Desert + Salt Water = Jet Fuel

Masdar, the United Arab Emirate’s clean energy development program, is hosting Solar Impulse as it prepares for its around-the-world flight.  Beyond that, Masdar comprises five business units: Masdar Capital, Masdar Clean Energy, Special Projects, Masdar City and Free Zone, and Masdar Institute, “an independent, research-driven graduate university.

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is a multi-faceted research center, which although small at this time, seems to be fairly prodigious in the output of patents, patents pending and academic papers.

Diagram shows inter-relationships of all components of ISEAS (Integrated Seawater Energy & Agriculture System) system

Diagram shows inter-relationships of all components of ISEAS (Integrated Seawater Energy & Agriculture System) system

The Institute heads a program to use “coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilizes oil-rich halophyte plants that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production.”  Halophytes, as those who’ve listened to or read Dennis Bushnell’s comments will know, thrive in harsh conditions including a diet of saltwater.

Working with a consortium including Masdar, Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP, and later joined by aerospace companies Safran and GE, Masdar Institute’s initial laboratory-scale demonstrations could become a major contributor to independence from fossil fuels.

Masdar CEO Dr Ahmad Belhoul reflects on the implications for producing food and fuel in water and arable land constrained regions. “Considering that about 20-percent of the world’s land is desert and 97-percent of the world’s water is salt water, this approach turns a land and water resource scarcity problem on its head by creating a bioenergy solution applicable in countries around the globe.”

According to Masdar, “Halophyte plants thrive in arid desert conditions and do not require fresh water or arable land to grow. After the fertilisation process, the effluent is passed through cultivated mangroves before being discharged back into the sea, further removing nutrients and providing valuable carbon storage.”

The Sustainable Biofuels Research Consortium (SBRC) says the pilot project’s goal will be to, “demonstrate the integrated bioenergy process as a commercially viable and sustainable system with respect to essential  food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up.”

After beginning with only the small-scale growing of small amounts of seed samples (collected from Texas) Linden Coppell, Head of Sustainability at Etihad Airways, explains the coming attempt to scale the process to larger dimensions. “This is a big step – actually replicating the entire Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (ISEAS) in ‘pilot’ scale – with all the elements of the system allowing us, for example, to manipulate it with varying salt and nutrient levels. This will allow us to more confidently scale up to the 200-hectare site we have assigned in a couple of years.”

Barbara Bramble, Chair of the international standards body Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), praises the effort.  “The Masdar Institute research is truly game-changing for large-scale biofuel production.  This project puts the UAE at the forefront of a global movement to create sustainable alternative fuels that support – not compete with – food production and fresh water conservation.”

The fuel produced is also better than those being produced as the search for usable oil supplies becomes more difficult and costly.  Darrin L. Morgan, Director Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at Boeing, says that researchers discovered that the biofuels that are now approved for use in aircraft are technically superior to kerosene jet fuel. “There is no question about that,” says Morgan.  While that was a surprise, another came in his assertion that the quality of oil coming into the market from unconventional sources such as shale or tar sands products is poorer.

Announced during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the project seems well suited to be presented during the included World Future Energy Summit and International Water Summit.  It’s also another highlight of a week that featured Masdar’s solar energy and an airplane that will fly on no fossil fuels at all on its grand trip around the world.


Bulletproof Batteries?

Researchers announce that a “New battery technology from the University of Michigan should be able to prevent the kind of fires that grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners in 2013.”  The use of the word “should” is instructive, since scientist usually couch such announcements in more guarded terms.

Battery separator materials are usually not the glamorous part of cell development, most headlines given to electrode and electrolyte breakthroughs.  Kevlar may be a way, within batteries, of preventing a breakthrough.  Nanofibers extracted from Kevlar, that impenetrable material in bullet-proof vests, “stifles the growth of metal tendrils that can become unwanted pathways for electrical current,” according to a University of Michigan report.

Separator material stands between layers of other battery materials and ideally allows the passage of ions between electrodes in the battery.  As the researchers report, “The innovation is an advanced barrier between the electrodes in a lithium-ion battery.”  The nanofiber material has openings large enough to allow transfer of ions between anode and cathode, but openings small enough to block dendrites which grow like stalagtites or stalagmites in caves.  Once these dendrites from one electrode touch the other electrode, that part of the battery is essentially shorted out.  Enough dendrites poking through eliminate any useful work that might otherwise be produced.

Dendrites, separator material

Dendrites (e), separator material (f)

Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering and head of the project, explains, “Unlike other ultra-strong materials such as carbon nanotubes, Kevlar is an insulator.  This property is perfect for separators that need to prevent shorting between two electrodes.”  The University’s announcement suggests that such shorting was a possible cause of battery fires on Boeing’s 787.

Dendrites found in the team’s research formed “fern-like” patterns, which presented particular difficulties.  As explained by Siu On Tung, a graduate student in Kotov’s lab, “The fern shape is particularly difficult to stop because of its nanoscale tip.  It was very important that the fibers formed smaller pores than the tip size.”

University of Michigan Kevlar-based nanofiber showing resistance to flame

University of Michigan Kevlar-based nanofiber showing resistance to flame

Pores in other battery membranes are a few hundred nanometers, or a few hundred-thousandths of a centimeter: the pores in the membrane developed at U-M are 15-to-20 nanometers across,  “large enough to let individual lithium ions pass, but small enough to block the 20-to-50-nanometer tips of the fern-structures.”

