VATIS Update Non-conventional Energy . Jan-Mar 2012

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New and Renewable Energy Jan-Mar 2012

ISSN: 0971-5630

VATIS Update New and Renewable Energy (formerly Non Conventional Energy)* is published 4 times a year to keep the readers up to date of most of the relevant and latest technological developments and events in the field of New and Renewable Energy. The Update is tailored to policy-makers, industries and technology transfer intermediaries.

* This update has been renamed as 'VATIS Update: New and Renewable Energy' from Jan-Mar 2015 onwards.

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China’s offshore wind power booms

China has made substantial progress in boosting its burgeoning offshore wind power by launching its largest inter-tidal wind farm at the end of 2011. On 28 December, Longyuan Power, China’s largest wind power developer, connected 99.3 MW of wind turbines to the grid in a pilot inter-tidal wind farm in Rudong county in Jiangsu province. Taking into account the existing 32 MW turbines, Longyuan has 131.3 MW turbines integrated to the grid in the pilot wind farm in Rudong. This has made the Rudong inter-tidal project China’s largest offshore wind farm. Inter-tidal wind farms – in regions that are submerged in high tide and heaved out in low tide – are a unique form to tap offshore wind power.

According to China’s Wind Power Development Roadmap 2050, the country plans to have 1,000 GW of installed wind capacity by 2050 – which makes up 17 per cent of its electricity consumption. So far, wind power generation accounts for 1.5 per cent of national power generation. The first stage of the inter-tidal wind farm pilot project, set to be 150 MW in installation, involves an investment of 2.5 billion yuan (US $397 million). It will be fully completed by March 2012, stated Mr. Zhang Gang, General Manager of Longyuan Jiangsu Offshore Wind Power. Mr. Zhang said the wind farm will annually generate 330 million kWh of electric power for the grid. He said that the company has overcome high installation cost in offshore wind farm construction through measures such as improved technology for single pile foundation and multi-pile jacket foundation forms. It has reached the European advanced level in technology for offshore wind farm construction, while also lowering offshore wind installation costs to 16,000 yuan/kW, about 60 per cent of the European level, he claimed.

Renewable energy funding to go up in India

Power Finance Corp. (PFC), India’s largest state-run lender to electricity utilities, plans to more than double lending for renewable energy projects within a year, as coal-fired plants become riskier investments. PFC’s approved loans to projects, particularly solar and wind plants, will increase to Rs 15 billion (about US$300 million), or 4 per cent of the total in the next financial year, from Rs 6.75 billion (US$135 million), or just 1.2 per cent in the year ending in March 2012, Mr. Satnam Singh, PFC Chairman, said. “Given that fossil fuel costs have gone up, investments in wind and solar are surging,” Mr. Singh said, adding that PFC is ready to get into renewable in a big way where lending happens much faster. India’s Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh plans to spend more than US$300 billion to expand the country’s electricity systems as part of an attempt to spur 9 per cent economic growth by 2017. An increasing share of that may go to clean energy projects, as lenders shun new conventional power projects that are facing risks such as the ever-increasing costs of non-renewable fuels.

Viet Nam targets 11 per cent renewable energy exploitation

Viet Nam has tapped only 5 per cent of its renewable energy potential and the government, under its National Energy Development Strategy, has set the target to increase this to 11 per cent by 2050.

Viet Nam gets around 2,000-2,500 hours of sunshine per year, with a solar energy density averaging about 150 kCal per cm2, equivalent to 43.9 million tonnes of oil per year. The total wind energy potential is estimated at 713,000 MW. Viet Nam has around 1,050 potential sites for small hydropower (up to 30 MW), identified with a total capacity over 4,000 MW, equivalent to 16.7 million GWh per year. In addition, Viet Nam also has more than 300 hot streams with temperatures ranging from 30° to 148°C, taking the geothermal power potential to 1,400 MW. The biogas energy potential in the country is estimated at 6.4 million tonnes energy equivalent (MTOE) per year.

The energy development strategy targets increasing renewable energy share to about 5 per cent of the total commercial primary energy supply by 2020, 8 per cent (approximately 9 MTOE) by 2025 and 11 per cent (approximately 35 MTOE) by 2050. Master Plan for Renewable Energy has been submitted to the government for final approval.

Bangladesh launches renewable energy platform

Bangladesh Solar and Renewable Energy Association (BSREA) – a platform for renewable energy products businesses – was launched recently in Dhaka. Mr. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, Energy Adviser to the Prime Minister, inaugurated the association. BSREA aims to promote renewable energy in Bangladesh and keep track of the fast growing renewable energy industry around the world, said Mr. Dipal C. Barua, President of the new body. The 49-member BSREA will work to educate people on solar energy. “Our goal is to make Bangladesh a solar energy-rich nation, which can be achieved when 51 per cent or more of the population utilizes solar power,” said Mr. Barua, who is also the Chairman of Bright Green Energy Foundation. BSREA will also work for standardization and quality control of all the renewable energy products and services being sold in Bangladesh, the Association said.

The government plans to generate 500 MW (about 5 per cent) of the total electricity requirement from renewable energy sources by 2015 and 10 per cent by 2020. The government is working to formulate the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Agency (SREDA) to better regulate the growing sector, Mr. Chowdhury revealed. The government will extend all necessary support to BSREA in finding more avenues where renewable energy could be installed, he said.

Indonesia to expand use of renewable energy for electricity

Indonesia’s state-owned electricity firm (Perusahaan Listrik Negara, PLN) plans to boost the use of renewable energy for electricity to 20 per cent from the current level of 11 per cent in the coming eight years, a statement from the company said. To achieve this, PLN would promote development of renewable energy sources such as hydropower, geothermal, solar energy and biomass. The archipelago has abundant renewable energy sources.

Many of Indonesian power plants still use fossil fuel and coal, whose reserves keep declining while the energy demand keeps rising by over 7 per cent annually. Indonesia’s oil production in 2011 is forecast to lower than the target, because of technical problems and extreme weather, Mr. Raden Priyono head of oil and gas regulator BP Migas said. The country’s oil production has been on a decline since 1998 and led to its exit from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2009.

Philippines to test jatropha biodiesel from Malaysia

The Philippine government is subjecting to fuel standard testing the jatropha biodiesel from Malaysia-based Bionas, which is offering to supply what it claims would be the world’s first jatropha biodiesel. The Department of Energy (DoE) is expected to evaluate Bionas’s biofuel under a Philippine National Standard (PNS) on biodiesel.

