Sunday, October 9, 2016

Six next-gen battery technologies


By Cat DiStasio

We all love our battery-powered gadgets, but portable power cells can be devastating to the environment. Fortunately, recent developments have proven that greener batteries are coming in the not-too-distant future. Engineers are replacing toxic components with less harmful materials ranging from leaves to sugar. Other innovations on the rise look to nature to help make batteries last longer, perform better and leave less of a trace once they've been discarded. This gold nanowire-based battery, for instance, was created by accident and could make lithium ion batteries obsolete, while this single-use battery dissolves in water when its job is done, making it easier to reuse its components.

The leafy green battery

A team of University of Maryland researchers sought to develop an inexpensive material to serve as their batteries' negative terminal (anode). In the end, they found the perfect material right on campus. The team found that oak leaves could be heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius to destroy the existing carbon structures, and then introduced the electrolytes to the leaf's natural pores for absorption. The result is a plant-based anode that performs similarly to traditional battery components. Research is ongoing to test other natural materials, such as peat moss, banana peels and melon skins in search of the nature-based battery of the future.

A graphene battery that charges in an instant

Scientists are working hard to create rechargeable batteries that can withstand more use. Australia's Swinburne University has created a new graphene-based battery that shows rapid charging abilities -- and it has enough durability to last virtually forever. Super strong graphene replaces lithium in the battery's supercapacitor, addressing all of the shortcomings of that widely used material while also reducing the environmental impact of battery production. The graphene-based supercapacitor allows the new battery to charge to 100 percent power in just a few seconds, it can withstand many more recharging cycles and it also costs less to produce than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Sweet and cheap: a battery fueled by sugar

A Virginia Tech team developed a sugar battery that lasts longer than any previous sugar-based prototypes could. Maltodextrin, a polysaccharide made from the partial hydrolysis of starch, is isolated from natural sugar and then used as fuel. When combined with air, the battery releases electrons from the sugar solution to generate electricity. Sugar is cheap and abundant, so it makes for a battery that's not only affordable, but biodegradable as well.

Gold-based battery that doesn't die

An accidental discovery by researchers at University of California, Irvine led to a technological breakthrough that could leave lithium-ion batteries in the dust. The team built a nanowire battery using gold and some new-fangled materials, and it can be recharged hundreds of thousands of times without slacking in the performance department like lithium-ion batteries are known to do over time. The battery consists of protected electrode nanowires made from a thin core of gold, surrounded by layers of manganese dioxide and a Plexiglas-like electrolyte gel. Although the team had initially been searching for innovations to increase the power capacity of batteries, they stumbled upon this method of building a battery that can last basically forever without showing any signs of wear.

Self-destructing battery dissolves in water

A self-destructing battery won't come in handy for everyone, but the development of this dissolving energy storage device is a key innovation for certain applications where single-use batteries are currently being left behind to pollute the surrounding environment. Created by a team at Iowa State University, this battery is designed to self-destruct when triggered by light, heat or liquid, so it's well suited for military applications and other so-called "transient" devices that require a power source for a finite amount of time. Certain medical devices and environmental sensors might fall into this category, and since the battery simply dissolves in water once it has served its purpose, its lasting impact on the environment is approximately nil.

Edible saltwater battery

Although there's probably no need to eat a battery, you could chow down on parts of this one if you really felt compelled. In an attempt to demonstrate how natural and eco-friendly his company's new battery really is, Jay Whitacre at Aquion Energy has eaten parts of the saltwater-based battery, and lived to tell. The battery's components are comprised largely of naturally derived materials such as dirt, cotton, carbon and saltwater acting as an electrolyte solution. While hardly a delicious meal, the battery components demonstrate an ecological sensitivity not often found in the energy storage field.

This battery is designed for large-scale jobs, such as providing backup power for a home or business equipped with a renewable energy source, such as wind or solar. It can also be charged up with off-peak grid power, to save money on energy use during peak times when prices are higher.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Six technologies that produce clean, safe drinking water


By Cat DiStasio

One in 10 people worldwide lack regular access to safe drinking water. In an effort to tackle this most basic humanitarian problem, engineers around the globe have developed a wide array of devices, large and small, that generate clean water. Each year, a slew of innovations aim to make the process easier, cheaper and more portable, as well as produce a yield high enough to make a real impact for some of the 663 million people who suffer from water shortages. Solutions range from using condensation methods to pull water from thin air, turning salty seawater into fresh water, or distributing UV light purification chips affordable enough for people to use at home. Only a few of these technologies are working outside the lab, but the ones that do have so far generated billions of gallons of clean water.

