Cartop Solar Cells Extend EV Range




A thin-film gallium arsenide solar cell like this one will be set into a panoramic glass roof
on an Audi electric car. (Photo courtesy Audi)


The German automaker Audi is experimenting with placing thin-film gallium arsenide solar cells in the roofs of Audi electric vehicles to increase their range.


Audi is partnering with Alta Devices, a U.S. subsidiary of the Chinese solar-cell specialist Hanergy, based in Hong Kong, to build the first prototype by the end of 2017.


As the first step, Audi and Hanergy want to incorporate Alta Devices’ thin-film solar cells into a panoramic glass roof. As a next step, almost the entire roof will be covered with solar cells. At a future stage, solar energy could charge the battery that propels the vehicle.


Produced by Alta Devices in California, the innovative gallium arsenide solar cells have an efficiency of more than 25 percent, considered high for solar cells.


The electricity the generate can supply power to accessories like the air-conditioning system or the seat heaters, a gain in efficiency with a positive impact on the EV's range.


The range of electric cars plays a decisive role for our customers. Together with Hanergy, we plan to install innovative solar technology in our electric cars that will extend their range and is also sustainable," said Audi Board of Management Member for Procurement Dr. Bernd Martens.


Dr. Ding Jian, co-leader of the Audi/Hanergy Thin Film Solar Cell Research and Development Project, senior vice president of Hanergy Thin Film Power Group Ltd, and CEO of Alta Devices, Inc. said, “This partnership with Audi is Alta Devices’ first cooperation with a high-end auto brand. By combining Alta’s continuing breakthroughs in solar technology and Audi’s drive toward a sustainable mobility of the future, we will shape the solar car of the future."


Hanergy Thin Film Power is the Chinese solar equipment maker whose shares were suspended more than two years ago after they lost nearly half their market value in a single day. Its U.S. subsidiary, Alta Devices, will work with Audi.


Hanergy’s Hong Kong-listed shares have been halted from trading since May 2015 after they plunged 47 percent in a single day, prompting an investigation by stock market regulators.


The listed company in January reached a deal with Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission on the requirements and procedures for a resumption of trading, though no timeframe has been set. Hanergy Thin Film said in August that it returned to profit for the first six months of last year.


Li Hejun, the man behind the rise and fall of Hanergy, is urging the Government of China to encourage and support research and development into solar-powered cars.


Li’s idea is part of a written submission to a political advisory body in March. The proposal to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) calls for a special fund to support solar car manufacturing and subsidies for the vehicles.


Outside its headquarters in Beijing on July 2, Hanergy launched four full solar power vehicles at a grand ceremony themed “Disruptive Innovations Drive the Future" before an audience of more than 4,000 guests from all sectors of society.


The lithium battery-powered cars can be charged while being driven and in stations when there’s no sunlight.


Other companies, too, are exploring solar power for transportation.


Japan’s Panasonic has started producing a 180-watt array of solar cells able to be fixed to the roof of an automobile.


In February 2017, Panasonic announced that it had developed the "HIT™ Photovoltaic Module for Automobile," which was adopted for the new Prius PHV released that same month by Toyota.


Panasonic's solar cells have a unique structure that combines a crystalline silicon substrate and an amorphous silicon film, and feature high conversion efficiency.


Conventional automotive solar cells have been used only for the auxiliary charging of 12 volt batteries and ventilation power sources for parked cars. Panasonic says its solar cells allow a high output of 180 watts, enabling the charging of the drive lithium-ion batteries as well as 12 V batteries. This could result in an extension of an EV's travel distance and increase its fuel economy.


Panasonic is laminating three-dimensional curved glass, achieving the installation of solar modules on the roof to harmonize with the new Prius PHV's body design.


Meanwhile, Nissan offers an add-on solar panel option for its Leaf electric car. A photovoltaic solar panel spoiler is available for Nissan Leaf SL models, which supports charging of the 12-volt battery for vehicle accessories.