Bionas Philippines Corp. (BPC) set up a jatropha oil processing plant in Zamboanga del Norte province in 2011. Its parent firm in Malaysia claims to be a global leading brand in jatropha plantation and biofuel with two processing and blending plants. Although the Philippine government has shelved research and development (R&D) for jatropha biofuel, BPC is optimistic about getting clearance for its jatropha biodiesel.

Philippine Agricultural Development and Commercial Corp. (PADCC) President Mr. Marriz B. Agbon said the government has not renewed interest in R&D on jatropha biodiesel, as the thrust is more on augmenting local production of ethanol for biofuel mix with petrol. While the Philippines has a biofuel policy that mandates coconut methyl ester mix at less than five per cent, Bionas has a B20 biodiesel composed of 50 per cent of diesel, 30 per cent of Bionas fuel, and 20 per cent Bionas diesel additives.

Malaysia aims at nationwide biodiesel use in two years

Malaysia is targeting for biodiesel B5 use to go nationwide by 2014, said Mr. Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, the Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister. The implementation could not be made earlier as there were not enough blending facilities for the alternative fuel, the Minister said.

B5 is a blend of 95 per cent regular petroleum-based diesel and 5 per cent palm methyl ester, which can be used in normal diesel engine vehicles without modification. Mr. Dompok also said his ministry was studying ways to reduce the quantity of regular diesel in biodiesel by increasing the use of palm methyl ester. The B5 programme, first introduced in 2006, is being implemented in phases in the central region of Peninsular Malaysia since June 2011.

China’s solar market set to expand

China is aiming to reduce the cost of domestic solar power and expand the domestic market to better develop the photovoltaic (PV) industry during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015), stated the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. As per the industry plan announced by the Ministry, the cost of solar power per kWh will be reduced to 0.8 yuan (US$ 0.12) by 2015 and 0.6 yuan by 2020 and production of solar panels will be increased.

Meanwhile, the plan said the government requires China’s leading polysilicon manufacturers to reach a production capacity of 50,000 tonnes per year by 2015. Solar panel makers will have to reach 5 GW of annual production capacity by the same year. “It is time for integration of the industry,” said Mr. Wu Zhonghu, an expert with the China Energy Research Society. Mr. Wu said many small companies have started producing PV panels to pursue profits in the domestic market because their technology and production lines do not meet the standards applied overseas. The industry faces several obstacles such as high costs, shrinking overseas markets and a lack of laws and regulations to supervise the industry. If the government suspends subsidies to the solar companies, it would be difficult for them to sell in the domestic market because of high prices, he said.

The government plans to help companies in the solar sector increase annual sales. It aims to have at least one company reaching 100 billion yuan (US$15.8 billion) in sales by 2015, and between three and five companies reaching half that figure by the same date. The plan is expected to bring opportunities for thin-film PV panels, as the country will put more effort into Building Integrated PV. Eighty per cent of solar equipment and auxiliary materials will be produced domestically, according to the plan.

Philippines approves six geothermal deals

The Department of Energy (DoE) of the Philippines approved six geothermal power contracts in 2011, as the country aims to become the world’s largest producer of geothermal energy. The Philippines is currently in the second position, next to the United States. Geothermal power accounted for 14.7 per cent of the power generation mix in the country in 2010.

DoE approved the contract of Pan Pacific Power Philippines Corp. for geothermal projects in Benguet, Cagayan and Abra provinces. Pan Pacific, according to DoE, is a local company with a foreign partner. It is building a 600 MW hydropower project in Apayao, and is also developing small hydropower projects. DoE also approved the geothermal projects of SKI Construction Group Inc. in San Juan, Batangas, Tiaong in Laguna, Quezon, and Batangas and Tayabas-Lucban in Quezon.

India’s largest solar energy plant starts production

In India, a 40 MW solar power generation plant, set up in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, started power generation recently. The plant, which is currently the largest such facility in the country, was inaugurated by Union New and Renewable Energy Minister Mr. Farooq Abdullah and the state’s Chief Minister Mr. Ashok Gehlot. The plant owned by Reliance Energy was built at an estimated cost of Rs 4 billion (US$74.6 million) on 140 hectares of land. The plant will generate 72 million units of power.

On the occasion, Mr. Abdullah said that the country has set target to produce 20,000 MW of solar energy by 2022. He said that 90 per cent of the country’s power generation fund is spent on coal, petrol, diesel and natural gas. In such situation, wide usage of solar and wind energy would add a new dimension to the energy sector. Stating that Rajasthan was number one in India in solar energy exploitation, Mr. Gehlot said that there was large scope of expansion in the sector. Efforts were being made to set up a solar energy park in Rajasthan and to develop the state as a solar hub, he said. The state’s solar energy policy had incorporated more investments and incentives to the investors. He said Rs 100 billion (US$1,865 million) was being invested in this sector.

Palau airport takes to solar energy

The International Airport at the Re-public of Palau has adopted a green approach. The new solar panel array at the airport is a big deal for such a small nation and sets an example for other countries. The Republic of Palau, an island nation situated in the Pacific Ocean 800 km east of the Philippines, occupies an area of just 459 km2. About 85 per cent of the country’s electricity generation is fossil fuel based.

In December 2011, its international airport switched on a 226 kW solar panel array, supplied by Kyocera Corporation, Japan, and funded by the Japanese government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). The first grid-connected solar power system in the country, Palau airport’s solar farm is made up of 1,080 Kyocera 210 W solar modules. Kyocera estimates the system will generate 250 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, avoiding approximately 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. The solar panels also provides shade in the airport’s parking lot, where they are installed. The modules have been reinforced with extra support to increase wind-pressure resistance.


New solar cell could boost efficiency by 25 per cent

Scientists at the University of Cambridge, the United Kingdom, have developed a hybrid solar cell that is capable of converting 44 per cent of sunlight into electrical power, 29 per cent more than traditional cells’ capability of 34 per cent. However, another two or three years would be required to assess whether it is commercially viable.

Silicon solar cells cannot extract all the energy in a photon and much of the energy from the more energetic blue photons is thus lost. A solar cell normally generates one electron from each photon captured. “We present the first hybrid solar cell that uses a phenomenon called singlet exciton fission to generate two electrons for each absorbed photon in the organic material,” said Mr. Bruno Ehrler, lead author of the research paper. The new hybrid cells could help reduce the cost of solar panels, Mr. Ehrler said. “Since our materials can be dissolved and processed by roll-to-roll printing, we expect the actual cost of a solar panel be much lower than (with) conventional silicon solar cells.” However, this discovery is in the initial stage and therefore it is difficult to predict the final cost and device structure, he cautioned.

