Sunday, November 22, 2009

Battery breakthroughs II

We've gotten a bit of feedback from readers of our previous battery storage story, arguing that, gosh, there really are big breakthrough battery technologies out there.

(Image: A solar cell at RaisingIslands' testing laboratory—still looking for the right battery.)

And other feedback suggesting that startups announcing massive strides often fail to meet their promises, and in the meantime are sucking the life and the cash out of legitimate research.

Said one correspondent: "Unfortunately, yes, weeds keep growing. And, the weeds suck up more nutrients than what the crop needs to grow - which is endangering the field and the market potential.”

One reader, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote in response to our story: “The author has apparently not heard of Altairnano's lithium titinate(sp) battery.”

Suggesting, one supposes, that we missed this particular technology, which breaks the mold—that it's got all the important stuff: cheap, compact, lightweight, non-toxic, fast-rechargeable and capable of being discharged and recharged thousands of times.

That would be exciting. RaisingIslands could actually use such a battery to store power from our photovoltaic panels. We respond, where can we buy one, and what does it cost?

Well, there's the rub. It appears they're not on the shelf anywhere convenient, and there's no price list.

Altair's battery is lithium-titanate oxide. You can read about it at Altair's website.

The company claims an array of important features in a battery, although inexpensive isn't one of them: “Altairnano is the first company to replace traditional graphite materials used in conventional lithium-ion batteries with a proprietary, nano-structured lithium titanate a process that delivers distinctive performance attributes, including power, fast charge/discharge rates, high round-trip efficiencies, long cycle life, safety, and ability to operate under extreme temperatures.”

The company last month outfitted an electric bus in Washington DC and let politicians drive it around. But Altair's batteries still aren't mainstream. One problem, the bus costs $1 million.

The company claims its technology is applicable to both mobile and stationary applications. You could, arguably, set up a battery bank next to a windmill or solar array, and use it to provide power when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine. The company has had a utility-scale (2 megawatt) battery system tested successfully. And the company has a couple of defense contracts, which are outlined on its website.

So far, the big pieces missing in Altair's literature seem to be price, availability and a real world track record. We'd be happy at RaisingIslands to test it and report our results, but we don't have one, and aside from the KEMA report above, it's not clear who else has been able to independently test this technology.

In its third-quarter financial reports, company president/CEO Terry Copeland is quoted: "We have experienced an increased level of customer requests for quotes in the past couple of months. In addition, we anticipate that potential order activity will begin to gain traction as we enter into 2010. Given the importance of establishing this revenue stream and having referenceable customers for other prospects to speak with, we need to be able to move expeditiously once we have these initial firm orders."

That's good news, but as with the EEStor battery system in the previous article, this firm may be on the verge of big success or big failure, but right now, it's hard to tell which. We wish them both well, because this is important stuff.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Battery breakthroughs, grains of salt

Battery technologies are the great holy quest of the energy world, and there is, thankfully, movement in the field.

But most of the real advance is incremental, not breakthrough stuff.

(Image: Lithium Ion batteries are researched at the Argonne National Laboratory. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.)

For batteries we want the impossible. We want them compact (big power, small package), high voltage, lightweight, non-toxic, fast-rechargeable and capable of being repeatedly discharged and recharged to near full power for the life of the equipment (car, solar cell, radio, computer, cell phone, etc.)

Over at Green Supply Line, Allan Yogasingam reports that “Recent spins on nickel- and lithium-based battery chemistries, such as nickel oxyhydroxide, olivine-type lithium iron phosphate and nanowires, are gunning to displace the venerable but problematic alkaline-manganese dioxide formulation in the AA sockets of tomorrow's gadgets.”

Researchers are not only looking at new chemical formulations, but new internal architecture. Nanowires are a promising field of research, tiny filaments providing tons of surface area on which chemical reactions can take place.

Some companies are moving forward with existing technology instead of waiting. Project Better Place, which proposes to establish electric car fleets in Hawai'i, Israel and Denmark, is talking conventional lithium ion batteries. One of the benefits of using off-the-shelf technology is that you don't make promises you can't keep

Unkept promises are a problem in the battery field. An example: Nearly three years ago the Texas firm EEStor announced a breakthrough battery technology based on ultracapacitors and a barium titanate compound.

