The results could achieve the catalytic performance seen in rare and expensive metals such as platinum, and further humankind's ability to use nanostructured systems to elegantly manipulate the interactions of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, electrons, photons and metals to enable new forms of energy production, storage and conversion.
“Nature relies on a very elaborate architecture to support its own ‘hydrogen economy,’ ” said Chemistry Professor Thomas Rauchfuss, a professor of and corresponding author of the paper. “We cracked that design by generating mock-ups of the catalytic site to include the substrate hydrogen atom.”
Manipulating Natural Molecular Building Blocks Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions via catalysis. Today, human beings know very little about the molecular magic of hydrogen producing enzymes (known as 'hydrogenase') and the complex reactions that occur inside the core reaction sites.
Developing accurate models of these activation sites is the first step towards developing low cost synthetic catalysts that can break the bonds of oxygen and hydrogen or carbon and hydrogen. The Illinois team is the first to model a nickel-iron structure with the use of a key link or bridge (hydrideligand).
Hydrogen's Hype vs Profitable Role of Chemical Storage & Distributed Power Generation
The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena should get bonus points for including an Energy 101 presenation at its recent 2009 Summit: Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Mobility. Most conferences about energy and the environment skip science altogether leaving their audiences without a firm grounding in energy science. Case in point? Oil does not come from dinosaurs. The 'fossil' in 'fossil fuels' refers to a geological period, not the ancient remains of mammals.
UC Davis Geology Professor Kenneth Verosub reminds us that oil (a 'hydrocarbon') is the result of bioenergy. Ancient diatoms (shelled algae) that used light to bind carbon and hydrogen that died and then with help of geological processes became a viable 'fuel' for humanity. [Video]
Fuel cells are important as 21st century 'power plants' that produce electricity on demand without a grid connection. Fuel cells can be designed as small as a AA battery (for portable gadgets), a breadbox (for electric vehicles), a small refrigerator (for home power) or the size of a small room (for utility power generation).
Commercialization of fuel cells depends on our ability to lower the costs of core membranes (MEAs) that convert chemical energy into electricity.
So what is the way forward? Nanostructured design of key membrane components.
Nanoscale Revolution: Rethinking Surface Area & Shape Team leader Professor Younan Xia explains the importance of the breakthrough: "There are two ways to make a more effective catalyst," Xia says. "One is to control the size, making it smaller, which gives the catalyst a higher specific surface area on a mass basis. Another is to change the arrangement of atoms on the surface. We did both. You can have a square or hexagonal arrangement for the surface atoms. We chose the hexagonal lattice because people have found that it's twice as good as the square one for the oxygen reduction reaction (which determines the electrical current generated)."
To reduce costs and improve performance the team experimented with new core and branching structures. The catalyst has a core made of palladium which branching arms (‘dendrites’) of platinum that are seven nano-meters long.
According to Xia's team release: ‘At room temperature operation the team’s catalyst was two-and-a-half times more effective per platinum mass for this process than the state of the art commercial platinum catalyst and five times more active than the other popular commercial catalyst. At 60 degrees C (the typical operation temperature of a fuel cell), the performance almost meets the targets set by the U.S. Department of Energy.’
The next step for the team?
Integrating gold as a third metal catalyst to deal with the problem of carbon molecules that reduces performance by binding and blocking valuable surface area.
Cellulosic biofuels startup Mascoma has announced a breakthrough in a single step consolidated bioprocessing (CBP) method used in converting non-food biomass feedstocks into liqud cellulosic ethanol.
By tapping the power of genetically engineered thermophilie (bacteria that grow at high temperatures) and yeast, the company has demonstrated a way to eliminate the need for multiple step processing using more expensive enzymes and additives typically needed in breaking down biomass material.
Breakthourgh Potential in Bioenergy “This is a true breakthrough that takes us much, much closer to billions of gallons of low cost cellulosic biofuels,” said Dr. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University’s Biomass Conversation Research Center “Many had thought that CBP was years or even decades away, but the future just arrived. Mascoma has permanently changed the biofuels landscape from here on.”
The ability to reduce the steps needed to convert carbon rich material into more hydrogen-rich fuels is key to lowering costs.
“These advances enable the reduction in operating and capital costs required for cost effective commercial production of ethanol, bringing Mascoma substantially closer to commercialization,” said Jim Flatt, Executive Vice President of Research, Development and Operations at Mascoma. “Our results go a long way toward establishing the feasibility of the processing concept that we have built our company around - so this is a big day for us.”
The Art Center of Pasadena has released video highlights from its recent Summit: Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Mobility held in March 2009. There are a number of energy related videos to share, but we'll start with one that gets the blood pumping!
Former Assistant Secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Andy Karsner, is a fresh voice on long held but widely suppressed ideas that promote a holistic policy strategy towards transportation, energy and urban design.
I'm impressed with Andy's ability to communicate! Of course, Karsner shares a few perspectives that I might challenge. Namely, looking back at the past with a critical lens. The problem was not our failure to build vehicles that get more miles per gallon, it's the entire supply chain and manufacturing footprint of the internal combustion engine. A Detroit version of the Prius would not have helped GM or Chrysler's flawed 'new car' sale business model.
