The world will be watching not only to see if South Korea can fix the flaws that have plagued the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme but also avoid hurting the industrial conglomerates, or chaebols, that supply the planet with computer chips, flat-screens and smartphones. (Samsung, for instance, is responsible for 2% of South Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions subject to the carbon regulations.)
“Such ambitious levels of abatement will come at a high price,” wrote Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analyst Richard Chatterton in a detailed analysis of the carbon market, which is set to go live on Jan. 1, 2015. “If the target is retained, it may place a high cost burden on South Korea relative to other countries.”
That’s because South Korea has closed many of the loopholes that led to carbon price crashes in Europe and allowed polluting industries to weasel their way out of taking the hard steps to reduce their emissions.
For one thing, South Korea plans to restrict the use of so-called offsets. An offset is essentially a license to pollute by paying someone else to reduce emissions on your behalf. Industrial companies can buy offsets from international organizations that run climate-friendly projects such as planting trees or capturing methane emissions from landfills. South Korean companies, however, will be able to purchase carbon credits only from domestic projects and only until 2021; after that year they can purchase international carbon credits. But offsets of any stripe can be used to meet no more than 10% of their emissions-reduction targets.
However, there aren’t enough domestic offsetting projects to go around, according to BNEF—unlike in the European carbon market, where an oversupply of offsets has sent carbon prices plummeting. With South Korean carbon prices likely to remain high, companies will be forced to pay for expensive emissions allowances or take costly measures to reduce their carbon pollution. That’s good for the environment, but could make South Korean goods more expensive and hamper the economy.
Adding to the cost of a carbon market is the fact that South Korean industries like steel-making are already pretty efficient. They have to be because of the country’s high electricity prices. It will be easier for electronics companies, like Samsung, to bring their emissions down by capturing fluorinated gases that are emitted in the production of semiconductors and video screens; so-called F-gases are 23,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The impact on overseas buyers of Korean smartphones will probably be minimal, says Sungwoo Kim, KPMG’s regional head of climate change and sustainability in Seoul, because most of the burden to cut emissions will fall on electricity producers and steel makers.
Moreover, says BNEF’s Chatterton, carbon trading could open up new opportunities for the country. “South Korea is looking for new export growth markets and clean tech is an area that government and the chaebols are looking to as a possible driver of future economic growth,” he told Quartz in an email.
Where political will trumped industrial opposition
But why is South Korea embarking on such an ambitious carbon market when so many other countries—hello, America!—treat such efforts as political poison? The short answer is, because it can.
Unlike the divisive partisan fights that doomed carbon market proposals in other countries or resulted in watered-down schemes—g’day, Australia!—South Korea’s political parties united to pass the carbon market proposal by a 148-3 vote in 2012. In doing so they steamrollered opposition from the country’s powerful chaebols.
“Politically, South Korea has shown that it is eager to be seen as a leader in the development of global climate change policy, so it has taken on a strong target to justify this,” said Chatterton. Some of the biggest emitters, he noted, are power companies that are government-owned. ”The other biggest players (chaebols) are likely to have strong government links and therefore don’t need to shout loudly to be heard.”
Still, many unknowns remain. The final shape of South Korea’s market and emission targets has not yet been decided. It’s also not clear if the government will allow the South Korean carbon market to be linked to markets in Australia, California, Europe and New Zealand.
If it does, that could bring carbon prices down quite a bit, as South Korean companies would be able to buy cheaper credits from those markets. Australia, for example, is facing a crash in its carbon prices in 2015 due to its decision to link its carbon market to Europe’s. The Australian government’s budget projections are in disarray as it was counting on a carbon price of $29.50 a tonne. The EU price is $3.60.
The lesson: Sometimes it’s better to go it alone.
Illustration: City of heat. By Mathis Rekowski
Smart heat nets fire the next energy revolution. By Chelsea Wald
Waste heat costs us billions and messes with our climate – now there’s a grand plan to round it up and put it to work
DEEP in the tunnels of the London Underground, as in many subway systems around the world, it’s so hot it feels like hell. And yet in a basement only a few metres away, a boiler is firing to heat water for someone’s shower.
Rather than stewing in our excess heat, what if we could make it work for us? There is no shortage of waste heat, after all. Throughout our energy system – from electricity generation in a power plant to boiling a kettle, using boilers to warm houses to powering a car – more than 50 per cent of the energy we use leaks into the surroundings as wasted heat.
Recapturing it wouldn’t just benefit our wallets. It would reverse some of the damaging effects that waste heat from our towns and cities is having on the climate.
The good news is that several cities have found a way to hunt down their waste heat in some unexpected places. These cities are building systems that deliver heat in much the same way that networks handle electricity and water. Could they point the way to the next energy revolution?
Waste heat is an enormous problem. A report in 2008 by the US Department of Energy found that the energy lost as heat each year by US industry is equal to theannual energy use of 5 million Americans. Power generation is a major culprit; the heat lost from that sector alone dwarfs the total energy use of Japan. The situation in other industrialised countries isn’t much better.
The report also estimated that given the right technologies, we could reclaim nearly half of that energy, but that’s easier said than done. “We often talk about the quantity of waste heat,” says David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, “but not the quality.” Most of what we think of as “waste heat” isn’t actually all that hot; about 60 per cent is below 230 °C While that may sound pretty hot, it is too cold to turn a turbine to generate electricity.
The alternative is to just move the heat directly to where it is needed. That is what “cogeneration plants” do. These are power plants that capture some or all of their waste heat and send it – as steam or hot water – through a network of pipes to nearby cities. There, buildings tap into the network to warm their water supplies or air for central heating.
Many countries are encouraging cogeneration. A US cogeneration initiative, for example, might save the country $10 billion a year. And cogeneration allows power plants to bump up their efficiencies from 30 per cent to almost 90 per cent.
