Fuel from Seawater

The ancient mariner may have been surrounded by water unfit to drink, but the U. S. Navy sees its ships as surrounded by seawater that could be converted to fuel for its fleet or aircraft.

This long-time ambition is possibly being fulfilled by researchers at the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division, who recently flew a radio-controlled model airplane on seawater-derived fuel.

Dr. Heather Willauer, NRL research chemist, explains, “In close collaboration with the Office of Naval Research P38 Naval Reserve program, NRL has developed a game changing technology for extracting, simultaneously, CO2 and H2 from seawater.  This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation.”  The process is able to convert the recovered gases to liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

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NRL researchers (l to r) Dr. Jeffrey Baldwin, Dr. Dennis Hardy, Dr. Heather Willauer, and Dr. David Drab (crouched), successfully demonstrate a novel liquid hydrocarbon fuel to power the aircraft’s unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine. Photo courtesy US Naval Research Laboratory

Dr. Willauer’s team recently flew a replica of a WWII P-51 Mustang in the red-tail colors of the Tuskeegee Airmen.  The craft’s two-stroke engine was an off-the-shelf, unmodified unit – just like the ones at the hobby shop.  Its “drop-in” nature means existing infrastructures can potentially make the fuel at sea, possibly using the available nuclear powerplants on aircraft carriers to provide the energy for the seawater conversion.

The Navy Times breaks down the steps involved in a simplified way:

“Step 1: A processing plant would extract carbon dioxide from 2.35 billion gallons of water — enough to fill the 2012 Olympic swimming pool 2,400 times. This water would yield about 11.9 million gallons worth of carbon dioxide.

Skid-based platform tests potential to scale up processing seawater to make fuel.  Photo courtesy U. S. Navy

Skid-based platform tests potential to scale up processing seawater to make fuel. Photo courtesy U. S. Naval Research Laboratory

“Step 2: Another process will produce hydrogen from ocean water. Through reverse osmosis, fresh water will be extracted from ocean water. The two hydrogen atoms from the freshwater molecules will be separated from the oxygen atom. The hydrogen atoms will be collected while the oxygen atoms will be vented away.

“Step 3: The hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the first two steps will be used in a catalytic conversion process. The end result is water, heat, and, most importantly, synthetic hydrocarbon, or fuel. Theoretically, the process could be tailored to produce any sort of hydrocarbon fuel, not just JP-5, according to the report.

“The leftover water and heat generated could be harnessed and recycled into the system, making it more efficient.”

As noted above, the process might use the nuclear power available on an aircraft carrier or submarine, or even the thermal differences between the warm water near the ocean’s surface and the colder water at greater depths to run the process.

The Navy Times article asks if the equipment necessary to process hundreds of thousands of ocean water each day could even fit on an aircraft carrier?  Their answer: “To be determined.”

Less tenuous, the cost per gallon would be between $3 and $6 per gallon, with the lower cost possible if all fuel is made at sea.  This cuts down the enormous costs of oilers carrying fuel sometimes huge distances to support the fleet.  Current JP-5 costs are about $3.51 a gallon before “burden” rates are added.

With a Navy lab in Key West, Florida testing a “lab-scale” catalytic reactor system as a first step toward commercial modular units, full-scale production may be just a few years away.

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Solar Impulse 2 Ready to Take on the World

Even while the first Solar Impulse was scaling the Alps, traversing the Moroccan desert, and crossing America, skilled craftsmen and women were designing and building Solar Impulse 2, a larger, heavier solar-powered airplane rolled out this week.  Its next challenge, that of flying around the world, will test the limits of even this seasoned team.

As shown on the first Solar Impulse’s flights, “Flying the Solar Impulse aircraft is quite different from being at the commands of any other airplane. Flight tactics, piloting skills, aerodynamics had to be re-learned from scratch.” 

Slightly longer wingspan than Boeing 747, 1 percent of the mass.  Illustration courtesy Solar Impulse

Slightly longer wingspan than Boeing 747, 1 percent of the mass. Illustration courtesy Solar Impulse

Part of the difference comes from the aircraft’s huge size and light weight.  Solar Impulse shares this:  “Here’s a fun fact for you to understand how special this aircraft is: the wingspan of Si2 is bigger than that of a Boeing 747, but the former’s weight is just slightly more than 1% of the latter (remember: the weight of a car)!”  This jumbo-jet sized craft has all the performance of an ultralight, but with such large surface areas and nowhere near the maneuverability.  Its maximum bank angle of 5°, for instance, limits its turns to very large circles in the sky.  It will take off at 26 knots (29.9 mph) in 165 yards (150 meters) and cruise at a legal U. S. ultralight speed of 49 knots (56.4 mph) at sea level.  This picks up to 77 knots (88.5 mph) at 27,000 feet, the craft’s maximum altitude.

