Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Urine" Is Now Used To Study Past Climate Changes

There are many scientific methods to study past climate changes - ice cores, sediment layers, fossils, etc. Recently, new method has been used to investigate the changes by digging into ancient layers of dried urine left by the rock hyrax.

Why hyrax? Hyrax is a highly sociable animal forms communities and will live in the same rock fissures for long long time. They are highly disciplined when come to pee. Young hyrax was taught to pee at the same place every day, and that place will be the common toilet for the community for centuries and millennia. In South Africa, one nest was found to have urine layer that had been building up for the past 55,000 years.

According to Brian Chase, project leader from Montpelier University in France, hyrax's urine is thick and viscous, and will dry quickly. It contains pollen, bits of leaves, grasses and gas bubbles that provide precious information of the climate at the time.

"Once we have found a good layer of solid urine, we dig out samples and remove them for study. We are taking the piss, quite literally – and it is proving to be a highly effective way to study how climate changes have affected local environments.", said Chase.

This is just one of the many methods and studies done on climate changes, but it shows how creative scientists can be about finding climatic clues from the past.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

German Solar Is Half The Cost Of USA Solar

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) has studied why it costs double to install solar system in USA than in German. LBNL found that residential German solar system goes for $3.00/watt and a residential U.S. solar system goes for $6.19/watt. The price difference is mainly due to the soft cost. Below picture shows the breakdown of solar system cost.

So, here’s a summary of LBNL’s findings of the causes of cost difference:
  • Total non-hardware costs for residential PV in Germany are ~$2.70/W lower than in the USA
  • Customer acquisition costs average just $0.07/W in Germany, or roughly $0.62/W lower than in the USA
  • Installation labor requirements reportedly average 39 hours for German systems, leading to $0.36/W lower costs than in the USA
  • PII processes require 5 hours of labor, on average, in Germany, with no permitting fee, resulting in PII costs roughly $0.21/W lower than in the USA
  • German residential systems are exempt from sales/value-added tax, while USA systems are subject to an average sales tax of roughly $0.21/W (accounting for sales tax exemptions in many USA states)
  • The remaining gap in soft costs between Germany and USA (~$1.32/W) is associated with overhead, profit, and other residual soft costs
  • Shorter project development times in Germany contribute to ~$0.2/W lower
  • Residential PV systems are larger in Germany (partly due to differences in policy design), benefiting from economies of scale ($0.15/W effect)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Breakthrough In Clean Coal Technology

The impression given by coal-fired power plant is highly polluted and bad for the environment. Recently, Ohio State University at USA has reached a milestone in clean-coal technology. The technology is able to capture 99% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by the research-scale coal combustion system. Now it is ready for large-scale operation.

Coal combustion is a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen and produces heat. The byproduct of the reaction is CO2. For every MWh of electricity generated, 2,000 lbs of CO2 is produced. CO2 is difficult to capture and bad for the environment. Ohio State University found a way to release the heat without burning. They carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns. Since the coal was never burned so the CO2 is entirely contained inside the reactor.

In the new process, the coal is been ground into a powder and metal beads made of iron oxide composites are used. The coal particles have size about 0.1 mm and the iron beads are 1.5 - 2 mm

The coal and iron oxide are heated to high temperatures, where the materials react with each other. Carbon from the coal binds with the oxygen from the iron oxide and creates CO2, which rises into a chamber where it is captured. Hot iron and coal ash are left behind. Because the iron beads are so much bigger than the coal ash, they are easily separated out of the ash, and delivered to a chamber where the heat energy would normally be harnessed for electricity. The coal ash is removed from the system.

The CO2 is separated and can be recycled or sequestered for storage. The iron beads are exposed to air inside the reactor, so that they become re-oxidized to be used again. The beads can be re-used almost indefinitely, or recycled.

Since the process captures nearly all the carbon dioxide, it exceeds the goals that USA's Department of Environment has set for developing clean energy.

France: Conserving Energy By Shutting Off Light

Effective first of July this year, France's government is mandating all non-residential buildings to turn off their light one hour after the last employee leaves the office or by 1 a.m. The light only can be turned on again until 7 a.m., or before business starts.

By doing so, this simple, yet effective way, can save France the amount of energy to power 750,000 homes. Of course, major tourist attractions are exempt, like the 20,000 flashing bulbs on the Eiffel Tower, and public displays like Christmas tree decorations at the Champs-Elysees.

By turning off the lights, France is not just saving energy and reducing carbon footprint, but also reducing light pollution. According to France's Environmental Minister Delphine Batho, night lighting can "cause significant disruptions on ecosystems by changing communication between species, migrations, reproduction cycles or even the prey-predator relationships,". She hopes that the ban will reduce the negative impact that artificial lights have on ecosystems and wildlife, as well as on human sleep patterns

The law is one of many measures the new government is implementing to increase energy efficiency and renewables. The country, which for so long has been held up as a model for relying on nuclear is moving away from that and toward renewable energy. The French government also wants to ban natural gas fracking.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

2012 A Record Year For Solar PV Installation

A new record has been set, again, for the installed capacity of solar PV system. IHS reported that global solar PV installations totaled about 32 GW in 2012, which beats 2010′s 20 GW and 2011's 28 GW records. In 2010 Europe had accounted for 80% of the PV demand, which fell to 53% in 2012. The downtrend  of Europe's PV demand will continue this year which will be undertaken by China.

