VATIS Update Non-conventional Energy . May-Jun 2011

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New and Renewable Energy May-Jun 2011

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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ASEAN’s largest solar power project gets a financier

Kasikorn Bank, Thailand, is preparing to assist Solar Power Company (SPC), the developer of ASEAN’s largest solar power project, to raise 21 billion baht (US$674.59 million). The Bank has been appointed as the lead arranger for the venture that is planning 34 solar power plants that would generate a combined 206 MW once development is complete in 2013. According to Kasikorn Bank’s Senior Executive Vice President Mr. Krisada Lamsam, the funding would be mobilized from a number of sources including syndicated loans and joint ventures. The funding would have a tenure of 10 years, and interest rates would be based on fixed Thai baht rates for three to six months, currently at 2.7 per cent to 3 per cent.

Kasikorn Bank, which ranks first in the industry in financial support to energy projects, recently financed three other solar power plants that will generate 18 MW and are worth 3.1 billion baht (US$99.58 million). The Bank’s financial support in terms of financial advisory and lead arranger services, represents a total of150 billion baht (US$4.81 billion) or 91 per cent of the segment’s total estimated value of 161 billion baht (US$5.17 billion). SPC, which holds 34 licences for a combined capacity of 206 MW in various provinces under the government’s very small power producer programme, currently runs one project. This year, it plans to build 16 solar installations costing about 700 million baht (US$22.48 million) each. The company recently made a reverse takeover of Steel Intertech Plc., the main business oh which will now change from steel roofing to solar farms.

India to triple solar power capacity target by 2022

Technological breakthroughs and economies of scale will make solar power competitive in six years and help India add 67,000 MW of solar generation capacity by 2022, more than thrice the country’s target, says a report by consultancy firm KPMG. “The present trends indicate that the prospects are very bright for solar power to be equal to conventional electricity any time after 2017, said a senior official from India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

The KPMG report reveals that solar energy can contribute 7 per cent of the total power needs of the country by 2022, helping to cut coal imports by 30 per cent or 71 million tonnes a year. This would save US$5.5 billion per year in imports from 2022 onwards. In addition, the projected increase in solar capacity can bring a 2.5 per cent reduction in India’s carbon emissions – which is a tenth of the 20-25 per cent reduction that India volunteered at the Copenhagen international summit on climate change. It is estimated that the price of solar power would decline at the rate of 7 per cent per annum over the next decade. Improvements in efficiency owing to technological advancement and emergence of low-cost manufacturing are likely factors that would aid the continuing trend.

Sri Lanka pitches for solar LED lighting

The Sri Lankan Cabinet has given its nod to the introduction of solar powered LED lighting products to meet the basic lighting requirements of houses and other places in remote villages numbering 150,000. Even with the target of reaching 100 per cent electrification in the country by 2012, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) estimates that about 40,000 households in very remote villages will still be dependent on kerosene for their lighting owing to sheer remoteness of such villages from the national grid. The project has been developed to introduce advanced solar-powered white LED lighting products to the population in those remote villages to power their basic lighting requirements and to eliminate the use of kerosene for lighting purposes. It is estimated that this project would save SL Rs 1.150 billion (US$10.44 million) per year, once all 150,000 households use renewable energy instead of kerosene and thereby accomplish the government’s mission to provide electricity for all.

Bangladesh sees surge in small-scale solar power use

Bangladesh has doubled the number of homes with solar-generated electricity systems to 800,000 over 2010. Demand for the systems is growing as the country curbs new connections to its over-burdened power grid and costs for the solar panels come down, according to a number of non-profit groups that are providing solar electricity systems across Bangladesh. The country’s power plants can generate about 4,200 MW/day of electricity while demand is more than 5,500 MW/day, meaning many would-be users regularly lack power.

“You can call it a green revolution since our combined efforts are helping light remote villages and reduce carbon emissions,” said Mr. Abser Kamal, Chief Executive Officer of Grameen Shakti, an organization that promotes renewable energy use in Bangladesh, in part by installing solar home systems (SHS) and providing small loans to people to fund their purchase. The company hopes to install an additional 500,000 SHS units in 2011. SHS uses solar cells to convert sunlight to electricity. A typical US$300 home unit allows the user to power a few light bulbs, a television and a fan.

Alternative energy policy for Pakistan

In Pakistan, the draft of a new alternative energy policy featuring the renewable energy sources is ready for launch, stated Mr. Arif Alauddin, CEO of Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB). Speaking to media persons at the sidelines of an energy conference in Karachi, Mr. Alauddin said the new expanded alternative energy policy accommodates renewable resources such as bagasse, hydro-electricity, solar and wind to give a bigger canvas to investors. Mr. Alauddin added that the new incentive of net metering would enable households to install solar or wind energy units on roof-tops and sell surplus energy produced to the national grid of utility company.

China to standardize procedures for wind power development

The Chinese government is working on new procedures to standardize inspection and approval process for wind power projects in a move to address the wind power grid connection and operational security issues that dog the sector’s development. Non-mainstream small wind power projects, specifically those with an installed capacity of 49.5 MW, have become the focus of severe criticism. Companies had been favouring projects below 50 MW as those above this capacity require state-level approval, while projects below 50 MW could go live following approval at the local level.

To avoid the complicated state-level approval procedure and take advantage of the lower investment need and easier connection to the grid, many companies opted for projects of 49.5 MW and 49.9 MW, creating a massive grey area just below the state-level approval system. This resulted in significant misalignment between the country’s wind power plans and power network plans, as the local-level approvals account for up to 59 per cent of an year’s total approvals. The approval process now under development shows the government’s willingness to use administrative methods to control its wind power sector. The goal is to align and optimize the development plans of the country’s wind power industry with those of its energy grid. In response to this move, wind power developers are quietly upgrading their strategies by adapting to the changing conditions to gradually reduce the number of projects below 50 MW capacity and investing to establish wind farms with higher capacities.

