Monthly Archives: February 2012

UK must not lose lead in marine renewables drive

The United Kingdom could become a leading exporter of wave and tidal technology, according to a new report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee. But the report also warns the UK is at risk of repeating mistakes which allowed the country to lose its early lead in the developing wind power industry.

The UK is already world leader in the development of wave and tidal energy technologies, it is home to seven of the eight full-scale prototype devices installed worldwide. This success is the result of a number of factors; an abundant natural resource, a long history of academic research, world-class testing facilities and a strong skills base in other maritime industries, says the report. The Carbon Trust recently said marine power could create 10,000 jobs by 2020. The UK has the largest wave and tidal resources in Europe and the report suggests that 20% of its electricity could be generated from marine renewables. But the government is targeting 200 to 300 megawatts (MW) of marine capacity by 2020, 1-2 gigawatts (GW) less than its forecasts in 2010.

The report warns that an overly cautious approach to deployment may allow other less risk-averse countries to steal the UK’s lead. Comittee member Tim Yeo adds: “In the 80s the UK squandered the lead it had in wind power development and now Denmark has a large share of the worldwide market in turbine manufacturing. It should be a priority for the Government to ensure that the UK remains at the cutting edge of developments in this technology and does not allow our lead to slip.” The UK should focus on reducing costs and setting ambitious deployment targets beyond 2020, according to the report.

Potential obstacles that could hinder the development of a wave and tidal industry in the UK include: investor confidence, policy certainty, public-private risk sharing, improved grid connections and a workforce with the necessary engineering skills.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change issued a statement welcoming the report and said that it is now studying the recommendations.


Beached whale turned into biofuel

The fat of a whale that has washed ashore two weeks ago at the Belgium coast of Knokke-Heist will be used to produce green energy. Belgium energy company Electrawinds released the news to the public last Thursday.

It is estimated that the sperm whale weighs 25 tonnes, half of which consists of fat. After the fat has been processed to biomass the organic end product will go to the biofuel plant of Electrawinds in Ostend. The biofuel will be injected into gigantic ship engines that manufacture green energy.The 12.5 tonnes of the sperm whale can render up to 50,000 kWh of green energy. This corresponds to the annual consumption of 14 families (assuming an annual average consumption of 3,500 kWh).

The biofuel plant in Ostend has been in operation since 2005 and processes mainly CAT 1 fat derived from rendering companies and abattoirs.


Making solar cells from plant clippings

A paper published in Scientific Reports last week describes an improved method for making electricity-producing ‘biophotovoltaics’ in such a way that any lab anywhere in the world can replicate the process. Researchers said custom-designed chemicals could be mixed with green plants, even grass clippings, to create a photovoltaic material by harnessing photosynthesis.

MIT researcher Andreas Mershin explains his vision: “Leaves and plants are natures’ solar panels. The first step into photosynthesis is to change sun rays into a little bit of electricity but then get converted into the processes of life. If we manage to somehow hijack the molecules that are responsible for photosynthesis in plants and other photosynthetic organisms, and then use them to generate electricity for our own needs this would mean a fantastic new step in the way in which we can generate solar power electricity in general. Imagine if the raw material for a solar panel would be something that you normally think of as trash and you actually pay people to take away. Imagine that your grass clippings can become an active ingredient in a solar panel that you can create at your own home”.

Mershin’s work is an extension of a project which began eight years ago by Shuguang Zhang, a principal research scientist and associate director at MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering. Zang’s work had some drawbacks, it required expensive chemicals and sophisticated lab equipment. Mershin’s system pulls out the molecules responsible for photosynthesis and used chlorophyll – the ‘star’ protein – to transform photons into electrons. After stabilization, the molecules get widely distributed on a glassy surface swarming with titanium dioxide ‘sponges’ and zinc oxide nano wires. The first are busy converting the light into electricity, whilst the latter transfer it. This type of solar technology could make cheap energy available in rural places and developing countries where people don’t have access to affordable energy. The simplified process could be replicated by any lab – including even college and high-school labs – allowing researchers around the world to start exploring the process and make further improvements.

But now the downside: Mershin’s solar panel only has an efficiency of 0.1%. To be of any use — to power more than a single LED light from an entire house covered in these cheap solar panels — an efficiency of 1 or 2% is required. With such a low barrier to entry, though, Mershin hopes that scientists the world over can now work on boosting the efficiency.

The rise of landfill gas to energy

The average person in the U.S. produces nearly 1,130 pounds (513 kg) of waste per year. The majority of this waste ends up in landfill. When the garbage decomposes it gives off methane and CO2. Methane is the most abundant organic compound on earth and traps 20 times more heat than CO2, making it a potent greenhouse gas, but it can also be a source for environmentally friendly energy.

The trash on a landfill is separated from the natural world by thick plastic liner, which prevents the effluvia from decomposing garbage from entering the environment and contaminating the groundwater. The waste in the landfill undergoes anaerobic digestion and generates gases. The gases so produced are called landfill gases (LFG). Old landfills have pipes that collect the biogas, which is then burned to prevent the gas from entering the atmosphere. Closed flares filter out the contaminants before the smoke is released. Flaring the biogas at the landfill is probably the most common way of dealing with it. But it is an unfortunate waste of a potentially valuable fuel source. These gases can be burned and looked up to as a source of renewable energy or vehicle fuel. The LFG comprises of almost 50% methane, which is the same gas found in natural gas. This LFG can be used to generate electricity, by burning it as a fuel in a gas turbine or steam boiler. Compared to other hydrocarbon fuels, burning methane produces less carbon dioxide.

Programs in the U.S. to capture and use the methane from landfills have been encouraged through tax credits and grants. For instance Bannock County Landfill in Idaho has a plan together with the county to build methane wells to capture the gas from its landfill. Once it’s bottled up, it will run a specially built generator and the county will sell the electricity it produces to Idaho Power.

Once converted to natural gas, the biogas serves a good and environmentally friendly purpose as vehicle fuel.
Research is even being conducted by NASA at the moment, on methane’s potential as a rocket fuel.

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