Jets Fly High on Specialty Sugarcane



Deepak Kumar (left) and Vijay Singh (right) have helped develop
a renewable jet fuel. (Photo courtesy University of Illinois)


A Boeing 747 passenger plane burns one gallon of jet fuel each second it is in the air.


A new analysis from researchers at the University of Illinois find that the same Boeing 747 could fly for 10 hours on bio-jet fuel produced on 54 acres of specially engineered sugarcane.


A research project, that goes by the unwieldy name of Plants Engineered to Replace Oil in Sugarcane and Sweet Sorghum (PETROSS), has developed a sugarcane that produces oil, called lipidcane, that can be converted into biodiesel or jet fuel in place of sugar that is currently used for ethanol production.


PETROSS is supported by the U.S. Government's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds initial research for high-impact energy technologies to show proof of concept before private-sector investment.


"Oil-to-Jet is one of the direct and efficient routes to convert bio-based feedstocks to jet fuel," said Vijay Singh, director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory and professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at University of Illinois. "Lipidcane allows us to reduce feedstock cost."


This research analyzed the economic viability of crops with different levels of oil.


Lipidcane, with five percent oil, produces four times more jet fuel (1,577 liters, or 416 gallons) per hectare than soybeans.

Sugarcane with 20 percent oil produces more than 15 times more jet fuel (6,307 liters, or 1,666 gallons) per hectare than soybeans.


With 20 percent oil, the theoretical limit, all the sugar in the plant would be replaced by oil.


"PETROSS sugarcane is also being engineered to be more cold tolerant, potentially enabling it to be grown on an estimated 23 million acres of marginal land in the Southeastern U.S.," said PETROSS Director Stephen Long, a professor of plant biology and crop sciences at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the university.


"If all of this acreage was used to produce renewable jet fuel from lipid-cane, it could replace about 65 percent of national jet fuel consumption."


"We estimate that this biofuel would cost the airline industry $5.31 per gallon, which is less than most of the reported prices of renewable jet fuel produced from other oil crops or algae," said Deepak Kumar, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the university and lead analyst on the study.


The paper, "Biorefinery for combined production of jet fuel and ethanol from lipid-producing sugarcane: a techno-economic evaluation," is published in the journal "Global Change Biology Bioenergy" (10.1111/gcbb.12478).



TOTAL Tackles Second-Generation Biofuel


The BioTfueL project launched by the French energy company Total and five partners is designed to transform lignocellulosic biomass such as straw, forest waste, and dedicated energy crops into biofuel via thermochemical conversion.


The partners’ goal is to develop an end-to-end set of processes for producing second-generation biodiesel and biojet fuel.


Total's five partners are:

  • Axens, a French company that focuses on the conversion of oil, coal, natural gas, and biomass to clean fuels, as well as the production and purification of petrochemical intermediates.


  • CEA, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission


  • IFP Energies Nouvelles, the French Institute of Petroleum, a public research organization that has partnerships with over 200 academic research teams in France


  • Avril, which produces a renewable fuel from rapeseed oil. Incorporated into diesel in a proportion of eight percent, the fuel, called Diester®, is distributed in all French service stations.


  • ThyssenKrupp Industrial Solutions, a German multinational conglomerate, that provides the engineering, construction and service of industrial plants and systems.


Pre-treatment of the biomass will take place at the Avril site in Venette, France.


Gasification, purification and synthesis will be done at the Total site in Dunkirk, France.


Gasification makes it possible to produce biofuels from lignocellulosic material, such as agricultural by-products, forest waste and energy crops. The process can also convert fossil feedstock mixed with biomass to account for seasonal variations in resource availability.


The resulting biofuels, which will not contain any sulfur or aromatics, will be usable pure or blended in all types of diesel and turbojet engines.


Total says that the set of processes developed by BioTfueL will be transposable on an industrial scale at the end of the project.


The year 2020 is the target date to demonstrate the technology.