Yet waste heat from power plants is just a drop in the ocean compared with the heat lost from our homes, offices, road vehicles and trains. Waste heat from these myriad sources is much more difficult to harness than the waste heat from single, concentrated sources like power plants because it dribbles out. What’s more, it is barely warm enough to earn its name. Reclaiming that is much trickier.
As it happens, there is a technology that can siphon energy from tepid temperatures, and we have long had access to it. Ground source heat pumps have been helping homeowners save on heating bills since the 1940s, when US inventor Robert Webber realised he could invert the refrigeration process to extract heat from the ground.
The system takes advantage of the fact that the ground is a terrible conductor of heat; in temperate regions – regardless of surface temperature – a few metres underground, the soil always remains around 10 °C. Ground source heat pumps can tap into that stable temperature to heat a house in the winter.
Underground heat mine
The mechanism is simple. A network of pipes makes a circuit between the inside of the home and a coil buried underground. These pipes contain a mix of water and fluid refrigerant. As the fluid mixture travels through the pipes buried underground, it absorbs the heat from that 10 °C soil. While this is not what you might consider hot, it nonetheless causes the refrigerant in the fluid to evaporate into a gas. When this gas circulates back into the house, it is fed through a compressor, which vastly intensifies the heat. That heat can then be used by a heat exchanger to warm up your hot water or air ducts (see “Waste not, want not”).
This mechanism is powerful enough to efficiently provide heat even in places as cold as Norway and Alaska. It is also cheap. In the UK, the best systems lowered heating bills by 30 per cent because compressing a gas to heat your home requires far less energy than traditional gas or electric methods of heating.
But that’s not all they can do. Reverse the process on a ground source heat pump and it can cool your home in summer. If the ground is cold enough, the fluid in the pipes simply absorbs the heat from inside the building instead of from the ground. The only cost is circulating the liquid through the pipes. “You can use it as a free cooling source”, says Stephen Hill, a London-based associate for global engineering firm Arup.
The promise of ultra-efficient heating and cooling may explain why the popularity of heat pumps is now exploding, Hill says. In 2010, the UK heat pump market had grown to nearly £50 million, mostly installed in new houses and commercial buildings. The mechanism works even better when it’s scaled up, Hill says. For example, Pacífico, a subway station in Madrid, Spain, uses a ground source heat pump to provide all its heating and cooling.
But there’s a catch. You can only scale these systems up so far before you hit a fundamental wall. It is simply not possible to put a ground source heat pump beneath every city building. For one thing, installation would require digging up the foundations beneath existing buildings. But even for new construction, it would be necessary – as was the case in Madrid – to drill a few hundred metres into the ground to install pipes long enough to allow heat exchange that would work for a whole building of offices or apartments.
There is an alternative, though, and it’s far better: use heat pumps to recapture urban waste heat. Just as ground source heat pumps pull the heat from the ground, urban waste heat pumps could mine the vast trove of accumulated waste heat beneath our cities – from subway systems to sewers. They could then divert it to where it is needed, using a system of pipes and heat exchangers, creating an urban heat grid.
As passengers often complain, exhaust heat accumulates in the train tunnels under many of our largest cities. Even on a cold day, temperatures on platforms in the London Underground can reach 20 °C. To harvest that warmth, German companies Züblin and Rehau, together with Arup, have designed a liner for tunnel segments that functions like the buried coils in ground source heat pumps, using the heat generated by engines and braking along with that from the surrounding ground to warm the refrigerant, again by compression. As this transfers the excess energy from the tunnel to the refrigerant, the process also causes the tunnel to cool.
The lining – dubbed Energietübbing – was placed into a 54-metre-long stretch of a new high-speed rail tunnel in Jenbach, Austria, to supply the municipal building above with enough heat to completely replace the existing boiler. It is still being optimised, but in its first successful winter it coped with outside temperatures as low as -15 °C.
London commuters could soon benefit as well. Crossrail, a railway being constructed under the city, is considering Energietübbing for several segments of the new tunnel, where it too would both cool the tunnel and provide the resulting heat to buildings above.
Subway tunnels are far from the only source of urban waste heat. Consider the shower you took this morning, or the clothes you washed at the weekend. The heat that dribbled down US drains last year siphoned away 350 billion kilowatt-hours last year – comparable to the total electricity produced by US hydropower. That energy dispersed into sewers which stew at a lukewarm 15 °C.
Projects all over the world are under way to use heat pumps to grab back some of that wastewater heat. One of the first cities to use their tepid sewage for large-scale heating was Oslo in Norway. There, much larger versions of the coils in a ground source heat pump are submerged in flowing raw sewage. From the sludge flowing through the sewer, the plant extracts 3 to 5 °C, which it then concentrates by compression to a vastly hotter 90 °C. And just like that, tepid sewage provides heat and hot water through a network of pipes for 13,000 apartments.
Other countries have also recognised this potential gold mine. Vancouver taps heat from untreated sewage and funnels it back into a district that includes the Olympic Village built for the 2010 winter games, where it provides some 70 per cent of the needed heat and hot water. The city is planning to expand its heat networks, hooking them up to a variety of sources, including waste heat fed by local cogeneration plants.
Indeed the larger the heat grid, the more sources it can draw from: cogeneration plants, subway tunnels, sewers and even data centres. “One of the key advantages of district heating is that it’s adaptable to a wide variety of energy sources,” says Chris Baber, part of the Vancouver project. One project in New Hampshire is even beginning to mine the decomposition heat from its landfill sites.
