasing may means that our lights will go out too soon. But do not fear! Renewable energy is forthcoming. There will never be a day when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing, or at least, not in the near, foreseeable future. Renewable energy has minute if any emissions that contribute to global warming, improves public health and the environment, and is inexhaustible. Yet today, the world still uses 81% fossil fuels, with 34% oil, 21% natural gas, and 26% coal/peat. All the renewable energy used in the entire world is less than even one of these resources, at only 13% usage. The advantages of using renewable resources are many, and for a better future, a change needs to be made. So why is it that we still use so much nonrenewable energy?

The world's energy consumption by resource

Fig. 1: The world’s energy consumption by resource

     There are multiple reasons. First, these innovations are pricey. The average home solar system costs a little over $10,000. It’s hard to justify the installation of solar panels, which includes paperwork, construction, and a whole load of hassle, to lower your energy bill in the long run, when you oil bill is already only a few hundred dollars per month. The other downside to renewable energy is that it can be an eyesore. There have been countless complaints from angry citizens who believe that wind turbines have ruined their community’s scenic landscapes.  One man commented his on experience with the installation of turbines, stating “One of the most troublesome problems with the proliferation of industrial wind projects in Maine is their encroachment on the “treasures” of the state that we have purchased to protect for future generations. […] We have leveraged with these funds millions of dollars more from other sources to preserve places like the Mahoosuc Range, Rumford Whitecap, Bald & Speckled Mt, Tumbledown & Jackson Mt., and Schoodic Mt.  All these wonderful places are being surrounded by wind turbines.”

Fig. 2: Wind turbines on a scenic landscape

This problem with wind turbines is even plaguing Scotland, with the Daily Mail reporting that “They are famous Scottish landmarks which have withstood wars, weather and centuries of change – but they could not escape the Scottish Government’s green agenda.”  And I agree: these turbines placed around beautiful mountain ranges, historic sites, and rolling hills are certainly an ugly blot on the landscape.

Fig. 3: The Daily mail comments “The View? Gone with the Wind”

Fig. 4: There are even plans of building turbines “taller than the London eye” surrounding Loch Ness

This leads people to despise the idea of renewable energy. Eventually, the turbines will be disposed of due to unhappiness of the people. This only digs the world deeper into the hole it’s already dug much into: we need renewable energy to be used more, yet it’s becoming disliked, so it’s not. But a new option is emerging, something that blows all other ideas for clean energy implementation out of the water. What if, instead of attacking the world’s energy problem with boring, ugly white turbines, or a black, brooding expanse of solar panels, people were to approach this problem from a different angle? Instead of only productivity, why not combine productivity and beauty to create an efficient masterpiece?

 Yes, there is a solution!

Innovative companies are turning ugly wind turbines into something beautiful. They are, in essence, taking the meaning of the word “green” literally. The first of these companies is NewWind, based in France. NewWind has created an artificial Wind Tree, which uses tiny leaf-shaped turbines to harness the power of the wind. They can utilize anything from the smallest breeze to a giant gust of wind. They are completely silent, as well as modern, sleek, and pleasant to view.

Fig. 5: French people observing the Wind Tree

They produce 3.1 kwh of energy.  Though they are not quite as efficient as your typical turbines, which produce anywhere between 5-10 kwh or more, nonetheless, they have been praised and lauded by countless websites and magazines. They are currently are being used in Brittany, France and are set to be installed at the Place de la Concorde in Paris in March, 2015. In my opinion, they are most certainly energy made beautiful.

Vid. 1: Above is a short video showing the Wind Trees in action

Another emerging invention is the Power Flower created by NL Architects.  The biggest advantage of this power flower is that it minimizes space needed to function. Instead of a huge turbine, it’s a thin, lean build that utilizes vertical turbines for maximum space-saving.

Fig. 6: Wind turbines in comparison to Power Flowers

Just like the Wind Tree, it is basically silent and can absorb wind that blows form any direction. Though there are many plans for the Power Flowers to become domestic energy solutions, there have not been many installed just yet. But, the plans look incredibly promising. This is yet another example of a minimalistic, clean, attractive build that will certainly be admired by customers.

