Future Energy eNews   IntegrityResearchInstitute.org      Nov.  9, 2006       


1) Silicon and Sun - Marine sponge holds the key to cheaper, more efficient solar cells.

2) Casimir Force Can be Controlled - Modifying charge carriers on the surface does the trick

3) World Faces 'Dirty, Insecure' Energy Future - IEA World Energy Outlook 2006 just published

4) Electricity from Sugar - metal catalyst heated to 800°C vaporizes soy oil to make hydrogen.

5) Alternative Energy Fuels Index - The most comprehensive alternative fuels pricing CD database

6) Cheap, Superefficient Solar - Concentrating lens for PV generates a gigawatt in your backyard 

NOTE: Get a FREE copy of my DVD on "Future Energy Technologies"  with any other DVD order - "as seen in FE eNews" - TV


1) Silicon and Sun

Kevin Bullis, Technology Review, Nov. 8, 2006 http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=17726&ch=nanotech



Daniel Morse holds a species of marine sponge commonly known as Venus's flower basket.  In his lab facing the Pacific Ocean, Daniel Morse is learning new ways to build complex semiconductor devices for cheaper, more efficient solar cells. He has an unlikely teacher: sea sponges.


In his beachfront office overlooking the Santa Barbara channel, Daniel Morse carefully unwraps one of his prized specimens. An intricate latticework of gleaming glass fibers, it looks like a piece of abstract art or a detailed architectural model of a skyscraper. But it's actually the skeleton of one of the most primitive multicellular organisms still in existence--a species of marine sponge commonly known as Venus's flower basket. Morse, a molecu­lar biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wants to know how such a simple creature can assemble such a complicated structure. And then he wants to put that knowledge to work, making exotic structures of his own.

The lowly sponge has come up with a remarkable solution to a problem that has puzzled the world's top chemists and materials scientists for decades: how to get simple inorganic materials, such as silicon, to assemble themselves into complex nano- and microstructures. Currently, making a microscale device--say, a transistor for a microchip--means physically carving it out of a slab of silicon; it is an expensive and demanding process. But nature has much simpler ways to make equally complex microstructures using nothing but chemistry--mixing together compounds in just the right combination. The sponge's method is particularly elegant. Sitting on the seabed thousands of meters below the surface of the western Pacific, the sponge extracts silicic acid from the surrounding seawater. It converts the acid into silicon dioxide--silica--which, in a remarkable feat of biological engineering, it then assembles into a precise, three-dimensional structure that is reproduced in exact detail by every member of its species.

What makes the sponges' accomplishment so impressive, says Morse, is that it doesn't require the toxic chemicals and high temperatures necessary for human manufacture of complex inorganic structures. The sponge, he says, can assemble intricate structures far more efficiently than engineers working with the same semiconductor materials.

This primitive creature and a number of other marine organisms have become an inspiration for researchers who hope to find simpler and cheaper ways to build inorganic structures, such as semiconductor devices, for use in computer microchips, advanced materials, and solar cells. The goal is to make silicon and other inorganics self-assemble into working electronics in the same way that the sponge assembles silica into complex shapes (see "Others in Bio-Inspired Materials,"). Energy-intensive, billion-dollar semiconductor fabrication facilities might then be replaced by vats of reacting compounds. But while practical industrial processes are still some way off, scientists are coming to understand how sponges and other sea creatures perform their microengineering miracles.

Morse and his team, for instance, are already using biological tricks learned from the sponge to make new forms of semiconductors with intriguing electronic properties, including the ability to convert light into electricity--properties that could be useful in making cheaper, more efficient solar cells. His group, says Morse, is building "structures that had never been achieved before."

Start from Scratch

The seawater tanks outside Morse's lab are teeming with colorful starfish and corallimorpharians, exotic creatures similar to sea anemones. But Morse and James Weaver, a postdoc in the lab, are more interested in an unremarkable­-looking rust-colored blob: an orange puffball sponge, a type of sponge that ordinarily lives in rock crevices just off the Santa Barbara coast. If the Venus's flower basket is the glass cathedral of sponges, this is the straw hut. The shapeless creature appears not to have a skeleton at all; but once the researchers dissolve away the living material of its exterior, a handful of tiny glass needles remain, each only two millimeters long and thinner than a human hair.

