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Apr 22, 2014

Renewables changing the nature of power

New technology has dramatically increased the possibilities of renewable energy. But the material revolution challenges those who want to preserve the existing relations of production, consumption and energy.


Halfway through April this year, scientists at Harvard and MIT announced something extraordinary: they had found a way to create solar cells that can store accumulated energy from sunlight, and then — with no more than a burst of a few photons — release that energy in a steady and continuous form. These new types of solar cells — called photoswitches — are made from a form of carbon nanotube called azobenzene, which can exist in two different configurations. One collects energy from the photons that hit it and stores it, another releases it. Because they can be switched from one form to another, the cell is essentially a battery, and this solves many of the problems of storage that arise with a weather-dependent system such as solar.

The great advantage of such a technology is that it would make possible solar cells that were an utterly stable continuous power supply. When you combine it with work being done elsewhere on solar cells that can perform in cloudy conditions, you have the plan for an entirely stable solar delivery system — indeed, one that is more stable than the large-scale privatised power systems that we currently rely on, subject to mass technical failure, Enron-style credit events, and routine under-maintenance.

Such technology is small miracle, yet it’s only one examples of dozens of advances occurring as renewable energy technology comes into contact with new materials and starts to be transformed by them. Thus, in the weeks and months before this recent announcement, news in renewables included: a new nanomaterial that can increase solar fuel cell efficiency by up to 80%, a solar-powered hybrid car that can charge up without needing to dock at a recharge station; and a plane the size of a 747 that will be able to fly around the world without refuelling. On every front, the renewables revolution is gaining pace — not merely gaining pace, but accelerating exponentially — and the overwhelming reason for this is new materials.

Graphene and related forms of carbon have busted open the limits that solar technology hit in the 1990s — limits that made it easy for smug members of the fossil and nuclear lobby to argue that renewables would never be able to supply the energy needs of a modern civilisation. That supposition was based on a crude version of what we might call “molecularism” — a willingness to accept given limits of technology based on the aspects of it that used to be close to us: the limit of the molecule. In that conception, it is easy to see why people could believe that there were limits to the capacities of solar and other renewables. There is no excuse now. The new materials revolution means that anything is possible with regard to renewable energy. The 3D/additive revolution means that we can make machines whereby anyone can print these things out from machines that are themselves powered by this energy. The material revolution makes it first conceivable — and then unavoidable — that these new technologies will converge on an energy revolution, one that will leave existing old-school technologies hopelessly behind.

“These new materials also promise a revolution in the capacity for energy storage.”

In the decade since this new field was opened up, the possibility of cheap, simple and easily reproducible and distributable power and power technologies has opened up afresh. The simplicity and manipulability of new materials such as azobenzene makes possible a re-engineering of solar cells at the molecular level, reaching into the mechanism of the cell at a level not previously accessible. The 80% increase in cell efficiency comes about by coating the cell with a material composed of tungsten and a new ceramic called hafnium that allows the cell to collect much of the heat energy that it would otherwise lose. Graphene itself can also be used directly with solar cells, the conductivity of the material allowing it to act as a super-efficient charge carrier within the cell — retaining its properties even if combined with other materials such as silicon.

Alternatively, the current expense of mass producing such graphene-based cells can be reduced if the silicon is replaced entirely with graphene, combined with titanium oxide and perovskite. Because the cell can be produced at low temperatures, around 150 degrees Celsius, they can be mass-produced at a cost comparable to existing solar cells, and eventually much cheaper — or, indeed, printed out. In wind power, graphene combined with various metals would make possible wind turbines that are significantly lighter with a larger surface area for generation. This would work in conjunction with a plethora of new wind turbine designs that go well beyond the propeller-style turbine that have become a fixture of the landscape.

In Minnesota, a group called Sheer Wind has developed a “funnel”-style wind turbine that channels the wind collected and uses the design of the funnel itself to accelerate the wind (a 15km/h wind can be accelerated to 55km/h) to drive the turbines at the other end). Nor is it only existing forms of power that can be generated by new materials. Whole new modes of energy generation are being discovered. Thus, the superconductive properties of graphene mean that it is possible to generate electricity simply by running saltwater over it. The moving water loses and then reabsorbs electrons as it passes across the graphene, thus creating a current. Graphene can also be used as an insulator, in a form known as aerogel. Aerogels are simply liquid gels with the liquid removed and replaced by air.