Dirty Tinfoil Transformed


A researcher at Northern Ireland's Queen's University Belfast has discovered a way to convert dirty aluminium foil into a biofuel catalyst for producing the biofuel dimethyl ether (DME), a biofuel that appears to be one the most promising of the 21st century.


Ahmed Osman, an early career researcher from Queen's University's School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, has worked with engineers at the university to create an innovative crystallization method, which obtains 100 percent pure single crystals of aluminium salts from the contaminated foil.


Osman's solution could help to solve global waste and energy problems at the same time.


In the UK, around 20,000 tonnes of aluminium foil packaging is wasted each year - enough to stretch to the moon and back.


Most of this is landfilled or incinerated as it is often contaminated with grease and oils, which can damage recycling equipment.


But Osman can take that dirty tinfoil and transform it into pure aluminum salt, and this is the starting material for the preparation of alumina catalyst for the production of dimethyl ether.


Usually, alumina would have to be produced from bauxite ore, which is mined in West Africa, the West Indies and Australia, causing huge environmental damage.


Osman says making the catalyst from soiled aluminium foil cost about £120/kg while the commercial alumina catalyst comes in at around £305/kg.


His ground-breaking research is published in the journal "Scientific Reports."


Osman commented, "This breakthrough is significant as not only is the alumina more pure than its commercial counterpart, it could also reduce the amount of aluminium foil going to landfill while also sidestepping the environmental damage associated with mining bauxite," he said.


Dimethyl ether, also known as methoxymethane, is an organic compound. It is a colorless gas that is a useful precursor to other organic compounds currently being demonstrated for use in a variety of fuel applications.


It is a promising fuel for diesel engines, petrol engines (30% DME / 70% LPG), and gas turbines.


Only moderate modifications are needed to convert a diesel engine to burn dimethyl ether.


The simplicity of this short carbon chain compound leads during combustion to very low emissions of particulate matter, NOx, and carbon monoxide. For these reasons as well as being sulfur-free, dimethyl ether meets even the most stringent emission regulations in Europe (EURO5), U.S. (U.S. 2010), and Japan (2009 Japan).


Osman is hoping to continue his research into how these catalysts can be further improved and explore the opportunities for commercialization of biofuel production or use the modified alumina catalyst in the catalytic converters in natural gas vehicles.


Algae Afficianados


Algae on a Chip



Colonies of algae inside droplets on a chip.
The algal lipids are stained red. (Photo by NanoBio Systems Lab @ Texas A&M)


For more than 10 years, companies have promised renewable transport fuel from algae. Investors who want to move the world away from fossil fuels have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the effort.


Making biofuel from algae has many benefits. These simple plants replicate quickly, requiring little more than water and sunlight to accumulate to massive amounts, which then convert atmospheric CO2 into lipids, oils that can be harvested and processed into biodiesel.


Despite high-profile demonstrations, promises have fallen short. Yet new technologies are emerging that might finally lead algal biofuels to the marketplace.


One of the improvements necessary for sustainable production of algal biofuel is the development of better algae.


On September 28 researchers from Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) in Ithaca, New York and Texas A&M University reported in the journal "Plant Direct" a new technology that could revolutionize the search for the perfect algal strain - algal droplet bioreactors on a chip.


A single algal cell is captured in a droplet of water encapsulated by oil, then millions of algal droplets squeeze onto a chip about the size of a quarter.


Each droplet is a micro-bioreactor, a controlled environment in which algal cells can grow and replicate for days, forming a genetically homogenous colony that goes through its typical biological reactions, including the production of lipids.


This is the first microsystem that allows both lipid content analysis and growth rate measurement at high throughput, whereas previous work could only do one or the other," said senior author and engineer, Arum Han of Texas A&M.


With today’s gene-editing technologies, modifying algal genes can be relatively straightforward; however, identifying which genes to target is time-consuming and costly.