Although Morse ultimately wants to understand sponge skeletons that are more complex, these simple needles are a good place to start. Scientists have long known that at the core of the glass needles are strands of proteins, but no one understood what they did or how they related to the ­needles' construction. So Morse and his colleagues began by isolating the genetic code for one of the proteins--which as a family they came to call "silicateins"--and ran their results through a huge database of known proteins. They weren't expecting a match, but they found one--immediately. The protein was similar to a protease, an enzyme found in the human intestine that is involved in the breakdown and digestion of food.

"It was very bizarre," says Weaver. "Why does the protein that templates the formation of the glassy skeleton of a sponge have anything to do with a protease?" The researchers began to suspect that the silicateins did more than merely serve as a passive template. Indeed, they found that unlike any other enzyme previously studied, a silicatein can do double duty. It actively produces building materials such as silicon oxide--in a sense, by digesting compounds in the seawater--and then causes the materials to line up along its length to form the needle-shaped glass of the sponge skeleton. No such enzyme had been discovered, Morse says, "in all the study of biomineralization, which has gone on for a couple of hundred years."

Morse reasoned that if silicateins were so good at producing silicon oxide, they might also be able to produce the types of metal oxides that make good semiconductors in electronics and in some kinds of solar cells. He was right. "At 16 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which the sponge lives in the cool water right offshore from our lab," Morse says, "this enzyme will catalyze the formation and stabilize the formation of crystal forms of metal-oxide semiconductors that can't be made conventionally except at very high temperatures."

The result suggested a less expensive way to make semiconductors at lower temperatures, but there was a potential problem: contamination. "A biologist is ecstatic when they get a purity of, say, 90 percent. A chemist is ecstatic when they get a purity of 99 percent," says Morley Stone, a biochemist who directs research in biotechnology and materials for the Air Force Research Labs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, OH. "But an electronics engineer or someone else who needs to make devices--they want to see materials that have five nines of purity behind them, at least." He adds, "Oftentimes, when you take these biological approaches, you can grow some interesting things and get some interesting morphologies, but they're nowhere close to having the end-state purity that you would need in a final device."

Morse and his colleagues knew that if they hoped to make semiconductor materials for cheap but efficient solar cells, they would probably need a chemical synthesis technique that took its cue from the sponges but avoided the messy biology. The sponge's secret, they discovered, was that amine and hydroxyl chemical groups in the enzyme produce the silicon oxide and assemble it in the required way. That meant that all the chemicals a new synthesis technique would require could be found in ammonia and water. The researchers found that by mixing molecules containing the metal oxides' precursors into water, and then exposing the mixture to ammonia gas, they could create thin films of highly crystalline semiconductors--materials useful for electronics. "This is the breakthrough that gets us into the domain of practical usefulness," Morse says.

Moreover, the crystals have a complex nanostructure that could improve the performance of photovoltaic devices. Near the surface of the water, the concentration of ammonia gas is relatively strong, so this is where the semiconductor crystal starts to form. As the ammonia slowly diffuses deeper into the water, however, it causes crystals to grow down into the mixture, producing a thin film that is not uniform but rather comprises a network of needles or flat plates each merely a few billionths of a meter thick. That network could be the basis for a more efficient solar cell.

Solar Dreams

The crystalline-silicon solar cells that currently dominate the photovoltaic market are expensive--so expensive that the energy they produce costs several times as much as energy generated by fossil fuels. One reason is the high price of their raw materials. Silicon is extremely abundant on earth, but it doesn't exist as a pure element; instead, it's bound up with oxygen and other elements--in sand, for example. Making pure silicon requires a lot of energy.