Created from various materials — silicon aerogels have been the most common for decades — the creation of a graphene aerogel yields the most strength for the least weight. The most recent form of graphene aerogel, created at China’s Zhejiang University is seven times lighter than air, with a cubic centimetre weighing 0.16 milligrams, which is more or less weightless for common purposes. Its use as an insulator comes from its high melting point, at around 2000 degrees Celsius.

These new materials also promise a revolution in the capacity for energy storage. Even using the existing materials for batteries — principally lithium — the application of 3D printing makes it possible to create small but powerful batteries less than 1mm wide, capable of being recharged, and simply embedded permanently in objects. Using zinc instead of lithium, Norwegian group Thin Film has designed a battery that can be printed out by either a 3D printer or even a plain old 2D printer depositing metal inks onto a  surface such as acetate. Graphene itself can be used to create a new form of supercapacitor, a device that has hitherto been used to deliver quick short bursts of energy, but which can be quickly recharged.

By layering graphene and electrolyte in a process compared to traditional paper-making, a team at Monash University in Melbourne have managed to create a supercapacitor that also has the properties and capacity of a standard battery, but is essentially flat. A simpler version of a graphene supercapacitor can essentially be home-brewed by smearing graphite oxide onto a DVD and putting it through a DVD burner. An even more exotic process in battery design is to use sea bacteria that have adapted to breathing in metal to power batteries.

To combine these new technologies with new sources of energy would be the final part of the “universal constructor” — a machine that can print out a copy of itself, and its own energy supplier, in a perfect circle. This offers the possibility that energy distribution can be radically decentralised and democratised, as the cost of generation is pushed remorselessly in the direction of zero. The major energy companies have already begun a pushback against this. Thus in Oklahoma, the single most Republican state in the United States, people who put solar panels on the roof of their homes and then wish to sell the excess energy back to the grid — a now-common practice, given solar’s increasing yield — are to be subject to a tax and a fee for the privilege of doing so. Why? Ostensibly because of “health and safety” reasons, really because an expanding notion of a reversible grid challenges the proprietorial nature of power. This is not simply an expression of cynical interest politics — it is an expression of a deeply held set of values, which are contradictory at their root.

Thus the new material revolution is particularly challenging for those who would like to preserve the existing relations of production, consumption and energy. The renewed interest in renewable energy sources has been a disturbance to that model — the prospect that it could quite rapidly combine with these other technological forces must count as something of a torment.

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29 thoughts on “Renewables changing the nature of power

  1. danger_monkey

    I think that you meant Kansas, not Oklahoma, not that it makes a whole lot of difference.

  2. max

    Love your work, Guy, however a minor correction: the photoswitches are not a form of carbon nanotube called azobenzene, rather they are carbon nanotubes functionalized with azobenzene.

  3. paddy

    On a grey and miserable post-Easter Tuesday, it’s good to read something positive.
    Worth the price of admission yet again Guy.

  4. JohnB

    I mostly find Guy’s work lyrical, challenging and exciting.

    This article is, instead, fantasy, hollow and irrelevant.

    Simplistic in the extreme, it includes assumptions that today’s announcements from laboratory enthusiasts will be available immediately in commercial form and even that the results will include “solar cells that [are] an utterly stable continuous power supply”, which is simply impossible.

    Guy failed to define what he means by “utterly stable” or the many other terms with which he liberally larded this article liberally. He provided scant rational linkage between laboratory curiosity and practical application. How, exactly, does the “80% increase in efficiency” of some solar dream cells rate on a commercial basis? Or longevity? How does this become spun into a story about internal storage capacity of these stunning as-yet-not-proven and still nameless solar masterpieces?

    Guy may be a great wordsmith, but as a technical writer he is a dud.

    Hint for Guy: Take a leaf out of George Monbiot’s work. At the foot of his Guardian articles he provides a full listing of references. Without references Guy’s article is meaningless and useless. Worse, it draws attention away from the achievable art of the possible to the unachievable wish for the impossible.

    Crikey can do much better than to misdirect the talents of one of its best in this manner.

  5. mikeb

    Guy is highlighting some exciting new possibilities – not laying out a blueprint for the future. It’s a concept that some find hard to grasp.

  6. Mary-Ann Lovejoy

    A fascinating article. Thank you, Guy. For me, it explains the rising interest of the Palmers, Reinhardts, et al, in media and politics – these developments, in time, will prove to be huge profit-killers for the existing fossil fuel and power generation industries, unless those people also control the wheels of government…

  7. archibald

    The increase in efficiency of photovoltaic cells Guy alluded to is covered in more detail here.