Researchers layered the nanofibers on top of each other in thin sheets, keeping “the chain-like molecules in the plastic stretched out, which is important for good lithium-ion conductivity between the electrodes,” Tung said.

Thinness of material graphically demonstrated

Thinness of material graphically demonstrated

Tung is also a co-founder of Ann Arbor-based Elegus Technologies, which anticipates mass production of the separator material by the end of fiscal 2016.

The U of M reports, “’The special feature of this material is we can make it very thin, so we can get more energy into the same battery cell size, or we can shrink the cell size,’ said Dan VanderLey, an engineer who helped found Elegus through U-M’s Master of Entrepreneurship program. ‘We’ve seen a lot of interest from people looking to make thinner products.’”  Already, thirty companies have asked for samples of the material, indicating an interest in thinner, lighter, safer batteries.

The University also notes that, “Kevlar’s heat resistance could also lead to safer batteries as the membrane stands a better chance of surviving a fire than most membranes currently in use.

“While the team is satisfied with the membrane’s ability to block the lithium dendrites, they are currently looking for ways to improve the flow of loose lithium ions so that batteries can charge and release their energy more quickly.”

The study, “A dendrite-suppressing solid ion conductor from aramid nanofibers,” was published online in the January 27 Nature Communications.  Authors listed are Siu-On Tung, Szushen Ho, Ming Yang, Ruilin Zhang and Nicholas A. Kotov.

The paper’s abstract describes the new composite’s ability to suppress dendrite growth.  “Dendrite growth threatens the safety of batteries by piercing the ion-transporting separators between the cathode and anode. Finding a dendrite-suppressing material that combines high modulus and high ionic conductance has long been considered a major technological and materials science challenge. Here we demonstrate that these properties can be attained in a composite made from Kevlar-derived aramid nanofibres assembled in a layer-by-layer manner with poly(ethylene oxide). Importantly, the porosity of the membranes is smaller than the growth area of the dendrites so that aramid nanofibres eliminate ‘weak links’ where the dendrites pierce the membranes. The aramid nanofibre network suppresses poly(ethylene oxide) crystallization detrimental for ion transport, giving a composite that exhibits high modulus, ionic conductivity, flexibility, ion flux rates and thermal stability. Successful suppression of hard copper dendrites by the composite ion conductor at extreme discharge conditions is demonstrated, thereby providing a new approach for the materials engineering of solid ion conductors.”

The research was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation under its Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems and its Innovation Corp. Partial funding also came from Office of Naval Research and Air Force Office Scientific Research. Kotov is a professor of chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering and macromolecular science and engineering.


A Ride in the Pipistrel WattsUp

Pipistrel has built what looks to be, at least in the video below, an attractive and highly functional airplane in the WattsUp, an electronic conversion of their Alpha Trainer high-wing training aircraft.

In the video, Tine Tomazic, responsible for electric aircraft design at Pipistrel, shows the ease of making battery swaps on the airplane, similar to those of electric motorcycles or scooters, and takes photojournalist Jean-Marie Urlacher for a ride around what your editor assumes is Pipistrel’s Ajdovscina, Slovenia factory and field.

Note the conversational tone in the cockpit and the lack of headphones, one benefit of electric aircraft that would lead to their being great training aircraft.  Aerobuzz, a French aviation blog, though, does lodge a complaint about the propeller noise: “Bit noisy (we hear only the sound of propeller),” but goes on to compliment other aspects of the craft. “Immediate start without engine warm[up], clean, easy to handle aircraft on the ground as Alpha Trainer, the WattsUp… would be the ideal training aircraft?”   The airplane was introduced at last year’s Blois Fly-in.

Jean-Marie Klinka, the author of the Aerobuzz entry, explains that the airplane has six 20-kilogram (44 pounds) packs of batteries, and an 85-kilowatt (114-horsepower) motor that weighs only 24 kilograms (52.8 pounds).  The 18-kilowatt-hour batteries are charged outside the airplane, a process that takes 45 to 60 minutes and costs 2.15 euros (about $2.44 at this morning’s exchange rates).  A site with existing solar panels or wind turbines could do it for free.  This type of recharging would allow quick swaps (part of the pre-flight inspection?) but would require the use of, and investment in, duplicate packs to keep a busy club or flying school in the air.

WattsUP, showing ease of access to motor, battery packs

WattsUP, showing ease of access to motor, battery packs.  Tine notes that batteries can be swapped in two minutes

The one-hour endurance for the fully-charged airplane limits the trainer to touch-and-go circuits around the local field for now, although Pipistrel claims that using the regenerative power of the broad propeller on a steep approach will add one orbit around the field to every six.  Even a doubling of existing battery energy density will allow more practical use of the aircraft, and the 5X batteries being pursued with Department of Energy grants in this country would provide real-world acceptance for this type of trainer.

If Pipistrel achieves the 100,000 euro ($112,000) price tag Klinka lists as a hoped-for achievement by the company, the electric WattsUp should be fairly competitive with even their Alpha Trainer, and when gas prices rise again, more than competitive on operational costs.

(Editor’s Note: This post has been modified 01/28/2015 with corrections supplied by Tine Tomazic.  The charging times and costs are much better than shown in the original post.  Your editor soloed in 1961, when avgas was around a quarter per gallon.  This means that Pipistrel has crafted an airplane with operating costs comparable to those of the Aeronca Champion your editor learned to fly in.)