Novel technology could offer cheaper solar cells

A novel way to make thin, uniform coatings developed at Rice University, the United States, could lower the cost of making conventional silicon solar cells, and could open the way for new kinds of solar cells that are far more efficient as well. The new technology – which deposits coatings in a low-temperature, liquid-based process rather than the high-temperature gas-based process currently used – is being commercialized by Natcore Technology, the United States. The company plans to use the technology to replace a standard step in conventional solar cell manufacturing, adding an antireflective (AR) coating to silicon wafers to help them absorb more light.

Manufacturers do not currently use liquid-based processes for antireflection coatings in part because it is difficult to make the coating uniform enough for solar cells. The coating forms reactants that interact with a surface. As the reactants are used up, the rates of deposition start to change, resulting in varying coating thickness. Researchers at Rice University addressed this problem by developing a system that continuously replenishes the reactants while also closely monitoring the thickness of the films.

Natcore is also developing more advanced applications of liquid phase deposition (LPD) process, including fabricating solar cells made of carbon nanotubes, or nanoscale crystals called quantum dots. AR-Box™, Natcore’s intelligent LPD processing station for growing an AR coating on silicon wafers in the solar cell manufacturing process. It will be the primary tool in the development and commercialization of Natcore’s new technologies, such as its advanced nano solar cell designs involving layers of quantum dots on a silicon solar cell or its use of LPD process to coat a network of carbon nanotubes with a solar semiconductor material to produce thin, flexible solar cells.

Efficiently harvesting the power of the sun

A dye-sensitised solar cell (DSSC) usually comprises a dye-sensitized nanocrystalline film of titanium dioxide (TiO2) deposited on a transparent conducting oxide glass, a platinum counter electrode and an electrolyte solution containing dissolved iodide ion redox couple. Mr. Liyuan Han at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan, and Mr. Malapaka Chandrasekharam from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad, India, and their colleagues have created a new donor-acceptor type co-adsorbent that increases the efficiency of DSSC to 11.4 per cent.

“We have successfully developed a new small co-adsorbent to solve the problems that induce loss of light harvesting and charge recombination,” says Mr. Han, adding that the aim is “to increase the efficiency of DSSCs to at least be as high as that of silicon-based solar cells, so that DSSCs may become more competitive”. The scientists designed two simple donor-acceptor type co-adsorbents that had intense absorption maxima. They also improved the incident photon-to-electron conversion efficiency (IPCE) by offsetting the competing visible light absorption. By introducing butyloxyl chains into one of the molecules, they were able to adjust the distance between dyes and study the cell performance. “The efficiency will be further improved by developing new co-adsorbents with additional functions so that the IPCE in IR wavelength region is enhanced,” Mr. Han said.

Record-breaking organic solar cells on the way

National Research Council Canada (NRC) researchers have produced the world’s most efficient “inverted” organic photovoltaic (OPV) solar cells. Using a new polymer developed by Dr. Jianping Lu in collaboration with Laval University, Canada, NRC has developed a series of increasingly efficient OPVs. NRC’s inverted OPV cells were officially certified a power conversion efficiency of 7.1 per cent by an independent certification lab.

The Belgian firm Imec had set the previous record power conversion efficiency of 6.9 per cent on an inverted OPV cell with an aperture area measuring 0.08 cm2. NRC’s OPV cell is 12 times larger at 1.0 cm2. “The larger their active area, the closer they are to manufacturing reality,” says NRC’s Dr. Ta-Ya Chu. Inverted (the positions of anode and cathode reversed) OPV cells are usually less efficient at converting light into electricity than conventional OPV cells, but they have the optimum structure for roll-to-roll mass production. In addition, an inverted OPV cell is more stable and less prone to environmental degradation than a conventional OPV cell.

Dr. Chu credits the high performance of NRC’s OPV devices to several scientific advances, including new materials, a new device fabrication process, and interdisciplinary teamwork between chemists and physicists with theoretical and experimental expertise. Contact: National Research Council Canada, 1200 Montreal Road, M-58 Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0R6 Canada. Tel: +1 (613) 993 9101; Fax: +1 (613) 952 9907; E-mail:

Solar absorbers use “green ferrite”

Researchers at Okayama Graduate School of Science and Technology in Japan, led by Professor Naoshi Ikeda, have adopted a unique approach to develop solar cells. The Okayama team is employing an iron oxide compound it calls “green ferrite” instead of silicon, currently the standard component in solar cells. Prof. Ikeda claims the new device will produce 100 times more energy than a traditional silicon solar cell.

Part of the increase in energy production would come from the infra-red spectrum – solar cells do not currently convert heat into electricity, but green ferrite is claimed to have that capability. Prof. Ikeda says that any area collecting waste heat (the ceiling of a kitchen, for example) could house a green ferrite solar cell.

The team’s goal is to create a battery capable of generating 1 kW of energy for 1/1000th of the cost of a traditional silicon solar cell. The new cells, which currently use green ferrite in a powdered form, would allow for some flexibility in panel shape, which means they could be wrapped around things like chimneys or telephone poles.

Floating solar panel

Researchers at Florence University, Italy, have developed an innovative way of installing solar panels, unveiling a cost-effective prototype that floats on water. The Floating Tracking Cooling Concentrator (FTCC) developed has a floating petal-like design that not only soaks up solar energy but tracks the sun and rotates accordingly.

Professor Marco Rosa-Clot, who developed the FTCC with a team of engineers, says the system is more efficient than most solar panels, as reflectors are positioned for maximum sunlight capture at different times of the day. With the device being able to float, water cools the reflectors, further boosting efficiency. Following tests at a pilot plant set up on a lake near Pisa in Tuscany, Prof. Rosa-Clot said: “It is a small-scale design, 30 kW, which would suffice for a dozen or so families.” If the device could be installed in 10 per cent of the 75 km2 of open reservoirs and lakes around Sicily, “we would have 1 GW of power,” he added.


Vertical axis wind power generator

Astralux Limited, Ukraine, has completed the development of a vertical axis wind power generator on magnetic levitation and manufactured the first commercial sample of the 2 kW system. The new turbine has its rotor mass compensated by magnetic suspension, which decreases natural wear and tear and significantly increases efficiency. Lightweight, barrel-like rotor with high blade coverage ratio allows low rated start-up wind speed of 1.5 m/s, though it can start up at wind speeds as low as 0.8 m/s.

The turbine reaches its rated power of 2 kW at a wind speed of 10 m/s. Unlike traditional wind turbines, both vertical and horizontal axis, it is possible to get more power with higher wind speeds due to a unique generator design. For example, a wind speed of 15 m/s will generate 7 kW of power. However, the top limit can be adjusted to accommodate capabilities of conversion/charging equipment and fit the requirements of locations where average wind speed is high.