Exposing an algal culture to a mutagen yields millions of unique, potentially improved algal cells that must each be tested for expression of a desired trait, such as increased lipid production. Mutated genes can then be identified through whole-genome sequencing.


The important thing is to develop a tool that can screen millions of cells in a much shorter time frame and a smaller space. In a chip housing millions of droplets of cells, each droplet is like a flask or a bioreactor, and that’s how we can get results faster from just a tiny chip," explained author and BTI post-doc, Shih-Chi Hsu.


The researchers screened 200,000 chemically mutated cells, identifying six mutants with both faster growth and higher lipid content. Done on-chip, the screening uses fluorescence detection of chlorophyll, representing total cell mass, and BODIPY, a fluorescent molecule that binds to lipids.


Larger chips that can screen millions of droplets in one experiment are already in development.


Choosing the Winning Algae



Algae Growing in a test pond at Arizona State University's Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation.
(Photo courtesy ACATI)


Algae are simple plants that can range in size from the microscopic to large seaweeds, such as giant kelp more than 30 meters (100 feet) in length.


Algae may be simple but discovering which algae are best suited to make biofuel is a complex task. Researchers have tried to evaluate algae in test tubes, but often find lab results don't hold up when the green goo is grown in outdoor ponds.


The new $6 million Algae DISCOVR Project is trying out a new approach that could cut the cost and time needed to move promising algal strains from the lab and into production. At the end of the three-year pilot project, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and three other national labs, hope to identify four promising strains from at least 30 initial candidates.


"Algae biofuel is a promising clean energy technology, but the current production methods are costly and limit its use," said the project's lead researcher, Michael Huesemann, who works out of the PNNL Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington.


"The price of biofuel is largely tied to growth rates. Our method could help developers find the most productive algae strains more quickly and efficiently," Huesemann said.


The project's early work relies on PNNL's Laboratory Environmental Algae Pond Simulator mini-photobioreactors; they mimic the shifting water temperatures and lighting conditions that occur in outdoor ponds.


Glass column photobioreactors that act like small ponds are placed in rows to allow scientists to simultaneously grow many different types of algae strains. Each row is exposed to unique temperature and lighting regimens via heaters, chillers and heat exchangers, as well as colored lights simulating the sunlight spectrum.


The team is looking for strains of algae that produce 20 percent more biomass used to make biofuel, than two well-studied algae strains. The top-performing strains will be sorted to find individual cells best suited for biofuel production, such as those that contain the most oil.


The selected strains will be grown in large outdoor ponds in Arizona. Researchers will examine how algae growth in the ponds compares with the algal biomass output predicted. Biomass will be harvested from outdoor-grown algae for future study.


That data will be entered into PNNL's Biomass Assessment Tool, which uses detailed data from weather stations to identify the best locations to grow algae. The tool will crunch numbers to help the team generate maps that illustrate the expected biomass productivity of each algae species grown in outdoor ponds at any location in the United States.


Seaweed-fueled Cars? Maybe!



The U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is developing two different technologies
that could one day enable cars and trucks run on biofuel made from seaweed grown in the open ocean, including the kelp shown here.
(Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)


Cars and trucks might one day run on biofuel made from seaweed with the help of two technologies being developed at PNNL.


PNNL is developing two different technologies that could one day enable cars and trucks run on biofuel made from seaweed grown in the open ocean. The two technologies are among 18 new projects receiving $22 million in funding from DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, also known as ARPA-E.


Though seaweed is usually grown for human consumption today, it could be used to make economically viable renewable energy without using synthetic fertilizers or the land and fresh water currently used for food production.


The Department of Energy estimates the U.S. could produce enough macroalgae to meet about 10 percent of the nation's annual energy needs for transportation. But new technologies and innovative engineering approaches are needed to increase production before cars can run on seaweed.


A key part of boosting seaweed cultivation is knowing where to grow it. PNNL's Biomass Assessment Tool can help answer this question, by predicting the best locations and times to efficiently cultivate seaweed in an open-ocean farm.


