April 30, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers and California has more of them than actors, and that more people now work in the solar industry in the U.S. than in coal mines.
Or that in March, for the first time ever, 100 percent of the energy added to the U.S. power grid was solar.
Okay, so now you know all that, but I’m guessing you’re no more aquiver over solar energy than you were five minutes ago. That’s the way it is in America these days. Most people think solar is a good thing, but how jazzed can you get about putting panels on a roof.
Bertrand Piccard understands this. Which is why later this week, weather permitting, he will take off from Moffett Field near San Francisco and begin a flight across the U.S. in a plane entirely dependent on the sun. Called Solar Impulse, it will move at a snail’s pace compared to commercial jets–top speed will be under 50 miles per hour–and will stop in several cities before it ends its journey in New York in late June or early July.
But the point isn’t to to mimic a plane in a hurry, crossing the country on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The point is to show what’s possible without it.
To do this, Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, have created one of the strangest flying machines ever–a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but one that weighs about a ton less than an SUV. Its power is generated by nearly 12,000 silicon solar cells over the main wing and the horizontal stabilizer that charge lithium-polymer battery packs contained in the four gondolas under the wing. The batteries in total weigh almost 900 pounds–that’s about one quarter of the plane’s weight–and they’re capable of storing enough energy to allow the plane to fly at night.
Piloting the Solar Impulse is neither comfortable nor without a good deal of risk. Only one pilot can be in the cockpit–a second adds too much weight–and the engines are vulnerable to wind, rain, fog and heavy clouds. But Piccard is, by blood, an inveterate risk-taker. In 1999, he co-piloted the first gas-powered balloon to travel non-stop around the world. In 1960, his father, Jacques, was one of the two men aboard the bathysphere lowered into the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first balloonist to enter the Earth’s stratosphere.
It was near the end of his own record-setting balloon trip that Bertrand Piccard was inspired to find a way to fly without needing to rely on fuel. He almost ran out of propane while crossing the Atlantic. He and Borschberg spent years planning, designing and finding investors–that was no small challenge–but they persevered and, in 2010, the Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered night flight over Switzerland. Last year it completed the first solar intercontinental flight, from Europe to Africa.
The ultimate goal–after the flight across America–is to fly a solar plane non-stop around the world. That’s tentatively scheduled for 2015, but it will require a bigger plane than the Impulse. Since they estimate that it will take three days to fly over the Atlantic and five to cross the Pacific, Piccard and Borschberg have been making other alterations, too–the larger version will have an autopilot, more efficient electric motors and a body made of even lighter carbon fiber. It also will have a seat that reclines and yes, a toilet.
There certainly are easier ways to go around the world, but Piccard sees his mission as stretching our imaginations about the sun’s potential. “Very often, when we speak of protection of the environment, it’s boring,” he said during a recent interview with Popular Science. “It’s about less mobility, less comfort, less growth.”
Instead, he wants to show that clean energy can just as easily be about being a pioneer.
Here comes the sun
Here’s other recent developments related to solar power:
- It’s always good to save some for later: A team of researchers at Stanford University has devised a partially liquid battery that could lead to the development of inexpensive batteries which can store energy created by solar panels and wind turbines. One of the challenges of both sun and wind power is to be able to store energy efficiently so it’s available when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing.
- Forget the undercoating, we’ll throw in solar panels: BMW, which will begin selling its first electric cars later this year, says it will offer buyers the opportunity to get a solar-powered home charging system designed to be installed in their garages.
- Go ahead and fold. Avoid spindling and mutilation: A Milwaukee middle school teacher-turned-inventor has created a small, foldable solar array that can charge an iPhone in two hours. Joshua Zimmerman turned what had been a hobby into a company named Brown Dog Gadgets and he’s already raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to get his business off the ground.
- And you thought your shirt was cool: An Indian scientist has designed a shirt containing solar cells that power small fans to keep the wearer cool. The shirt would also be able to store enough juice to charge cell phones and tablets.