Renewable energy FIT recommended in the Philippines

In the Philippines, the National Renewable Energy Board (NREB) has filed a petition recommending the feed-in-tariff (FIT) rates for each resource, a move that will jump-start the drafting of all other incentives provided under the nation’s Renewable Energy Law. According to Mr. Pedro Maniego Jr., NREB’s Head, solar energy and ocean energy will enjoy the highest FIT rates of US$ 0.41 (P17.95) and US$0.40 (P17.65) per kWh, respectively, based on the petition filed with the Energy Regulatory Commission. Investors in wind energy developers will get an FIT rate of US$0.24 (P10.37) per kWh, while the per kWh rate is US $0.16 (P7) for biomass energy and US$ 0.14 (P6.15) for hydro energy. Mr. Maniego said that the installation targets remained the same, totalling 830 MW. Within this, the hydro and biomass sectors will be allowed to put up facilities that can generate a total of 500 MW or 250 MW each, wind 220 MW, solar 100 MW, and ocean 10 MW.

According to Mr. Maniego, based on conservative estimates, the additional universal levy (also called FIT allowance) to be charged to all power consumers connected to the grid will be 12.57 centavos per kWh – that is, if developers are able to meet the installation targets and if the US$0.10 (P4.50) per kWh average generation cost will not balloon over the next three years owing to higher fuel prices. On approval, the FIT allowance will be implemented starting 2014, when all the expected renewable energy facilities will have started operations. The NREB chief, however, stressed that the installation targets were not meant to limit the number of renewable energy generating facilities that will be put up or put a cap on the capacities that these can produce.

Another solar park coming up in Thailand

The 12.4 MW solar park in Nakhon Pathom province that Conergy AG is building is the third solar park in Thailand within one year. Together with its local partner Annex Power, a systems integration company, the Germany-based Conergy is constructing a solar park covering an area of 268,500 m2 – equivalent to the size of 25 soccer fields. With this project, the second by Conergy in the price-sensitive Asian market in just three months, the company looks to further strengthen its position in Asia. After the very positive experience with the first solar park built by Conergy, the Ayutthaya solar park, the investors are now commissioning a new power plant that will be more than four times as large as its predecessor.

The new solar park will provide clean solar electricity to more than 7,700 Thai households and avoid 11,500 tonnes per year of carbon dioxide emissions, demonstrating that solar power can provide clean, safe and reliable electricity in a large scale. The project benefits not only from the Conergy System Technology but also from additional services such as the Conergy Output Insurance. “Our unique Output Insurance solution, underwritten by a third party insurance company, covers up to 90 per cent of all yields for up to 10 years,” said Mr. Alexander Lenz, President of Conergy South East Asia & Middle East.

Viet Nam readies wind farm incentives

The Ministry of Industry and Trade of Viet Nam will pass on to the government shortly the draft of a long-awaited policy on incentives for wind farms, according to the Ministry’s Department of Energy. Mr. Le Tan Phong, Vice Director of the Department, stated that the Ministry had already completed consultations with relevant ministries and agencies over the draft policy. Data from the Ministry show there are a total of 21 wind farms in the country.

The development of wind power has been facing difficulties such as unattractive pricing of electricity from wind farms, high start-up investment and long period of investment recovery. The draft incentive policy for wind farms focuses on matters such as power purchase, infrastructure support and wind power price subsidies. Mr. Do Duc Quan, an official from the Energy Department, said the Ministry of Industry and Trade would seek government approval for a wind power selling price of about US$0.08 per kWh. Of this, US$0.07 will be borne by Electricity of Viet Nam Group (EVN) and the remaining US$0.01 subsidized by the state budget, Mr. Quan said.

Potential geothermal sites in Malaysia

In Malaysia, Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) has discovered four important geothermal power generation sites that could produce more than 2 MW of electricity. The research study carried out jointly by two TNB units – Generation Asset Development (GAD) and TNB Research Sdn Bhd – these projects could be fully put into use by 2016. TNB Manager and Engineer for Renewable Energy Ms. Sharina Abdullah said that the company had finished the first stage of feasibility study on geothermal power generation in the four potential sites and obtained 20 per cent level of confidence for the projects. In the second phase of the feasibility study, the company hopes to secure a 60 per cent confidence level by 2012 and 90 per cent by 2013, Ms. Sharina said, and then start drilling activities.

TNB will use steam produced from hot water springs to generate electricity. More than 40 thermal springs exist in Peninsular Malaysia. The Malaysian government intends to increase renewable sources in the country, as “at present, hydro is the only renewable energy source that is economically viable on a large scale,” Ms. Sharina said.

Geothermal energy potential in Indonesia to reach 26,000 MW

Indonesia’s geothermal power potential is expected to reach 26,000 MW, stated Mr. Unggul Priyanto, Deputy Chief for Information Technology, Energy and Materials at the country’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT). The Indonesian government is prioritizing the use and development of geothermal energy in view to its ‘huge potential’. Mr. Priyanto pointed out that despite Indonesia having the world’s largest geothermal deposits, the country had only exploited a small portion of them. According to BPPT, geothermal energy is the most economical when compared with other types of new energy. Mr. Priyanto said that the construction of a geothermal power plant with a capacity of 1 kW would only cost US$2,000.


Honeycomb design could enhance thin-film solar cells

A new honeycomb design could reduce the amount of silicon needed to produce thin-film solar cells and boost efficiency. The design uses a 3D nanostructure to improve the absorption of light into solar cells made from special forms of silicon known as amorphous and micro-crystalline, which can be produced in high yields for low costs. A team from the Swiss firm Oerlikon Solar and the Institute of Physics at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic conducted the research.

Mr. Milan Vanecek, who heads the photovoltaic group at the Institute of Physics, says: “To make amorphous and micro-crystalline silicon cells more stable, they are required to be very thin because of the tight spacing between electrical contacts and the resulting optical absorption is not sufficient.” The team’s new design focuses on optically thick cells that have high absorption even while the distance between the electrodes remains very tight. The cells are created by depositing the silicon on a nanostructured substrate of zinc oxide nanocolumns, or on a honeycomb array of micro- or nano-holes etched onto a transparent conductive oxide layer. The new 3D design relies on the mature absorber deposition of plasma-enhanced chemical vapour deposition, which is a technology already in use for amorphous silicon-based electronics produced for liquid-crystal display. “The potential of these efficiencies is estimated within the range of present multi-crystalline wafer solar cells that dominate solar cell industrial production,” Mr. Vanecek said.