Boeing and Embraer Embrace on Biofuels

Brazil may become a central research and manufacturing site for biofuels, with Boeing and Embraer opening a joint sustainable biofuel research center, something that will rely on Brazil’s fertile land to supply non-food plants with which to make jet fuel.  Working in the Boeing-Embraer Joint Research Center in the São José dos Campos Technology Park, opened in January 2014, the companies are continuing to “focus on technologies that address gaps in creating a sustainable aviation biofuel industry in Brazil, such as feedstock production, techno-economic analysis, economic viability studies and processing technologies.”

Early biofuel test flights on GOL Embraer E-190

Early biofuel test flights on GOL 737.  Amyris, Inc. partnered with the Brazilian airline to fly the industry’s first commercial flight with Farnesane, a recently approved renewable jet fuel

Boeing’s Research & Technology-Brazil (BR&T-Brazil) Center, one of the company’s six international advanced research centers, leads the collaboration with Embraer and works with Brazil’s research-and-development community “to grow Brazil’s capabilities and meet the country’s goals for economic and technology development while supporting the creation of innovative and affordable technologies for Boeing’s business units.”

This is one of several biofuel development projects in the U. S., the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China, Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia.  Working with a detailed roadmap called “Flightpath to Aviation Fuels in Brazil,” the partners signed a 2014 collaboration agreement pledging to jointly conduct and co-fund research and share intellectual property developed through the center.

Several of the biofuel programs Boeing is managing worldwide

Several of the biofuel programs worldwide

Julie Felgar, managing director of environmental strategy and integration for Boeing Commercial Airplanes shared this statement: “Boeing is working aggressively around the world to expand the supply of sustainable aviation biofuel and reduce aviation’s carbon emissions.  With our joint biofuel research center, Boeing and Embraer are making a strong commitment toward a successful, sustainable aviation biofuel industry in Brazil.”

Embraer brings a strong background in developing aviation biofuels, working with engine manufacturer General Electric in 2011 on a series of test flights with an E-170 with engines burning “hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA).” The following year, an E-195(a medium-sized commuter jet) from Azul airline flew during the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development  fueled with biokerosene produced from sugar cane developed by Amyris.

According to the joint press release, “Studies have shown that sustainably produced aviation biofuel emits 50 to 80 percent lower carbon emissions through its life cycle than fossil jet fuel. Globally, more than 1,600 passenger flights using sustainable aviation biofuel have been conducted since it was first approved for use in 2011.”  Boeing claimed 1,500 green fuel airline flights by 2014.

Boeing 787 being fueled for first biofuel flight

Boeing 787 being fueled for first biofuel flight

In recent test flights, Boeing flew with a 15-percent blend of NExBTL renewable diesel aviation biofuel.  The “green diesel” is a renewable, drop-in hydrocarbon biofuel commonly available and used in ground transportation.  This type of fuel can use existing infrastructure and requires little or no change to aircraft equipment or procedures – a major part of the desirability of such resources.

According to Green Car Congress, “Boeing previously found that renewable diesel is chemically similar to HEFA (hydro-processed esters and fatty acids) aviation biofuel approved in 2011. With a renewable diesel production capacity of 800 million gallons (3 billion liters) in the US, Europe and Asia, the on-road fuel could rapidly supply as much as 1% of global jet fuel demand. With a wholesale cost of about $3 per gallon, inclusive of US government incentives, green diesel approaches price parity with petroleum jet fuel.”  Better yet, such fuels can be produced by hydrotreating a wide variety of sources, including vegetable oils, waste cooking oils and waste animal fats.  The aspect of redeeming waste and gaining useful work from it makes this particularly desirable.

Julie Felgar comments that, “Green diesel offers a tremendous opportunity to make sustainable aviation biofuel more available and more affordable for our customers. We will provide data from several ecoDemonstrator flights to support efforts to approve this fuel for commercial aviation and help meet our industry’s environmental goals.”

On a lifecycle basis, sustainably produced green diesel reduces carbon emissions by 50 to 90 percent compared to fossil fuel, according to Neste Oil, which supplied green diesel for the ecoDemonstrator 787.

The flight test was coordinated with the US Federal Aviation Administration, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney; EPIC Aviation blended the fuel.

Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator Program is a multi-year program that conducted its first test flight in 2012 on an American Airlines 737-800. The program continues in 2014 with flights on a 787 Dreamliner and in 2015 on a Boeing 757.

Other airlines and suppliers were sorting out the problems involved in supplying clean fuel to airlines by 2011, and continue their research and development today.

To make sure biofuels do not create more problems than they solve, though, developers must be careful of environmental effects, including the potential of diverting clean water from other purposes to growing plants with which to make biofuels.  Some of the plants are thirsty, and Discovery News reports that by 2030, up to eight percent of all U. S. fresh water may be dedicated to growing biofuel ingredients.

Others are concerned about the displacement of traditional farmers from their lands to make way for growing biofuel plants.

Jatropha - beautiful, promising and controversial

Jatropha – beautiful, promising and controversial

Mariann Bassey, from Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth East Nigeria, claims, “In Africa, farmland is taken away from communities and people’s livelihoods are destroyed for yet another false solution to climate change. Food prices are rising again, yet land is being snatched away to grow fuel for cars. We want agriculture that allows us to grow food for people.”  Similar issues have been reported in Central America.

This blog has reported on concerns surrounding biofuel cultivation and development, and these issues will take honest assessments as to the promise and costs of the new technologies, both from an environmental and human perspective.