Vertical design of the turbine allows the capture of wind from any direction at any time, with no need for reorientation. The active stator part, which also accepts wind flows from any direction and channels these flows to inner part of rotor, doubles efficiency of wind flow use. The minimal number of friction parts is claimed to offer a maintenance-free life of 10 years, supported by warranty for the same period. The turbine is expected to have a total useful life of 100 years. Contact: Astralux Limited, 76, Pravdy Avenue, Kyiv, 04212 Ukraine. Tel: +380 (67) 486 2622; E-mail:

New style turbine to harvest wind energy

A new way of generating wind energy which could see smaller, more efficient turbines on the landscape is being developed by an inventor with support from Nottingham Trent University, the United Kingdom. Future Factory, the university’s sustainable design project, is helping Mr. Heath Evdemon, founder of Wind Power Innovations Ltd., to progress the first technology demonstrator of the Wind Harvester – a small system capable of generating power from a wide range of wind speeds. With blades of initially just 1 m, the Wind Harvester has the potential for both commercial and domestic use. The new Wind Harvester is based on a reciprocating motion that uses horizontal aerofoils similar to those used on aircrafts. It is virtually noise-free and can generate electricity at a low speed. It will also be operational at higher wind speeds than current wind turbines. It can be built in any size up to about 15 m across and only needs to be approximately 0.5 m off the ground in prominent positions such as on hills and hillsides, rock outcrops, and on farm, domestic and industrial buildings. The turbine can be broken down for transportation and will not require any heavy machinery for its installation – an advantage in environmentally sensitive locations.

A wind turbine that trebles energy output

Ever since March 2011, a team at the Kyushu University, Japan, have been testing their “Windlens” wind turbine units with a capacity of 70 kW to 100 kW (blade diameter of 12.8 m), in an attempt to bring down wind power costs so that it can rival coal and nuclear energy. The rigorous and lengthy field testing could take up to as much as two years to implement. So far, results have shown several benefits. First of all, the new turbine model gives out a lot more energy – it can generate two or even three times the energy that regular turbines put out. This efficiency comes from its unique technology that puts an inward curved ring around the blades. Thus, the airflow that passes through the blades doubles or even triples its speed. Furthermore, the base of the turbines has a hexagonal shape, which is not so expensive but does a good job in braving out the marine conditions. The shape would later allow for other platforms of turbines to be joined. Secondly, by concealing the edges of the blades, the level of safety increases and, thirdly, the irritating noise disappears, reducing noise pollution.

Wind power generator with low start-up wind speed

Foshan Ouyad Electronic Co. Ltd., China, offers a 50 kW wind power generator with a start-up wind speed of 2 m/s and cut-in wind speed of 3-3.5 m/s. The FD5-50KW system is designed with magnetic saturation that protects the generator. The blade flange has reinforced rib and the blade cut-in angle is optimized to start up at low wind speeds.

High-strength copper and chromium are used for the worm gear to ensure long life. The generator is controlled by a fully isolated intelligent controller that functions well even in severe environmental conditions. The generator has both electronic and manual brakes, and maximum power point tracking (MPPT) system to protect the generator when the wind speed is more than the rated wind speed (11 m/s). The three-blade rotor diameter is 14 m and the rated speed is 85 rpm. The blades are made of carbon fibre and fibreglass. Tower height is 26 m. Contact: Foshan Ouyad Electronic Co. Ltd., Huixiang Road, Lutang Industrial Zone, Luncun Town, Nanhai District, Foshan, Guangdong, China. Tel: +86 (757) 8870 8972; Fax: +86 (757) 8991 4231.

Downwind type power generator

In Japan, Hitachi Ltd. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. have reached a basic agreement on the assignment of latter’s wind turbine generator system business to the former. Hitachi and Fuji co-developed a 2,000 kW downwind type power generation system a few years back. A prototype machine was later built and installed in Kamisu City, Ibaraki Prefecture, and 25 units of the wind power generation systems were installed subsequently at six sites in the country. Hitachi designed and manufactured the power generator and the power control component, while Fuji designed and manufactured the nacelle, blade and tower. The system is sold and installed by Hitachi.

The downwind type turbine is a wind turbine that is installed with its rotor under the lee of the tower. It can effectively capture wind to generate power on hills and at sea. After the assignment, Hitachi will combine its power control technologies as well as the system linkage and stabilization technologies with Fuji’s downwind type turbine technologies to further expand into the renewable energy market.

Monitoring offshore wind energy impacts

In the United States, the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Centre at Oregon State University (OSU) has received a US$600,000 grant from the United States Department of Energy to develop a multi-sensor array to record the interactions – including impacts – of birds and bats on the blades, platforms and towers of wind turbines. The usual way to document the impact of wind turbines on birds and bats – collection of carcasses – is difficult in the ocean, said Mr. Robert Suryan, an OSU seabird expert and principal investigator on the project. So the researchers are coming up with a different approach – synchronizing an array of sensors that will include accelerometers to measure variations in blade movement from impact, visual and infrared cameras, and acoustic devices to record bird strikes. The monitoring system will be designed to run continuously and on multiple turbines at once to estimate the potential impact of the entire wind farm.

Though the researchers’ focus will be on an array for offshore turbines, the sensors will also have potential usage in terrestrial facilities, says Mr. Suryan, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Centre. The technologies for the array are not new, but integrating the instruments and developing automated strike detection software to capture events and remotely transmit relevant data have not been done before. In addition to the engineering challenge, the researchers must consider the impact of the hardy Pacific Ocean, where winter storms are known to produce waves that are 20-30 feet tall.

The system will also monitor potential collisions of seabirds with the lower tower and base. “Studies are needed to identify which species fly at altitudes that might put them at risk of blade impact,” Mr. Suryan said. “There is also the issue with platforms, which might attract birds as a roosting area,” he added. The researchers will spend much of the next three years developing their instrumentation array and synchronizing the instruments. There is a big push for offshore wind energy development in areas where oil and gas platforms already exist. “One possibility is to use those platforms for hydroelectric power generation from the currents below, and wind energy from turbines above the surface,” Mr. Suryan pointed out. The project was funded from an initiative to remove market barriers for developing offshore wind facilities, especially floating platforms that can be used in deep water.