    Very interesting stuff, Guy. This article points the way to some astonishing future developments.

  8. Gratton Wilson

    I find it incredible that the Abbott Government has set its mind against exploiting these new technologies with gusto thereby creating new industries in Australia and new jobs.

  9. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, Gratton, and of course, Abbott and his cronies are spending a massive amount of public money, to build the infrastructure, to sell coal, to countries who are spending a massive amount on investing in renewables.
    Somehow, I don’t think history is going to judge this government kindly.

  10. David Hand

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

    There has been such a committed move towards renewables that inventions like those Guy has outlined should be expected and welcomed.

    If these inventions deliver on their promise, the energy challenge facing western civilisation will be solved.

  11. Glen

    I too worry when our humanities star gets all starry-eyed about gee-whiz tech. Some serious things there though, like that DVD scriber graphene supercapacitor. Supercaps have been going to change the world for 30 years at least, but maybe this time for real. A cheap, scalable, high density electricity storage device could be transformative in unimaginable ways.

  12. AR

    Even if it were not technically true, your Aerogels are simply liquid gels with the liquid removed and replaced by air. is a juxtaposition that makes anything you write worth reading.

  13. @chrispydog

    Guy, being a paid up Green Luvvie does not excuse you from doing a modest amount of reading in the physical sciences.

    When you get to the story about the perpetual motion machine, stop, you’ve gone the wrong way.

  14. wbddrss

    I really only care about the now. Australia has twice the energy costs that USA has; electricity & LNG. I wonder how are we going to be viable / sustainable long enough to get these new techniques/technologies out of laboratory. The point is last Govt messed up Australia’s energy sector. What else is going to hit us from around corner.

  15. Liamj

    Too many adjectives, no refs, no working models, file under ‘too cheap to meter’. Come back Guy, either you’re into pump’n’dumps or you’ve blown your hopium buffer and will be on about the Singularity next, we don’t want to have to come get you for deprogramming.

  16. Sailor

    Strange, I was halway through a comment when it disappeared. Ah well, onwards.

    Guy, though I agree with & applaud your enthusiasm for this fast-moving field I recommend you collaborate with a scientific advisor for your next pieces on this topic. That way your writing skills would be to the fore & the story would be technically solid.

    For instance, hafnium is element 72, symbol Hf. Not (of itself) ” a new ceramic “, though of course it can easily be a component of one. As a transition element, it has interesting & valuable electronic properties, like the ‘rare earths’ (“lanthanides”) – the uses of rare earths for strong magnets & LEDs arise from those properties, & so do those of the transition elements. Different but arising from similar electronic configuration.

    And an aerogel sounds just like a dry foam to me ( like a polyurethane foam commonly used as a thermal insulator, for instance).

    However, the main thrust of your story is great reading, so thanks for describing what the present Govt. idealogues are missing out on – knowledge about the real potential (& it’s still only that so far) of the technological advances being made in non-carbon burning power sources.

  17. Ken Lambert

    Well said John B.

    Heaven forbid discouraging Guy from reinventing himself as a Dr Karl without the silly shirt, but he has overdone ‘gee wizzzery’.

    Does the wild new wind turbine defy the Betz limit Guy?

    When will self storing nano solar be commerical Guy?

    What are we gonna do with Gillard/Rudd PV panels when they need 20 years to pay for themselves and are cast out by a much cheaper commercially viable collector in 10?

    I am using 3D printers now but it will be some time before they print themselves.

  18. Mark Duffett

    Um, yeah, about those azobenzenes…

    From the original MIT release: “This solution is no solar-energy panacea: While it could produce electricity, it would be inefficient at doing so.”

    But that’s just the beginning.