- Charge of the light brigade: Since you never know when you need a lantern, there’s now a solar powered bottle cap that lights up your water bottle. Its four bright, white LED lights can turn your beat up water bottle into a shiny beacon.
Video bonus: Take a peek at the Solar Impulse during its test flight over San Francisco last week.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 26, 2012
Over the next few days you’re going to see a lot of the London Eye, the giant slow-spinning Ferris wheel along the Thames River, particularly since during the Olympics it will be portrayed as a massive mood ring, changing color every night to reflect what people have been tweeting about the Games. If tweeters are feeling good about what’s going on, it will glow yellow. If not, it will turn morosely purple.
What you’re less likely to see is the vertical garden covering the corner of the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair or the one at the Edgeware Road Underground station or the one climbing 14 stories up the side of an apartment building on Digby Road in Central London.
Which is a shame, because while none of these walls are able to change color to reflect the whims of Twitter Nation, they are choice examples of one of the more pleasing architectural innovations trending in cities around the world.
But they’re much more than urban eye candy. Last week a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that green walls planted strategically could help cut pollution in cities by as much as 30 percent, almost 10 times more than previously thought.
The key, say the researchers, is that green walls can filter out pollution not just at street level, as trees can, but much higher up in urban canyons. Their computer models suggested that grasses, ivy and flowers attached to the sides of walls and buildings could be even more effective at cleaning the air than plants in parks or on rooftops.
Some have taken to calling this “vegitecture.” Not so easy on the ears, but the point is to give props to vegetation as a valuable component of architecture. It’s how the firm Capella Garcia Arquitectura describes the vertical garden it built to cover an unsightly wall on a Barcelona apartment building last year. Using steel scaffolding erected next to building, they essentially created a stack of huge planters layered more than 60 feet high. And, thanks to an interior staircase hidden by the plants, a person can enter this hanging garden from the inside and take a break from the city’s whirl on one of the wooden benches.
But for all the talk of urban canyons, you don’t see many vertical gardens on the sides of skyscrapers. Most are still about style more than function, such as the verdant coating around the windows of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, or the wild, multi-layered facade of the CaixaForum Museum in Madrid. Both are the creations of Patrick Blanc, a botanist turned landscape architect whose hair matches his walls and who designed the system of metal frame, PVC pipe and nonbiodegradeable felt that makes it possible for plants to take root on vertical surfaces without the need for soil.
Architects in Mexico City, working for a non-profit called VERDMX, have taken a slightly different approach. They’ve erected three towering “eco-structures,” shaped like upside down L’s and U’s and ringed with vegetation. The hope is that they will help clear Mexico City’s notoriously nasty air. But pollution dies hard. Exhaust from cars on nearby streets already is causing some withering on the vines.
Here are more recent examples of cities going natural:
- Yes, we have new bananas: What do you mean, you can’t grow bananas in Paris? Sure, you can’t now, but SOA, a French architectural firm, wants to make it so. They just unveiled plans to build a vertical banana plantation inside an old building on a busy Paris street. The place would be gutted and turned into an urban greenhouse, with trees, under artificial lights, growing inside. There will be a research lab, a restaurant and the obligatory gift shop, but mainly it will be banana trees. And all will be visible from the street through a clear glass wall.
- Trees and supertrees: Probably the most spectacular urban homage to nature is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which opened last month. It has two lakes, two glass conservatories, many gardens and 700,000 plants. But the real showstoppers are the 18 steel supertrees, some more than 150 feet tall. Each is a vertical garden, its “trunk” wrapped in ferns and tropical climbing plants. Many are also solar towers, with photovoltaic cells on their canopies creating the energy that lights them up at night.
- Down on the farm in Motor City: Detroit and Michigan State University announced an agreement last month to develop a major urban agriculture research program that likely would include converting abandoned buildings into multi-tiered farms.