Some cities are also starting to experiment with the cooling potential of heat pumps. The Finnish city of Helsinki uses waste heat to run absorption refrigerators. These devices can be thought of as more complex versions of heat pumps, but the basic idea is the same; when the fluid flows through hot areas, the refrigerant inside absorbs the heat. The upshot is that the mechanism can be used to cool entire districts, absorbing the heat from buildings and dumping it into purified wastewater.
Denmark, Sweden and Finland lead the world in using heat pump technology to manipulate their cities’ exhaust. Helsinki in particular has won awards for its large heating and cooling system, which features 1200 kilometres of underground heating pipes, connecting 93 per cent of the city’s heated spaces.
Whether this energy revolution will catch on elsewhere remains to be seen. Installing the necessary infrastructure will require steep investment and political will. A recent UK Department of Energy and Climate Change report complained that while up to half of the heat load in England is in areas where heat networks are economically viable, only 172,000 homes are currently hooked up.
The cost of the heat pumps also means that in some countries the energy they produce is more expensive, even though they use less energy overall than boilers. “It’s all about the cost of energy,” says Jeff Snyder, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. Thanks to the shale gas boom in Canada, Vancouver’s sewer heat is 10 per cent more expensive than heat from natural gas. That said, unlike fluctuating energy markets, the costs of ground source heat pumps will remain steady over time. “As the cost of energy increases, you’ll see more of these things,” Snyder says.
However, there is a more important reason to take urban heat networks seriously: climate change. After all, waste heat doesn’t just disappear if we don’t recycle it. Concentrated into cities and radiated into the atmosphere in small dense pockets, it ends up shifting the jet stream, raising winter temperatures across a broad swathe of North America and northern Eurasia by as much as 1 °C. This newly discovered consequence augments the already well-known greenhouse effect and the heat-island effect around cities.
Heat generation accounts for a third of all carbon emissions in the UK, so reducing the overall amount of energy we need to use could even curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, they might lead to a kind of virtuous circle. “Heat pumps keep getting more and more carbon efficient because they’re using lower-carbon electricity to displace gas,” says Hill. As we clean up our electricity, heat pumps will become carbon neutral.
Using urban source heat pumps to recycle our waste heat in city-wide grids could help curb all three of these climate change culprits. That would be an energy revolution indeed.
This article appeared in print under the headline “City of heat”
Reap the whirlwind
Waste heat is money, but we’ve long struggled to make use of it. Waste heat from power plants, for example, is too tepid to recycle for generating electricity (see main story). Instead, we simply get rid of it, using cooling towers to vent it into the atmosphere.
What if those towers could be tweaked to generate electricity from the heat they send into the air? It could work, if the towers were tall enough. Then they could take advantage of convection: as waste heat rises up the chimney, the immense temperature difference between the cool air at the top and the warm air at the bottom creates an airflow powerful enough to turn a turbine back on the ground.
Variations on this idea are already used elsewhere. China has constructed a massive chimney that harvests solar heat from Inner Mongolian deserts; Spain and Arizona have also built prototypes.
There is just one problem. Extremely tall chimneys are impractical. When Eckhard Groll of Purdue University in Indiana, West Lafayette, reviewed several projects, he found that to generate even a fraction of the energy produced by a typical coal-fired power plant would require an 850-metre chimney, taller than the tallest building in the world. “The capital cost would be enormous,” he says.
Twelve years ago, Louis Michaud, an industrial engineer in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, had a better idea. If he could build a machine that creates a self-sustaining vortex – a tornado – it could funnel the waste heat all the way up to the troposphere and yet stay contained by its own centripetal forces. His idea raised many eyebrows but little interest.
Recently, however, the idea has gained a big following. The Thiel Foundation offered Michaud $350,000 to build a prototype. From a much more practical 50-metre chimney, Michaud says, he’ll create a 15-kilometre, 200-megawatt-generating tornado. “It’s got the potential for producing all the electrical energy we need,” he says.
Chelsea Wald is a writer based in Vienna, Austria
Tokelau consists of 3 small atolls with a population of about 1500 people 450km north from Samoa, and a dependent territory of New Zealand. The atolls are low lying with perhaps the highest points just 2 metres above sea level. Rising seas this century threaten the future of these islands with 1 metre rise in global sea level due to climate change conservatively predicted by the end of the century.
The importance of Tokelau going 100 per cent solar and eliminating carbon emissions and providing leadership for the international community wasn’t lost on Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) who tweeted:
According to the Pacific Climate Futures website Tokalau can expect by 2030 with the A1B medium emissions scenario to get “Warmer and Much Wetter to Wetter”, with annual mean air temperature increases of 1.0 °C and annual mean rainfall increases of 22% relative to 1980-1999. By 2090 the climate is likely to be “Hotter and Much Wetter”, with annual mean air temperature increases of 2.5 °C and annual mean rainfall increases of 36% relative to 1980-1999, but two climate models predicted hotter and much drier.
The conversion from using diesel powered electricity to solar power was done with NZ $7.5 million funding from the New Zealand Government aid and development program. New Zealand solar company Powersmart were engaged to design, project manage and build the system.
Work started in mid June on the first system, on Fakaofo atoll and was switched on in early August, followed by the second system on Nukunonu atoll connected in mid-September, and finally the third system on Atafu atoll. The systems entailed installation of 4,032 photovoltaic panels, 392 inverters and 1,344 batteries across the three atolls
“It has been an amazing project to see through from start to finish. I am very proud of our team for the amazing work done within the timeframe of the project schedule. The local Tokelauans have also been paramount in achieving this goal. They should feel proud of their accomplishment because as a community they have helped to build three of the largest off-grid solar power systems in the world.” said PowerSmart Director of Operations, Dean Parchomchuk.
