Thermal Solar making a comeback

MIT researchers have developed a small sponge-like disk that greatly catalyses the reaction from liquid water to steam. They claim that this new catalyst allows concentrated sunlight to boil water more efficiently to create steam and in turn, generate electricity.

This press release comes less than a week after the development of “vantablack,” the new material that absorbs nearly all visible light striking it. While vantablack is created using carbon nanotubes, this new material uses graphite flakes and carbon foam. Both materials consist of some form of purely carbon atoms, arranged in different chemical configurations.

MITnews_SolarHotSpot_01

While not able to absorb as much light as vantablack, the disk’s porous surface texture allows a very high surface area which allows heat to transfer very effectively to the water.

It stands to reason that with the sudden invention of these two materials with such similar application potential that we are on the edge of a new re-birth of thermal the solar market.

MITnews_SolarHotSpot_02

Sources:

http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/new-spongelike-structure-converts-solar-energy-into-steam-0721

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New light-absorbing material created

Researchers at Surrey Nanosystems have managed to create a material that absorbs 99.96% of visible light. The material is made of carbon nanotubes grown onto a metallic foil, and absorbs so much light that it appears to be a “hole” or “nothingness” when looked at.

While the researchers are still a long way off from commercial production, some discussion into the application of this material in the form of solar power has been brought up.

It seems pressing to point out that this material simply absorbs the visible light, and does not generate a voltage from it, so it seems ill-suited in its current form to be adapted to the photovoltaic market. However, the absorption rate of this material does make it a “game-changer” in the thermal-solar market.

Thermal solar doesn’t generate electricity, but it is used to heat water for homes. These are the larger, darker panels that are installed on roofs that are simply meant to get hot in the sun, and thereby heat the water in turn. This industry has been struggling to survive in the past few years as solar power became more widely affordable. Nearly 70% of the average household’s energy consumption involves heating and cooling, and that mostly includes the water heater.

Ten years ago, when solar power was incredibly expensive, many people turned to solar water heating as a compromise between reducing their electrical bill and the purchasing their hot water panels. But since then, solar power has been getting more and more commonly affordable, while water heaters at the same time have become more efficient. The result is the market for solar water heating completely evaporating.

So here’s where this new material comes in. By simply coating a single solar thermal module in this new material, the efficiency of these panels becomes much higher, enough to probably even boil the water. This material could change thermal solar from generating only hot water, to actually generating electricity.

There are roughly 1300 Watts of power for every square meter of sunlight on the earth’s surface. At 99.96% efficiency, the roof of a single-family household would be able to generate about 100kW of heat. That’s enough to power an industrial boiler.  It would be interesting to see if this new material brings back steam-based technology.

Sources:
http://www.cnet.com/news/scientists-create-worlds-darkest-material-super-black/
http://pda.sciencealert.com.au/news/20141407-25870.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhRiDsmZMag
http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/solar-thermal-dead

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Utility Companies Alienate Solar Customers, Triggering Their Own Demise

As the rise in popularity of solar arrays has hit “mainstream” status, it seems as though some utility companies are starting to take heed of a growing trend in the energy market: their customers are leaving in droves.

For years, solar has been considered a “niche” market, where only a handful of people would have a need for generating their own power on site. This was buffered by the fact that solar installations typically required hefty government subsidies in order to be economically viable to everyday people, and therefore it was casually assumed that solar power would never take off and become a widespread phenomenon. However, years of continually rising energy costs, coupled with a successful green movement has devastated these assumption, and now, it’s got large utility companies worried.

You see, solar power has gotten so cheap to install that the government subsidies have all dried up. They’re no longer needed. On top of that, the per-kilowatt cost to install a solar array has dropped so much that it’s now cheaper than conventional power, such as coal and natural gas. In fact, oil, coal, and natural gas are all subsidized by the government far more than wind, solar, or geothermal alternatives. It’s the economics of the situation: the free market has spoken and renewable energy is in high demand.

As a result, power companies are losing money as more and more of their customers cut their dependency on traditional power and start providing a surplus back to the grid. Some companies are desperately trying to bolster their falling revenue by coming up with “creative” fees and additional charges to renewable customers, however that too is having a negative effect. As one solar customer put it:

“Well, I put in solar, and now the utility wants to hit me with a fixed charge. I guess I’ll just put in [battery] storage with solar and get off the grid altogether.”

The problem is that utility companies have been operating for nearly a century under the premise that customers need their business in order to live day-to-day. While this was true before, technology has advanced enough to allow the customers alternative options, and now utility companies have no tools with which to combat consumer distrust and abandonment. This phenomenon of fleeing customers has been loosely named the “death spiral,” as it mimics the same logistical movement that something would circling a drain.

utility_death_spiral

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British Architects Fail to Understand how Solar Concentrators Work, with Predictable Results

Still under construction, a 37-story tall glass-covered skyscraper is responsible for partially melting a Jaguar XJ, setting a man’s head on fire, and ruining local shops on a London street. The building, located at 20 Fenchurch Street, was designed by Rafael Vinoly, an architect from Uruguay. According to various news sources, the building was designed to follow the contours of the streets that formed its perimeter, which also happen to follow the same curve as the river.