Innovative energy generation from tides

The 1,000 kW tidal current turbine HS1000 that Andritz Hydro Hammerfest (formerly Hammerfest Strøm), Norway, installed in the waters of the European Marine Energy Centre, Scotland, started supplying power to the grid beginning February 2012. Operation of the pilot plant is stable, and extensive load tests are currently underway. The horizontal axis turbine is installed on the seabed, and the rotor blades are driven by tidal currents. A 280° blade pitching system permits optimum rotor blade adjustment to the direction and speed of the tidal current. The new HS1000 turbine is based on the technology of HS300, which was installed in Norway as the first tidal current turbine with permanent connection to the public grid worldwide. Contact: Andritz Hydro Hammerfest, Sjøgata 6, P.O Box 403, NO-9615 Hammerfest, Norway. Tel: +47 (78) 406200; Fax: +47 (78) 406201; E-mail:

Tidal power generator device

Zhongshan Fantasy Model Design Co. Ltd., China, is patenting a tidal power generator device that comprises a buoy that moves up, down, back and forth with waves. A frame supports the buoy at the bottom. Articulated on the support frame is a horizontal-flow-guiding accelerator for the collection, compression and acceleration of horizontal wave flow. At the water outlet of the accelerator, an impeller rotates under impact from the accelerated flow. The accelerator has a containment space that holds a generator driven by the impeller. Another frame at the back of the support frame counterbalances the water impact on the accelerator. This balancing frame comprises a balancing buoy connected to the back of the support frame and rear-balance water tanks having an open top and a hole at the bottom for releasing water. The device is simple in structure and can utilize horizontal wave flow to generate electricity. Contact: Zhongshan Fantasy Model Design Co. Ltd., Shops Card 37, Ling Dong Shang Zhu Apartment Complex, Wuguishan Town, Zhongshan, Guangdong 528400, China.

Vortex reaction turbine generator

Elemental Energy Technologies Ltd. (EET) from Australia claims that its SeaUrchin™ marine vortex reaction turbine generator is both revolutionary and environment-friendly. SeaUrchin, said to feature true third generation tidal energy technology, is scalable and can be optimized to operate in a very wide range of flow rates (as low as 1.5 m/s) making it deployable in a wide range of locations around the world.

SeaUrchin has been developed to harness the kinetic energy of free-flowing ocean streams, tides and flowing rivers by exploiting the underlying principle and raw power of an ocean whirlpool. It harnesses up to four times more power and is up to 70 per cent more efficient than conventional, propeller-driven marine generators. SeaUrchin can be mass-produced from proven, inexpensive materials and components used by boat builders and marine electrical equipment manufacturers. More importantly, it has only one moving part and is expected to be around half the cost of competing marine generators to manufacture, install and maintain.

SeaUrchin captures energy from: permanent, continuous, warm and cold ocean streams; ocean tides; and river flows. It is installed under water and is visually unobtrusive. The slow-rotating turbine is also said to be safe for marine life. Contact: Elemental Energy Technologies Ltd., Suite 3, Level 1, 49-51 York Street, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia. Tel: +61 (2) 9290 2276; Fax: +61 (2) 9290 2228; E-mail:

Clean energy stash discovered in oceans

Lockheed Martin, the United States, is developing a way to mine renewable energy stashed in the ocean. The new system is considered a “disruptive” technology that could bring about a major change in off-shore energy generation. In tropical waters, the temperature difference between the surface and 900 m below the surface is about 20°C. The ocean thermal conversion (OTEC) system uses this natural supply of warm and cold water to run a power plant based on a Rankine engine.

One obstacle in the path of a commercially viable, large-scale OTEC plant is the cost of heat exchanger needed to intensify the energy of the warm surface water. Lockheed has developed a large heat exchanger using a process called friction stir welding to reduce corrosion. The process, which involves heating metal to a plastic state rather than melting it, has been used successfully on ships and spacecraft. This is its first use on an ocean-going heat exchanger. With another new twist – the use of graphite foam to boost the efficiency of the heat exchangers – there could be a cost savings of about 50 per cent.


Developing the next generation fuel cells

Scientists at the Centre for Clean Energy Engineering of University of Connecticut (UConn), the United States, has developed a new manufacturing process for fuel cells that could make highly efficient, fuel cell-powered vehicles a viable commercial option in the coming few years. Professor Radenka Maric and her team developed the breakthrough process, which significantly lowers production costs while maintaining maximum efficiency. The process is not limited to hydrogen fuel cells, and can be applied in other industrial applications to extend the durability and efficiency of solid oxide fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries.

One of the primary drawbacks to the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells, also called Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells, is that they are expensive to manufacture because the expensive platinum is used as the catalyst material. Prof. Maric has developed a prototype manufacturing process for the fuel cells that uses 10 times less catalyst material with little waste. The low-temperature process allows for important industrial controls and flexibility, and can be easily scaled up for mass production.

“We are trying to reduce the processing steps, and that is going to reduce the cost of manufacturing,” says Prof. Maric from the UConn School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical, Materials and Biomolecular Engineering. The new production process that Prof. Maric and her colleagues created is known as reactive spray deposition technology (RSDT). In the process, small particles of catalyst material, such as platinum, are shot out of a nozzle in the form of a gas flame, where they are instantly cooled into atom-sized solids and sprayed onto the fuel cell membrane in a calibrated fine layer.

The flame-based dispersion of the catalyst material allows it to bond to the membrane quickly, eliminating several binding and drying steps necessary in the current manufacturing process. By applying such a fine layer of catalyst material (thin enough to ensure maximum conductivity in low-temperature hydrogen fuel cells) and by achieving greater control of the size and saturation rate of the particles, the RSDT process also limits waste. The RSDT process can also be applied in the production of more advanced lithium-ion batteries. RSDT’s direct dry application of the nanocoatings used inside the battery eliminates several binding steps in the current manufacturing process.

Highly efficient solid oxide fuel cell

In Japan, five companies – Osaka Gas Co., Aisin Seiki Co., Kyocera Corporation, Chofu Seisakusho Co. and Toyota Motor Corporation – are bringing to market a residential solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) they jointly developed. The cell produces electricity and heat that can be used for hot water and space heating. The SOFC achieves an electric power generation efficiency of 46.5 per cent, said to be the highest level in the world for a residential-use SOFC.

The cell utilizes ceramic electrolyte for the power generating cell stack that achieves operating temperature of 700° to 750°C. This high temperature heat can be efficiently used as energy to reform utility gas to hydrogen and thus a high power electric generation efficiency level of 46.5 per cent is achieved – with an overall energy efficiency of 90.0 per cent. The cell stack generates 700 W of continuous base-load power through a chemical reaction between hydrogen reformed from utility gas and oxygen in the air. The module contains the fuel reformer and the cell stack, and is covered with a thermal insulator to maintain a high temperature. The desulphurizer removes sulphur in the utility gas to prevent the cell stack and other parts from deterioration.