Nano-tuning thin-film solar cells

Researchers in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany – working under the European Union’s Nano to Product (N2P) project coordinated by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology – aim to increase the efficiency and lower the costs of solar cells. They have developed a process that enhances the absorption qualities of solar cells for infrared (IR) light, an important part of sunlight. By removing the nano-structured surface of the wafer on the rear side of the solar cell, using a chemical etching process, it is turned into a “mirror” that reflects the IR rays back into the cell. As the light rays are scattered by the glass, they take a longer path through the silicon cell, thus generating more electrical current. So far, the researchers have been able to increase the efficiency by 30 per cent compared with the efficiency of standard thin-film solar cells.

Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, are working on thin-film solar cells. Though thin-film solar cells have several advantages, their efficiency is about 40 per cent lower than conventional solar cells because they exploit only 7 per cent of the sunlight. To maximize the light trapping effect, they roughen the glass surface of thin-film solar cells, diffusing the incident light. When the light beam travels a long way through the cell, it generates more electrons. A layer of nano-crystals of a transparent conductive oxide is deposited onto the glass, thus roughening the upper surface. “The larger the nano-sized pyramids are, the higher is the diffusion”, states Dr. Sylvain Nicolay from EPFL. The efficiency of thin-film solar cells is thus improved to 10 per cent from 7 per cent. The nano-crystals of conductive oxide were developed at the University of Salford, the United Kingdom. Contact: Ms. Elisabeth Schmid,, iCons srl, Via Moretto da Brescia 22, 20133 Milano, Italy. Tel: +39 (2) 86489285; Fax: + 39 (2) 72002572; E-mail:; Website:

Record efficiency for flexible CIGS solar cells on plastics

At the Laboratory for Thin Film and Photovoltaics of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa), a research team reports a major step forward in the development of a low-cost solar cell that is both highly efficient and easy to manufacture with high throughput. “The new record value for flexible CIGS solar cells of 18.7 per cent nearly closes the ‘efficiency gap’ to solar cells based on polycrystalline silicon (Si) wafers or CIGS thin film cells on glass”, says Dr. Ayodhya N. Tiwari who leads the team. Dr. Tiwari is convinced that flexible, lightweight copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) solar cells with efficiencies comparable to the “best-in-class” will have excellent potential to enable low-cost solar electricity in the near future.

Working closely with scientists at FLISOM, a start-up company that is scaling up and commercializing the technology in Switzerland, the Empa team made significant progress in low-temperature growth of CIGS layers yielding flexible CIGS cells that are 18.7 per cent efficient – a new “high score for any type of flexible solar cell grown on polymer or metal foil. The latest advance in cell efficiency was made possible through a reduction in recombination losses by improving the structural properties of the CIGS layer and the proprietary low-temperature deposition process for growing the layers as well as in situ final-stage doping with sodium.

These results have also proved for the first time that polymer films can be superior to metal foils as a carrier substrate for achieving highest efficiency. Record efficiencies of up to 17.5 per cent on steel foils covered with impurity diffusion barriers were so far achieved with CIGS growth processes at temperatures that exceed 550°C. However, when applied to steel foil without a diffusion barrier, the low-temperature CIGS deposition process that was developed by Empa and FLISOM for polymer films matched the performance achieved with high-temperature procedure, resulting in 17.7 per cent efficiency. Contact: Dr. Ayodhya N. Tiwari, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology – Empa, Überlandstrasse 129, CH-8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland. Tel: +41 (587) 654 130; E-mail:

Researchers to set solar panel efficiency record at 95 per cent

Mr. Patrick Pinhero, a chemical engineer at the University of Missouri, the United States, claims that his solar panels are way better than those currently on the market and are up to 95 per cent efficient. The highest rate of collection of sunlight that the existing photovoltaic (PV) panels can do at present is 20 per cent. Mr. Pinhero started from the premise that the sunlight spectrum is much wider, including the near-infrared (NIR) region. He created a device that incorporates a sheet of small antennas, the sole purpose of which is to harvest as much solar energy as possible. The technology is already being used in the industrial field, where it can take in the heat and give out electricity. The technology is said to complement conventional PV solar panels instead of starting something new. The new antenna device, called a rectenna, could be coupled with any conventional PV cell to increase the efficiency of the combined device.

Such antenna was first developed at the Idaho National Laboratory, the United States, by a research team that included Mr. Pinhero. But there was initially could not slow down the oscillations – trillions of times per second – to a usable level. Recently, the team was successful in developing a new technology, called geometric diodes, which overcomes such difficulties. Geometric diodes are tiny arrowhead-shaped devices that allow electric charge carriers to move more freely in one direction than the other.

New 3D technology boosts PV efficiency by 80 per cent

A novel 3D nanocone-based solar cell platform has allowed a team of scientists in the United States to boost the light-to-power conversion efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) cells by nearly 80 per cent. Led by Mr. Jun Xu at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the team discovered the technology substantially overcomes the problem of poor transport of charges generated by solar photons. These charges, negative electrons and positive holes, typically become trapped by defects in bulk materials and their interfaces and degrade performance.

The new solar structure consists of n-type nanocones surrounded by a p-type semiconductor. The n-type nanocones are made of zinc oxide and serve as a junction framework and electron conductor. The p-type matrix is made of polycrystalline cadmium telluride and serves as a primary photon absorber medium and hole conductor. Using this approach at the laboratory scale, Mr. Xu and co-researchers were able to obtain a light-to-power conversion efficiency of 3.2 per cent, as compared with the 1.8 per cent efficiency typical of conventional planar structure with the same materials.

“We designed the 3D structure to provide an intrinsic electric field distribution that promotes efficient charge transport and high efficiency in converting energy from sunlight into electricity,” Mr. Xu said. Key characteristics of the solar material include its unique electric field distribution that achieves an efficient charge transport, the synthesis of nanocones using inexpensive proprietary methods, and the minimization of defects in semiconductors. The low level of defects provides enhanced electrical and optical properties for conversion of solar photons to electricity. Because of efficient charge transport, the new solar cell is able to tolerate defective materials and reduce cost in fabricating next-generation solar cells.