- Waste not, want not: A former pork processing plant in Chicago is being transformed into a combination urban farm, fish hatchery and brewery. Called The Plant, it’s set up so the waste from one part of the operation serves as raw material for another, making it a net-zero energy system.
- Start spreadin’ the moos: Who’d have thunk it? New York has become a leader in the burgeoning world of rooftop farming. And it’s no longer just little community gardens up there. Now two for-profit companies are in the mix, Gotham Greens, which started a farm on a Brooklyn rooftop last year and has three more in the works, and Brooklyn Grange, which has been farming a one-acre roof in Queens and now is also growing squash, tomatoes and scallions atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Video bonus: See where it all started in this BBC piece on Patrick Blanc, the green-haired Frenchman who turned vertical gardening into urban architecture.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 5, 2012
Until a week ago, my relationship with batteries had been purely prosaic. Sure, I charged cell phone and laptop batteries every night, but with no more deliberation than brushing my teeth or skipping past Jay Leno’s monologue.
Then came the Derecho of 2012, and I, like millions of other Americans, lost power for days that seemed like weeks. And I, like so many others, succumbed to juice hysteria, an obsession with staking claims to working outlets in public places–Starbucks, libraries, shopping mall food courts–so that we could bring our devices back to life.
Today I have power again. I also have a far deeper appreciation for all things electrochemical. Because in the world we now live, battery life is a very big deal, whether it’s to keep us connected in the day-to-day or the key to the future of electric vehicles and renewable energy.
As it turned out, last week was a momentous one for batteries. The day before the storm that crippled Washington, a study was published in Nature Scientific Reports revealing that a working battery had been created simply by spray-painting a surface. That’s right, power from paint.
Hard to believe? Here’s how a team of scientists at Rice University in Texas did it. They converted into liquids the five components of a lithium ion battery–a positive current collector, a negative current collector, a cathode, an anode and a separator–and then sprayed each, in extremely thin layers, over a variety of surfaces. They painted bathroom tiles. They painted glass and stainless steel. They painted flexible film. They painted a ceramic beer mug. All were able to carry a charge.
They even connected the bathroom tiles to a solar cell. They were able to keep an LED display–it spelled out RICE–glowing for six hours.
We’re still a long way off from you being able to charge your smart phone with a beer mug, but this could be a game changer in terms of opening up all kinds of new ways to store energy. And that could be a boon to solar power as a source of energy within our homes.
As Neelam Singh, one the Rice researchers put it, “You could turn your home into a battery.”
An Edison comeback?
Also last week, researchers at Stanford announced that they’ve given new life to the nickel-iron battery that Thomas Edison once hoped would power cars. Roughly 100 years ago, Edison was a big believer in electric cars. But batteries back then weren’t up to the job, so he lost out to his friend Henry Ford and his gas-powered engine.
The problem with those nickel-iron batteries was that they were painfully slow to charge and discharge. But the Stanford group, using nanotechnology rather than simply mixing nickel and iron, has been able to make the battery function 1,000 times faster than the old version. It took only two minutes to charge a small prototype battery.
Nickel-iron batteries aren’t strong enough to power today’s electric cars, but if combined with the lithium ion model now being used, they could dramatically reduce the time required to charge an electric vehicle, which now takes hours. This setup also could allow a vehicle to actually capture the energy created when you applied the brakes. And the fast discharge rate would make it easier for a car to accelerate.
At the same time, IBM is among several companies taking on the dreaded range anxiety–the fear having your electric car run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. The typical range now is 100 miles per charge. But IBM is aiming to raise that to 500 miles by refining what’s known as a lithium air battery.
Instead of having oxygen built into the battery, lithium air models would generate power by taking in oxygen from the outside air. That would make them significantly smaller and lighter than the lithium ion batteries now being used.
IBM has been able to get the concept to work in a lab. But, time for a reality check. It likely will be at least another 10 years before it could function in a car.
Who knows, by then you may be able to charge your car with your spray-painted mailbox, which will, no doubt, be needing a new reason for being.