And, I agree with Karsner that our 'big plans' (e.g. FreedomCAR) were destined to fail. What we needed was an event - the Fall of 2008.
The recent collapse of the auto industry was just what the doctor ordered- a well-timed crisis to force the accelerated death of a century old mobility platform. Tweaking the combustion engine around hybrids or flex fuels was never the solution. Sometimes the future needs a crisis, not a plan!
Andy Karsner passionately describes the beginning of this transition from mechanical engines to electric drive trains powered by the integration of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. He is someone who can frame this vision and rally the troops. And I agree it is time to push the acceleration button! Watch this Video!!
Creating devices that can manipulate and interact with light (photons) is not an easy feat, but the potential pay off is tremendous as we consider the wide-reaching applications of nano-photonics.
Electronics to Photonics The past fifty years of technological innovation have been shaped largely by our ability to manipulate the flow of electrons inside 'microscale' sized transistor chips based on the science of micro-electronics.
In the next fifty years we will open up new opportunities across a range of industries based on 'nanoscale' design of optical devices that use light instead of electrons!
These nano-optical devices are likely to be applied to a range of energy related applications from low power consumption-high performance chips. new lighting and display systems, and solar cells.
Nano-optical devices are also useful in the study of molecules involved in materials used in batteries and fuel cells as well as the study of biochemical systems around algae-based bioenergy systems.
A Breakthrough in Bending with Photons In April, Yale University researchers announced that they have built a silicon-based nanocantilever sensor that can detect as little deflection as 0.0001 Angstroms — one ten thousandth of the size of an atom.
The team's work could lead to a wide range of low cost, low energy consuming, nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) built around these tiny 'springboards' that "bend" when molecules "jump" on them and register a change that can be measured and calibrated.
60 Minutes recently aired a program on the future of coal power featuring Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers (an advocate of longer term 'Cathedral Thinking' carbon reduction) and leading climate scientist James Hansen (an advocate of a moratorium on building coal plants).
The CBS report was solidly mainstream in framing coal as central to the conversation on energy, environment and global economic development- but it failed to move the conversation beyond ideas that have existed for several decades.
Time for Big Ideas, not Big Battles Coal is the world's fastest growing source of energy due largely to growth outside the United States. And despite all the rapid growth rates expected with wind and solar, coal is likely to gain global market share in the years ahead.
So this is not just a conversation about US policy and US-based utilities! And there is no way to just 'wish' coal away. We must develop low cost carbon solutions that can be applied around the world within existing power plants. And everyone agrees - these low cost solutions do not exist today!
CBS Producers missed an opportunity to introduce more advanced non-geoengineering strategies to carbon neutralization and left viewers stuck at ringside watching the same old 'pro' vs 'anti' battle.
Carbon's Molecular Dance between Oxygen and Hydrogen Carbon is a 'sticky' molecule that interchangeably binds with oxygen and hydrogen based on its journey through biochemical pathways or via human induced energy conversion (e.g. power plants and combustion engine).
Human beings have a choice to approach carbon solutions through geo-engineering (shoving it underground), or as bio-engineers who can bind carbon with hydrogen for use as a hydrocarbon fuel (for transportation or onsite electricity generation) or a bio-feestock for industrial applications. CBS viewers would have been better off understanding the long-term view of carbon rather than watch a debate without a viable solution. (Continue Reading Below).
The Obama Administration is following through on a major campaign promise: funding basic energy science.
Do you want Hope? (Or maybe long term optimism!)
Stop looking for 'short term' solutions and quick fixes to global energy challenges. We need disruptive breakthroughs that enable new energy systems and business models.
Start with basic science.
A Good Day for Energy Science Today, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science announced that it will invest $777 million in Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) over the next five years as we attempt to 'accelerate the scientific breakthroughs needed to build a new 21st-century energy economy'. The 46 new multi-million-dollar EFRCs [PDF list] will be established at universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and private firms across the United States with partnerships extending around the globe.
The EFRCs will focus on a wide range of projects (PDF) 'ranging from solar energy and electricity storage to materials sciences, biofuels, advanced nuclear systems, and carbon capture and sequestration' and will engage 'nearly 700 senior investigators and employ, on a full- or part-time basis, over 1,100 postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduate students, and technical staff.'
Getting Serious about CleanTech Industries Building a Bridge to Molecules: A Nano-Bio Energy Age The 'Cleantech' Industry vision promoted by entrepreneurs, activists and political leaders is not likely to be based on technologies and energy systems that exist today. (Translation: We are at the beginning of this new era of energy. And it is not likely to be an extension of the past or present!)
How do you create cleantech industries?
Be the economy that launches the Industrial Age of Nanoscale Molecular Engineering.
Learn how to manipulate carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, light, enzymes and metals at the nanoscale (1 billionth of a meter)- and you have the new 21st century drivers of economic growth.
Nanoscale materials science and Bio energy sciences are growing into giant new industry sectors that will dwarf today's major industry sectors. Science is the foundation for real green collar jobs of the future.
Smart Money - Right Time, Right Ideas, Right Teams Funding Basic Science not Mystery Science- Nano is no Joke!