IHS also forecasts that 2013 will be another record year with estimated installed capacity of 35 GW. They project that the annual installation capacity will continue raising, reaching 61 GW by 2017. Meanwhile, the module's price is projected to keep falling.

According to IHS, PV industry revenue, measured as the system price multiplied by total gigawatts installed, is expected to decline to US$75 billion in 2013, down from US$77 billion in 2012. However, IHS says that the revenue number will rise above US$100 billion between 2014 and 2016, and will reach as much as US$115 by 2016.

Cost reduction has become the key focus for PV suppliers to stay in the business. They are under pressure to continue reducing cost through technology innovation, manufacturing innovation, waste reduction, etc, to remain in the tightening PV market.

In conclusion, PV prices will continue to drop, installations will continue to increase, and suppliers will continue to go out of business as the industry consolidates.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Phthalates Might Cause Higher Obesity Rates For African-American Children

Obesity in USA has been increasingly cited as a major health issue in recent decades. Of all the countries in the world, USA has the highest rate of obesity. About 35% of Americans are considered obese. Children and teenagers are not immune from it. The obesity rate has more than tripled for the last 2 decades.

Study also found that the prevalence of obesity is ethnic related. African-Americans have a 51% higher obesity rate and Hispanics have a 21% higher obesity rate than whites in the USA. We could safely presume that different lifestyle, in term of diet and physical activity, might contribute to the different rates. But there’s another, less obvious factor in play: chemicals.

A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, by Dr. Leonardo Trasande and group, has linked this difference to phthalates. Specifically, the kind of phthalates called "low-molecular weight pthalates" commonly found in cosmetics, lotion, and creams. Trasande's group examined urinary phthalate concentrations and body mass of 2,884 ethnically diverse children between ages 6 and 19 who participated in a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that African-American children has higher trace of phthalates in their urine, as compared to other ethnic groups like Asians, Whites or Hispanics. But what caused the higher phthalates concentration is still unknown.

A different study showed that an increasing use of personal care products is associated with higher levels of those low-molecular weight phthalates. But "there’s only so far we can take this line of thinking," says Trasande. "We can’t say for certain that an increase in exposure is linked to effect. There’s also the possibility that predispositions can trigger effects.

Regardless of the reason, phthalates exposure is a real issue. A better regulation on the use might need to be imposed.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Thin-Film Solar Energy Is Now Cheaper Than Coal Power

First Solar, Inc. is an American thin film solar panels manufacturer founded in 1990. The company manufactures cadmium telluride (CdTe)-based solar panels and in July 2011, they achieved 17.3% efficiency.

Recently, First Solar has proposed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to El Paso Electric Company to build a 50 MW CdTe solar power plant in New Mexico, USA. The name of the power plant is Macho Springs Solar Park. The electricity generated will be sold to El Paso Electric Company for 5.8 US cents (about Malaysia Ringgit 20 cents) per kWh. The PPA is expected to be signed by June this year and the plant is expected to be completed in 2014.

The electricity selling price of the Macho Spring Solar Park is less than half the average price of electricity produced by new coal-fired power stations (12.8 US cents per kWh) in USA and significantly less than the typical price of thin film generated electricity (16.3 cents per kWh).

The 5.8 US cents per kWh price indeed has triggered a lot of speculations whether the generation cost of solar energy has really dropped below grid-parity. More detail about this PPA is yet to be revealed by First Solar and El Paso.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Solar Panel's Efficiency Breakthrough Thanks To Holographic Technique

Germany-based company Apollon GmbH & Co. KG and USA-based company Solar Bankers LLC announced that they have developed a new technique to incorporate a holographic foil into silicon-based solar panel that will double the efficiency and also manufacturable in USA or Germany with production cost lower than conventional solar panels manufactured in China.

With the new holographic technique they have achieved 28% of efficiency, as compared to commercial available solar panels of efficiency less than 20%. The holographic foil will act like a concentrated lens to focus 20- to 30-times more sunlight on the surface of the cell thereby increasing power output. The foil also acts as a filter to selectively allowing desirable wavelengths of sunlight to arrive the cell's surface which eliminates the overheating issue faced by conventional concentrated technologies.

Friday, February 1, 2013

World First Man-Made Vertical Forest

Air-pollution has been a critical issue for lots of metropolitan. Recently, Beijing was just swamped with smog and observed increasing cases of  respiratory related diseases. Authorities are finding different solutions to curb the level of pollution.

Milan, the fashion center of the world, is one of the most polluted cities in Europe. In 2003, a medical study pointed out that breathing air in Milan is similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes each day.

Milan has limited space for greenery. The city turned to architect Stefano Boeri to create the world’s first vertical forests, incorporated into the “Bosco Verticale” apartment towers, currently under construction and nearing completion.

The design would serve multiple functions. In addition to producing oxygen, mitigating smog, and providing an ecosystem for insects and birds, the trees and plants on the terraces will help to cool the apartments and reduce the energy costs for air-conditioning, especially when summers in Milan can get hotter than 38 degrees Celsius.