The promised batteries hold a huge charge for their size, are inexpensive, charge quickly and use non toxic materials. How much power density? They said 280 watt hours per kilogram, more than twice lithium-iron and more than eight times lead-acid. And ithis battery charges so fast you could complete a full charge during a 10-minute coffee break.

Of course, three years ago, the company said it shipping the battery in as early as late 2007, or maybe 2008. And of course, now we're nearly through 2009 and EEStor is not quite there yet. But the firm keeps announcing progress.

Zenn, the Canadian electric car firm that invested in EEStor and is counting on it to power Zenn ecars, is anxiously waiting.

Elon Musk, the guy whose hot little Tesla ecars are zipping the roads right now, said he's watching carefully.

"I've heard people say it's just B.S., and others say it's a big breakthrough. Until you see something on the road, objectively it's hard to say what's true,” Musk was quoted as saying.

Musk went with existing technology, lithium-ion, and you can buy his hot little sportsters now, with more models on the way.

Lacking the big breakthrough technology, most battery companies are working on incremental improvements in current systems. And incremental improvements do seem to be coming along.

And occasionally, there's news of an immense breakthrough. Here's one. A portable nuclear reactor, just six feet across, the size of a hot tub, available inside two years. So simple to operate that some call it a nuclear battery. Plug it in and it powers 27,000 homes, essentially maintenance-free. (Note: Hawai'i's constitution includes these words: "No nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature.")

We'll see.

Remember when Coleman announced you'd be able to buy a home fuel cell off the shelf. That was seven years ago. Popular Science announced breathlessly: "Yes, you can buy this home fuel cell." Cute little white unit, would run your house in an emergency for 8 or 10 hours, like a big battery. Oh, and then you needed to find a source of hydrogen to recharge it. Hmm.

Haven't heard much about these units lately.

One of the key features of the battery world is that there are a lot more promises than there are deliveries.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hawai'i turtles recovering from severe tumor disease

The debilitating tumor disease that racked Hawaiian green sea turtle populations starting in the 1950s appears to have declined since its peak, and some individual turtles seem to be able to overcome it.

It's a hopeful sign in the upbeat story of turtle recovery in the Islands.

(Image: A healthy green sea turtle. Credit: NOAA.)

Hawaiian green sea turtle were so depleted in numbers in the late 1960s that hunting for them was banned four decades ago, and they were placed on the endangered species list. They have since recovered significantly in population.

A new report by Hawai'i researchers an Australian ecologist, in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, documents their strong recovery, against both their depletion and also against the disease known as fibropapillomatosis or FP.

The paper is “Rise and Fall over 26 Years of a Marine Epizootic in Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles,” by Milani Chaloupka of Ecological Modelling Services at the University of Queensland, George Balazs of NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and Thierry Work of the U.S. Geological Survey-National Wildlife Health Center's Honolulu Field Station.

The tumor disease has been found worldwide, but nowhere was its severity like Hawai'i's outbreak. The writers call it an epidemic, and cite Hawai'i as the “world's main endemic hot spot.” It is the single most significant cause of turtle stranding and death in Hawai'i.

The disease can result in horrific globular white tumors, some on the outside of the turtle's body, some on the inside. They can grow around the eyes, blinding the animal, and around the mouth, starving the animal, and in the throat, starving the animal, and in the windpipe, choking the animal.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, the tumor-ridden turtles were common sights among those who watched turtles or came across them during marine activities.

During a sampling study over a 26-year period at Pala'au, Molokai, researchers inspected hundreds of green sea turtles. While the disease has been found throughout the Hawaiian chain, it was particularly prevalent off south Molokai.

They found that the tumor disease appeared to spread rapidly through the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then peaked in the late 1990s. Since then, its prevalence has dropped off steadily. At one time, nearly half of turtles showed symptoms, and now that number is around 10 percent.

On top of that, in a remarkable finding, researchers were able to show that some tumor-ridden turtles showed up later tumor-free.

“Not all diseased green turtles die, and our observations suggest that many green turtles with FP in Hawaiian waters can recover,” they wrote.