To lower the costs of solar cells, researchers have looked for ways to cut down on the amount of silicon they use. Some have turned to less expensive thin films made from cadmium telluride or copper indium diselenide. Extremely thin layers of these new semiconductors can absorb the same amount of light as thicker slabs of crystalline silicon. Morse's fabrication technique could be an inexpensive way to make such thin films; in addition, the nanostructure that his method produces is particularly well suited for absorbing light and converting it into power.

A challenge in designing solar cells is making sure that the electrons dislodged when light hits a semiconductor create a current. When a photon strikes a solar-cell material, the result is both a free electron and its positive counterpart, called a hole. If these can be pulled apart quickly to opposite electrodes, an electrical current results. However, the difficulty of separating them before they recombine and dissipate energy as heat is "one of the major roadblocks for higher-efficiency solar cells," says Aravinda Kini, program manager for biomolecular materials research at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Morse's structures could surmount this roadblock. The network of crystalline projections could be immersed in a transparent solid or liquid electrode. Light would pass through the electrode, where it would be absorbed by the crystal. Because the surface area of the structured thin film is high (in one material, 90 to 100 times that of a traditional thin film), many of the electron-hole pairs generated by the light would be near the electrode interface; as a result, they could quickly separate, with one charge carrier moving into the transparent electrode and the other carrier traveling through the crystal to exit at the opposite electrode.

Already, Morse and colleagues have made more than 30 types of semiconductor thin films and tested their photovoltaic properties. They are now working to incorporate the semiconductors into functional solar cells. At the same time, Morse continues to develop new biologically inspired methods for assembling materials, with an eye to additional applications, including semiconductor devices for safer, higher-power-density batteries and smaller memory chips; he is also interested in creating laminated fibers for ultrastrong building materials.

But excited though he is by the potential applications of his work, Morse remains at heart a molecular biologist. Even as he talks about how his research could lead to better solar cells, he gazes out the window at the dolphins frolicking in the harbor. And he's still devoted to understanding the mechanism behind the complexity of the sponge. Once again he examines the exquisite skeleton of the Venus's flower basket, though he's no doubt seen it thousands of times. "This was made of glass, by a living creature," he exclaims. "It's incredible!"

Other Bio-Inspired Materials




Joanna Aizenberg,

Lucent Technologies, Murray Hill, NJ

Strong, self-healing building materials and more-resilient optical fibers

Understanding how sponges assemble inorganic materials

Illhan Aksay,


Self-healing materials and better biosensors

Investigating sea-shells and other biological systems

Angela Belcher,


Better batteries and advanced materials for electronics, energy, and medicine

viruses to assemble materials

Samuel I. Stupp,


Better sensors and solar cells

Using peptides
to direct the formation of inorganic structures

Kevin Bullis is Technology Review's nanotechnology and materials science editor.

2) Casimir Force for Good in MEMS Design

2 November 2006, Phys Rev Lett 97 170402, http://link.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v97/e170402

Researchers in the US and Russia have demonstrated that the Casimir force between two conducting surfaces can be controlled by modifying the density of charge-carrying particles within the surfaces. The result could have positive implications for the design of novel microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS.

Measuring the force

The mysterious attraction between two neutral, conducting surfaces in a vacuum was first described in 1948 by Henrik Casimir and cannot be explained by classical physics. Instead it is a purely quantum effect involving the zero-point oscillations of the electromagnetic field surrounding the surfaces. These fluctuations exert a "radiation pressure" on the surfaces and the overall force is weaker in the gap between the surfaces than elsewhere, drawing the surfaces together.

The Casimir force can be both a help and a hindrance in the design of the micrometre-scale mechanical components used in MEMS. It can cause trouble by causing components to stick to one another, but it has also been exploited to control the movement of conducting plates in MEMS devices. As a result, the precise control of the Casimir force would be an important tool for MEMS designers.

