Tuesday, April 28, 2009

10 technologies on the ‘green’ frontier


Technology helped humans blast off from Earth and circle the moon in the 1968, giving astronauts the chance to make this iconic image of planet Earth. Scientists and environmentalists are now hoping technology will help humans grounded on terra firma find harmony at home. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about 10 technologies on the green frontier.

Electric vehicles rise from the grave

The EV-1, a first-generation electric vehicle introduced by GM in 1997, was killed in 2003, as chronicled in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Today, there's a "whole new wave" of electric vehicles on the horizon, says Brian Fan, a senior director at the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based market research firm. For example, Tesla Motors offers an all-electric Roadster, shown here. The company also recently unveiled plans for a sedan. The five-door car with room for seven people will get up to 300 miles on a single charge. Other cars are creating a buzz, ranging from the Chevrolet Volt to the offerings from Miles Electric Vehicles and Aptera Motors.

Electric bicycles gaining traction

Several companies sell electric bicycles, which give the old-fashioned, pedal-powered transport a battery-powered assist. But Fan says none of the electric bikes has yet hit a home run in the marketplace. Battery technology, he says, remains the roadblock. Lightweight batteries such as lithium ion models, akin to those found in laptop computers, are expensive. Cheaper lead-acid batteries are heavy. Nevertheless, sales are growing steadily as consumers look for environmentally friendly forms of transportation, according to research conducted for the National Bicycle Dealers Association. In this image, Ed Poor, who works at a New York-based electric bike and scooter dealership, rides an eZee Quando II electric bike.

Energy storage poised for a breakthrough

The quest for efficient and inexpensive methods to store generated electricity is finally getting serious research and development attention, according to Daniel Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. A few companies, for example, are considering a material called lithium ion phosphate, shown here in a lab dish, for use in batteries that charge up in minutes instead of hours. Better batteries could make recharging electric vehicles away from home as quick as filling up a gas tank. Such batteries also could provide a place to store electricity generated by wind at night for use during the day.

Not-so-mighty wind ready to storm cities

A batch of companies has recently sprouted a full crop of so-called small-scale wind turbines designed for rooftops and backyards. These turbines can fill a good portion of city-dwellers' electricity needs, Fan says. For example, this Dutch-made egg beater lookalike, known as the Energy Ball, can produce about 500 kilowatt-hours per year in winds that blow 15 mph on average. However, zoning ordinances and local utilities are generally ill-equipped to deal with intermittent excess capacity, and that's preventing a widespread urban rollout of the technology.

Low-cost solar ready for prime time

When you combine breakthroughs in materials science, such as the ability to mass-produce thin film solar panels, with political support from Japan to California to Germany and beyond, you come up with a formula for "low-cost (solar) technology made in great scale," says Kammen. He's watching the California companies Miasolé, Nanosolar and Solyndra, any of which could soon capture more than 5 percent of the market within a year. "It's like three different Apple computers all running full blast to see if they can break into the market in a big way," he says. This image shows Solyndra's rooftop photovoltaic cells on a cinema building in Livermore, Calif.

Algae: A slimy source of energy?

Move over, ethanol. Here comes something sexier: algae. "It is always great to show a pond of green muck and think that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, a lot of our fuel will be grown in these ponds," Fan says. The green plants produce oil that several companies are beginning to harvest for industrial use or convert into biodiesel. However, the technology will take at least a decade to scale up to commercial quantities at a price point competitive with petroleum, Fan says. In the meantime, other technologies may become a market success, Kammen notes.

Lighting set for a makeover?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, lighting makes up 22 percent of U.S. energy consumption, hence the push for more efficient forms of lighting. Widespread use of technologies such as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, could cut energy consumption in half. The chips have been around for decades, but primarily to make consumer electronics flash green and red. Now that scientists have learned to make LEDs glow in white, the rush is on for mass production. Fan has his eyes on startup Luminus Devices, which makes an LED (shown here) that is as big as 20 small LEDs and useful for applications such as street lamps and theater stages.

'Green' retrofits can save millions

The Empire State Building, one of the most famous skyscrapers in the world, is going green. The facelift includes an insulation upgrade to the building's 6,500 windows that reduces summer heat load and winter heat loss. Former President Bill Clinton's foundation is helping with the $20 million project, which is expected to save the building's owners $4.4 million a year in energy costs. Clinton told reporters he hopes the attention-getting project will convince owners around the world to upgrade their buildings. "We have to prove it's good economics, and we have to prove we know how to do it," he said.

Researchers aim to smarten up the electricity grid

Electricity grids are colossal tangles of transmission and distribution lines that ship energy from power plants to homes and offices. Engineers say the infrastructure is antiquated, imperfect and unable to handle excessive demand, such as when everyone cranks up their air conditioners on a sweltering summer day. But now they are talking about – and beginning to implement – a range of ideas and technologies meant to give the grid some 21st century smarts. For example, Ontario resident George Tsapoitis is part of an experiment that uses Internet-connected boxes to shut down certain appliances during a power surge. According to Kammen, these technologies are behind the development curve but represent a critical ingredient in the future energy mix.

Energy financing to usher in the new technologies

The biggest story on the green frontier, Kammen says, is the rise of novel methods for doing green energy financing. For example, U.S. politicians are gearing up to implement either a tax or cap-and-trade scheme that puts a price on emissions of heat-trapping gases from old power plants such as the one shown here, resulting in a new pile of money to invest in clean energy technology. "If we can suddenly break the logjam where clean energy investment can get prioritized ahead of dirty investment, that obviously is transformative," Kammen says. The influx of funds, he notes, would ramp up development of these technologies and "change the world."