The SOFC system includes a hot-water supply and heating unit that uses exhausted heat with a storage tank of 90 litres to optimally utilize the high temperature heat exhausted during power generation, as well as a high efficiency latent heat recovery type hot-water supply heating unit for the back-up boiler. The inverter converts direct current generated by the cell stack into alternating current. The hot water storage tank stores heat exhausted from the power generator as hot water. A back-up boiler is also built in to supply hot water and heating in case the hot water storage tank is empty. The new unit can supply roughly 80 per cent of a Japanese household’s power consumption.

Microbial fuel cell produces energy from waste

In the United Kingdom, a microbial fuel cell (MFC) developed by a team of researchers at University of Nottingham is undergoing a two-year pilot testing in cooperation with companies Lindhurst Engineering, Arla Foods and Clearfleau. According to the team, current treatments of the organic content in industrial effluent are costly and waste the potential energy contained within it, while the new MFC technology is able to harness the energy – hydrogen-rich biogas – using a series of anodes and cathodes.

By trialling the technology for a year in a 1 m3 capacity pilot plant, the team had determined that a larger production scale sized cell will be able to supply a large proportion of the annual energy needs of a farm if fed with slurry from 200 cows. The team is at present turning its attention to how the technology could be used to develop a pre-treatment system to transform solid food waste into a suitable consistency for the MFC. This will be followed by trials with a number of manufacturers to look at commercial viability of the MFC and pre-treatment process, along with analysis of how much energy and biofuel would be created and the cost savings incurred from the type and volume of waste the business generates. “The ultimate objective is to have a cost-effective way of releasing the inherent energy contained within waste at source,” said Mr. Martin Rigley, Managing Director of Lindhurst Engineering.

Cheap fuel cells with brine electrolyte

Japan’s Tohoku University (TU) has developed a magnesium-powered cell that uses salt water as an electrolyte – both materials abundant and cost-effective. Magnesium has been considered before but has suffered from problems of being easily burned and being dissolved by its electrolyte. TU claims to have solved such issues by utilizing flame retardant magnesium developed by a project by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).

The electrolyte and anode of metal air fuel cells (MAFC) require periodic replacement due to corrosion, which occurs as the system generates hydrogen ions, and electricity. Therefore, this technology differs from conventional fuel cells, which can operate indefinitely as long as a fuel source is available. The technology will be able to compete with conventional batteries in a number of applications, including for use in electric vehicles and uninterrupted and emergency power systems.

A golden touch to fuel-cell reactions

Advances in fuel cell technology have been stymied by the inadequacy of metals studied as catalysts. The drawback to platinum, other than cost, is that it absorbs carbon monoxide (CO) in reactions involving fuel cells powered by organic materials like formic acid. A more recently tested metal, palladium, breaks down over time. At Brown University, the United States, chemists have now created a triple-headed metallic nanoparticle that they say outperforms and outlasts all others at the anode end in formic-acid fuel-cell reactions. They report a 4 nm iron-platinum-gold nanoparticle (FePtAu), with a tetragonal crystal structure, generates higher current per unit of mass than any other nanoparticle catalyst tested. The tri-metallic nanoparticles also perform nearly as well after 13 hours as it did at the start, unlike many nanoparticle assemblies that lose nearly 90 per cent of performance in just one-quarter of the time.

“We have developed a formic acid fuel-cell catalyst that is the best to have been created and tested so far,” said Mr. Shouheng Sun, a chemistry professor at Brown and corresponding author on the paper. Gold plays key roles in the reaction. First, it acts as a community organizer of sorts, leading the iron and platinum atoms into uniform layers within the nanoparticle. The gold atoms then exit the stage, binding to the outer surface of the nanoparticle assembly. Gold is effective at ordering the iron and platinum atoms because the gold atoms create extra space within the nanoparticle sphere at the outset. When the gold atoms diffuse from the space upon heating, they create more room for the iron and platinum atoms to assemble themselves. Gold creates the crystallization that chemists want in the nanoparticle assembly at lower temperature. Gold also removes CO from the reaction by catalysing its oxidation. By essentially scrubbing it from the reaction, gold betters the performance of the FePtAu catalyst. The Brown team’s triple-headed metallic nanoparticles did well in CO removal in the oxidation of formic acid. Gold also helped create the crucial ordered crystal structure – “face-centred tetragon” – for the nanoparticle catalyst.

In tests, the FePtAu catalyst reached 2,809.9 mA/mg Pt (current generated per milligram of platinum) – the highest among all nanoparticle catalysts ever reported. After 13 hours, the value was 2,600 mA/mg Pt, or 93 per cent of its original performance value. In comparison, the well-received platinum-bismuth nanoparticle generates about 1,720 mA/mg Pt under identical experiments, and is four times less active in terms of durability. The researchers note that other metals may be substituted for gold.


Sewage-powered hydrogen fuelling station

The Orange County Sanitation District in the Fountain Valley of California, the United States, has set up a first of its kind power station, which produces electricity and hydrogen from the biogas produced from sewages. The power plant uses a tri-generation process in which first methane is produced from the sewage and then converted into hydrogen, which is later sent to a fuel cell. While the fuel cell produces electricity for powering the plant, the leftover hydrogen gas is supplied to a hydrogen fuelling station for powering vehicles.

The production of hydrogen from wastewater is an entirely new concept developed in recent years. The basic process depends on microbial fuel cells (MFCs) in which naturally occurring microbes liberate electrons from wastewater while acting as a catalyst. Hydrogen can also be produced in microbial electrolysis cells, which produces hydrogen from the microbial decomposition of organic compounds. There are multiple advantages of producing hydrogen from wastewater, such as:

  • Wastewater is abundant, and its use for a green purpose would change the notions often associated with things considered as waste;
  • While sunlight and wind are seen as renewable sources of energy, hydrogen can actually act as a replacement of petroleum, natural gas and other fossil fuels used for powering vehicles; and
  • Unlike conventional engines, the hydrogen fuel cells produce only water and oxygen as by-products, thus placing no burden on the environment.
    Source: http:/

A basic solution for hydrogen storage

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the United States, scientists led by chemist Mr. Etsuko Fujita have found a safe and reversible way to store hydrogen under mild (and therefore hopefully more economical) conditions, using a newly developed catalyst. The researchers considered acids and bases in an unconventional way – as potential carriers of hydrogen fuel. Many acids and bases are actually watery solutions filled with hydrogen. In an acidic solution, the hydrogen atoms wander free. In a basic solution, the hydrogen atoms are usually connected with a negative ion of some sort.