Reassembled and ready, Solar Impulse 2 stands ready to leave Abu Dhabi on an historic around-the-world flight within the next month, according to the project’s latest announcements. 

When HB-SIB leaves Abu Dhabi, it will cross two oceans and four continents before returning to its departure point.  The trip will include landings in 12 locations and a total distance of 35,000 kilometers (21,700 miles) – all without using a drop of fuel. Its route and schedule will be affected by weather, and since the airplane will fly at only 27 miles per hour at night to conserve battery energy, by prevailing winds.  Normal flight speeds will range from 50 to 100 kilometers per hour (31 to 62 mph).

The press release lists the landing sites: “Si2 will take-off from Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, in late February or early March and return by late July or early August 2015. The route includes stops in Muscat, Oman; Ahmedabad and Varanasi, India; Mandalay, Myanmar; and Chongqing and Nanjing, China. After crossing the Pacific Ocean via Hawaii, Si2 will fly across the Continental U.S.A. stopping in three locations – Phoenix, and New York City at JFK. A location in the Midwest will be decided dependent on weather conditions. After crossing the Atlantic, the final legs include a stop-over in Southern Europe or North Africa before arriving back in Abu Dhabi.”

Route follows closely to equator until reaching North America, allowing maximum use of sunlight

Route holds close to equator until reaching North America, allowing maximum use of sunlight

Solar Impulse is underwritten by some of Europe’s biggest companies, including main partners Solvay, Omega, Schindler and ABB.   Official partners include Altran, Bayer, Google, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, Swisscom and Moët Hennessy alongside Solar Impulse’s host partner Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company. As Solar Impulse always tells us, “Solar Impulse is an idea born in Switzerland.”

Bertrand Piccard, initiator and chairman of the Solar Impulse, expresses the project’s hopes for the mission. “With our attempt to complete the first solar powered round-the-world flight, we want to demonstrate that clean technology and renewable energy can achieve the impossible. We want youth, leaders, organizations and policymakers to understand that what Solar Impulse can achieve in the air, everyone can accomplish here on the ground in their everyday lives. Renewable energy can become an integral part of our lives, and together, we can help save our planet’s natural resources.”

On a probably hot tarmac, Bertrand Piccard and Andre' Borschberg stand before SI2, an airplane in whch they will spend 25 days, much of those over water

On a probably hot tarmac, Bertrand Piccard and Andre’ Borschberg stand before SI2, an airplane in whch they will spend 25 days, much of those over water.  Photo courtesy Solar Impulse| Ackermann | Reva

H.E Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, UAE minister of state and chairman of Masdar, highlights the links between airborne and terrestrial solar power.  “Masdar and the emirate of Abu Dhabi are proud to host the departure, and  hopefully safe arrival, of Solar Impulse and its pilots, as they dare to fly round the world using only the power of the sun.  Solar Impulse is a demonstration to prove the impossible can be possible, and that innovation knows no boundaries. As a leader delivering sophisticated renewable energy projects around the world, Masdar is a natural partner for such an innovative endeavour, which underscores the viability of solar technology.”

Acknowledging earlier solar flight efforts, such as those by Fred To, Larry Mauro and Eric Raymond, Andre’ Borschberg, Solar Impulse co-founder and CEO, explains the heavy emphasis on pilot training and conditioning leading to the big flight.  “Solar Impulse is not the first solar airplane, however it is the first able to cross oceans and continents – remaining in the air for several days and nights in a row without landing.  But now we have to ensure the sustainability of the pilot in order to complete the route; Solar Impulse 2 must accomplish what no other plane in the history of aviation has achieved – flying without fuel for 5 consecutive days and nights with only one pilot in the unpressurized cockpit.”

Solar Impulse 2 and its crew of 80 technicians, engineers and a communications team will not only prepare the big craft for its epic voyage, but meet with students, engineers, and government officials to help them understand the significance of the technology and the adventure.

Bertrand Piccard explained the importance of using the sun-drenched locale as a start and end point for the flight. “Masdar and Abu Dhabi are setting an example for the entire world, promoting the use of diverse, sustainable and clean energy sources by deploying some of the globe’s most sophisticated renewable energy projects. Most importantly, Masdar shares our unwavering commitment to ensuring a cleaner future for our planet.”

We will be able to follow the minute-by-minute progress of the trip, and “During stopovers, the Solar Impulse team will organize meetings, airplane visits and Google Hangouts On Air in order to promote the mission’s message and highlight innovative technical solutions to climate change.”  In these efforts, Solar Impulse may help to sway those not yet involved with a clean energy future.  Certainly, the silent wings passing overhead have the power to awe observers, and will trace a line of millions of new believers along its course.


AEAC Pulls in First 20 Deposits

Aero Electric Aircraft Corporation (AEAC) and Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology made joint announcements about their signing a “Training Program Development and Deposit Agreement” for the school to reserve the first 20 delivery positions for “Sun Flyer” solar-electric training aircraft being developed by AEAC.  This first such agreement by a major training program and an aircraft maker is a milestone for this new technology.

The press announcement quotes Peter Harris, CEO of Spartan College, saying, “This agreement signifies our commitment to innovation and to serving the next generation of pilots. Spartan College is honored to be the first training school to formalize our collaboration on a complete training system that will make flight training more modern, accessible and economical than ever before.”

The same announcement has George Bye, CEO of AEAC, thanking Spartan College for their collaboration and support. “Our goal with Sun Flyer is to achieve lower operating costs and enhanced safety features for a training airplane by focusing on the benefits of solar-electric propulsion and durable composite construction.  Spartan College is to be commended for their innovative spirit and forward-thinking strategy.”