Liquid phase deposition used for textured solar cells

Scientists of Natcore Technology Inc., the United States, have shown that Natcore’s liquid phase deposition (LPD) process can be used to apply an antireflective (AR) coating to textured solar cells as well as standard planar cells, thus opening the door for the industry to achieve even further wafer thickness reductions by completely eliminating the thermal vacuum AR coating process. The work was conducted by Natcore researchers at Ohio State University, Columbus. The conventional AR coating process requires the cells to travel through a vacuum furnace. As the wafers get thinner and thinner, the AR coating process causes them to warp, reducing the yield from the production process.

Optimum reflectance – the proportion of light striking a surface that is reflected from it – for solar cells is zero. However, a typical industry reflectance is around 6 per cent. Measurements made at the Glenn Research Centre of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) show that the texturized wafers coated with Natcore’s LPD AR coating has a reflectance that is below 2 per cent over the entire absorption band of silicon solar cells. This is two-thirds reduction from the reflectance achieved by current standard industry practices, besides the increase shown in cell efficiency. Contact: Natcore Technology Inc., 87 Maple Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey, NJ 07701, United States of America. Tel: +1 (732) 576 8800; Fax: +1 (732) 224 3692; E-mail:; Website:

Quantum dots boost solar cell efficiency

For the past few years, researchers have been using quantum dots to raise the levels of light absorption and overall efficiency of solar cells. In the United States, scientists from the United States Army Research Laboratory, University of Buffalo and Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Directorate of Physics and Electronics (AFOSR/NE) have demonstrated that quantum dots with built-in electric charge can increase the efficiency of indium monoarsenide (InAs)/gallium arsenide (GaAs) solar cells by 50 per cent or more.

The researchers investigated heterostructure solar cells with InAs/GaAs quantum dots. As photovoltaic (PV) materials, quantum dots allow infrared radiation to be harvested for conversion into electric energy. However, quantum dots also enhance the recombination of photocarriers and thus decrease photocurrent. For this reason, up to now, PV efficiency improvement due to quantum dots has been limited by several per cent.

The researchers have proposed to charge quantum dots by employing selective interdot doping. In experiments, they compared doping levels of 2, 3 and 6 additional electrons per quantum dot, resulting in PV efficiency increases of 4.5 per cent, 30 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively, compared with undoped solar cells. For the 6-electron doping level, the 50 per cent increase corresponds to an overall efficiency increase from 9.3 per cent (for undoped solar cells) to 14 per cent. The researchers plan to study further how these effects influence each other at higher doping levels. They predict that further increasing the doping level and radiation intensity will lead to an even stronger efficiency enhancement, since there was no evidence of saturation.


Floating wind power generation system

In Japan, researchers are studying a wind power generation system that generates electricity in a jet stream at a high altitude. The system involves a wind turbine and transmission wires lifted into the sky like a balloon with the help of helium gas. At altitudes of 300-1,000 m above the ground, wind blows steadily at about 50 m/s, offering good potential for a stable supply of electricity with minimal fluctuations in the output.

The study is being conducted by Mr. Ken Nagasaka, an associate professor with the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. As part of it, Mr. Nagasaka plans to float a 1 kW wind turbine at 20-30 m above the ground by March 2012, and then float a 100 kW turbine at an altitude with jet stream winds in three to five years. He aims to eventually develop systems with several hundred kilowatts capacities. Such a system will be rid of disadvantages related to grounded wind turbines, such as limited availability of suitable sites and heavy strain on the power grid due to large fluctuations in output affected by varying wind conditions.

Omni-directional wind turbine for building rooftops

Katru Eco-Energy, Australia, has introduced a new kind of wind turbine meant to capture the winds atop big buildings. Unlike conventional wind power devices, the IMPLUX, as it is called, can capture wind from any direction, without having to be repositioned or pointed. The IMPLUX achieves this by means of horizontal turbine blades fitted atop a vertical axis and are turned by wind that is pushed up through what the company’s founder-inventor Mr. Varan Sureshan calls as a “fluid dynamic gate”.

The IMPLUX, recently field-tested in Singapore, has a central chamber specially designed to capture wind as it comes from any direction and then propel it upwards towards the turbine, accelerating it and without allowing any of it to escape. The device is considered to be a vertical wind generator as its main rotor shaft is arranged vertically; while it is not the first to incorporate such technology, it is unique in that it has horizontal blades, and because it is likely the first to have been tested by Honda Formula 1’s racing team to validate its unique ability to capture wind and hold onto it, rather than letting any escape out the opposite side. IMPLUX is much quieter than most other turbines and does not harm birds.

Power rack for wind turbine systems

Parker Hannifin Corp., a motion and control technology company based in the United States, has unveiled a precision-cooled rack for critical wind turbine systems. The product features Parker’s patented and proven two-phase evaporative cooling technology that uses non-corrosive, non-conductive fluid, as it vaporizes and cools hot surfaces on contact. Parker’s precision-cooled rack solution can be used to cool critical wind turbine systems – including power conversion electronics, generator and gear box – and offers a smaller, lighter footprint than racks that use alternative thermal management.

The dual-phase liquid cooling process continuously cycles refrigerant within a sealed, closed-loop system to cool a wide range of wind power systems. A small pump is used to deliver just enough coolant to the evaporator – usually a series of one or more cold plates optimized to acquire heat from the device(s). In so doing, the coolant begins to vaporize, maintaining a cool uniform temperature on the surface of the device. The coolant is then pumped to a heat exchanger where it rejects the heat to the ambient and condenses back into a liquid, completing the cycle. Contact: Mr. Dale Thompson, Global Business Development, Parker Hannifin Corp., 10801 Rose Avenue, New Haven, Indiana 46774, United States of America. Tel: +1 (260) 2555 108; Fax: +1 (866) 8510 660; E-mail:

Wind generator for households

Southwest Windpower, the United States, manufactures more than 15,000 wind generators annually. Recently, the company has developed its most efficient, affordable and user-friendly, household-level wind turbine, Skystream 600, said to be the first fully smart and the most efficient grid-connected wind turbine in its class. Skystream 600 provides an average of 7,400 kWh of clean, low-cost energy per year in average wind speeds of 12 mph. Depending on the wind resource, location and energy efficiency, a Skystream 600 wind turbine could provide up to 60 per cent of an average home’s energy requirements.