Now Umar Mohideen of the University of California, Riverside and colleagues have made an important step towards Casimir control by demonstrating that materials with higher charge-carrier densities are subject to greater Casimir forces than those with lower densities. The researchers came to this conclusion by using a contact-mode atomic force microscope (AFM) with a gold-coated polystyrene sphere of diameter 0.6 microns attached to the microscope’s cantilever. The sphere was placed near to a silicon plate and the Casimir force between the two was measured. Two plates were studied – a control plate and a plate that was doped with impurities to boost its charge-carrier density by a factor of about 20 000. The Casimir forces differed by as much as 17 pN at 70 nm separation between ball and plate, which is about 7% of the total Casimir force on the ball and plates.

About the author

Darius Nikbin is a freelance science writer based in the UK


Related Links

Umar Mohideen at UC Riverside

Restricted Links

Phys Rev Lett 97 170402

Related Stories

The Casimir effect: a force from nothing


3) World faces 'dirty, insecure' energy future

 07 November 2006, Rob Edwards, New Scientist.com news service, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10460-world-faces-dirty-insecure-energy-future.html  

Governments must make a dramatic shift towards climate-friendly energy policies to avoid global economic disruption, industrialised countries warn.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) http://www.iea.org/, which involves 26 governments, says that business as usual could lead to price shocks and sudden interruptions in energy supply, as well as a huge growth in climate-wrecking carbon dioxide emissions.

"The energy future we are facing today, based on projections of current trends, is dirty, insecure and expensive," says IEA's Executive Director Claude Mandil. "New government policies can create an alternative energy future which is clean, clever and competitive."

Grim outlook

The IEA, based in Paris, was asked by world leaders at the last two G8 summits, at Gleneagles in Scotland and St Petersburg in Russia, to advise on future energy scenarios. In response, it is today publishing World Energy Outlook 2006, which examines how countries can reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels.

It makes an unprecedented attempt to map out a future in which the rise in global energy demand is slowed, so that by 2030 it will be 10% less than it would be with business as usual. The represents a radical departure from the IEA's traditional stance in favour of unrestrained growth.

The shift could be achieved with a major investment in improving the energy efficiency of vehicles, buildings, appliances and industrial motors, the IEA argues, and it would be cost-effective. "An additional $1 invested in more efficient electrical equipment and appliances avoids more than $2 in investment in power generation," says Mandil.

Expansion in renewables

The IEA also recommends a rapid expansion in the use of renewable energy sources, including biofuels for vehicles. It says nuclear power could also make a "major contribution" to cutting fuel imports and curbing CO2 emissions, but only if governments "play a stronger role in facilitating private investment".

Under the IEA's proposed scenario, by 2030 global emissions of CO2 would still rise, but be 16% less than with business as usual. But this will require "strong policy action" by governments, it says, otherwise energy demand and CO2 emissions could both increase by more than 50%, threatening "severe and irreversible environmental damage".

Environmental groups applauded the IEA's change of heart, but are concerned that it has not gone far enough. "This is an important step forward because it acknowledges that business as usual will not prevent global climate chaos," says Shaun Burnie from Greenpeace International.

"But the solutions proposed fall far short of the energy revolution that's needed. And nuclear power is a dangerous irrelevance."

Related Articles

4) Electricity from Sugar Water

By Kevin Bullis, Technology Review, Nov. 7, 2006, http://cl.exct.net/?ffcb10-fe5e1d787660017c7517-fde017767d6d067b73137972-ff011674776105-fec4127776650574-fe1e137676650d7b711178


Researchers announce a faster way to make hydrogen from cheap biomass.



A metal catalyst heated to 800 °Celsius vaporizes soy oil to make hydrogen.

(Photo Credit: Paul Dauenhauer, University of Minnesota)


A new way to make hydrogen directly from biomass, such as soy oil, reported in the current issue of Science, www.sciencemag.com could cut the cost of electricity production using various cheap fuels.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a catalytic method for producing hydrogen from fuels such soy oil and even a mixture of glucose and water. The hydrogen could be used in solid-oxide fuel cells, which now run on hydrogen obtained from fossil-fuel sources such as natural gas, to generate electricity. Further, by adjusting the amount of oxygen injected along with the soy oil or sugar water, the method can be adapted to make synthesis gas, a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be burned as fuel or converted into synthetic gasoline. The method can also produce chemical feedstocks, such as olefins, which can be made into plastics.