 

17,000 new high-efficiency solar cells will charge the plane's batteries

17,000 new high-efficiency solar cells will charge the plane’s batteries. Photo courtesy Solar Impulse 

Solar Impulse 2’s 17,000 solar cells feed its 663 kilograms (2077 pounds) of batteries, which in turn power the airplane’s four 17.5 horsepower motors.

The huge airplane requires special construction techniques, relying on carbon fiber and other advanced composites for its light weight and high strength.  Its airy structure comprises a huge volume for its weight, giving rise to comparisons with feathers and thistledown.

Incredibly light carbon fiber construction adds up to 3,800 pound, four-motored airplane

Incredibly light carbon fiber construction adds up to 3,800 pound, four-motored airplane. Photo courtesy Solar Impulse

With recent tests of the craft’s cockpit accommodations and ongoing development of its thin-film solar cells and batteries (both improvements over those on Si1), the new machine should further push the limits of solar aircraft.

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Chip Yates Charges Up for New Records

Whether the marketing department at Chip Yates’ Flight of the Century enterprise chose an eponymous 235-horsepower Piper “Charger” to carry the inflight recharging batteries for upcoming tests, the name reflects Yates’ own driven personality. 

He’s set a world’s record for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, soaring uphill on a UQM-powered motorcycle, used the same bike to set Bonneville Salt Flats records, then pulled the bike’s motor, popped it into a Long-Eze, and proceeded to set speed and time-to-climb records.  He’s announced plans to cross the Atlantic Ocean, duplicating Lindbergh’s flight with an electric airplane and the added and unprecedented technology of mid-air recharging.

EnerDel lithium battery packs in the Flight of the Century Piper Charger

EnerDel lithium battery packs in the Flight of the Century Piper Charger

This will require extensive testing of the battery pack, tethering, docking and shuttling technology and the attendant software development.  The Long-ESA (Electric Speed  Altitude) Yates has flown to his records serves double duty as the Silent Arrow, an unmanned hybrid aerial vehicle (UAV) development for the Navy, which has made its China Lake test facilities available to Yates and his team.

“Flight testing begins this month, with the conversion of our newly purchased recharge plane – a heavy-lifting Piper Charger… that will need to carry a 600 Volt EnerDelPowered pack we’ve selected for the recharge,” says Yates. “If all goes well, we plan the first mid-air recharge for an April/May timeframe.”

At some point this will require docking the Piper with the Long ESA, successfully recharging the canard’s battery pack and safely separating the two aircraft.

Also a Discovery Channel favorite, Chip shows off the Long-ESA with its recharging probe above the canard

Also a Discovery Channel favorite, Chip shows off the Long-ESA with its recharging probe above the canard

As his record setting and lofty goals have come to the public’s attention, he’s also taken on a sub-career of public speaking, doing a TedX talk last December in Bermuda, a presentation to an economics forum, and several presentations urging young people to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  He’s cheered small children in hospitals, and even encouraged small desert towns to tackle big problems with the same innovative spirit he’s brought to his projects.

As The News Review of Ridgecrest, California reported, “Yates underscored that striving is a critical part of innovation — that acute time and resource constraints are what fuel technological evolution. He said that despite Boeing’s multibillion-dollar budget and tens of thousands of employees, when it comes to defeating impossible odds, he would bet on his three volunteers with zero funding.

“Likewise, Los Angeles’ many-orders-of-magnitude-greater budget and population cannot compete with the passion and hard work of a tiny, isolated community united behind a cause.

“He encouraged the residents of the Indian Wells Valley to identify what makes us unique and join forces to promote that to the outside world. (He noted that communities with just as few resources have demonstrated how to successfully forge that path).

“The key is in mobilizing the community to put momentum behind that idea. ‘You can’t steer a parked car,’ he said.”

Yates’ car is definitely not parked, but in a determined state of extreme forward motion.

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Silent Falcon in Production

Bye Aerospace has announced initial production its small unmanned aircraft system, the Silent Falcon™.  Produced by Silent Falcon UAS Technologies (SFUAS), a former subsidiary of Bye Aerospace, Inc., the Silent Falcon is a mere 25 pounds, but is able to perform six- to 12-hour missions on a mix of battery and solar power.

Portability and lightness of Silent Falcon are readily apparent here.  Wings detach and entire craft with control system fits in a large case

Portability and lightness of Silent Falcon are readily apparent here. Wings detach and entire craft with control system fits in a large case

The airplane, of all composite construction, will serve both military and civilian markets, with its small size and quiet operation able to serve well in either capacity.  Its size and weight are virtues in a competitive market, giving “unprecedented performance and value… ready for the market place,” and already in “low rate initial production,” according to John Brown, President of SFUAS.  He adds that “sales teams are targeting domestic, Latin and South Asia region trade shows in the next few weeks.”