AEAC plans to offer “the first certified U.S.-sponsored, practical, all-electric airplane serving the aviation training markets.”  George Bye and his team displayed the Sun Flyer at AirVenture 2014 in the RedBird tent, with the promise that flight schools will be able to take advantage of the flight simulator background of that company.

What a Sun Flyer fleet will look like on the near future flight line

What a Sun Flyer fleet will look like on the near future flight line

Four major electric aircraft developers, AEAC, Airbus, Pipistrel, and Yuneec (now GreenWings in California) have flown at least initial demonstrators of their electric aircraft, with Pipistrel fielding a two-seat WATTS-UP available.  Airbus is now creating a plant outside Paris with partner Daher-Socata to build two- and four-seat versions of their E-Fan aircraft, while AEAC has partnered with Calin Gologan’s PC-Aero to make their training aircraft.  (Note Added 1/17/2015:  Calin Gologan explains that the Sun Flyer will be built and marketed in America, based on a license agreement between PC-Aero GmbH – the designer of the airplane – and Bye Aerospace.  PC-Aero will build And sell the German ultralight version named the Elektra Two Trainer. Bye Aerospace will manufacture and market worldwide the FAA certified Version.)

Mary Grady, reporting in Wired, headlines that “Electric Airplanes Are the Future of Pilot Training.”  She notes that current flight trainees are initiated in “an aging airplane that’s noisy, expensive, and burns leaded fuel.” She notes that the “race is on to change that, with electric trainers that are clean, vibration-free, and cheap to operate.”

She quotes George Bye, head of AEAC, as saying, “Electric airplanes will change everything when it comes to the cost of flying.”  Her Wired article recites Bye’s math, which shows that a typical Cessna 172 has operating costs of about $73 per hour, and a new one sells for about $370,000.   Bye’s Sun Flyer would sell for $180,000 to $200,000 and cost under $10 per hour for basic operating costs – including charging and battery replacement.  This would allow flight schools to bring total per-hour rates down to levels where an average, middle-class pilot wannabe could afford flight training.

Bye hopes for certification of the two-seater by 2017, which may be coincide with Federal Aviation Administration approval of such aircraft.  Currently The FAA is still considering such rules and prohibits carrying a passenger in an electric airplane.  All the players will benefit from a favorable ruling in this matter, with all charging toward a 2017 or earlier introduction and initial sales date.

Mary includes the recently introduced Chinese two-seater, the RX-1E, which will probably have pricing and performance similar to the others in this group.  Like the rest, its limited endurance won’t immediately be a problem for a student pilot who will spend most of his or her time in the circuit and making touch and goes.

She concludes with hopes for more: “If battery costs continue to decline and electric planes can spend more time in the air, it will grow harder to make the case for gasoline engines, at least for the training market, where flights are brief and you don’t need more than two seats. Besides the clear cost advantage, electric flight is just smoother and quieter, and maintaining an electric airplane is a lot less trouble, thanks to fewer moving parts. If learning to fly is on your to-do list, you might find the trainer planes of the not-too-distant future parked outside in the sun, powering up for your first lesson.”

She’s definitely sold on the idea.  Now let’s hope the manufacturers can deliver on their promises.

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One of the hits of the Consumer Electronics Show at Reno, Nevada this year was the Gogoro scooter, an electrical and electronics showcase for its designers and makers.  The stylish two-wheeler, a svelte and quiet people mover, reminds one of the Vespa craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but does not belch a blue cloud or emit putta-putta (or papapapa as shown in the vintage commercial here) noises in its wake.

Its clean white lines reflect the kind of look we’ve come to expect from modern devices such as laptops, game consoles or other electronic toys.  That might be expected because of Horace Luke’s background as a product designer for HTC, Nike and Microsoft.  To some extent, the Gogoro includes a full menu of thoroughly modern touches, from its wrap-around lights to its information displays.

Luke and co-founder Matt Taylor started Gogoro initially to build electric scooters, but both have more products in mind and a fascinating scheme to keep their vehicles charged up.   Luke explains, “Gogoro is more than a startup. This is the start of an industry. Our products and business model will impact a variety of consumer areas to create a metropolitan ecosystem with better connectivity, easier access to energy, and a more enjoyable urban living experience.”  This confidence and broad vision might come from the $150 million in capital the company has raised, some of it from HTC Chairwoman Cher Wang.

Gogoro’s Panasonic batteries, neatly packaged in quickly swappable packages, will be available in charging centers around the urban areas where the scooters might be popular.  EV World noted the similarity of their way of distributing those batteries to the system developed by Asian Pacific Fuel Cells for keeping its hydrogen fuel cell scooters scooting.  In neither case can a user charge the scooters at home, but must “subscribe” to a network of stations where fresh energy can replace the spent hydrogen or battery cartridges.  This might seem like a major deal breaker for the battery electric scooter, which otherwise could be easily plugged in at home.

Gogoro scooter with batteries (left), charging station.  Batteries from station free owner of maintenance responsibilities, according to makers

Gogoro scooter with batteries (left), charging station. Batteries from station free owner of maintenance responsibilities, according to makers

The makers counter this with the argument that swapping takes less than a minute, and that the problem of charging time is removed, with fresh batteries waiting for immediate transfer.  It really doesn’t matter how long it took the ATM-sized charging station to get the job done as long as fresh, fully charged packs are ready when the customer drives up.  Vendors can line up additional chargers as demand grows.  The scooter accelerates from 0 to 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph) in 4.2 seconds – not quite supercar fast, but certainly agile for a scooter.  Not too many two-stroke scooters can smoke their tires, part of the joy of having the torque of an electric motor at hand.