Although the results are preliminary, the new catalysis process represents a fundamentally new way to directly use soy oil and other cheap biomass as fuels; such biomass now needs to be converted into biodiesel or ethanol in order to be used as fuels. "Generally, people have steered clear of nonvolatile liquids--materials that you cannot vaporize," since these typically produce a carbon residue that stops the process of producing hydrogen, says Ted Krause, head of the basic and applied research department at Argonne National Laboratory, in Argonne, IL. By eliminating the need to process soy oil and sugar water to make volatile fuels such as ethanol, the new method "opens up the number of available biomaterial feedstocks," he says.

The process begins when the researchers spray fine droplets of soy oil or sugar water onto a super-hot catalyst made of small amounts of cerium and rhodium. The rapid heating combined with catalyst-assisted reactions prevents the formation of carbon sludge that would otherwise deactivate the catalyst. And the reactions produce heat, keeping the catalyst hot enough to continue the reaction. As a result, although fossil fuels are used initially to bring the catalysts up to the 800 °C working temperature, no fossil fuels are needed to continue the process. "One of the virtues of our process is it requires no external process heat--it drives itself," says chemical-engineering and materials-science professor Lanny Schmidt, who led the research.

The key to the speed of the reactions is the small droplets. Existing processes for converting volatile fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel, into hydrogen are slower because the fuels are inside pipes, and it takes up to a second for heat to transfer to them. In Schmidt's process, the droplets heat up instantaneously--in just a few milliseconds--and the system can be faster, cheaper, and smaller, he says. The speed makes it possible to produce more fuel from a smaller reactor, reducing capital costs and potentially making it practical for a farmer to use a small system on the farm.

Schmidt says the process could probably be adapted to work with other biomass, such as slurries or powders made from grass or wood, which are now difficult to convert into practical fuels for electricity generation or transportation because of their high cellulose content. The ability to create hydrogen and syngas directly from cellulosic sources would dramatically increase the amount of fuel that could be made from waste biomass because it would be possible, for example, to use the whole cornstalk, rather than just glucose derived from corn kernels, for fuel. Other researchers are attempting to genetically engineer organisms to convert grass and cornstalks into liquid fuels such as ethanol (see "Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol" http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=17052&ch=biztech).

Such fuels could help reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil and provide a renewable source of fuel that produces no net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, since the carbon released when the fuel is burned is recaptured by the biomass as it grows.

Krause says that initial applications of Schmidt's current process will likely be in producing distributed power in small amounts, since utility-scale production will be a challenge. For example, controlling the size of the droplets and the temperature of the system to keep the reactions uniform and to avoid damaging the catalysts will be harder in large systems.

Schmidt says he's not focusing on commercializing the current technique. His next goal is to develop the system to work with sources of waste biomass. Someday it could be possible to use such a system to generate electricity from lawn clippings.

5) The Alternative Fuels Index on CD-ROM

Energy Institution, Nov. 8, 2006, www.energyinstitution.org

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6) Cheap, Superefficient Solar

Kevin Bullis, Technology Review, Nov. 9, 2006, http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=17774&ch=energy 


Solar-power modules that concentrate the power of the sun are becoming more viable.



A worker arranges wafers that will be fabricated into superefficient solar cells. These cells could help dramatically reduce the cost of generating electricity from solar energy. (Photo Credit: The Boeing Company)


Technologies collectively known as concentrating photovoltaics are starting to enjoy their day in the sun, thanks to advances in solar cells, which absorb light and convert it into electricity, and the mirror- or lens-based concentrator systems that focus light on them. The technology could soon make solar power as cheap as electricity from the grid.