The diesel generators were operated for 18 hours a day and will be replaced with a system providing power 24 hours a day. The installed capacity of the solar systems are now capable of providing 150% of current electricity demand, although the Ulu of Tokelau warned that diesel might still be needed for emergencies, “We are looking at some, for emergencies, maybe we still need diesel. And then maybe we will be making some plans for when diesel will phase out.” They are looking at coconut oil powering generators as an alternative fuel for these occasions.
Tokelau has been using about 2000 barrels of diesel per year at a transport cost alone of about NZ $1 million per year. Stopping the import of this fuel will be a substantial expense saving and is also estimated to save 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere over the life of the project.
Watch this interview with Tino Vitale, the leader of the delegation that represented Tokelau at the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts this year who outlined some of the climate impacts being felt on Tokelau, including extensive drought, coastal erosion from rising seas, changes in seasonal fishing. Tokelau is walking the talk on climate change:
“All across the Pacific there are clear issues with the current and expected future costs of electricity generated using diesel, not to mention the environmental costs and risks of unloading diesel drums on tropical atolls. Energy costs underpin the economic and social development of these nations and making a positive impact on these issues is the single most important reason we started this business.” said PowerSmart Managing Director, Mike Bassett-Smith.
- Powersmart News, 28 October 2012 - PowerSmart finishes Tokelau Renewable Energy Project
- New Zealand Aid Programme, March 2012 - Tokelau: a leading light in renewable energy
Praying for an Energy Miracle. By David Rotman
Every clean-tech startup these days claims to have a breakthrough that will finally make renewable and clean energy sources cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels. But are we really on the brink of a clean-energy economy?
The company’s breakthrough is strictly off-limits to outsiders. Work on the technology goes on in an unseen part of the sprawling one-story building, beyond the machine shop, the various testing and fabrication instruments, the large open office space stuffed with cubicles. What a visitor gets to see instead is a thin wafer of silicon that would be familiar to anyone in the solar-power industry. And that’s exactly the point. The company’s advance is all about reducing the expense of manufacturing conventional solar cells.
In its conference room is a large chart showing the declining cost of electricity produced by solar panels over the last three decades. The slightly bumpy downward-sloping line is approaching a wide horizontal swath labeled “grid parity”—the stage at which electricity made using solar power will be as cheap as power generated from fossil fuels. It is the promised land for renewable power, and the company, 1366 Technologies, believes its improvements in manufacturing techniques can help make it possible for solar power to finally get there.
It’s an ambitious target: even though silicon-based photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, have been coming down in price for years, they are still too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. As a result, solar power accounts for far less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity production. And 1366 founder Emanuel Sachs, who is the company’s chief technology officer and an MIT professor of mechanical engineering, says that even though solar might be “within striking distance” of natural gas, existing solar technology won’t be able to compete with coal. “To displace coal will take another level of cost reduction,” says Sachs. That’s where 1366’s breakthrough comes in. The company is developing a way to make thin sheets of silicon without slicing them from solid chunks of the element, a costly chore. “The only way for photovoltaics to compete with coal is with technologies like ours,” he says.
Once photovoltaics can compete with coal on price, “the world very much changes,” says Frank van Mierlo, the company’s CEO. “Solar will become a real part of our energy supply. We can then generate a significant part of our energy from the sun.”
In a number of ways, 1366 (the name refers to the average number of watts of solar energy that hit each square meter of Earth over a year) reflects the ambition of a whole generation of energy startups. These companies often refer to “game-changing” technologies that will redefine the economics of non-fossil-fuel energy sources. Many were founded over the last decade, during a boom in venture capital funding for “clean tech”—not only in solar but also in wind, biofuels, and batteries. Many have benefited from increases in federal support for energy research since President Obama took office. Though the companies are working on different technologies, they share a business strategy: to make clean energy sources cheap enough, without any government subsidies, to compete with fossil fuels. At that point, capitalism will kick into high gear, and investors will rush to build a new energy infrastructure and displace fossil fuels—or so the argument goes.
The problem, however, is that we are probably not just a few breakthroughs away from deploying cheaper, cleaner energy sources on a massive scale. Though few question the value of developing new energy technologies, scaling them up will be so difficult and expensive that many policy experts say such advances alone, without the help of continuing government subsidies and other incentives, will make little impact on our energy mix. Regardless of technological advances, these experts are skeptical that renewables are close to achieving grid parity, or that batteries are close to allowing an electric vehicle to compete with gas-powered cars on price and range.
In the case of renewables, it depends on how you define grid parity and whether you account for the costs of the storage and backup power systems that become necessary with intermittent power sources like solar and wind. If you define grid parity as “delivering electricity whenever you want, in whatever volumes you want,” says David Victor, the director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, then today’s new renewables aren’t even close. And if new energy technologies are going to scale up enough to make a dent in carbon dioxide emissions, he adds, “that’s the definition that matters.”
A $5 Light For The Developing World With An Ingenious Fuel: Gravity. By Ben Schiller
The GravityLight gets power from the slow lowering of a weight. All it takes is enough elbow grease to hoist the bag, and you can light a room with nothing but a bag of sand.
We’ve written about several projects delivering cheap electric light to developing countries. The need is enormous: more than 1 billion people still lack electricity, and many rely on kerosene—which is relatively expensive, highly polluting, and comes with multiple health and fire risks.
Many of the solutions out there are ingeniously solar powered. But GravityLight, an idea from two British designers, is something completely different. It gets its energy from gravity: A 22-pound bag of sand that gradually cranks a gear-train attached to a D.C. motor. One lift is enough for 30 minutes of light, and recharging is as simple as pushing the weight up again.
Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves are crowdfunding the prototype on Indiegogo, and have already raised almost $100,000. They plan to distribute 1,000 units to villagers during a test stage, before developing and commercializing further. They estimate the current cost at $10 per machine, but reckon they can halve that by scaling up, and finding better materials.