Here’s more recent news about batteries:
- Cutting the cord: It’s only a matter of time before electric vehicle owners won’t need to plug in their cars to charge up. Instead, they’ll be able to do it wirelessly by parking over mats that do the work.
- Put that in the bank: A giant bank of batteries installed near the tracks has started to save Philadelphia’s subway system lots of money. It captures energy created when trains slow down at a station and puts it back on the line to help them accelerate.
- I wear the body electric: Two University of South Carolina engineers were able to turn a store-bought T-shirt into fabric that could store an electrical charge.
- The slow ride to freedom: Inmates at a prison in Brazil can reduce their sentences by a day for every 16 hours they ride a stationary bike that charges batteries. Their pedaling powers streetlights in a nearby town.
- Giving new meaning to the term “button nose”: And now the downside of the battery boom: According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, the number of kids going to emergency rooms after swallowing those little button batteries– or sticking them in their noses or ears–has doubled in the past 20 years.
Video bonus Here’s a little blast from the past, when TV commercials took on the challenge of trying to make batteries funny.
More from Smithsonian.com:
March 29, 2012
In his new book, “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking,” MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph asks a simple question: “Have you seen a great parking lot lately?” which is kind of like asking if you’ve enjoyed a plate of runny eggs lately.
Not that parking lots have ever been a testament to innovative thinking. I mean, we’re talking about paving over dirt. This has never been a big brain-drainer.
But Ben-Joseph says it’s time to give these big, drab open spaces their moment to shine, beyond their oil spots glistening in the sun–particularly now the the world’s population is pouring into cities. And his vision is not just about making better use of all the dead space. It’s also about minimizing their impact on the urban and suburban neighborhoods around them. Parking lots are notorious heat islands that toast whatever surrounds them. And they gunk up runoff water from heavy rains with oil, anti-freeze and other nasty stuff.
By Ben-Joseph’s estimate, in fact, all of the parking lots in the U.S., if connected, would be able to cover Puerto Rico. That’s a whole lotta lot. As he pointed out in a piece that ran in the New York Times earlier this week, “In some cities, like Orlando and Los Angeles, parking lots are estimated to cover at least one-third of the land area, making them one of the most salient landscape features of the built world.”
So what does Ben-Joseph have in mind? He’s a big fan of the solar canopies popping up in parking lots around the planet. They provide both shade and solar energy, in some cases to charge electric vehicles. He also thinks it only makes sense to use more porous asphalt that would reduce flooding and polluted run-off. And he believes that parking lots should become a much bigger part of our social lives, not just for farmer’s markets, but also for movie nights and programs like the “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” festival that happens every summer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
As for aesthetics, well, Ben-Joseph seems enchanted by the lot outside the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, a design about which he waxes almost rhapsodically. He describes “rows of trees in a dense grid, creating an open, level space under a soft canopy of foliage that welcomes pedestrians as naturally as it does cars.”
It would somehow seem wrong to fight over a space while under a soft canopy of foliage.
The magic of garage weddings
But what about the parking lot’s bulky, boxy cousin, the garage? Clearly, it’s done its part to ugly up the landscape. Ben-Joseph doesn’t go there, but some cities have started to, particularly Miami Beach, where parking garages have become architectural showpieces. Seriously.
It started in the ’90s with the unveiling of a five-story garage built atop a block of historic buildings on Collins Avenue. Its official name is Ballet Valet, but most locals know it as the “Chia pet” garage because that’s what it looks like, with its exterior walls seeming to sprout plants–in three different shades of green, no less–hiding the concrete bunker within.
That was only the beginning. Last year celeb architect Frank Gehry unveiled the New World Center concert hall, adorned with a parking garage covered in steel mesh and lit by a dazzling display of programmable, multi-colored LED lights. But wait, there’s more. A seven-story garage designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, is so sleek and stylish that weddings and bar mitzvahs are held on its top floor.
