Boosting gas mileage by turning engine heat into electricity

"Thermoelectric Power Generation from Lanthanum Strontium Titanium Oxide at Room Temperature Through the Addition of Graphene" ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces

Automakers are looking for ways to improve their fleets’ average fuel efficiency, and scientists may have a new way to help them. In a report in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, one team reports the development of a material that could convert engine heat that’s otherwise wasted into electrical energy to help keep a car running — and reduce the need for fuels. It could also have applications in aerospace, manufacturing and other sectors.

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A new way to make laser-like beams using 1,000x less power

ANN ARBOR—With precarious particles called polaritons that straddle the worlds of light and matter, University of Michigan researchers have demonstrated a new, practical and potentially more efficient way to make a coherent laser-like beam.

They have made what's believed to be the first polariton laser that is fueled by electrical current as opposed to light, and also works at room temperature, rather than way below zero.

Those attributes make the device the most real-world ready of the handful of polariton lasers ever developed. It represents a milestone like none the field has seen since the invention of the most common type of laser – the semiconductor diode – in the early 1960s, the researchers say. While the first lasers were made in the 1950s, it wasn't until the semiconductor version, fueled by electricity rather than light, that the technology took off.

This work could advance efforts to put lasers on computer circuits to replace wire connections, leading to smaller and more powerful electronics. It may also have applications in medical devices and treatments and more.

The researchers didn't develop it with a specific use in mind. They point out that when conventional lasers were introduced, no one envisioned how ubiquitous they would become. Today they're used in the fiber-optic communication that makes the Internet and cable television possible. They are also in DVD players, eye surgery tools, robotics sensors and defense technologies, for example.

A polariton is part light and part matter. Polariton lasers harness these particles to emit light. They are predicted to be more energy efficient than traditional lasers. The new prototype requires 1,000 times less electricity to operate than its conventional counterpart made of the same material.

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Nuclear fusion milestone passed at US lab

By Paul Rincon

Science Editor, BBC News website

Researchers at a US lab have passed a crucial milestone on the way to their ultimate goal of achieving self-sustaining nuclear fusion.

Harnessing fusion - the process that powers the Sun - could provide an unlimited and cheap source of energy.

But to be viable, fusion power plants would have to produce more energy than they consume, which has proven elusive.

Now, a breakthrough by scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) could boost hopes of scaling up fusion.

NIF, based at Livermore in California, uses 192 beams from the world's most powerful laser to heat and compress a small pellet of hydrogen fuel to the point where nuclear fusion reactions take place.

The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel - the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world.

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The formula for turning cement into metal

BY TONA KUNZ

LEMONT, Ill. – In a move that would make the Alchemists of King Arthur’s time green with envy, scientists have unraveled the formula for turning liquid cement into liquid metal. This makes cement a semi-conductor and opens up its use in the profitable consumer electronics marketplace for thin films, protective coatings, and computer chips.

“This new material has lots of applications, including as thin-film resistors used in liquid-crystal displays, basically the flat panel computer monitor that you are probably reading this from at the moment,” said Chris Benmore, a physicist from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory who worked with a team of scientists from Japan, Finland and Germany to take the “magic” out of the cement-to-metal transformation. Benmore and Shinji Kohara from Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute/SPring-8 led the research effort.

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Biofuels patent marks milestone for Madison research hub

By Thomas Content of the Journal Sentinel

C5-6 Technologies of Middleton and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Madison are celebrating a milestone - the awarding of the first patent from the center's next-generation biofuels research.

The patent covers research into a heat-resistant enzyme that is well suited to break down the sugars contained inside the cells of plants.

C5-6 is the renewable fuels arm of the Middleton biotech firm Lucigen. The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center was founded in 2007 as one of three national centers created by the U.S. Department of Energy to focus on research and development for bioenergy. The center was awarded $125 million over five years.

"It's a good technology and, as much as anything, it makes an important milestone in terms of the center," said David Pluymers, the center's intellectual property manager. "We've been at this for about 4½ years now. We went through a start-up phase and moved to a point where our labs really got rolling."

The Madison center's mission is to find and develop breakthrough technologies that can enable transportation fuels to be made affordably from plants that aren't also food sources. Examples of these nonfood biofuel sources, known as cellulosic biomass, include the corn stalks and switch grass.

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Scientists Create Piezoelectric Generators from Bacteriophage Thin Films

Scientists have created bacteriophage-based microelectronic devices that can generate enough electricity to power a liquid-crystal display (LCD) when subjected to mechanical force. The prototype piezoelectric devices are composed of engineered M13 bacteriophages that self-assemble into thin films.

Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley demonstrate the use of the thin films to generate power by layering multiple 1cm2 films between two electrodes and connecting the setup to an LCD. When pressure was repeatedly applied and released, the microgenerator produced up to 6 nA of current and 400 mV of potential, equivalent to about a quarter of the voltage of an AAA battery.

Seung-Wuk Lee, Ph.D., and colleagues say they hope that the proof-of-concept prototype will pave the way to the development of cheap virus-based microelectronic devices that generate power from everyday activities such as shutting doors or climbing stairs. They report their achievement in Nature Nanotechnology in a paper titled “Virus-based piezoelectric energy generation.”

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Nanotechnology could recover energy

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., April 17 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers say a new technique could harvest energy from hot pipes or engine components to recover energy wasted in factories, power plants and cars.