The two initially worked with SolarAid, an NGO that wants to eliminate kerosene lamps in Africa by 2020, because the fuel is expensive and the fumes are bad for people’s health when trapped in a small space. But they soon found that solar has limitations. One, panels and batteries are still relatively costly, especially for durable models. Two, batteries deteriorate over time, and need to be replaced. And three, you have to dispose old units, presenting a potential environmental challenge.
By contrast, GravityLight works inexhaustibly as long as you have the strength to lift it, and provides light whenever you need it. You don’t need the sun to shine, or to store up enough power for evening’s use.
“There is a lot of money going into solar, and it’s being seen as the only way forward,” Riddiford says. “What we’re saying is there are lots of places that don’t have enough sunlight to charge panels. If you have two or three dull days, you are running out of light.”
The cheapest solar lamps, which include both panel and battery, cost only $5. But Riddiford says you don’t get much for that—he calls the models “toys”—and there are costs attached, such as the price of replacing batteries.
He’s not dismissing solar, though. “Once people have started saving money, after a year or so they might be able to afford a reasonable solar system, if they have enough sunlight,” he says.
Riddiford and Reeves don’t claim GravityLight produces a brilliant quality beam—it’s just better than what’s on offer at the moment. “Unfortunately the potential energy isn’t that huge. But it is sufficient light, and it’s free light, for someone who has no other access to electricity.”
The illumination is equivalent to a kerosene lamp, he says, but can be supplemented with “task lights” running off the terminals at the bottom of the unit.
“You can do a Christmas tree string of lights extremely well. The strange thing is that you can light 10 LEDs almost as well as one LED. So, you can have general illumination and have task lights,” Riddiford says.
It’s nothing like being on the grid. But, as Riddiford says, it’s already better than kerosene. During the testing phase, we’ll find out how it stacks up against solar as well.
Even before a jolt of electricity was applied to animate its body, the cyborg twitched with signs of life. No, this isn’t a scene from Frankenstein but a lab at Harvard University, where the world’s first artificial jellyfish has been created. With a single pulse of electricity, the artificial jellyfish even swims like the real thing.
Called a medusoid, after the umbrella-shaped class of jellyfish it mimics, the silicone cyborg uses heart muscle cells from a rat to recreate the pumping motion of the moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita. When video of the medusoid is shown alongside that of the real thing, the similarity is startling.
“It’s a bit eerie,” says Kit Parker of Harvard, who created the jellyfish with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “But the strangest science is often the most awe-inspiring. The first time we got it to work and swim across a dish by itself was a big moment for us.”
The work has a serious aim. Parker’s team hope to help the search for novel drugs to treat heart problems by studying how differently shaped structures in the heart make heart muscle work in different ways. “Current drug discovery does not take into account [heart] structure, yet heart disease causes structural changes that lead to dysfunction,” he says.
Parker was inspired by the similarity between the pumping heart muscle tissue he had seen in the lab and the jellyfish propulsion he saw while visiting the New England Aquarium in Boston. “I then knew I could build a jellyfish,” he says. It was tougher than he thought, however, and took four years to perfect.
To build the medusoid, the team made a mould based on a 3D computer model of a juvenile jellyfish just 6 millimetres across. They then coated the mould with heart muscle cells from a rat, lining them up in such a way that the alignment of the fibre networks in the muscle matched that of the fibres in the jellyfish. Next they coated it in a thin layer of a liquid silicone polymer.
Once the coating had set, the medusoid could be peeled off the mould with its rat muscle network intact. All this occurred in a solution of magnesium and glucose-rich water, which kept the rat cells fed.
Sometimes the medusoid was already moving in an uncoordinated way when peeled off the mould. But applying a short 1 hertz alternating current to the solution set it going in a realistic way – without the need for any extra power – for up to an hour. Each contraction of the heart muscle makes the artificial jellyfish’s body suddenly bend, propelling it forward. The rubber body then slowly regains its initial shape, before contracting again.
“We found both the spatial arrangement of the rat heart cells and the electrical stimulation frequency affect propulsion,” says Parker. The team will now mimic other marine organisms with “elegant muscular structures”.
The medusoids are “ingenious”, says Che Connon, who is developing tissue-engineered artificial corneas at the University of Reading in the UK. Biotech labs could use the cyborgs as filters, he says, with possible larger-scale uses. “I could easily imagine medusoids used in large numbers to clean up oil spills in a similar manner to the way a jellyfish filters out its food,” he adds.
The medusoid technology could also be used as implants in the human body powered by the nutrients in body fluids. One example might be as a pacemaker to replace the metal, battery-powered devices of today.
Journal reference: Nature Biotechnology, DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2269
Oil production may fall in 10 years – not because it is running out but because electric cars will be cheaper and gasoline engines will be better
PEOPLE have fretted about when the world’s oil will start to run out ever since M. King Hubbert came up with the idea of “peak oil” back in the 1950s. The American geologist, who worked for Shell, pointed out that we are destined to reach a moment when oil production stops rising and goes into terminal decline. With it, the era of cheap oil that fuelled the post-war economic boom would end. The idea still provokes great debate, and many forecasters are predicting that global production will peak by the end of this decade as supplies dwindle.
Now there is a different view. A small number of analysts forecast that oil production will start to fall by 2020 - not because we are running out, but because we just won’t need it.
They argue that the world will wean itself off oil voluntarily, through major advances in vehicle technology. Peak oil will not be a supply-side phenomenon brought about by shrinking reserves, but by motorists buying electric cars and conventional cars with highly efficient engines. If they are right, this shift will start the long-term transition from oil to electricity as the main transport fuel, reduce economies’ vulnerability to spikes in the oil price, and cap greenhouse emissions from crude oil.
It is a bold prediction. Could it be right?