Gogoro's compact power module and its components are lightweight

Gogoro’s compact power module and its components are lightweight

Since the scooter weighs a mere 207 pounds without batteries, the 6.4 kilowatt (8.58 horsepower) motor and drive train can’t weigh all that much, and such small, mass-produced items may become useful for ultralight aircraft applications.

Communication is both internal and external with Gogoro - a smart network connecting rider with the scooter and a support network

Communication is both internal and external with Gogoro – a smart network connecting rider with the scooter and a support network

The scooter has a “Kit” car-like persona, with sweeping lights to indicate activation, Bluetooth connectivity to help a rider communicate with his or her mount, and over three million possible combinations of personalization options to make each scooter the owner’s own.  What can’t be one’s own are the battery packs, a way to keep riders coming back for more.  This provides an advantage of always having a fresh battery without the inevitable degradation of performance and replacement costs associated with owning the packs.  Batteries weight 20 pounds each and provide up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) range.

Owners can communicate with their Gogoro’s cell phone app via Bluetooth, and the scooter’s on-board near field communications (NTC) system talks to the many components of the scooter and to the battery charge stations.  A rider can always find the nearest available fresh battery.  The claimed ability of the scooter to “learn” the rider’s habits can enhance mileage from each battery pack, with 12 percent increases in endurance claimed after the Gogoro learns its master’s ways.

Several commentators have noted that you’re not buying a scooter, but a transportation system, with Gogoro owning the charging stations and batteries, and making it as convenient as possible to interact with that system.  This is not the only such program, Taiwan having a competitor in the Isuda City Cruiser electric scooters from Kenfa Advanced Technology Corporation and which has been active since April, 2014.

Very much like the hydrogen-canister swap-out for scooters from APFCT, The Gogoro’s battery distribution scheme ensures ongoing “fuel” sales for the manufacturer, with a way, at least in the confines of an island, of allowing freedom of mobility for riders.  Neither does much for cleaning up the smog generated by the two-strokers they would replace unless the electricity used to recharge or fill their hydrogen canisters comes from a clean source.

As a parting shot, here’s a video showing the distribution of hydrogen canisters in Taiwan – again, a more likely scenario within the constraints of an island.  The potential to use a few more of the canisters to power a very light car are intriguing, and again, lightweight components like this may have applications in ultralight aircraft.


Solar Impulse 2 is a big airplane, with a wingspan greater than that of the Boeing Cargolux carrier that transported it to Abu Dhabi this last weekend.  Seeing the craft slipped into the cargo hold of the whale-like Boeing, then disgorged a few hours later, presents an almost mythical vision of leviathans at work and play.

Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, has been named the Host City of Solar Impulse for the first round-the-world solar flight, to be started 50 days from now in March.  Following over a score of test flights in Switzerland, HB-SIB was dismantled and packed aboard the 747 that would carry it to the UAE, where it will be prepared for its epic journey.  The mission was announced last year in New York at the UAE reception “on the sidelines of” that United Nations General Assembly.  Attendees included Swiss, UAE and UN dignitaries along with officials “from over 50 countries represented by Heads of State, Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Heads of Permanent Missions to the United Nations.”  Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, Solar Impulse leaders and the two pilots who will guide the giant airplane on its course, explained the mission and its significance – as much an inspirational adventure as a technical achievement.

Dramatic image of a dramatic event - loading Solar Impulse into a Cargolux 747

Dramatic image of a dramatic event – loading Solar Impulse into a Cargolux 747

Si2 was delivered to Abu Dhabi from the Payerne aerodrome in Switzerland on January 6 and will be showcased during the World Future Energy Summit as part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, to be hosted by Masdar between 17 and 22 January 2015.

André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard inspect the cargo hold that will contain their amazing aircraft

André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard inspect the cargo hold that will contain their amazing aircraft

 Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, is partner and host to the SI2 team until the airplane’s departure on its globe-girdling circuit, with a return to Abu Dhabi following 25 flying days over a period of four to five months.

Solar Impulse reports: “Masdar has been tasked by the government with investing in and advancing the renewable energy and clean technology industry both domestically and internationally.  H. E. Dr. Sultan Ahmad Al Jaber, UAE minister of state and chairman of Masdar said: ‘Abu Dhabi, Masdar and Solar Impulse have in common a pioneering spirit, a long-term vision and a desire to explore new horizons. We share a commitment to foster the development of technological advances in alternative energy sources in order to contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future.’”

Modern technology meets middle-ages splendor.   747 lands at Abu Dhabi with solar-powered airplane aboard

Modern technology meets middle-ages splendor. 747 lands at Abu Dhabi with solar-powered airplane aboard

André Borschberg notes, “We have chosen this location as being the best and most suitable departure point for the round-the-world tour, due to its climate, infrastructure and commitment to clean technologies.

Circling as close to the equator as practicable, the flight will make stopovers in Asia, the United States and in Southern Europe or North Africa before returning to Abu Dhabi in July 2015. Some over-ocean portions will see Solar Impulse over water for five or six days, a task made possible by the airplane’s ability to fly on solar power all day, soak up rays as electricity for its batteries, then cruising at ultralight speeds all night to conserve that stored energy.