The team will integrate existing modeling tools to evaluate seaweed growth potential, nutrient availability, and how natural phenomena such as wind, currents, tides, waves and storm surges could affect the productivity of seaweed farms.


This project is being awarded more than $2 million over the course of two years. PNNL ocean scientist Zhaoqing Yang is leading the effort from PNNL's Seattle office. He will collaborate with colleagues at PNNL, Georgia Tech, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Oregon State University.


To grow the most seaweed at a low cost, another PNNL team, led by Huesemann, will develop an autonomous cultivation system that runs along a five-kilometer (three mile) long carbon-fiber rope. The longline system will be kept afloat by free-floating buoys equipped with sensors that track the seaweed farm's position, speed of movement, underwater light exposure and more.


Data from the sensors will automatically calculate growth of two species of kelp that grow along the line. The line's carbon fiber will be made with composite waste materials from the aviation industry. PNNL calls its system the Nautical Offshore Autonomous Device, or NOMAD.


This project is initially being awarded $500,000 over the course of one year, but may be considered for further funding.


Biological Wizardry at Work


In Ithaca, New York, Cornell University biological engineers have figured out the cellular strategy to make the biofuel ethanol, using an anaerobic microbe feeding on carbon monoxide, a common industrial waste gas.


"Instead of having the waste go to waste, you make it into something you want," said Ludmilla Aristilde, assistant professor in biological and environmental engineering. "In order to make the microbes do our work, we had to figure out how they work, their metabolism."


Aristilde collaborated with her colleague Lars Angenent, professor of biological and environmental engineering, on the project. She explained, "The Angenent group had taken a waste product and turned it into a useful product."


To make biofuel from inorganic, gaseous industrial rubbish, the researchers learned that the bacterium Clostridium ljungdahlii responds thermodynamically, rather than genetically, in the process of tuning favorable enzymatic reactions.


Synthetic gas, or syngas, fermentation is emerging as a key biotechnological solution, as industrial-sized operations are looking to produce ethanol from their gaseous waste streams, according to Angenent, a fellow at Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. The scientists sought to grasp the physiological nature of the process: "These findings are important for the syngas fermentation community to design future strategies to improve production," Angenent said.


The scientists found the microbe feasts on and then ferments carbon monoxide. "When I eat food, I get energy out of my food by metabolizing my food," said Aristilde, an Atkinson fellow.


"Microbes are the same. In terms of biostructure, the bacterial cells are starving for nutrients, so they are responding metabolically, which leads to a desired outcome, ethanol production," she explained.


To get the microbe to ferment the carbon monoxide, scientists "bubble it in the growth medium solution," says Angenent, where the cells can feed on it. Angenent said carbon monoxide gas emitted as a byproduct of heavy industries - such as the process for coking coal in the production of steel - can potentially be channeled to bioreactors that contain these bacterial cells.


Said Aristilde, "The microbial cells then turn it into ethanol, an organic molecule. And carbon monoxide, an inorganic molecule, turns into something valuable we can use. That's what makes this special."


Rendering Diamond Green Diesel


In a joint venture called Diamond Green Diesel, Diamond Alternative Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Valero Energy Corporation, partnered with Darling Ingredients Inc. to build a 10,000-barrel-per-day renewable diesel refinery near the Valero St. Charles Refinery in Norco, Louisiana, to process recycled animal fat, used cooking oil, and other feedstocks into renewable diesel fuel.


Through Diamond Alternative Energy, the effort marks Valero’s first advanced biofuels production, complementing its other alternative-energy efforts in ethanol and wind energy.


For Darling, a global producer of sustainable food, feed and fuel ingredients from edible and inedible bionutrients, it is the first move into the mass scale production of renewable diesel.


Fuels produced in the U.S. from biomass feedstocks can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy security and bring jobs and investment.


The facility at St. Charles is located near existing refinery infrastructure. The plant is capable of annually converting approximately 1.3 billion pounds of fat into more than 150 million gallons of renewable diesel.