Judging by motor industry investment and the number of new models being launched, the prospects for the electric car are brightening. All the major manufacturers are producing cars with varying degrees of electrification, ranging from hybrids, such as the Volvo V60, that run on petrol and electricity to cars such as the Nissan Leaf that are powered entirely by an electric battery (see “Six degrees of electrification”). There are now about 130 models in total.
Sales so far have proved disappointing, though. Total car sales in the US last year jumped by a tenth over the previous year. But electric vehicle sales rose just 2.3 per cent, according to research firm WardsAuto. Sales of General Motor’s Chevy Volt missed their target by a fifth, and those of the pioneering Toyota Prius hybrid have been falling since 2007. So can electric vehicles really make a serious dent in global oil demand?
Investment analysts at Deutsche Bank in New York argue in a series of reports that the electric vehicle is a disruptive technology and its short-term potential is widely underappreciated. “Transportation is likely to change more in the next 10 years than over the last 50,” says Dan Galves, the bank’s chief car-industry analyst. That’s not because of some imminent technological breakthrough, but because he expects that the relative costs of electric and petrol cars will soon be transformed.
Electric cars are far more expensive to buy than their petrol equivalents, largely because the cost of the lithium-ion battery that powers the vehicle is so high - currently about $12,000. But the fuel costs of electric vehicles are already far lower than for petrol-powered ones. In the US, for example, the petrol for an average car costs about 8 cents per kilometre, compared with less than 2 cents for the electricity to power an electric car. In Europe, where fuel tax is higher, the numbers are 12.5 cents and 2.5 cents, respectively. Either way, that is a huge gap. So for electric vehicles to compete on price, battery costs need only fall far enough to be swallowed by that gap, and Galves believes that it is likely to happen sooner than most people think.
First, he expects the costs of batteries to plummet as mass production ramps up - just as they did for laptops - to less than $7000 by 2015. Second, the gap is likely to widen with most analysts expecting oil prices to keep rising. “On a 10-to-15-year view, it’s almost impossible for electrification not to carve out a decent portion of the market,” says Galves, who expects electric vehicles to be economic within a decade even without the subsidies that many governments currently give.
The effect of falling electric vehicle costs will be reinforced by strengthening fuel efficiency and emissions policies in the world’s most important car markets. The policies of the world’s biggest gas guzzler will soon be among the toughest. In 1975, US president Jimmy Carter passed a law forcing vehicle manufacturers in the US to meet average fuel efficiency standards. For cars, that number has languished at around 27 miles per gallon (11.5 kilometres per litre) since the early 1990s, but recent legislation means average fuel economy must double to 54.5 mpg by 2025. The standard has been rising since 1978, and by 2020 the targets become so demanding, says Galves, that car manufacturers will not be able to meet them without selling a significant number of electric vehicles. Galves expects them to make up a fifth of US car sales in 2020.
The impact will be dramatic. Every day, US vehicles guzzle about 9 million barrels of oil - the biggest single element in our daily global consumption of almost 90 million barrels (see chart). Deutsche Bank oil analysts expect US petrol consumption to plummet, almost halving by 2030.
The story is the same in the European Union, which regulates carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre rather than miles per gallon (see chart). Cars manufactured there in 2020 must reduce their average emissions by more than a quarter compared with models made in 2015. Such standards will especially encourage electrification because they govern “tailpipe” emissions pumped out in the day-to-day running of car engines and not those emitted while they are being built. By this measure, electric vehicles are zero emission. Deutsche Bank expects them to make up 25 per cent of Europe’s car sales in 2020, accelerating the decline in demand for petrol.
Petrol still rules
So much for the world’s richer nations. In China, where the developing car market is booming, the demand for petrol will continue to rise for at least a decade. Yet the global impact will be limited because the size of China’s car fleet is currently just a fifth of that of the US. The Chinese government too is strongly committed to electric vehicles as one way of tackling appalling air quality in the cities and the country’s dependence on imported oil. Deutsche Bank forecasts that Chinese petrol demand will start to fall from 2025, as electric vehicles become more common (see chart).
The net effect is that global petrol demand will peak as early as 2015. “From that point forward,” writes Deutsche Bank’s lead oil analyst Paul Sankey in a company report. “We believe gasoline demand will be on an inexorable and accelerating decline.” And as a result, he argues, global demand for crude oil will go the same way in about 2020.
Others disagree with Deutsche Bank’s analysis. The International Energy Agency has long been dismissive about predictions of an early peak in the global oil supply. It is just as dismissive that demand will decline within the next couple of decades. It forecasts that daily oil demand will rise to 107 million barrels by 2035 on the basis of current government policies. Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist, believes that there are simply too many cars in the world - about a billion and rising - for electric vehicles to have a meaningful impact in the short term. Although most governments have policies to encourage electrification, they are very unlikely to achieve their targets. Even if they do, says Birol, the number of electric vehicles on the road in 2020 will be just 20 million - about 2 per cent of the total fleet.
Stefanie Lang, a London-based automobile analyst at investment-research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, agrees that electric vehicles will make only limited progress over the next 10 to 15 years. She argues that they will struggle because they will remain far too expensive and will face fierce competition from the incumbent technology - the internal combustion engine.
Even after a century of development, the internal combustion engine has the capacity to make major improvements in fuel economy, says Lang, rattling off three examples. “Stop/start” mechanisms that kill the engine when the car pauses in traffic can produce average fuel savings of 5 to 9 per cent, and will probably come as standard on all European models by 2015. Fitting cars with smaller engines and turbochargers will use 3 to 6 per cent less fuel to deliver the same performance as conventional engines. Injecting fuel directly into a petrol engine, rather than mixing it first with air in a carburettor, can raise fuel economy by another 3 to 5 per cent. “They aren’t headline grabbing technologies, necessarily,” says Lang, “but they are the low-hanging fruit of fuel efficiency and can reduce fuel consumption across the board.” She forecasts that these and other known technologies will lead to an improvement in efficiency of up to 30 per cent by 2020.