While the cost of this new turbine is near to other industry turbines, it is said to outstrip others in energy production, making the Skystream 600 more cost-effective. The turbine boasts a sleek design and features efficient, durable components, providing users with low-cost, reliable energy production. Skystream wind turbine’s components have been developed with quality materials that make the system robust, efficient and affordable. Its nacelle, blade hub, face and inverter castings are manufactured using aluminium die castings and permanent mould castings. This will make the components less costly and weigh less as well.

The inverter/controller is made up of power electronic components. The new inverter design includes dual micro-processors, allowing the inverter to react quicker to changes in wind speed in order to maximize energy yield. Skystream’s rotor is made from fibreglass. Its new efficiencies come from the shape of the airfoil and the actual process of the rotor fabrication. While the typical efficiency of an airfoil for small wind is in the 20 per cent range, the airfoil selected for the Skystream 600 has 36 per cent efficiency. Contact: Southwest Windpower Inc., 1801 W. Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, United States of America. Tel: +1 (928) 779 9463; E-mail:; Website:

3 MW wind turbine

HybridDrive from Fuhrlander Aktien-gesellschaft, Germany, is a 3 MW wind turbine series that combines a two-stage planetary gearbox and a synchronous generator (medium-speed) in one unit. The unit is supplemented by a frequency converter. Model FL 3000 wind turbine uses the same drive train concept as the proven FL 2500, and sports a rotor diameter of 120 m. It is suitable for use up to wind class IEC 2a. The first prototype of the wind turbine is expected to be out within a year. FL 3000 wind turbine is the result of Fuhrlander’s cooperation with two other German companies, W2E Wind to Energy GmbH and Winergy AG. Contact: Fuhrlander Aktienge-sellschaft, Graf-Zeppelin-Str. 11, 56479 Liebenscheid, Germany. Tel: +49 (26) 6499 660; Fax: +49 (26) 6499 6633.

Placement yields tenfold increase in wind turbine power

The power output of wind farms can be increased by at least tenfold just by optimizing the placement of turbines on a given plot of land, say researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the United States, who have been conducting a unique field study at an experimental two-acre wind farm in northern Los Angeles County. Prof. John Dabiri’s experimental farm, known as the Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE), accommodates 24 units of 1.2 m wide and 10 m tall vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs).

Prof. Dabiri noted that wind farms are rather inefficient despite design improvements of wind turbines that have increased their efficiency. Such farms generally employ horizontal-axis wind turbines (HAWTs), which have to be spaced far apart so that their giant blades don’t touch. With such placement, the wake created by one turbine can interfere aerodynamically with adjacent turbines, resulting in much of the wind energy that enters a wind farm going untapped, says Dabiri. Designers try to compensate for the energy loss by making bigger blades and taller towers, to tap more of the available wind and at heights where gusts are more powerful, bringing other challenges such as higher costs, more complex engineering problems and larger environmental impact.

The solution, says Prof. Dabiri, is to focus instead on the design of the wind farm itself, to maximize its energy-collecting efficiency closer to the ground. While winds blow far less energetically at, say, 30 ft off the ground than at 100 ft, “the global wind power available 30 ft off the ground is greater than the world’s electricity usage, several times over,” he says. VAWTs are ideal because they can be positioned very close to one another to capture nearly all of the energy of the blowing wind. Having every turbine turn in the opposite direction of its neighbours, the researchers found, increases their efficiency. Field tests showed that if all of the turbines in an array were kept four turbine diameters apart (about 5 m) fully eliminated the aerodynamic interference. By comparison, a spacing of removing the aerodynamic interference between largest HAWTs would require a spacing of more than 1.6 km.


Green energy from beneath the waves

In the United States, Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has been testing its turbines mounted on the seafloor, where they slowly spin in the current, out of sight and under the hulls of passing vessels. ORPC power systems are designed around its proprietary Turbine Generator Unit (TGU). TGU works on the same principle as a wind turbine – rotating foils that power a central permanent magnet generator. But since it is installed underwater, and water is 800 times denser than air, the TGUs provide significantly more power than wind turbines even at relatively low water current speeds.

ORPC, whose devices have met or exceeded expectations, plans to deploy a full-scale 150 kW unit off Eastport later this year, intending it to become the first tidal device to be connected to a United States’ electrical grid. It has already announced plans to deploy a second unit across the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, in 2012. The systems will consist of stackable power units tethered to the ocean floor, and both projects are to add additional units by 2015 to a total more than 5 MW – enough to power 4,000 homes.

Low-cost tidal device

Low-cost tidal energy could be at hand if testing of a device developed by Nautricity, a spin-out company of Strathclyde University, the United Kingdom, is successful. Nautricity is testing its CoRMaT tidal device in the open waters with the aim of deploying commercial devices by 2014. The award-winning second generation device is based on a rotor system and is suitable for deployment at a wide range of depths. Its innovative design gives the device not only flexibility on where it can be sited but also “a step change” in the capital costs of marine energy. The design of the CoRMaT means it is smaller and simpler to deploy, with the potential for a number of units being placed in the water. The CoRMaT turbine has two contra-rotating rotors that drive a ‘flooded’ generator, without a gearbox. The system can be ‘moored’, meaning that it can be deployed at depths ranging between 8 m and 500 m.

Offshore renewable energy storage

Canadian company Thin Red Line Aerospace is testing Energy Bag, which will see a prototype of the device anchored to the seabed off the coast of Scotland as part of a renewable energy research project led by Prof. Seamus Garvey from University of Nottingham, the United Kingdom. Energy Bag is a structure specifically designed and built for undersea compressed air energy storage (CAES). Wind turbines fill the Energy Bag with compressed air, which can later drive electricity generators on demand.

The technology addresses two key issues with renewable energy – that the sources and energy demand are both highly variable, and that electricity can’t be stored economically on large scale. Energy Bag, which is particularly suited to countries with relatively deep water near the coast, can be anchored at a depth of about 600 m. The pressure at this depth ensures high energy storage density, constant pressure as well as compatibility with existing turbine technology. Thin Red Line reports to have performed concept development for containment volumes of up to 6,000 m3.