There are still plenty of mysteries in this story. Researchers don't know just how the fibropapilloma virus, a herpes-type virus, works. They just know that a turtle with tumors also has the virus. And they suspect, since the disease seems to be worse in some areas than others, that there might be environmental factors as well as disease factors at play, causing turtles to be more or less susceptible.

“Because we do not know the cause of FP, the reasons why this disease was absent before the 1950s, peaked in the late 1990s, and has declined since are purely speculative. Two plausible explanations would include the development of herd immunity... to an infectious tumorigenic agent (if herpesvirus is contributing to disease) and/or removal of a tumor-inducing environmental insult in the nearshore foraging habitats around the island of Molokai,” they write.

The Hawaiian green sea turtle population is genetically isolated from those in other areas. And the FP virus may be slightly different in other areas. In Florida, for instance, where the disease has been noticed much longer than in Hawaii, its effects appear to be stable, and not declining like Hawai'i.

But the Hawaiian research suggests that the turtles can thrive, in spite of this debilitating disease.

“The FP epidemic decline at Palaau is encouraging news for other marine turtle populations afflicted more recently with this chronic and often fatal disease,” they write.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A new discovery in the Hawaiian web of life

The Hawaiian islands are connected, not only geologically, but with an intricate web of life.

This fact has been reestablished in the past week with the announcement of the discovery of a series of closely related moths on three islands of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—moths that have been evolving in the Islands for 30 million years.

(Image: The eight new species of moths from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Source: NOAA.)

The moths are new to science, but this kind of connectivity is not.

In the wet forests of the Island, the alani or melicope species are an example. The various species are clearly related, even to an untrained eye. They tend to have large waxy leaves that form a fat oval. They tend to be leggy. Small, delicate flowers.

They are very much the same in many ways. And different.

A Kaua'i species, mokihana, has the famous anise scent, which the other species lack. The four-parted seed pods are tightly closed in some species, but the seed cases spread out like petals on a bloom in others.

There are the cave spiders, hunting spiders with less-developed eyes on the older islands than on the younger ones.

And forest birds with different colors and food preferences on different islands, but otherwise clearly closely related.

On and on. Cousins of a Molokai bug live on Kaua'i alongside bird cousins, plant cousins and so forth.

Perhaps what's most surprising about the new moths is that they have survived long enough to be found, not that they ever existed.

Reseachers Patrick Schmitz and Daniel Rubinoff announced their find in the journal Zootaxa: eight new members of the moth genus Hyposmocoma, all found within islands of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

The genus Hyposmocoma is unique to Hawai'i, but the group is well represented here, with more than 300 species, most of them on the major islands, and one previously known from the northwestern islands—from Necker or Mokumanamana. Some species are from the wet forest, some from aquatic habitats, and the new finds suggest that species have also evolved to handle very arid habitats of the low northwestern islands.

A monument press release included these quotations:

“This is a great snapshot of species endemism, one that indicates how species have evolved on islands throughout the whole archipelago over time,” said Rubinoff. “We are continuing our research now, but it is possible that the ancient ancestor of the now uniquely Hawaiian Hyposmocoma moths may have landed on a young Northwestern Hawaiian Island and evolved over millions of years into several lineages, which hopped down the island chain, spawning a diversity of species.”

“Although only a few of the lineages that were once on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still holding on there now, these tiny atolls, in a former life, were the crucibles of one of the most diverse groups on the current High Islands. The species we described from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the descendents of those original, and likely ancient, Hyposmocoma lineages and they have hung on, adapting over time to the islands’ current severe dry conditions. They are the survivors.”

“I am certain more species are waiting to be discovered in the Monument, since we’ve found hard evidence of their caterpillars and know them to be unique,” said Rubinoff. “We also know that Gardner Pinnacles has at least one endemic species and possibly more, but we just haven’t been able to get there yet to document it.”

Among the ways these creatures are distinguished from each other, besides their unique wing coloring, is that their larval cases have very different shapes.