The idea of concentrating sunlight to reduce the size of solar cells--and therefore to cut costs--has been around for decades. But interest in the technology has picked up in the past year. Last month, Japanese electronics giant Sharp Corporation showed off its new system for focusing sunlight with a fresnel lens (like the one used in lighthouses) onto superefficient solar cells, which are about twice as efficient as conventional silicon cells. Other companies, such as SolFocus, based in Palo Alto, CA, and Energy Innovations, based in Pasadena, CA, are rolling out new concentrators. And the company that supplied the long-lived photovoltaic cells for the Mars rovers, Boeing subsidiary Spectrolab, based in Sylmar, CA, is supplying more than a million cells for concentrator projects, including one in Australia that will generate enough power for 3,500 homes.

The thinking behind concentrated solar power is simple. Because energy from the sun, although abundant, is diffuse, generating one gigawatt of power (the size of a typical utility-scale plant) using traditional photovoltaics requires a four-square-mile area of silicon, says Jerry Olson, a research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO. A concentrator system, he says, would replace most of the silicon with plastic or glass lenses or metal reflectors, requiring only as much semiconductor material as it would take to cover an area the size of a typical backyard. And because decreasing the amount of semiconductor needed makes it affordable to use much more efficient types of solar cells, the total footprint of the plant, including the reflectors or lenses, would be only two to two-and-a-half square miles. (This approach is distinct from concentrated thermal solar power, which concentrates the heat from the sun to power turbines or sterling engines.)

"I'd much rather make a few square miles of plastic lenses--it would cost me less--than a few square miles of silicon solar cells," Olson says. Today solar power is still more expensive than electricity from the grid, but concentrator technology has the potential to change this. Indeed, if manufacturers can meet the challenges of ramping up production and selling, distributing, and installing the systems, their prices could easily meet prices for electricity from the grid, says solar-industry analyst Michael Rogol, managing director of Photon Consulting, in Aachen, Germany.

But the approach has been difficult to implement. "It has not delivered on the promise, mostly because of the complexity of the systems," Rogol says. The goal is to engineer a concentrating system that focuses sunlight, that tracks the movement of the sun to keep the light on the small solar cell, and that can accommodate the high heat caused by concentrating the sun's power by 500 to700 times--and to make such a system easy to manufacture.

In the face of this complexity, many have decided to focus their research efforts on cutting the cost of traditional "flat-plate" systems. This is done through making them thinner, to decrease the amount of semiconductor needed, or through turning to cheaper, though less efficient, organic materials. But now several companies claim to have developed reliable systems that can be manufactured on a large scale. For example, SolFocus is making a system that combines the concentrators and cells in one sealed package by employing manufacturing techniques similar to those used to make automobile headlamps. This way they can easily be created in large quantities, according to the company's CEO, Gary Conley.

As for the use of superefficient solar cells, critics originally said that although the cells worked well in the lab, it would be unlikely that their high efficiencies could be maintained in large-scale manufacturing. Unlike conventional solar cells, which use only one type of semiconductor (silicon), these more efficient cells, called multijunction cells, are made from layers of three types of semiconductor. This approach is meant to overcome a major limitation of silicon: although it can absorb photons from most of the spectrum in sunlight, it does so inefficiently, converting into heat, rather than into electricity, most of the energy in high-energy photons from the blue and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. The multijunction cells use three materials designed to efficiently convert light from different parts of the spectrum, the result being that much less is converted into heat and much more into electricity.

All of the materials must be carefully engineered to work with the other materials, and they have to be assembled under very clean, well-controlled conditions. So in the 1990s, when this type of cell was still experimental, people called it "a laboratory curiosity that could never be manufactured in large volume," Olson says. "Now Spectrolab on their production floor does better than we do in the lab. So it basically blew that myth out of the water."

Other factors that have limited the use of concentrated solar, such as aesthetic objections to mounting concentrator systems on suburban rooftops, may largely restrict applications to commercial buildings or arrays in the desert.

But the advances that have come about, along with growing demand for solar and a shortage of silicon feedstock, have made concentrated solar photovoltaics attractive.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in this area, where historically there's been a lot of hype that just hasn't been delivered," Rogol says. "The biggest news for me is that serious solar people, over the course of the last year, have made notable commitments to concentrators."

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