Testing of wave energy converter

In the United Kingdom, Offshore Wave Energy Ltd. (OWEL) has received the go ahead to develop a wave energy converter demonstrator and is now engaged in an equity funding round to commercialize the business. A pre-commercial demonstration unit to be tested at sea is now entering the design and build phase. The project team will build and test a marine demonstrator, 42 m long and with a target rating of 500 kW at the Wave Hub facility off the north coast of Cornwall. A similar commercial wave power device deployed in open seas will have a rating of 1 MW.

The OWEL floating wave energy device is designed to take advantage of the high energy density of deep water ocean waves. Subsequent machines will be built as platforms made up of adjacent ducts that are moored to the seabed and open to incoming waves at one end. The waves will repeatedly compress air trapped within the ducts, and the compressed air is directed to drive turbines to generate electricity. The advantage of OWEL’s wave power device design is its simplicity and robustness. It has few moving parts, none of which are in the water. The device is being developed by OWEL in conjunction with IT Power, also from the United Kingdom.


Inexpensive catalyst fuels cheaper hydrogen fuel cells

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the United States, have found a way to avoid the use of expensive platinum in hydrogen fuel cells. The researchers have developed catalysts that use carbon and inexpensive iron and cobalt instead of platinum for the part of the fuel cell that reacts with oxygen. Eliminating the precious metal platinum solves an economic challenge that thwarted widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell systems. The Los Alamos team of Mr. Gang Wu, Ms. Christina Johnston and Mr. Piotr Zelenay, along with researcher Ms. Karren More of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, found that fuel cells with the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst not only generated currents comparable to the output of platinum catalyst fuel cells but also held up favourably when cycled on and off, which can quickly damage inferior catalysts.

Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, with only water as a waste product. The carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst fuel cells effectively completed the conversion of hydrogen and oxygen into water, rather than producing large amounts of undesirable hydrogen peroxide. Inefficient conversion of fuels (i.e. which generate hydrogen peroxide) can reduce power output by up to 50 per cent and also can destroy fuel cell membranes. The new catalyst showed high power output, good efficiency and promising longevity. The next research step would be to better understand the mechanism underlying the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst. Micrographic images of portions of the catalyst by Ms. More have provided some insight into how it functions, though further work is needed to confirm the theories.

Solid oxide fuel cell in macro scale

Scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the United States, have developed the first macro-scale thin-film solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC), potentially serving as a new source of clean energy. The small size of existing thin films – membranes that must allow ions to pass through – limits their output. After four years of research, the SEAS team developed a method to build the miniscule membranes of the cell without sacrificing power performance. Mr. Shriram Ramanathan, Principal investigator and an associate professor of materials sciences, stated that the new SOFCs could help distribute energy and potentially serve as portable energy. The team must now determine where their SOFC is best applicable.

Critical insights into microbial fuel cells

In the United States, researchers at the Biodesign Institute are using the tiniest organisms on the planet – bacteria – as a viable option to make electricity. In a new study, Mr. Andrew K. Marcus, Mr. Cesar Torres and Mr. Bruce Rittmann have gained critical insights that may lead to the commercialization of a promising microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology. “We can use any kind of waste, such as sewage or pig manure, and the microbial fuel cell will generate electrical energy,” said Mr. Marcus, a civil and environmental engineering graduate student and a member of the institute’s Centre for Environmental Biotechnology.

“We knew that the MFC process is relatively stable, but one of the biggest questions is: How do the bacteria get the electrons to the anode?” said Mr. Marcus. The bacteria at the anode breathe the anode, much like people breathe air, by transferring electrons to the anode. As bacteria use the anode in their metabolism, they position themselves strategically on the anode surface to form a bacterial community called a biofilm. Bacteria in the biofilm produce a matrix of material so that they stick to the anode. The gummy biofilm matrix is made up of a complex of extracellular proteins, sugars and bacterial cells. The matrix also has been shown to contain tiny conductive nanowires that may facilitate electron conduction. The treatment of the biofilm matrix as a conductor allowed the team to describe the transport of electrons driven by the gradient in the electrical potential. The relationship between the biofilm matrix and the anode could now be described by the Ohm’s law, a standard equation for an electrical circuit.

The concept of the “biofilm anode” allowed the research team to describe the transport of electrons from bacteria to the electrode and the electrical potential gradient. The importance of electrical potential is well known in a traditional fuel cell, but its relevance to bacterial metabolism has been less clear. The next important concept the team had to develop was to understand the response of bacteria to the electrical potential within the biofilm matrix. The researchers could now think of the electrical potential, the increase of which increases rate of bacterial metabolism at the anode, as equivalent to the electron concentration, and electrons are what the bacteria transfer to the anode. Equipped with this key insight, the team worked out a new model, the Nernst-Monod equation, to describe the bacterial metabolism rate in response to the electrical potential. In this model, three crucial variables control an MFC: the amount of waste material (fuel), the biomass accumulation on the anode and the electrical potential in the biofilm anode. The third factor is a totally novel concept in MFC research.

Method developed to hunt for fuel cell catalysts

A key challenge for developing next-generation fuel cells is developing catalysts that are inexpensive and longer-lasting alternatives to those based on platinum. Binary and ternary compounds are under scanner for alternative catalyst materials, but the variety of these compounds is almost infinite. To make the issue more tractable, researchers at the Energy Materials Centre at Cornell (EMC2) , the United States, have developed a new technique to screen thousands of potential catalyst materials in parallel.

The approach begins with the fabrication of a “composition spread” thin film, on which the composition ratios of different elements varies continuously across a substrate – typically a 4-inch silicon wafer. Next, spectroscopic techniques are used to identify regions of the film with strong catalytic activity. Finally, the composition and structure of those regions must be identified. For this final step, EMC2 has joined forces with the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) to quickly and efficiently characterize the composition spread thin films. The high-throughput technique combines high-energy diffraction with X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to obtain the structure, texture, composition and thickness for each area of the film. The researchers have developed algorithms to process datasets that include complex features unique to thin films and alloys. The group has applied the technique to a variety of intermetallic systems.

In the case of platinum-tantalum alloy (PtxTa1-x), the researchers noted a substantial improvement in catalytic activity for methanol oxidation, which they attributed to interactions at the surface between platinum and partially reduced tantalum oxide (TaOy3). The researchers have also applied the technique to a variety of precious/transition-metal carbide systems, getting surprising results with important implications for fuel cell fabrication. In particular, the solubility of precious metals in a carbon-deficient tungsten carbide phase has important implications for fuel cell electrode fabrication and suggests that investigation of new ternary carbide alloys as fuel cell catalysts are a fruitful direction for future research. Contact: Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, 200L Wilson Lab, Rte 366 & Pine Tree Road, Ithaca, New York, NY 14853, United States of America.