The Warka Water Tower

It took several years for the design of the Warka Water Tower to become a reality, but its first pilot program in a rural Ethiopian village was finally built earlier this year and began pulling clean water from thin air. The award-winning design is based on fog harvesting concepts, and it takes the form of an enormous cylinder constructed from bamboo and wrapped in recycled mesh. The tower is skirted by a canopy that provides shade for local residents to rest under while they funnel off condensed water from the tower's base. The Tower's makers plan to put it into mass production by 2019.

Tiny UV water purifier

Not all of the people lacking clean water live in drought-affected areas. Oftentimes, there is "water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink" due to contamination from pollution or other environmental issues. Water purification systems are often expensive and time-consuming, but researchers at Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory recently developed a UV water purifier housed in a tiny black rectangle that cuts the lengthy process down from 48 hours to around 20 minutes. Although the device is a long way from mass production, lab tests on the prototype suggest that it could be the first step toward a new generation of water purification methods that help make dirty water drinkable.

The Pipe is floating solar-powered desalination plant

A new desalination project planned for California, dubbed The Pipe, made a splash this summer with its promise of providing 1.5 billion gallons of clean drinking water for the drought-stricken state. The solar-powered plant relies on electromagnetic desalination methods to turn seawater into clean water, filters the salty byproduct through thermal baths, and then flushes it back into the Pacific Ocean. The Pipe is also getting attention for its eye appeal, as it was designed to look more like a giant glittering sculpture than a piece of industrial equipment.

The World's largest fog harvester

The world's largest fog harvester uses giant mesh fences to trap dense fog in the Moroccan desert and turn it into clean, fresh water. With a surface area over 600 square meters, the contraption takes advantage of the fog blanketing the drought-stricken Aït Baâmrane region for six months out of the year. The fog harvester reportedly produces as much as 17 gallons of clean, safe drinking water per square yard of net. Solar-powered pumps, along with a system of pipes, deliver the clean water to 400 local residents, who ordinarily struggle to gain access to safe water in the arid region.

Nano Water Chip

The cost of clean water is a major obstacle for many thirsty people on Earth, so researchers look for affordable solutions for small scale, personal water purification. In 2014, a join research team from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Marburg in Germany developed a low-drain "water chip" which generates a small electrical field to desalinate seawater. Early in its development, the water chip promised to offer a portable clean water solution capable of running on a regular battery. The startup Okeanos Technology was founded to further the product's research and development, which is still underway.

Carnegie Perth Wave Energy Project

The Carnegie Perth Wave Energy Project does double duty, generating renewable energy from the motion of the ocean while simultaneously desalinating seawater. The buoy-like floating device operates off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, where environmentally friendly electricity production methods are a priority. The submerged 240-kilowatt buoys work together in a trio, tethered to the seabed with hydraulic pumps that push water through power turbines as the system bobs with the waves. A built-in desalination system uses some of the electricity produced to create clean drinking water, and the rest of the electricity is fed back to shore and added to the grid. The utility-scale project is part of Perth's larger plan to lean on desalination as a long-term source of clean drinking water for the local community.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Scientists Baffled as Hundreds of Dead Horseshoe Crabs Wash Ashore in Japan


Horseshoe crabs are known as “living fossils” and for good reason. The blue-blooded, side-walking arthropods have been around for 200 million years, surviving the last five mass extinctions. But something appears to be wrong as hundreds of dead horseshoe crabs have recently washed ashore in southern Japan, leaving scientists confounded.



Monday, May 16, 2016

Thousands of tiny red crabs have taken over Orange County beaches


crabsThousands of tiny red crabs are carpeting beaches in Orange County and creating an amazing spectacle for swimmers and surfers.

Lifeguards estimate that hundreds of thousands of the tiny crustaceans washed up Friday on beaches in Newport Beach.


Others were spotted in Laguna Beach.

The Orange County Register reports that pelagic red crabs are usually found off Baja California, but currents that are part of the El Nino weather pattern are sweeping them north.


The 1- to 3-inch-long crabs have washed up for several years along the Orange County coastline.