Unloading SI2 in Abu Dhabi

Unloading SI2 in Abu Dhabi

Solar Impulse provides the following specifications for SI2.  “This revolutionary single-seater aircraft made of carbon fiber has a 72 meter (236 feet) wingspan (larger than that of the Boeing 747-8I) for a weight of just 2,300 kilograms (5,060 pounds), equivalent to that of a car. The 17,000 solar cells built into the wing supply four electric motors (17.5 cv [short for cheveaux, or horsepower] each) with renewable energy. During the day, the solar cells recharge lithium batteries weighing 633 kg (2077 lbs.) which allow the aircraft to fly at night and therefore to have virtually unlimited autonomy.”



Japan’s First Electric Aircraft

JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, has been developing a multi-discipline approach to creating an electric light aircraft, much like efforts at Airbus.  Like Airbus, its first efforts use a modified existing airframe, the Diamond Dimona HK36 TTC-ECO motorglider.  Unlike Airbus, the organization has developed its own powerplant, reporting on March 14, 2014, that they had completed performance testing of the electronic propulsion system for small aircraft, in a final test program that lasted into late 2013.

JAXA reports, “For the tests, researchers installed an aircraft motor system designed by JAXA in a 6.5-m x 5.5-m low-speed wind tunnel and measured motor shaft power, motor efficiency, propeller thrust, the temperatures of various motor system parts, and other values.

JAXA's internally-developed motor in Diamond HK36TTC-ECO.  Note battery pods under wings

JAXA’s internally-developed motor in Diamond HK36TTC-ECO. Note battery pods under wings

The data showed that the system had a maximum motor output of 63 kW (kilowatts) and motor efficiency levels of 94% or higher, indicating that the motor demonstrates sufficient performance for manned flight. Researchers were also able to confirm that the system fulfills the performance requirements, including the necessary durability and cooling performance levels, for flight at speeds equivalent to those in actual flying environments.”

Specially insulated motor coil allows running at high output for longer periods

Specially insulated motor coil allows running at high output for longer periods

In 2013, the organization announced it had completed testing of an important element of their motor, “a motor coil that can maintain its maximum power more than two times longer than a conventional model by using thermal conductive heat-resistant insulating material. Technology to extend the time duration of motor’s maximum power is imperative for the practical use of an electric aircraft.”  The insulated coil enables a smaller, lighter motor that will not overheat during periods of high motor output, such as climbs.  Materials for the coil were developed by Nippon Kayaku (KAYAKU), in cooperation with JAXA.

Highlights of JAXA FEATHER development flight vehicle, a modified Diamond motorglider

Highlights of JAXA FEATHER development flight vehicle, a modified Diamond motorglider

JAXA has installed a complete electric power system in the Diamond aircraft, with some pertinent enhancements which distinguish their approach.  Most notable, from a quick glance, a large pod under each wing holds the batteries that supply power to the motor.  The pods, totaling 120 kilograms (264 pounds), allow a test program with takeoff and climb at full power for one to two minutes, a trip around the field at pattern altitude (300 meters or 984 feet) using from 20 to 30 kilowatts (27 to 40 horsepower), followed by a landing.  The pods, being deployed as they are, may provide a safety factor in case of thermal runaways with the batteries.

The batteries themselves are 75 Amp-hours, 128 Volts, and arranged with 32 cells in series.

Battery pods feed single motor, although untranslated diagrams leave questions

Battery pods feed single motor, although untranslated diagrams leave questions

Flight Path, JAXA’s newsletter, describes the permanent magnet synchronous motor as being equivalent to the 60 to 86 kW (80.4 to 115.2 horsepower) Rotax engines it replaces, with control through a single throttle lever.  Because the motor turns over at a maximum 8,000 rpm, a reduction gear system slows things down for reasonable propeller speeds.  Although the propeller is a variable-pitch unit, it will be restricted to fixed-pitch use during tests.  An insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) controller modulates the water-cooled motor’s speed.

JAXA lists the aircraft’s cruising speed between 100 and 150 kilometers per hour (62 – 93 mph), with a single battery charge capable of powering the 850 kilogram (1,870 pound) craft through a 15-minute flight routine, “even if the pilot applies full power for around two minutes during takeoff.”  Following each circuit, the airplane will be recharged to ready it for another airport circuit.  The test team uses a long runway “so that the aircraft can glide and return to the ground safely in the event that it experiences a loss of power during takeoff.”

Like Airbus, JAXA intends to use the results of their FEATHER (Flight demonstration of the Electric Aircraft Technology for Harmonized Ecological Revolution) light aircraft tests as indicators of how electronic technology may power bigger aircraft in the future.  This may include hybrid variants including hydrogen fuel cells.  As one writer pointed out, Japan is dependent on foreign oil to run its current air fleet. Replacing foreign oil with electricity would be a great advantage for the country.


Two “New” Battery Contenders

With Tesla’s announcement that its new battery pack for its Rev. 3 Roadster will increase the car’s range to as much as 400 miles (your mileage may vary), two contenders are putting proclaiming equivalent or better performance from their unique technologies.  These companies are relatively new, but have fairly long development histories.  They are both moving toward commercializing what otherwise would be academic demonstrations of their technologies.

