Sunday, September 9, 2012

More Power, Better

The universe runs on energy and time. I seem to have little of either these days. Happily, research into power generation and storage technology marches on unaffected by my whining.

Microbial fuel cells. I had no idea such things existed. Scientists at Ohio State University know all about them, and have made what appears to be a big boost in their ability to generate electricity from waste water. If their process proves out in the field, it could lead to waste water treatment plants actually producing a net positive amount of power. The same process can apparently be used with animal waste and even the waste produced when brewing beer.

Meanwhile over at UCLA, the boffins are working on transparent solar cells. This is more impressive than it may sound at first. After all, solar cells must contain the electrical components to gather the power, and the very act of absorbing light results in a visibility degradation. The transparent cells absorb their power from infrared light rather than visible, and the description of the electronics involved contains multiple uses of the prefix nano-.

Generating power is all well and good, but you have to be able to either do it continuously, or you have to store it somewhere. Supercapacitors remain excellent performers in their realms, but have far lower energy capacity for their weight than batteries. Stanford researchers are studying a new electrode material made from a polymer hydrogel that enables both cheaper manufacture and higher energy density.

Battery researchers are not standing still either. Another group at Stanford is working a new electrode material for Lithium-air batteries which they believe has the potential for an order of magnitude increase in storage capacity. That is the kind of thing that could transform a 45-mile range electric car into a 400-mile range or create a smart phone that could go for more than a week between charges.

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