Scientists at Purdue University say they've used nanotechnology techniques to coat glass fibers with a new "thermoelectric" material they developed.

When thermoelectric materials are heated on one side, electrons flow to the cooler side, generating an electrical current.

Fibers treated in this manner could be wrapped around industrial pipes in factories and power plants, as well as on car engines and automotive exhaust systems, to recapture much of the wasted energy, the researchers said.

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'Microgrids' energy storage project announced

Universities, businesses work together to make Wisconsin a leader

By Thomas Content of the Journal Sentinel

A new project aimed at making Wisconsin a national center of expertise for energy "microgrids" was announced Monday by a team that includes the state's four largest engineering schools and several large Milwaukee-area employers.

By using sophisticated new energy storage devices and battery systems, microgrid "energy islands" could function for some time off a main power grid if it were disrupted - and they also could maximize use of energy harnessed from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power.

Wisconsin companies are already working to develop technologies for advanced energy storage systems, including the state's largest company, Johnson Controls Inc., and one of its smallest ZBB Energy Corp. of Menomonee Falls. They see a market for using energy storage to overcome the challenges of renewable sources that stop making power when the sun sets or winds ease.

Military spending on microgrids is expected to grow fourfold between now and 2020, with Department of Defense spending alone expected to reach $1.6 billion by then, researchers at the market-research firm SB Energy said in a report this year.

Microgrids will be set up at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2012 and at UW-Madison's new Wisconsin Energy Institute Building, scheduled to open in 2013, according to the initiative by the Center for Renewable Energy Systems. The Center aims to conduct applied research to help Wisconsin companies develop projects for the renewable energy and energy storage markets.

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Berkeley Scientists Discover Inexpensive Metal Catalyst for Generating Hydrogen from Water

Hydrogen would command a key role in future renewable energy technologies, experts agree, if a relatively cheap, efficient and carbon-neutral means of producing it can be developed. An important step towards this elusive goal has been taken by a team of researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley. The team has discovered an inexpensive metal catalyst that can effectively generate hydrogen gas from water.

“Our new proton reduction catalyst is based on a molybdenum-oxo metal complex that is about 70 times cheaper than platinum, today’s most widely used metal catalyst for splitting the water molecule,” said Hemamala Karunadasa, one of the co-discoverers of this complex. “In addition, our catalyst does not require organic additives, and can operate in neutral water, even if it is dirty, and can operate in sea water, the most abundant source of hydrogen on earth and a natural electrolyte. These qualities make our catalyst ideal for renewable energy and sustainable chemistry.”

Karunadasa holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division and UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Department. She is the lead author of a paper describing this work that appears in the April 29, 2010 issue of the journal Nature, titled “A molecular molybdenum-oxo catalyst for generating hydrogen from water.” Co-authors of this paper were Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long, who also hold joint appointments with Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley. Chang, in addition, is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Hydrogen gas, whether combusted or used in fuel cells to generate electricity, emits only water vapor as an exhaust product, which is why this nation would already be rolling towards a hydrogen economy if only there were hydrogen wells to tap. However, hydrogen gas does not occur naturally and has to be produced. Most of the hydrogen gas in the United States today comes from natural gas, a fossil fuel. While inexpensive, this technique adds huge volumes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Hydrogen can also be produced through the electrolysis of water – using electricity to split molecules of water into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen. This is an environmentally clean and sustainable method of production – especially if the electricity is generated via a renewable technology such as solar or wind – but requires a water-splitting catalyst.

Nature has developed extremely efficient water-splitting enzymes – called hydrogenases – for use by plants during photosynthesis, however, these enzymes are highly unstable and easily deactivated when removed from their native environment. Human activities demand a stable metal catalyst that can operate under non-biological settings.

Metal catalysts are commercially available, but they are low valence precious metals whose high costs make their widespread use prohibitive. For example, platinum, the best of them, costs some $2,000 an ounce.

“The basic scientific challenge has been to create earth-abundant molecular systems that produce hydrogen from water with high catalytic activity and stability,” Chang says. “We believe our discovery of a molecular molybdenum-oxo catalyst for generating hydrogen from water without the use of additional acids or organic co-solvents establishes a new chemical paradigm for creating reduction catalysts that are highly active and robust in aqueous media.”

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Stanford researchers find electrical current stemming from plants

Stanford engineers have generated electrical current by tapping into the electron activity in individual algae cells. Photosynthesis excites electrons, which can then be turned into an electrical current using a specially designed gold electrode. This study could be the first step toward carbon-free electricity directly from plants.

BY GWYNETH DICKEY

In an electrifying first, Stanford scientists have plugged into algae cells and harnessed a tiny electrical current. They found it at the very source of energy production – photosynthesis, a plant's method of converting sunlight to chemical energy. It may be a first step toward generating high-efficiency bioelectricity that doesn't give off carbon dioxide as a byproduct, the researchers say.

"We believe we are the first to extract electrons out of living plant cells," said WonHyoung Ryu, the lead author of the paper published in the March issue of Nano Letters. Ryu conducted the experiments while he was a research associate for mechanical engineering Professor Fritz Prinz.

The Stanford research team developed a unique, ultra-sharp nanoelectrode made of gold, specially designed for probing inside cells. They gently pushed it through the algal cell membranes, which sealed around it, and the cell stayed alive. From the photosynthesizing cells, the electrode collected electrons that had been energized by light and the researchers generated a tiny electrical current.

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