Before that, they hadn't been seen in the area for decades.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thousands of dead fish washed up on Rio de Janeiro's Olympic shore


Rio Brazil Dead FishREUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Thousands of dead fish washed up on the shores of Rio's Guanabara Bay on Wednesday, not far from where events are being held at this year's Olympic Games, environmental officials said.

The incident was the latest involving water quality in the bay, where sailing, open water swimming, and triathlon races are due to take place at the Games in August.

"Officials found rubbish in the water and on the beach as well as a considerable number of dead fish all from the same species of sardine," the government's State Environmental Institute said in a statement.

"These fish because of their low commercial value are often thrown overboard by trawlers as we have seen on other occasions in this same area."

Other than floating garbage the officials saw no "visual abnormalities" in the water. They took samples and will report back in five days.

When Rio bid to host the 2016 Olympics, the city said it would cut the amount of raw sewage flowing into the bay by 80 percent but has since confirmed it will not meet that target.

An independent report last year found there were dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria in the water.

(Reporting by Andrew Downie, editing by Ed Osmond)


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In massive stranding, 337 whales beached on Chilean coast


In this photo taken on April 21, 2015, and released on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, by the Huinay Scientific Center, Sei whales lie dead at Caleta Buena, in the southern Aysen region of Chile. The coast of southern Chile has turned into a grave for 337 sei whales that were found beached in what scientists say is one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded. (Vreni Haussermann/Huinay Scientific Center via AP)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — The coast of southern Chile has become a grave for 337 sei whales that were found beached in what scientists say is one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded.

Biologist Vreni Haussermann told The Associated Press Tuesday that she made the discovery along with other scientists in June during an observation flight over fjords in Chile's southern Patagonia region. The team has been collecting samples since then.

"This is one of the largest strandings worldwide," said Haussermann, the director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, which focuses on marine research. She declined to disclose the conclusions, which will be published by a scientific journal later this year.

The scientific expedition counted 305 bodies and 32 skeletons of whales through aerial and satellite photography in the remote Aysen area between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales. The cause of death of the sei whales is unknown, but human intervention has been ruled out.

Whale strandings are common in Aysen, a region of southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.

"They probably died at sea, we don't know exactly where, but they didn't just die by stranding," said Carolina Simon Gutstein, a paleontologist at University of Chile who was part of the team.

Sei, humpback and blue whales, which belong to the rorquals family, are the largest group of baleen whales, and "are not normally seen gathering in large groups," Gutstein said.

Scientists say the whale die-off might help them find out more about their habits and develop policies to protect them, including the creation of a whale sanctuary in the Gulf of Penas.

The first 37 beached whales were found in April by a team led by Haussermann. They alerted the National Fisheries Service, which launched an investigation in May together with environmental police and the Chilean Navy.

Since the Fisheries Service did not carry out observation flights, the scientists got funding for their own flights in June and August. They were unable to examine the whales because the area is so remote, the coast is so steep and the sea is so rough that it makes it nearly impossible to land. But they were still able to take the photographs to confirm the deaths.

Based on their size and location, scientists believe they are all sei whales. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the sei as an endangered species. Also called pollack, adults can be longer than 50 feet (15 meters) and weigh 20 tons or more.

Between 1999 and 2001, about 600 gray whales were stranded on the North American Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico. But scientists say it happened over a longer period of time and in a larger area.


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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Scientists are developing an invisibility cloak for solar panels


Current solar panel technology has enough trouble as it is converting sunlight into useable current, what with their paltry 20 percent average efficiencies. And it certainly doesn't help matters that up to a tenth of every solar panel's active collection areas are obscured from the sun by electrical leads called "contact fingers." But researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have developed a novel workaround: they're wrapping the finger contacts in little invisibility cloaks.

Like other invisibility cloaks, this system works to wrap light around the object. The fingers are still visible to the human eye -- I mean, they're not really invisible -- but the light that hits the top of the contacts is redirected to the solar panel underneath through some tricky physics. The team is currently looking at two alternative methods for accomplishing this feat. The first method involves wrapping the fingers in a polymer coating with a precisely tuned refractive index. The other involves etching grooves into the fingers themselves that refract light around the components. Current computer models of both methods suggest that panel efficiencies would increase by about 10 percent should the contact fingers be made to disappear.

[Image Credit: KIT]

Source: KIT