The product is compatible with petroleum-based diesel fuel and can be shipped by pipeline. The fuel has a carbon lifecycle low enough to meet the most stringent low-carbon fuel standards.


Diamond Alternative Energy LLC is a subsidiary of Valero Energy Corporation. Through its refining subsidiaries, Valero is the world’s largest independent petroleum refiner with 16 refineries and a combined throughput capacity of approximately three million barrels per day.


The company’s geographically diverse refining network stretches from the U.S. West Coast and Gulf Coast to Canada, the United Kingdom and the Caribbean.


Darling Ingredients Inc. is a global corporation developing and producing sustainable food, feed and fuel ingredients from natural and organic bionutrients.


As the largest renderer in North America, Darling collects and recycles animal by-products, bakery residuals and used cooking oil from poultry and meat processors, commercial bakeries, grocery stores, butcher shops, and food service establishments from around the world, and transforms these raw materials into useable ingredients for the pharmaceutical, food, pet food, feed, technical, fuel, bioenergy and fertilizer industries.


Trump Undermines Renewable Fuels Standard



President Donald Trump speaks at the White House,
Sept. 15, 2017 (Screengrab from video courtesy The White House)


All of this progress toward renewable and alternative fuels could be countered by the Trump administration, which in September recommended reducing federal mandates for the most advanced low-carbon biofuels.


The budget proposal by President Donald Trump would eliminate funds for the Department of Energy program responsible for funding most of the research on novel low-carbon fuels. President Trump has made a point of embracing and supporting fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking at major cuts to its Renewable Fuel Standard program, citing increasing costs from renewable fuel imports as a factor in its decision.


EPA made its intentions known in a notice in late September that outlined several options to reduce volumes of biofuels under the program.


The Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) program requires that refiners blend increasing amounts of ethanol and other biofuels into the nation's gasoline and diesel supplies through 2022.


The notice said EPA is targeting biodiesel and advanced biofuels because of an expiring tax credit that the agency said has resulted in higher costs to blend the fuels to meet the RFS requirements.


The notice said the cost of advanced biofuels is higher on a per-gallon basis than the petroleum fuels it seeks to replace. The expiration of the biodiesel tax credit at the end of last year will exacerbate the increased cost of the fuels, the EPA said.


The loss of the tax credit "has already impacted the effective price of biodiesel to blenders, as well as the price of biodiesel blends to consumers," the notice read. "While it does not appear that the expiration of the tax credit has had a direct impact on the price of unblended biodiesel in 2017, we expect that the expiration of the tax credit has had a significant impact on the effective price of biodiesel sold to blenders."


In addition, "the level of imports and exports can also affect the price of renewable fuel used in the U.S., and both imports and export volumes have varied considerably over the last several years," the notice said.


The EPA is looking at cutting the total renewable fuel requirement from 19.24 billion gallons under the proposed 2018 standard to 18.77 billion gallons for 2019, a 2.5 percent cut.


Other possible changes would include reductions of the 2018 advanced biofuel target from 4.24 billion gallons to 3.77 billion gallons.


The action immediately sparked the anger of the biofuel and ethanol industries, which called the proposed changes baseless under the law and warned that the proposed reductions could spark a trade dispute if perceived as protectionist.


Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen said, “There is no rationale for further lowering either the 2018 advanced biofuel volume requirement or the total renewable fuel volume. ... It is also likely that using RFS waiver authorities in an attempt to limit exports would be perceived as a non-tariff trade barrier, which could run afoul of U.S. obligations under World Trade Organization rules."


Doug Whitehead, chief operating officer at the National Biodiesel Board, said, “EPA’s proposal earlier this summer was inadequate, underestimating the power of domestic biodiesel production and ignoring the intent of the law. This request for comment is even more disappointing. NBB will be working with EPA to demonstrate the industry’s proven success record, continued growth and impacts to American workers who were promised that this administration had their back."


By Sunny Lewis – Environment News Service