The catalyst created by Brookhaven Lab researchers connects hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide (CO2), “storing” the hydrogen linked to CO2 in a mildly basic solution. The reaction can be reversed – and the hydrogen fuel released – by adding a bit of acid. The entire process can be run, and easily reversed, in a watery solution under mild temperatures and pressures with no toxic by-products, and at a faster rate than any previous catalyst. The new catalyst might be used in future hydrogen fuel vehicles, though additional testing will be needed to see if it can be economically scaled up to industrial production. Contact: Mr. Charles Rousseaux, Office of Science, Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Avenue, SW Washington, DC 20585, United States of America. Tel: +1 (202) 287 5760; E-mail:

Novel method of making hydrogen fuel cells

Researchers in the United Kingdom believe that a novel hydrogen fuel-cell manufacturing approach they developed could reduce costs and improve reliability. Scientists from University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London (ICL) believe that they can make fuel cells 30 per cent cheaper than existing products by replacing the heavy steel plates used between cells with printed circuit boards (PCBs). Traditionally, fuel-cell stacks have consisted of several bipolar steel plates, each separated by a membrane electrode assembly (MEA).

The approach being developed by UCL-ICL researchers would incorporate the MEA into the PCBs. “We put together a hot press to form this monolith that looks, touches, feels and has the same weight as the PCBs found in the motherboard of your home computer,” said Dr. Daniel Brett of UCL’s Department of Chemical Engineering. The fuel cells would be lighter than existing technologies because PCBs weigh less than the steel plates currently used. Dr. Brett also said they will have power densities equal to or better than existing fuel cells. Furthermore, they are comparatively cheap.

Fuel cells made in this way could also be more reliable. “A normal fuel cell is like a load of different links in a chain, and if one of those fuel cells fails the entire fuel cell fails,” Dr. Brett explained. “If one of our layers fails, the rest of the system carries on working because the current doesn’t pass in series through the entire thickness of the cell. What happens here is that the current flows laterally, which means it has very good tolerance, so one of these layers could fail and the system wouldn’t go down,” he added. The scientists have so far demonstrated the fuel cell in the lab operating at a few Watts – adequate to power a portable electronic device. They are aiming for a combined heat and power fuel cell operating at ~1 kW by the end of 2012 and a car fuel-cell prototype by the end of 2013.

More efficient hydrogen fuel cells

The majority of hydrogen fuel cells use catalysts made of platinum, a rare and expensive metal. There are few alternatives because most elements can’t endure the fuel cell’s highly acidic solvents present in the reaction that converts hydrogen’s chemical energy into electrical power. Only four elements can resist the corrosive process – platinum, iridium, gold and palladium. The first two are rare and expensive, which makes them impractical for large-scale use. The other two don’t do well with the chemical reaction.

Professor Sergey Stolbov and his post-doctoral research associate Dr. Marisol Alcántara Ortigoza at the University of Central Florida, the United States, focused on making gold and palladium better suited for the reaction. They created a sandwich-like structure that layers more abundant and cheaper elements with gold and palladium to make it more effective. The outer monoatomic layer (the top of the sandwich) is either palladium or gold. Below it is a layer that works to enhance the energy conversion rate but also acts to protect the catalyst from the acidic environment. These two layers reside on the bottom slice of the sandwich – an inexpensive substrate (tungsten), which also plays a role in the stability of the catalyst. By creating these structures, more energy is converted, and because the more expensive and rare metals are not used, the cost could be significantly less.

Nanotrees help turn solar energy into hydrogen

In the United States, electrical engineers at University of California, San Diego (UCSD), are building a forest of tiny nanowire trees in order to cleanly capture solar energy and harvest it for hydrogen fuel generation. The nanowires, which are made from abundant natural materials like silicon and zinc oxide, also offer a cheap way to deliver hydrogen fuel on a mass scale. “This is a clean way to generate clean fuel,” said Professor Deli Wang from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

The vertical structure and branches of the trees are keys to maximizing the solar energy captured, according to Prof. Wang. That is because the vertical structure of trees grabs and adsorbs light while flat surfaces simply reflect it, similar to retinal photoreceptor cells in the human eye. Prof. Wang’s “3D branched nanowire array” uses a process called photoelectrochemical water-splitting to produce hydrogen gas. This process uses clean energy with no greenhouse gas by-product.

By harvesting more sunlight, Prof. Wang’s team has developed a way to produce more hydrogen fuel efficiently when compared with planar counterparts. The vertical branch structure also maximizes hydrogen gas output, said Mr. Ke Sun, a PhD student in electrical engineering who led the project. For example, on the flat, wide surface of a pot of boiling water, bubbles must become large to come to the surface. In the nanotree structure, very small gas bubbles of hydrogen can be extracted much faster. The surface area for chemical reactions is also enhanced by at least 400,000 times.

Solar route to make hydrogen fuel

At the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, Dr. Nageh Allam’s research to harness solar power is divided into two stages. The first stage involves using nanomaterials to harvest sunlight for the production of clean fuel, such as hydrogen. The second includes the use of nanomaterials to harvest sunlight and convert it into electricity via solar cells. “In theory, sunlight can be used to excite a semiconducting material, which in turn, acts as a catalyst for the water-splitting reaction in an electrochemical cell,” Dr. Allam explains. He is designing photo-electrochemical systems to carry out the solar-driven, water-splitting process. Dr. Allam is setting up an Energy Materials Laboratory on AUC campus for the design and assembly of nanomaterials used for solar-energy conversion. The lab will include power supplies for synthesis of materials, a solar simulator and equipment to test the efficiency of the devices created for solar-energy conversion, among others. Contact: Dr. Nageh Allam, American University in Cairo, AUC Avenue, P.O. Box 74, New Cairo 11835, Egypt. Tel: +20 (2) 2615 1000; Fax: +20 (2) 2795 7565; E-mail:


Cleaner, greener and renewable diesel fuel

Scientists at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) of the United States Department of Energy have engineered Escherichia coli bacteria to generate significant quantities of methyl ketone compounds from glucose. In subsequent tests, these methyl ketones yielded high cetane numbers – a diesel fuel rating comparable to the octane number for petrol – making them strong candidates for advanced biofuels production. “We are especially encouraged by our finding that it is possible to increase the methyl ketone titer production of E. coli more than 4,000-fold with a relatively small number of genetic modifications,” says Mr. Harry Beller, a JBEI microbiologist who is the corresponding author of this study. Ms. Ee-Been Goh is the first author.

Methyl ketones are naturally occurring compounds common in certain micro-organisms, insects and plants. While native E. coli makes virtually undetectable quantities of methyl ketones, Mr. Beller and his colleagues were able to overcome this deficiency using the same tools of synthetic biology they used to engineer high fatty acid-producing E. coli. They made two major modifications to E. coli. “First we modified specific steps in beta-oxidation, the metabolic pathway that E. coli uses to break down fatty acids, and then we increased the expression of a native E. coli protein called FadM. These two modifications combined to greatly enhance the production of methyl ketones,” Mr. Beller says.