The new species are:

Hyposmocoma laysanensis, named after and found only on Laysan Island

Hyposmocoma ekemamao, a larger species found only on Laysan Island and named for its purselike case (eke in Hawaiian) and the island’s remoteness (mamao in Hawaiian)

Hyposmocoma opuumaloo, found only on Mokumanamana and named from the Hawaiian opu‘u, cone, and malo‘o, dry, referring to its cone-shaped case and the island’s dry habitat (most cone-cased species in the Main Hawaiian Islands are aquatic)

Hyposmocoma mokumana, found on Mokumanamana and named for the island

Hyposmocoma nihoa, found on Nihoa and named for the island

Hyposmocoma kikokolu, found on Nihoa and named from the Hawaiian kiko, spot, and kolu, three, referring to the three spots on its forewing

Hyposmocoma menehune, found on Nihoa and named for the nocturnal Hawaiian legendary menehune

Hyposmocoma papahanau, found on Nihoa and named after Papahanaumokuakea

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

KIUC proposes hybrid renewable rate scheme

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is proposing a new system to expand the production of electricity by small renewable operations like rooftop solar or small wind generators.

It has the potential to provide a roadmap toward a distributed power generation future for Kaua'i.

(Image: a vertical axis Wind Lotus wind generator. Credit: Leviathan Energy. )

The utility is calling it net energy meeting, although it's not. It appears to be a hybrid rate system. It values excess energy from small power producers less than does traditional net energy metering, but more than what it would cost the utility to produce its own power.

And it aims to support larger renewable energy systems than does net energy metering, which, according to KIUC's own documents, is “intended primarily to offset part or all of the customer’s own electrical requirements.”

In traditional net energy metering, the excess power you produce is valued the same as the power you purchase. If you have photovoltaic panels, the power you produce in the sunshine offsets the power you consume at night, kilowatt for kilowatt. The meter runs backwards when you're producing excess power.

The problem with the system is that it doesn't compensate the utility for its non-generation costs—paying for distribution systems, making repairs, answering phones, sending out bills, etc. That means that other power users in the community are subsidizing you. It's not a sustainable system. If everyone were net metering, the utility would be bankrupt.

The Hawai'i Public Utilities Commission (PUC) limited net energy metering to 1 percent of KIUC's peak power demand, and the utility met that limit last year. Thus no new net energy metering hookups are now being approved.

At KIUC, they have another system called Schedule Q. Here, you buy electricity at the going rate—currently in the neighborhood of $.35 a kilowatt-hour—and you sell power at about $.10. You could call this a wholesale price for power. Or, with Schedule Q, you can simply size your system to meet a portion of your electrical load, so you just avoid buying power when your system is able to produce power. The meter never runs backwards. You just pay for all KIUC power you use.

The new system, which KIUC is confusingly calling a Net Energy Metering (NEM) Pilot Program, is, it says, designed to “analyze the potential benefits of customer generation.” It is similar to the Schedule Q, as best we can determine, although it doubles the rate for excess power to $.20 per kilowatt hour.

Here is how the utility describes it: “KIUC‟s NEM pilot program will allow renewable customer generators to supply their own power needs and be paid $0.20/kWh for power they export to the utility. When they do not have sufficient power to supply their own needs, they will pay regular tariff rates for the power they receive from the utility.”

It still requires PUC approval, and it has certain limitations. The program capacity is limited to no more than 3 megawatts of total capacity. Two-thirds of that, or 2 megawatts of capacity, is set aside for pretty big systems, sized 50 kilowatts to 200 kilowatts. Another sixth, or half a megawatt, is for systems from 10 to 50 kilowatts. And the remaining half a megawatt is for home-sized systems of 10 kilowatts or less.

KIUC customers who are already operating under Schedule Q can upgrade to the new system.

The new system already has the support of them state Consumer Advocate, the Hawai‘i Renewable Energy Association, and the Hawai‘i Solar Energy Association.

On the other islands, the PUC has approved a feed-in tariff, which has not yet been required of KIUC (although it may be at some point). A feed-in tariff generally applies to stand-alone renewable power generation facilities—like a windfarm, or an industrial-scale solar power plant—and it pays a premium for the renewable power to encourage people to build them.

Feed-in tariffs are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and guarantee renewable power generators a profit, just as the PUC guarantees utilities a rate structure that provides a profit.

KIUC's new system, then, it not quite net energy metering, since your meter never runs backwards, and it's not quite a feed-in tariff, since it allows consumers to offset their own real-time power use while selling power at a higher rate than the wholesale price.

Our editorial comment: It needs a new name.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009