The upshot, according to Lang, is that car manufacturers can meet US and European standards simply by investing in incremental improvements to existing models, rather than struggling to sell more electric vehicles.
Such investment could still have a dramatic impact on global oil demand. Although cars would still be fuelled largely by oil, another study shows how the increased efficiency of traditional engines would have much the same effect as electric vehicles. Analysts at engineering consultancy Ricardo in London surveyed the energy efficiency improvements being planned by car manufacturers and plugged them into a global model that includes factors such as government policies, demographics and gross domestic product. They were surprised to find thatglobal oil demand would peak by the end of this decade, and could drop 10 per cent by 2035.
Like others, Ricardo concluded that electric vehicles would make little headway this decade, and that improvements in the efficiency of conventional engines would be the primary factor.
Despite an 80 per cent rise in vehicle numbers by 2035, oil demand will fall largely because vehicle efficiency will more than double, claims Peter Hughes, head of Ricardo’s energy practice in London. Other factors lower fuel consumption too: the ageing population in key markets, because older people drive less; working from home; and the oil price, even though the model in Ricardo’s research assumes just $100 per barrel to 2035. The factors working against a growth in demand for oil are increasing in number and intensity, says Hughes. “The world is nearing a paradigm shift in oil demand.”
So what does the motor industry itself think lies ahead? That the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered, for one thing. In a recent survey, consultants KPMG asked 200 top executives of car companies how long they thought the traditional engine would continue to prevail over electric vehicles. Some 70 per cent answered 1 to 10 years, but only 18 per cent thought 10 to 20 years.
One reason for the result could be that electrification is now widely seen as the best way to make major reductions in transport emissions, even taking into account the emissions from generating the electricity in the first place. That is because electric vehicles are far more efficient than petrol cars. Take the Nissan Leaf. It is responsible for just 99 grams of CO2 per kilometre, even when charged on electricity generated by the average mix of coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables. That makes it 40 per cent cleaner than a typical petrol car in Europe. And as electricity generation becomes cleaner, the emissions of electric vehicles will fall further still - unlike those of cars powered by biofuel or natural gas (seeNew Scientist, 25 February, p 48).
Lang points out that future improvements to the internal combustion engine will become progressively more expensive and less effective, while legally binding standards get tougher. She reckons the turning point will be 2025, when the US fuel economy standard reaches 54.5 miles per gallon (23 kilometres per litre) and Europe’s upper limit on CO2 emissions for new cars could be as low as 70 grams per kilometre. “It’s going to be very difficult to achieve that with low electrification,” says Lang. Both she and Hughes see electric vehicle sales beginning to take off from around that time.
In one sense it doesn’t matter when electric vehicles supplant the internal combustion engine. As long as the motor industry delivers the expected efficiency gains somehow, the climate will benefit. But what if both sides of the argument are wrong, and neither technology delivers large cuts in oil demand?
Super-efficient engines may fail to change oil demand if their efficiency gains are eroded by the “rebound effect”, by which rising efficiency stimulates increased consumption. Researchers at the UK Energy Research Centre in London concluded that 10 to 30 per cent of the benefits could be lost because efficiency gains make it cheaper to drive, encouraging people to use their cars more.
Economic growth could hamper progress too: one scenario considered by the International Energy Agency indicates that improvements in fuel economy will be overwhelmed by rising vehicle numbers even if governments rigorously enforce tighter rules on energy efficiency. On the other hand, recession and fiscal austerity could hamper progress if governments start cutting back their financial support for electric vehicles.
If the forecasts of Deutsche Bank, Ricardo and Sanford C. Bernstein are anything to go by, the transition away from oil could be far less painful than many expect. But if technology fails to slake our thirst for oil, then supply will struggle to keep up with demand and peak oil may turn out to be a supply-side phenomenon after all, just as predicted all those years ago.
Six degrees of electrification
• A micro hybrid has a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) with a “stop/start” mechanism that kills the engine whenever it pauses in traffic. This means it needs a more powerful lead-acid battery and starter motor. Advanced versions use this not just to start the engine, but also to drive the car briefly after it restarts, when running an ICE is at its least efficient. Offered as standard on many new cars, it can deliver fuel savings of 5 to 9 per cent. It is not generally considered to be an electric vehicle.
• A mild hybrid is somewhere between a micro and full hybrid. It has regenerative braking, which uses energy that would otherwise be lost as heat during braking to recharge the battery; a traction battery that is used to power the car instead of just the starter motor and peripherals; and an electric motor. But unlike the full hybrid, its electric motor only ever supplements the ICE and never powers the vehicle entirely by itself - so it is not considered an electric vehicle. One version of the Honda Civic is a mild hybrid.
• A hybrid, or full hybrid, such as the Toyota Prius, has an internal combustion engine, an electric motor and a small nickel-metal hydride traction battery. All the electricity is generated on-board by the ICE or regenerative braking. The motors are arranged in parallel, so each can drive the wheels independently. Many combinations are possible, but typically the car will rely on electric power up to about 40 kilometres per hour, when the ICE takes over. The new Prius C can do up to 53 miles per gallon (22.5 kilometres per litre).
• A plug-in hybrid, such as the Volvo V60, has the same configuration as a hybrid, along with a socket to charge the battery from the grid.
• A range-extended electric vehicle, such GM’s Chevy Volt (or Vauxhall Ampera in Europe), is similar to a plug-in hybrid except that the ICE is only there to generate electricity for the battery and electric motor, and never drives the wheels directly. The vehicle travels on grid electricity only for the first 45 kilometres or so, and then switches to electricity from the ICE until the next recharge. The Volt does the equivalent of 40 kilometres per litre.