Fig. 7: A plan showing how the Power Flowers could be seamlessly integrated into the landscape.

Lastly, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore is an example of an already functioning innovation that has smoothly merged into Singaporean culture. There are many words to describe the Gardens by the Bay, but the first that come to mind are awe-inspiring, breathtaking, and incredible. They are unbelievable feats of architecture, and look like they have popped out of a futuristic movie. They do not make people turn away, but rather, are an attraction that draw citizens and tourists alike near.

Fig 8: A beautiful shot of the Gardens by the Bay

But these Gardens are more than beautiful. As well as spectacular, they are also incredibly efficient. The trees are layered in solar panels, act as cooling ducts for nearby conservatories, collect rainwater, and de-humidify air before this cooling.

Fig 9: The Trees up close

Singapore is filled with high rises, skyscrapers, and a dense city landscape. Their initiative should be one that is followed by cities around the world: to transform their community into a greener place, both physically and energy-wise.

The world is transforming into a viridescent place, and a more beautiful one, too. I believe these three projects, the Wind Trees, Power Flowers, and Gardens by the Bay, will motivate people to become more excited about energy efficiency, rather than despising of it. They will look forward to the beautiful installations, and benefit from the clean energy that they produce. It was once believed that the stark white wind turbine, or black expanse of solar panels was the future, but I believe that real future is the combination of beautiful architecture and renewable energy.

Americans’ Priorities Are Costing Us

If someone gave you the option today to make your home entirely energy efficient, would you do it?

What if it saved you a lot of money on your bills?

What if it cost you a lot of money?

Most people would initially answer yes to the first question. Becoming more energy efficient makes people feel better about themselves, and for good reason: If everyone in the U.S. used energy-efficient lighting alone, without even changing any other appliances or habits, we could retire 90 average size power plants. Helping the environment is usually something people see as desirable, yet it often takes second priority to other factors, like the cost of buying the appliances.

lighting_bulbs

When asked the second question, most people would likely say yes even more emphatically than they did to the first. If being more energy efficient is beneficial to people themselves, they’ll probably go ahead and do it. Maybe that’s why in a recent study done by Consumer Reports, 75% of Americans use CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps). CFLs can save consumers up to $60 per year on their energy bill— clearly a good enough reason for many to make the switch. CFLs are spiral-shaped bulbs with fluorescent coating, and inside they are filled with argon and mercury vapor. An electrical current excites the gases, which then produce ultraviolet light that interacts with the fluorescent coating to produce visible light. Unlike traditional incandescent bulbs, in which 90% of the energy required to produce the desired light goes to heat, CFLs are able to produce light efficiently.

While CFLs provide people with an attractive way to save both money and the environment, the situation becomes stickier with LED lights. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) are semiconductors that produce light when electrons pass through them. They are more energy efficient than CFLs, but they cost more to buy. LEDs usually cost between 25 to 60 dollars each, whereas CFLs only cost between 1.25 to 18 dollars. However, LEDs last up to 50 times longer than incandescent and CFL bulbs, use 36 less watts than incandescent bulbs and 3 less watts then CFLs. Yet of the many Americans that use energy efficient lighting, 75% use CFLs.

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That brings us to the third question. If switching to a more energy efficient solution is possible but it costs more money than the less energy efficient alternative, the data shows that people will not make the switch. Clearly, Americans prioritize the costs of installing the LED bulbs over their environmental benefits. Interestingly, however, LEDs have some economic benefits over CFLs as well. LEDs could save people up to $130 per year on their energy bill, and cost less than CFLs to operate yearly. They do cost more than CFLs and take longer to gain back the investment, but only half a month longer.

Sadly, Americans prioritize their economic interests over environmental interests. I think we should all strive to hold the environment at a much higher priority than we do naturally. While economic benefits have an immediate impact on one’s life, environmental impacts have a much more widespread and have more longevity. We need to be concerned about saving every watt of energy possible, even if it means paying a little more money now. If we do not pay the extra money now to conserve the energy, we will likely have to pay a lot more money later in order to compensate for the damage we’ve caused.