Opening up boranes to power fuel cells

Following the development of a new ruthenium-based catalyst by chemists in the United States, hydrogen-rich ammonia borane could be one step closer to becoming a practical source of hydrogen for fuel cells. The catalyst developed at the University of Southern California by Mr. Brian Conley, Mr. Denver Guess and Mr. Travis Williams can dehydrogenate ammonia borane at mild temperatures, to yield the largest quantity of hydrogen produced by any dehydrogenating catalyst to date. The catalyst is stable in air and can be re-used for multiple cycles.

Ammonia borane or AB (H3NBH3) is a stable solid at room temperature and consists of almost 20 per cent by weight of hydrogen. Extracting that hydrogen for use in fuel cells is, however, not easy. Heating to above 100°C releases hydrogen, but is not energy efficient. It can be hydrolysed by water, but this produces ammonia that can poison fuel cells and a residue with strong boron-oxygen bonds that is difficult to regenerate into AB. The dehydrogenation of AB using catalysts has been demonstrated, but these are unstable in air and are not reusable.

The novel catalyst – which has a ruthenium centre coupled to boron – can yield around 4.5 per cent by weight of hydrogen. While one of the products is the cyclic compound borazine – a fuel cell poison – this spontaneously polymerises to a gummy residue, polyborazylene, which not harmful to hydrogen fuel cells. “We take a small amount of solvent and mix it with the catalyst and ammonia borane to something with the consistency of oatmeal,” says Mr. Williams. When heated to 70°C, the mixture yields hydrogen, leaving a white residue that sticks to the side of the flask. More ammonia borane could be added to repeat the reaction until the whole flask is full of the residue. Mr. Williams adds that this is the highest weight content dehydrogenation of AB and with a re-usable catalyst.


New solar hydrogen production method

A hydrogen fuel production process under development at University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), the United States, has been evaluated by the United States Department of Energy and deemed to be the best in terms of output quantity and cost efficiency. Prof. Alan Weimer and his team produced hydrogen from sunlight, using an array of mirrors and a solar receiver, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The process does not produce greenhouse gas emissions – made possible because of the method’s requirement for lower temperatures, faster reactions, less energy and fewer active materials. Prof. Weimer’s method can also be used to purify somewhat salty water into potable water.

Revolutionary hydrogen conversion system

H2 Pure Power, the United States, has developed the means to covert any combustion engine into a hydrogen hybrid – creating the clean burning gas and mixing it into the fuel as the vehicle is driven. The new technology is claimed to increase the efficiency of cars and trucks by 30-50 per cent while lowering their greenhouse footprint and boosting power output. “We’re not replacing the fuel; we are just supplementing the fuel to make it highly efficient,” stated Dr. Mary Meadows, CEO of H2 Pure Power.

Hercules Hydrogen System that the company manufactures is a device the size of a car battery installed in the engine compartment. It uses a proprietary electrolysis apparatus to produce hydrogen from distilled water. The gas is mixed with the fuel and burned, increasing power and efficiency. H2 Pure Power utilizes a nano-coating plating process that changes the surface chemistry of the plates to produce higher quantities of hydrogen than comparable oxyhydrogen (HHO) systems. The electrolysis plates are hardened to last long. Consequently, the system uses significantly thinner and hence many more plates, increasing the surface area 20 times over comparable hydrogen systems. Further, the nano-coated plates require less power to produce hydrogen-oxygen mixture, resulting in the more efficiency and better performance.

Cheaper catalyst for hydrogen fuel production

Researchers at Stanford University, the United States, and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) are bringing the green-powered world one step closer to reality. Up to this point, scientists have encountered a hurdle in the production of clean hydrogen fuel: the lack of abundant but cheap catalysts to facilitate the generation of hydrogen (and oxygen). Recent findings by Stanford chemical engineering professor Mr. Jens Nørskov and his peers may effectively overcome this hurdle.

The concept of imitating plant photo synthesis in fuel production is not new. One procedure uses a platinum catalyst in conjunction with a light-absorbing electrode to produce hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water. However, platinum is expensive and scarce. A better option is molybdenum sulphide (MoS2), a cheap and abundant natural catalyst, according to Mr. Nørskov. He and his peers hope to further develop a procedure called photo-electrochemical (PEC) water splitting. In this process, sunlight strikes PEC cells and this absorbed energy is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

DTU researchers have developed a device that harvests energy from sunlight – energy that is later used to power the conversion of single hydrogen ions into hydrogen gas. This latter process required a catalyst, and Mr. Nørskov and his team at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SLAC) National Accelerator Laboratory were called on for help. The Stanford team had developed a theoretical method to examine the electronic structure of catalyst materials to assess their properties. They used this to identify molybdenum sulphide as an inexpensive yet effective catalyst.


Search for fuel of the green future

In eastern Spain, in a forest of tubes 8 m high, scientists hope they have found the fuel of tomorrow: bio-oil produced with algae using carbon dioxide (CO2) purged from a factory. Almost 400 of the giant tubes, filled with millions of microscopic algae, cover a plain near Alicante city, next to a cement works from which the CO2 is captured and transported via a pipeline to the “blue petroleum” pilot plant. The project, which is still experimental, has been developed over the past five years by Spanish and French researchers at Bio Fuel Systems (BFS).

The microalgae reproduce at high speed in the tubes through photosynthesis, using the CO2 released from the cement factory. Every day some of this highly concentrated liquid is extracted and filtered to produce a biomass that is turned into bio-oil. For every hectare of bioreactors installed, BFS obtains a daily production of 5-10 barrels of 159 litres each. The other great advantage of the system is that it is a depollutant – it absorbs the CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. For each barrel of Blue Petroleum BFS, 2,168 kg of anthropic CO2 are used, of which 938 kg will never return to the atmosphere even though the fuel is refined as gasoline, then used by a motor.