EnerG2 – Taking Carbon to New Levels

A Seattle, Washington-based materials development firm, EnerG2’s Carbon Technology Platform (CTP), is based upon a polymer chemistry foundation, and according to the company, “represents an ability to engineer and synthesize high-performance, uniquely tailored high-purity carbons, at large scale and low cost.”  The company makes CTP materials used in lead-acid batteries, ultracapacitors, lithium batteries and natural gas storage.  They’ve recently signed a partnership agreement with BASF, showing their acceptance by a multinational powerhouse.

Their specialization in “hard carbons” and combining those with silicon for battery electrodes, leads to a “cutting-edge and cost-effective new product… capable of replacing commonly used low-capacity graphite materials in lithium- ion batteries.”  The high-capacity combination “provides a 5X improvement in battery cycle life while maintaining a dramatic improvement in energy density compared to high capacity silicon anodes. The technology is compatible with future improvements in silicon materials and is designed to leverage increased material stability at a consistently low cost,” according to EnerG2 statements.

Ultracapacitor using EnerG2  carbon layer is conventional otherwise.  Apparently, purity of carbon increase performance

Ultracapacitor using EnerG2 carbon layer is conventional otherwise. Apparently, purity of carbon increase performance

Structurally, the hard carbon acts as a “backbone” for the flexible silicon, according to Dr. Aaron Feaver, Co-Founder and CTO of EnerG2, that tends to expand and contract with changes in voltage.  That helps constrain the silicon and adds to battery life.

A 74,000 square foot manufacturing plant in Albany, Oregon puts the company in the real world, rather than the laboratory.  EV World reports, “’Our competitors are still working in the lab,’ explains Rick Luebbe, EnerG2’s Co-Founder and CEO. ‘Meanwhile, we’re able to work rapidly at large scale, because this new product is a drop-in for our existing plant. U.S. manufacturing as a whole will benefit from our breakthrough, now that we’re competing as a successful lithium-ion battery materials supplier against Korea, Japan and China.’”

Whether the 5X improvement in cycle life and the promised 300 mile range for cars like the Nissan Leaf (currently at 75-100 miles) live up to expectations will help determine how successful EnerG2 will be in expanding production and making their materials part of others’ cells.

Seeo DryLyte Batteries

Seeo is another in the growing ranks of battery manufacturers turning to a dry electrolyte (a “proprietary, nanostructured non-flammable polymer electrolyte called DryLyte™”) as a means of reducing the volatility of lithium batteries.  In this case, the safety measure also provides advances in performance.  Research on the electrolyte started in 2007 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with funds from the Department of Energy’s Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technology (BATT) program.

Seeo says that in contrast to existing liquid and gel-electrolyte battery technologies, their DryLyte is entirely solid-state with no flammable or volatile components.  Seeo claims that solid battery materials are “inherently safer than liquids, which are more vulnerable to fires under crush or overvoltage conditions.”

Besides safety, Seeo claims that, “A DryLyte solid-state battery can access approximately twice the energy at the same weight compared to competitive approaches,” with “extended calendar and cycle life and no sudden failure modes that may occur in liquid-based batteries.”

Layered hard carbon, silicon gives Seeo battery longer cycle life

Layered hard carbon, silicon gives Seeo battery longer cycle life

At the cell level, Seeo records 220 Watt-hours per kilogram, a bit below the 250 that George Bye says is now available for his Aero Electric Aircraft Corporation’s (AEAC’s) Sun Flyer (with greater capacity on the way). Adding modular components and the battery management system (BMS) necessary for cell balancing and even charging and discharging, though, drops that to 130 Watt-hours per kilogram at the automotive battery pack level, on a par with the best Tesla product currently available.

Seeo’s President & CEO Hal Zarem has told CleanTechnica that his company has achieved 350 Watt-hours per kilogram and anticipates upping that to 400 soon.  That would double range for EVs, and must seem plausible to Samsung, which has recently made investments in Seeo and filed for patents in the electric vehicle field.

Large production facility shows Seeo is developing commercial potential

Large production facility shows Seeo is developing commercial potential

In his interview with CleanTechnica, Zarem pointed out the advantages that will accrue from enhanced performance in batteries.

Comparison of currently available battery packs.  Surprisingly, Tesla's Smart Car battery is tops.  Imagine this chart doubled or tripled by recent developments

Comparison of currently available battery packs. Surprisingly, Tesla’s Smart Car battery is tops. Imagine this chart doubled or tripled by recent developments

“We have a solid state battery and are developing a product that is targeted at 400 Wh/kg, which is an energy density that is two to three times that of existing products out there.  When you double the energy density, you almost cut the cost of manufacturing in half.”

Comparison with Tesla, Others

Tesla has recently announced an enhanced battery pack for its new version of the venerable Roadster that will increase the range to up to 400 miles. reports, “The range increase is thanks to a new cell technology that resulted in a battery that provides 70kWh in the same package as the original Roadster’s 53kWh pack. That’s an additional 31% of energy. In addition to the more power-packed battery, Tesla also shaved 15% off the Roadster’s drag coefficient and installed new tires that result in a 20% improvement on the car’s rolling resistance.”

Tesla's Rev. 3 Roadster adds 31% more powerful battery pack, low rolling resistance tires and an aero package to increase range to 400 miles

Tesla’s Rev. 3 Roadster adds 31% more powerful battery pack, low rolling resistance tires and an aero package to increase range to 400 miles

Certainly Tesla will be hard pressed to maintain its pre-eminence in battery development, with other strongly-resourced competitors and innovative approaches giving Elon Musk and his engineers plenty to consider.  The competition is exciting and great for the end user.