The scientists tested two methyl ketones – undecanone and tridecanone – for cetane numbers. In the United States, diesel fuel must have a minimum cetane number of 40. The cetane number for undecanone was 56.6. The number for a 50/50 mix of undecanone and tridecanone was 58.4. Despite this impressive performance, there was a concern that both methyl ketones have a relatively high melting point, which is a disadvantage for cold-temperature fuel properties. “We were able to mitigate the melting point problem in our best-producing strains of E. coli by increasing the percentage of monounsaturated methyl ketones, which have much lower melting points than their saturated homologs,” Mr. Beller says. The scientists will now focus on increasing production and optimizing fuel properties of the methyl ketones by modulating their composition with respect to chain length and degree of unsaturation.

Industrial production of biofuel from algae

India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) is planning to scale up to industrial level its technology to produce biodiesel from algae. The scaling up is being carried out in collaboration with Purti Power and Sugar Limited (Purti), India. The process was developed by NEERI’s former Acting Director and Head of Environment Health Division, Mr. Tapan Chakrabarti, its present Director, Mr. K. Krishnamurthi, and colleagues. Mr. Chakrabarti said that initially the process will use Chlorella, but later it could be a mix with another algal genus, Scenedesmus. To avoid the presence of micro-organisms such as protozoa, which can eat up the algae, the initiative will use fresh water and not industrial wastewater. Initially, the algae will be harvested once in eight days, which will be reduced subsequently.

The biodiesel produced during the process will be first used to top up diesel in fuel tanks by up to 10-30 per cent. NEERI will try to completely replace the diesel in one year. Biodiesel from algae is a renewable resource developed through an eco-friendly process that uses carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by the industry. Mr. Krishnamurthi, who heads the project now, states that since CO2 is needed by plants to make food through photosynthesis, this process would directly sequester carbon. Besides, the profit margin in the process will be very high as the cost of production is almost negligible – the process uses just algae, sunlight, CO2 and water.

Converting seaweed to biofuel

Researchers from Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) in Berkeley, the United States, have developed technology that efficiently converts seaweed into a feedstock for biofuel and chemicals. They genetically engineered a microbe that can extract, via fermentation, the sugars in seaweed, which can then be converted into renewable fuels and other substances. Seaweed would make an ideal feedstock for the commercial production of biofuel, say the scientists, because of its high sugar content and the fact that it does not require arable land or freshwater to grow. Just 3 per cent coastal waters of the world could produce enough seaweed to generate over 225 billion litres of fossil fuel equivalent, they claim. “About 60 per cent of the dry biomass of seaweed are sugars, and more than half of those are locked in a single sugar,” says Mr. Daniel Trunfio, CEO of BAL. “BAL’s technology to ferment a seaweed feedstock to renewable fuels and chemicals has created an entirely new pathway for biofuels development, one that is no longer constrained to terrestrial sources,” comments Mr. Jonathan Burbaum, Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) programme of the United States Department of Energy, which partly supported the work.

Synthetic biology helps microbial production of fuel

Significant boosts in the microbial production of clean, green and renewable biodiesel fuel has been achieved with the development of a new technique in synthetic biology by researchers with the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) of the United States Department of Energy. This new technique – dubbed a dynamic sensor-regulator system (DSRS) – can detect metabolic changes in microbes during the production of fatty acid-based fuels and control the expression of genes affecting that production. A demonstration showed a threefold increase in the microbial production of biodiesel from glucose. “DSRS is an amazing and powerful new tool, the first example of a synthetic system that can dynamically regulate a metabolic pathway for improving production of fatty acid-based fuels and chemicals while the microbes are in the bioreactor,” states Mr. Jay Keasling, CEO of JBEI, who was part of the research team and the corresponding author of a paper describing this research.

Major research efforts have focused on renewable transportation fuels from fatty acids. “Microbial production of fuels and chemicals from fatty acids is a greener and sustainable alternative to chemical synthesis,” says Mr. Fuzhong Zhang, who is the lead author of the research paper from JBEI. “However, high productivities, titres and yields are essential for microbial production of these chemical products to be economically viable, particularly in the cases of biofuels and low-value bulk chemicals.” Metabolic imbalances during product synthesis, however, hamper microbial production of fatty acid-based chemicals. “Expression of pathway genes at too low a level creates bottlenecks in biosynthetic pathways, whereas expression at too high a level diverts cellular resources to the production of unnecessary enzymes or intermediate metabolites,” Mr. Zhang says. The accumulation of the enzymes and intermediate metabolites can also have a toxic effect on the micro-organisms, reducing yield and productivity. DSRS responds to the metabolic status of the microbe in the bioreactor during synthesis by sensing key intermediate metabolites in an engineered pathway. It then regulates the genes that control these intermediates to permit their delivery at levels and rates that optimize the pathway for maximum productivity.

To create DSRS, the researchers focused on a strain of Escherichia coli bacteria engineered at JBEI to produce diesel fuel directly from glucose. They developed biosensors for fatty acyl-CoA, a key intermediate metabolite, and then developed a set of promoters that boost the expression of specific genes in response to cellular acyl-CoA levels. Introducing DSRS into the biodiesel-producing strain of E. coli improved the stability and tripled the yield of fuel, reaching 28 per cent of the theoretical maximum.

Marine algae yield precious biodiesel

An unmodified Chevrolet Tavera car travelled 201 km with an average mileage of 11.16 per km in full load condition, running on B100 biodiesel prepared from cultured marine microalgae in solar salt pans of the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), Gujarat, India. B100 biodiesel is 100 per cent extract from the microalgae. At present, B100 biodiesel is very costly at Rs 155 per litre (about US$3), but work is being done to bring down its cost by more than half. “As of now 10 million tonnes of dry biomass would be required for 1 million tonnes of microalgal biodiesel,” said a CSMCRI official. No problems were reported regarding the quality of the fuel so far. The official said the appropriate locations to grow biomass cost-effectively in large volumes and the environmental implications need to be considered before determining commercial viability of the fuel. B100 biodiesel was made of oils obtained from the microalgal biomass produced in solar salt pans (from those isolated and screened in laboratories). In terms of pollution, the B100 marine microalgal biodiesel generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions just like any other fuel. However, unlike fossil diesel, the CO2 released on driving the vehicle is effectively neutralized by the photosynthesis process. This is so because biodiesel is obtained from a photosynthetic micro-organism in the first place.


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