New biofuel from lignocellulose

Prof. Thomas Maschmeyer at the University of Sydney, Australia, is behind cutting-edge research that could fuel the aviation industry from sustainable energy sources in the not too distant future. The process that Prof. Maschmeyer developed uses lignocellulosic feedstocks – sourced from existing processes in the pulp and paper industry or from grass cuttings. The process, developed in cooperation with Ignite Energy Resources, Australia, will make use of a research processing plant located on University of Sydney campus.

The new process retains four times more energy in the biocrude than is retained in bioethanol, explained Prof. Maschmeyer. Although optimistic that the technology will be a boon for the aviation industry – which faces a significant squeeze from predicted oil price escalation in the next few years – he says the need for large quantities of biomass will require some innovative thinking. “If we were to change all of the aviation fuels into renewable fuels, based on our process... we would need about 10 per cent of the world’s current agriculture production,” said Prof. Maschmeyer. “That is a large number, but I can imagine that to be possible via maybe macroalgae – going offshore, into salt water, not competing with current land use, not competing with fresh water,” he added.

Biodiesel process expands applications

Benefuel Inc., the United States, has a patented catalytic process for refining renewable feedstocks into high-margin products, including fuel, oleochemicals and biodegradable lubricants – a combined global market estimated at over US$100 billion. Benefuel’s ENSEL™ process uses a solid-catalyst technology that was developed at the National Chemical Laboratory in India. The biodiesel catalyst is claimed to convert most vegetable oils, animal fats or waste cooking oils directly into fatty acid methyl ester, without the need for costly pre- or post-process water washing. The ENSEL process that uses these catalysts also produces a high-purity glycerine co-product. The purity of the glycerine permits its direct conversion into other commercially attractive chemicals or to pharmaceutical-grade glycerine. The catalysts can also be used with long-chain alcohols to produce premium biolubricant base oils. Benefuel’s unique dual-metal catalyst (DMC) is reported to solve the problems of reactant waste and glycerine contamination. The catalyst is not consumed during transesterification, thus eliminating the need for fuel washing.

The biodiesel process can be applied in locations with limited or no water supply. The technology is a combination of solid catalysts with a continuous fixed-bed reactor process. Benefits include:

  • Ability to process the broadest range of feedstocks;
  • Fuel washing or caustic removal not required;
  • Glycerine purity of 98+ per cent;
  • Modular, portable and rapidly deployable; and
  • Continuous in-line testing and remote management.

Contact: Benefuel Inc., 8770 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Suite 1300, Chicago, IL, 60631 3515, United States of America. Tel: +1 (773) 5095 000; Fax: +1 (773) 6817 126; E-mail:

Supercritical process for biodiesel still holds promise

When BioFuelBox designed, built and ran a biodiesel facility in Idaho, the United States, based on the principles of supercritical process, a new beginning in biodiesel production methods with alternative feedstocks was set. Unfortunately, that did not guarantee economic prosperity for the company and today, BioFuelBox is no more. “It was a big accomplishment to have scaled supercritical beyond the lab bench,” said Ms. Christina Borgese, former Senior Engineer at BioFuelBox. She is now President and Senior Engineer of PreProcess Inc., which she co-founded with Mr. Marc Privitera, who was also with BioFuelBox. Mr. Randy Weinstein, Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Director of Sustainable Engineering Programme at Villanova University, the United States, says supercritical fluid has a bad name. He says it scares people because they equate it with nuclear reactors. The process is complex, but nothing close to nuclear levels, he attests.

Ms. Borgese avers that the supercritical method can process feedstock with 85 per cent and higher free fatty acid (FFA) content and, in doing so, can tap into otherwise untouchable feedstocks that might otherwise be land-filled. While BioFuelBox did not make it, the project showed the industry something very important about supercritical technology. As Ms. Borgese puts it, the reaction technology works and it is just a matter of getting feedstock. If the industry were to expand, then supercritical might be the process used in future plants based on its feedstock flexibility aspects, says Mr. Michael Popp, an economist with the University of Arkansas, the United States, who examined the economic issues associated with continuous supercritical biodiesel production.

“Supercritical is not something that you just do in your backyard,” Ms. Borgese says. “When you are dealing with methanol at a supercritical fluid state and the let-down of the temperature and pressure, you have to have all of your purge systems in place...someone just has to do it right,” she adds. Mr. Bevan Dooley, Managing Director of InProTek, an Australia-based engineering firm that has created a supercritical system of its own, concurs and speaks of the “intrinsic safety measures” required. The InProTek system is not yet ready; but developments in this technology sector indicate that more could be on the way in the coming days.

A novel enzymatic catalyst for biodiesel production

A research team in France has facilitated the continuous production of biodiesel by developing a new catalyst. Researchers at the Centre de Recherches Paul Pascal (CRPP) of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) collaborated with their counterparts at two other CNRS units – Institut des Sciences Moléculaires of Université Bordeaux 1 and the Laboratoire de Chimie de la Matière Condensée in Paris – in the work to develop a catalyst that would help increase yield and thus facilitate continuous production of biofuel.

Biofuels such as biodiesel is processed from oils of oleaginous plants such as oilseed rape, palm, sunflower and soybeans. They result from a chemical reaction, catalysed in either an acidic or preferably a basic medium, between a vegetable oil (90 per cent) and an alcohol (10 per cent). This transesterification reaction converts the mixture into a methyl ester (the main constituent of biodiesel) and glycerol. A saponification side reaction (methyl ester conversion into the corresponding acid salt), however, lowers methyl ester yield. To increase the yield, the researchers looked to develop alternative catalysts.

Certain enzymatic catalysts such as those belonging to the family of lipases (triglyceride hydrolases) are particularly efficient and selective for this type of reaction. However, their high cost and low stability had restricted their industrial use. In an earlier study, the research team had succeeded in confining the catalysts irreversibly in modified silica-based cellular matrices, ensuring good accessibility and enhanced mass transport. They also showed that unpurified enzymes could be used in the matrices – a first step to significantly reducing the cost of biocatalysts. The researchers have now developed a method to generate the cellular hybrid biocatalyst in situ in a chromotography column. This approach makes it possible to carry out continuous, unidirectional flow synthesis over lengthy periods, since catalytic activity and ethyl ester production are maintained at high and practically steady levels during a two-month period of time. These results are among the best ever obtained in this field.


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