And construction will begin this year on a structure that looks more suited for space pods than anything on wheels. The brainchild of London architect Zaha Hadid, it’s the anti-box, a swirl of mismatched, looping ramps with nary a right angle in sight.
I’d hate to get lost in there. Then again, maybe not.
It’s an asphalt jungle out there
Here’s more innovative thinking about city living:
- Feel the surge: Qualcomm, the wireless tech giant recently announced that it will run a trial in London later this year of a technology that will allow electric vehicles to be charged wirelessly through a transmitter pad embedded in a parking lot.
- Towers of power: A team of MIT researchers have developed 3-D solar towers that can produce significantly more power than conventional solar panels. The towers could be installed in parking lots to charge electric cars.
- Time is on your side: A new gadget called EasyPark is an in-your-vehicle parking meter that allows you to pay only for the time you’re actually parked.
- I’ve grown accustomed to your space: A mobile app called iSpotSwap lets you know when a parking space you want becomes available.
Video bonus: If there’s such a thing as an anti-parking lot anthem, Joni Mitchell sang it more than 40 years ago.
September 21, 2011
I once made a loan to Solyndra
And suddenly I found
How hideous a loan can be.”
–Sung to the melody of “Maria” from West Side Story
Okay, that’s not quite how Stephen Sondheim wrote it, but as company names go, Solyndra is a pretty sweet sound. Until a few weeks ago. Now it’s the dirtiest word in the clean energy business. It’s also a sure bet that Barack Obama doesn’t break into song when he thinks about it. On the last day of August, Solyndra declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and walked away from a $535 million government loan.
A quick refresher: Solyndra was a California outfit that devised an innovative solar panel and the first renewable energy firm to land a big loan guarantee from Department of Energy as part of the 2009 stimulus package. President Obama hailed it as one of the companies “leading the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future.”
A week ago there was another public event in Washington that kinda got lost amid the Solyndra swirl. Big-name CEOs—Bill Gates, General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt, Xerox’ Ursula Burns, to name a few—said the federal government needs to continue investing in research to develop energy sources because most companies no longer are willing to sink money into ventures that may not pay off for years and years.
It’s a forward-thinking sentiment, but what we don’t know, and won’t for awhile, is whether it will survive the Solyndra stigma.
That said, there’s still an unusual collection of big players placing bets on renewable energy. Among them:
- The U.S. military: Last month the Marines invited 13 companies to a base in the California desert to pitch their ideas for solar products and energy efficiency on the battlefield. The Army, meanwhile, is encouraging private companies to build large solar energy projects on land owned by the military, with the hope of eventually cutting its energy costs. And while not funded by the military, another project called SolarStrong will use a $344 million federal loan guarantee to install solar panels on up to 160,000 rooftops at 124 military bases.
- Google: The sultan of search is still saying it hopes to one day make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Last spring it announced a $168 million investment in the giant Ivanpah solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert. A week later it promised to pump $100 million into the country’s largest wind farm, being built in Oregon. Google has even used its flair for analytics to figure out how to make the solar panels on its own buildings twice as efficient.
- Samsung: Early this year the South Korean high-tech giant committed to spending many boatloads of money—almost $7 billion—to build wind turbine and solar module manufacturing plants in Ontario, Canada.
- China: Big surprise, right? It now manufactures 40 percent of the solar panels produced in the world and had $48.9 billion in renewable energy investments last year—almost double the U.S. total. It also now has twice as much installed renewable energy capacity as the U.S. And Chinese companies keep looking for investment opportunities in America. Yesterday the Xinjiang Goldwind Science and Technology Company announced that it will spend $200 million to build a wind farm in Illinois.
A Mightier Wind
Wind power, meanwhile, has managed to stay out of the headlines. But recently there was news from Japan about a new kind of turbine that could be a game-changer. Called a wind lens, it encircles the turbine blades with a brim. Its inventor says it can generate two to three times more energy than the conventional model.
Bonus: Have you hugged an infographic today? Here’s your chance.