Despite being scheduled for completion sometime next year, the southern concave glass exterior has already caused some considerable trouble. Vehicles parked on the street below have suffered quite a bit of damage from the concentrated sunlight being reflected. Pedestrians on the streets below have complained that the light is “painfully intense” to stand in or look at. Shops lining the street had to remove plastic merchandise from their windows and chairs from their patios, as the sunlight melted or burned anything it passed across.

In an attempt to demonstrate just how intense the sunlight was at the focal point, reporter Harry Wallop tried to cook an egg in a frying pan placed on the ground. However during the attempt, he began to smell a different kind of cooking. As it turns out, his head and hair began to catch fire, much to his surprise.

According to the building’s developers, “it is their priority to find out more and see what kind of solution can be put into place.” For example, the City of London has now suspended parking privileges on the street in question. The developers have also stated that they believe this phenomenon is only temporary, lasting two to three weeks during autumn.

Image provided by Andrew Barr, and the National Post

Image provided by Andrew Barr, and the National Post

Unfortunately, any solar engineer worth his salt can tell you otherwise. The building is a giant concave mirror, built almost exactly like the reflective solar furnace constructed in France. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, there will always be a focal point created by the building. It will just move around over the course of the year. The only realistic means of solving this problem is to either change the shape of the building, or make the entire southern side non-reflective.

If there is any reflection from the building at all, then it will create a focal point of light. This is the nature of the concave shape. Unfortunately, the building is so large that even with a small fraction of the sunlight reflecting off the glass, it’s still intense enough to cause damage. Glass typically allows more light to travel through it than just about any other material, so as it already stands, only about 1% of the sunlight striking the building is actually being reflected (probably much less). It’s going to be extremely difficult to re-design the building in such a way as to reduce reflection even more.

I’m curious as to how this situation works itself out. My guess is as the Sun’s zenith elevation angle lowers during the approach to winter, this phenomenon is going to worsen, as the sunlight will be striking the building at a more direct angle.

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350.org Suggests a Change in the way we Name Hurricanes

This is a genius suggestion. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to post any good news regarding climate change, as lately it seems that the American culture has all but stopped caring. What’s worse is the staggering number of people that I speak to on a daily basis that still genuinely believe that climate change and/or global warming is a hoax.

Despite the super-storms in the Eastern coast, the massive and unyielding heat waves in the Southwest, and the annual parade of forest fires in the Midwest and the West coast, there is still a large enough portion of the population who believes that this is all a bunch of hogwash.

Thanks to a recent suggestion by the creators of 350.org, an environmental awareness and protection advocacy group, we might have a new cultural tool to use in an attempt to sway public opinion and attention back toward the issue at hand.

The idea is hilarious in its simplicity: name the hurricanes and tropical storms after the politicians who deny climate change is a real thing.

By naming the storms after the people who deny their existence, we will be attributing the fear, panic, damage, and economic repercussions squarely on the shoulders of the people who take this problem the least seriously. These are the people who are elected and expected to handle natural disasters, whether by securing the funding to fix the damage after the storm, or by placing the necessary protective infrastructure in their constituent’s areas before the storm even hits, such as levies, public tornado shelters, or disaster aid.

There are wildfires, tornadoes, and hurricanes every single year. Usually, there are multiple of these events every single year. After 237 years of being an established country in North America, you would think that at some point, our country could figure out how to build homes that can withstand the local dangers.

In the past 100 years, California has only suffered a small handful of major earthquakes. In that time, the building code for all of California has changed to pretty much require all new buildings to be able to withstand a 7.0 Magnitude earthquake. Buildings that were built before this requirement are actually forced to undergo retrofitting. Not only has California learned from its mistakes in the past, but not one California politician has taken a stance that climate change isn’t real. I’m not sure if it’s a local cultural phenomenon or not, but over here, we identify a problem, and then we take steps to solve it. We certainly don’t ignore the problem and pretend it goes away on its own.

So even if we ignored solving global warming (for the sake of argument), the concept of building homes that can withstand these disasters isn’t a difficult one to grasp, nor is it impossible to achieve…we just have people in charge who don’t see public safety as a priority.

With this name change idea, that lackadaisical attitude could change. It’s a lot more difficult to claim that there’s nothing wrong with the environment when there’s a storm out there named after you that just displaced ten thousand people from their homes. That’s the kind of delicious irony that sticks with people through an election cycle…perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Sources:
350.org
climatenamechange.org

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