    Without knowledge of synthetic pathway, yield or or conversion processes, you cannot say anything about the cost of the material. But I can tell you that Sigma Aldrich is selling the nanotube feedstock for $1500 a gram…

    …the bigger issue is recoverable energy density. The recoverable energy is proportional to the temperature rise above ambient that can be achieved. High efficiency requires high temperatures. The proposed molecule is an azo-benzene functionalized nanotube. The azo compounds are, shall we say, not renowned for their stability. How hot can you heat this stuff in air before it decomposes, or bursts into flames? Not hot enough to drive a turbine, or recover any meaningful amount of energy in any other form. [Hint – its the kind of molecule you could brown in your oven at 180 C, if it doesn’t catch fire. In fact taking the rule of thumb that chemical reaction rates roughly double for every 10 C temperature increase, and based on a 1 year half life, 30 mins at 180 C would see it nicely cooked.]…

    …This sort of reporting verges on criminally irresponsible. And for the academic involved, I don’t care that he’s from MIT, talking up the potential of these materials in this way is professionally negligent…

    …This kind of journalism is a real problem. It is breathless and uncritical reaction to what is essentially a marketing hook for what is otherwise scientifically interesting research. (These reports), taken in the context of a scientific research exercise, are interesting. Neither of them have any basis for any claim on future deployment, but both of them have been reported as if they have already enabled energy storage for renewable energy…

    …The state of journalistic coverage of renewable energy technologies is deplorable and reminds me very much of where scientific coverage of biochemistry etc. was at a decade or two ago. That is, some researcher would find some legitimately interesting metabolic pathway or somesuch, and it would be reported as a cure for cancer, to the detriment of the scientists, the doctors, patients, and the journalist…

    blockquotes from John Morgan

  19. Bill Parker

    And we can also add that azobenzene is probably carcinogenic.

    “It is genotoxic and may be converted to benzidine, a known human carcinogen, under the acidic conditions in the stomach.” US EPA statement.

    And a further well said to JohnB.

  20. Guy Rundle

    The central criticism seems to be that I suggested that solar energy would be too cheap to meter, would immediately solve all our energy problems etc.

    I suggested nothing of the sort.

    What I said was that many of the assumptions about the limits of renewable energy were based on a limit of materials. As these limits were being busted open by the application of new materials, those limits could no longer be assumed.

    Most of the objections are quibbles – that I oversimplified the nature of azobenzene for a short article, that I called hafnium oxide, hafnium, that I gave a simplified description of an aerogel, to give a picture of it etc etc, that azobenzene may be carcinogenic (so what? that simply becomes a question of cost-benefit analysis)..

    Nothing in the article suggested these new technologies were miracle devices. Nor did it suggest that experimental findings had been generalised into commercial applications.

    The article had one major purpose only, clearly announced at the start – to make clear that renewable energy research had not stalled, as is commonly suggested, and that new materials were making possible further explorations of their possibility.

    Most of the comments came from the eeyore faction, systematically misreading the article to suggest that I had said that these improvements were here, now. Seems to be a lot of grumpy old men.

  21. JohnB

    Thanks for your critique of your readership, Guy. It demonstrates more than a little disrespect. Sure that this is not primarily the result of a wounded pride? How dare your readers critically review what you publish!

    My guess is that I am neither as old or as pickled as you are, as if that mattered, old man.

    If a request for terminological and logical consistency or factual references makes me a member of your Eeyore Faction, whatever that may be, then so be it.

  22. AR

    Interesting that Grundle failed to understand Liamj’s “too cheap to meter” reference as the catchcry of the Mickey Mouse Club’s TomorrowLand nuke boosters of the 1950s – it was not suggesting that you were suggesting such Magikkery Pudding.
    Just don’t drink tooo much of the Kool-Aid and you’ll be OK.
    Surely JohnB doesn’t rilly not know what the Eeyore Faction implies?

  23. Ken Lambert

    Well said again John B and Mark Duffett..

    Grumpy old men who use the latest 3D printers Guy if you please…

    Guy should know by now that older (white) farts tend to run the world because they have that invaluable commodity – experience.

    Been there and done that is a great winnow for much of the BS which gets thrown about as popular science.

    The great liberator is having a sound grounding in physics and mathematics and dare I say it – engineering principles be it in structures, thermodynamics or mech-elec.

    I was a student when Ralph Sarich won the Inventors with the orbital engine. Front page of Wheels Mag etc…one of our white old fart senior lecturers looked at it and said won’t make an internal combustion engine but might make a passable air compressor.

    Ralph Sarich masterfully parleyed the orbital engine into an ‘orbital’ fuel injection system unrelated to his original invention and a $300 million property portfolio, while BHP got the rest (is there anything left?).

    I am still not driving an orbital engined car 40 years later!!

  24. David Hand

    I have taken the thrust of Guy’s article to be that the renewable energy industry is about to deliver on its promise. That is something I would welcome with open arms.