• A battery electric, such as the Nissan Leaf, has only a battery and electric motor and is entirely dependent on grid electricity and regenerative braking. The Leaf can travel about 160 kilometres on a single charge.
David Strahan is an energy writer based in London
Many people are apparently unaware of the history of the past 20 years, and we can assume that they did not read the words written by Dennis Ross, Shlomo Ben Ami, Gilad Sher, Dan Meridor, Bill Clinton and others.
These people also did not hear apparently what Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak had to say about the six times where Israel offered a comprehensive peace agreement, which included the division of Jerusalem, but the Palestinians rejected it.
For that reason, these people are now happy to slam Minister Gilad Erdan and explain that he is a primitive, ignorant person for suggesting to cut off Gaza’s electricity supply in case of a power shortage in Israel. After all, the details are of no significance for these people.
So what if Hamas activists get extra electricity for free, and so what if Israel cannot assume responsibility for the injustice done by the Hamas government to residents of the Gaza Strip, just like Israel is not responsible for President Bashar Assad’s crimes in Syria.
So what if 4.5% of Israel’s electricity supply is directed to Gaza, a place that Israel left some seven years ago. So what if Israeli citizens were expelled from their homes in order to enable the Palestinians to live in Gaza under an autonomous government, a move that prompted rocket attacks on southern Israel residents.
So what if Minister Erdan brought an expert delegation from Gaza to Israel in order to learn about desalination, saving energy and other issues, and the Ministry he heads treats the environment as an issue that cuts across borders.
Why not blame him for racism when we can?
Israel’s Pythagoras introduces solar-panel windows
Pythagoras Solar recently introduced an innovative way to power buildings – solar solar-panel windows, Ynet has learned.
The startup company stated that seeing how buildings – especially skyscrapers – are the largest energy consumers in the urban sphere worldwide, they should be made to be as energy efficient as possible.
Israeli Innovation News quoted Pythagoras Board Member Meir Ukeles as saying that idea came as a way to solve the problem of positioning large solar panels in crowded urban areas.
The Israel-based Pythagoras aims to harness solar power to create self-sustaining green buildings, which will have reduced energy consumption. To that aim, the company developed the “Photovoltaic Glass Unit,” which is said to be “a window that has solar cells encased between double panes of glass, which simultaneously saves and generates electricity.”
The electricity generated by the solar-panel window is then run through a DC/AC inverter and channeled into the building’s electrical system.
Pythagoras Solar, which has a patent pending on the optical technology behind the Photovoltaic Glass Unit, further said it can generate enough electricity to power whole buildings.
“The windows have a higher transparency level than regular windows and therefore optimize natural daylight inside buildings and increases the energy efficiency gains through reduced air-conditioning and lighting costs,” Israeli Innovation News said.
According to the report, the solar cells comprising the unit are adaptable and can be installed on nearly any kind of window, allowing them to be integrated into conventional construction processes.
“The technology exists and the need is there. It’s just a question of fine-tuning and getting it on the market,” Ukeles said.
Pythagoras Solar said that it already has several orders from companies in the United States, France and Japan.
Ever since University of Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov first isolated flakes of graphene in 2004 using that most high-tech pieces of equipment - adhesive tape - the one-atom sheet of carbon has continued to astound researchers with its remarkable properties. Now Professor Sir Andre Geim, (he’s now not only a Nobel Prize winner but also a Knight Bachelor), has led a team that has added superpermeability with respect to water to graphene’s ever lengthening list of extraordinary characteristics.
Graphene has already proven to be the thinnest known material in the universe, strongest material ever measured, the best-known conductor of heat and electricity, and the stiffest known material, while also the most ductile. But it seems the two-dimensional lattice of carbon atoms just can’t stop showing off.
Stacking membranes of a chemical derivative of graphene called graphene oxide, which is a graphene sheet randomly covered with other molecules such as hydroxyl groups OH-, scientists at the University of Manchester created laminates that were hundreds of times thinner than a human hair but remained strong, flexible and were easy to handle.
When the team sealed a metal container using this film, they say that even the most sensitive equipment was unable to detect air or any other gas, including helium, leaking through. The team then tried the same thing with water and, to their surprise, found that it evaporated and diffused through the graphene-oxide membranes as if they weren’t even there. The evaporation rate was the same whether the container was sealed or completely open.
“Graphene oxide sheets arrange in such a way that between them there is room for exactly one layer of water molecules. They arrange themselves in one molecule thick sheets of ice which slide along the graphene surface with practically no friction, explains Dr Rahul Nair, who was leading the experimental work. “If another atom or molecule tries the same trick, it finds that graphene capillaries either shrink in low humidity or get clogged with water molecules.”
Professor Geim added, “Helium gas is hard to stop. It slowly leaks even through a millimetre -thick window glass but our ultra-thin films completely block it. At the same time, water evaporates through them unimpeded. Materials cannot behave any stranger. You cannot help wondering what else graphene has in store for us.”
Although graphene’s superpermeability to water makes it suitable for situations where water needs to be removed from a mixture without removing the other ingredients, the researchers don’t offer ideas for any immediate applications that could take advantage of this property. However, they did seal a bottle of vodka with the membranes and found that the distilled solution did indeed become stronger over time. But they don’t foresee graphene being used in distilleries.
However, Professor Geim adds, “the properties are so unusual that it is hard to imagine that they cannot find some use in the design of filtration, separation or barrier membranes and for selective removal of water.”
The University of Manchester team’s paper, “Unimpeded Permeation of Water Through Helium-Leak-Tight Graphene-Based Membranes,” appears in the journalScience