    My main criticism of the whole environmental / climate change industry and cult has been that it is driven by people who don’t like western civilisation. So an environmental solution that allows our society to survive pretty much as it is now is unwelcome.

    When communism failed, socialists shifted their vehicle for their ongoing struggle to the environmental movement. Lee Rhiannon and Adam Bandt and Clive Hamilton are such warriors of destruction of western economies.

    I’m not saying that inventions described by Rundle will all work but the idea that the vast investment in renewables will drive energy costs down rings true. The unassailable truth is that solar is the cleanest and most reliable energy source.

    So a cheap, green, energy source that perpetuates our capitalist society presents a problem for Bandt et al. Their vehicle to wage war on free markets is suddenly running out of steam.

    Clean cheap energy is our salvation. Evidence that it is on the way is great news.

  25. JohnB

    I must start with David’s final sentence. What Guy has written contains nothing remotely akin to evidence.

    Clean, cheap energy may well be our salvation. Currently, there is no such animal.

    Working backwards, I must agree with your appraisal of Rhiannon and company. Thankfully, the warriors of the 1960’s are a dying breed. Here’s hoping that the next team is an improvement.

    Returning to David’s opening sentence, if only there was reason of the logically, peer reviewed, documented kind to believe that solar dreams were about to be realised, I might revise my pessimism regarding the various utopian blarnies emanating from Mark Diesendorf, ZCE2020 and Guy What’s-His-Name. As one with a background in applied engineering and science, I must admit to a habitual reliance on demonstrated, testable knowledge. That is the way I make decisions.

    Dreams are for (a) dreamers and (b) children.

    Guy is far to senior to be a member of the latter group.

  26. Mark Duffett

    Maybe some blame attaches to the headline (for which the author is presumably not responsible) ‘Renewables changing (i.e. present tense) the nature of power’. But otherwise the straw men are only coming from one quarter here.

    “renewable energy research had not stalled, as is commonly suggested”

    I can’t think of anyone who has ever suggested this, let alone ‘commonly’. Rather, the salient issue remains the extent to which renewables remain particularly subject to fundamental physical and rollout constraints that limit their ability to effectively address the decarbonisation challenge, new materials notwithstanding.

    “Nothing in the article suggested these new technologies were miracle devices.”

    You don’t reckon the phrase “Such technology is (a) small miracle” might have been just a teensy bit suggestive of such?

    Was it really too much to expect even a whit of an indication that there might be technical or economic obstacles that mean none of these technologies ever produce a joule in anger, let alone that they will do so in time or quantities to make a blind bit of difference to climate change – which is the main game most of us have our eye on.

  27. David Hand

    Hey I’m all for scepticism. It’s a great way of reducing bullshit and adding clarity to any subject where it is used. And I have read very little about the journey renewable energy is on.

    Having said that, humanity shows a remarkable capacity to dodge Malthusian predictions of doom. Peak oil has suddenly been postponed to some undetermined future date. The internet has only just begun to deliver on its promise.

    And John, you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.

  28. David Hand

    Hey I’m all for scepticism. It’s a great way of reducing misinformation and adding clarity to any subject where it is used. And I have read very little about the journey renewable energy is on.

    Having said that, humanity shows a remarkable capacity to dodge Malthusian predictions of doom. Peak oil has suddenly been postponed to some undetermined future date. The internet has only just begun to deliver on its promise.

    And John, you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.

  29. @chrispydog

    Talk about drinking the green cult’s Kool aid!

    That’s the same green cult that runs anti-science over nuclear power and GMO, but is ‘all in’ with diffuse and intermittent energy sources that are so cheap to harness that they require billions in subsidies. Those subsidies are now being withdrawn in massive slabs, even in Germany, the home of the green cult’s most expensive (and failing) experiment.(And the most expensive electricity in Europe, after that other ‘green’ favourite Denmark).

    It’s no ‘quibble’ to point out that ‘renewable’ sources of energy are never going to replace fossil fuels on their own, and if you want to argue with James Hansen et al about that, then drink lots of the Kool aid first; you’ll need it.

    Or better still, check out the facts for yourself: Germany, after hundreds of billions spent on wind and solar, is now producing more CO2 emissions, not less.

    But hey, why ‘quibble’ when the green cult’s Kool aid lets you have dreams of unicorns riding rainbows?

    And they are, like all self-delusions, absolutely free…what could possibly be wrong with that?


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