Small enough with carrying case to fit in a Pelican case (the same type in which professional camera operators carry their gear), the airplane can be dismantled and carried in a pickup, SUV, or Humvee.  The package is 80.8 inches long, 22.4 inches wide and 15.0 inches deep, and complete with airplane, weighs only 90 pounds.

Much of the lightness is attributable to the compact nature of the electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) patent-pending “FalconVision™” camera system, with optional medium wave infrared (MWIR), “Hyperspectral”, and LIDAR (Light Detection and Imaging) sensors of equally small form available.

Six-bladed propeller helps reduce noise, 1.3 kilogram (2.86 pound) electro-optical/infrared camera system helps reduce weight

Six-bladed propeller helps reduce noise, 1.3 kilogram (2.86 pound) electro-optical/infrared camera system helps reduce weight

Because the airplane, even with the “long” 5.1 meter (16.38 feet) wings is undetectable under 200 feet above ground level, its cameras can recognize and identify human and vehicle targets readily.  Even with its 12-hour mission capability, the airplane can fly no more than 240 knots (276 miles) at its loitering speed of 20 knots (23 mph).  Although Silent Falcon can top out at 60 knots (69 mph), such speeds would reduce the endurance and possibly the range.

For sheriff’s departments or forest fire crews, such “limitations” would hardly be limiting at all. 

Jeanne Roberts, writing for the Cleantech Blog, gives the Silent Falcon and its civil uses a clean bill of health and suggests broader use of such capabilities.

She would go beyond hunting down drug cartels and include bagging ivory poachers in Africa, locate survivors of major storms, and in preventive mode, perhaps forecast freak windstorms like the one that killed the 19-member “Hot Shot” fire crew last year.

At a price that makes it plausibly economical for use within municipalities and government agencies, Silent Falcon will probably develop a following – one that will probably develop expanded uses as it grows familiar with the craft’s capabilities.

George Bye, along with Calin Gologan, CEO of PC-Aero in Germany, will be speaking at the eighth annual Electric Aircraft Symposium on “Practical Solar-Electric Propulsion Advances – Manned and Unmanned systems.”  There is still an opportunity to register for the event, April 25 and 26 at the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa, California.

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Green Air Online reports that Seattle-Tacoma Airport (Sea-Tac) has launched a “$31 million project to provide nearly 600 electric charging stations for ground support equipment (GSE) such as baggage tugs, bag ramps and pushback vehicles.” 

Besides saving “around $2.8 million in airline fuel costs,” the conversion will reduce greenhouse gas emissions around 10,000 tons per year.  Alaska Airlines will swap 204 fossil-fuel burning GSEs to electric and its partner Horizon Airlines will trade in 58.  More airlines are going to join the program later this year.  Federal grants and funding from the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sweeten the transition for participants.

“This project provides the infrastructure for airlines to convert their vehicles from diesel to electric in Sea-Tac’s effort to become the first major airport in the US to provide charging stations at all gates,” said Courtney Gregoire, Co-President of the Port of Seattle Commission. “As many as 650 vehicles could eventually be covered by electric technology and make a huge difference to the airport’s carbon footprint.”

Bright yellow charging stations flank Sea-Tac's concourses and serve a variety of electric GSEs

Bright yellow charging stations flank Sea-Tac’s concourses and serve a variety of electric GSEs

Yellow “charging corrals” flank the airport’s “C” and “D” concourses, with 296 plug-in fast charging stations available in the first phase of the project.  When completed, the installation will total 576 such stations.

Most electric GSEs can run about two and a half days without recharging, and take advantage of lulls in airport activity to “top up” their energy levels.

The Tacoma, Washington News Tribune reports the conversion to electric ramp vehicles is part of a larger program to cut fossil-fuel use at Sea-Tac.  Last year, for instance, the airport installed a central conditioned air system “ that ended the practice of aircraft running their jet-fuel-powered auxiliary power units at the gate to keep the planes’ interiors heated and cooled while they are being loaded and unloaded.”

“Instead, the aircraft are connected with flexible ducts that provide heated or cooled air directly to the planes’ interiors from the airport’s central heating and cooling plant. That program is saving airlines about $15 million in fuel costs and 40,000 tons of emissions annually.”

That and “’the airport’s new fleet of compressed natural gas-powered buses serving its rental car terminal and its high-efficiency hybrid or CNG taxis have made Sea-Tac one of the nation’s most environment-friendly airports,’ said airport director Mark Reis.”

Jeff Butler, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of airport operations and service, noted that, “At first there was some skepticism, but these vehicles have proven themselves in snow and rain and every weather condition,” and are now a hit with airline employees and ramp workers.

According to the paper, “Dave Soike, Sea-Tac’s director of facilities, said other airlines including Southwest, United and Delta have expressed interest in converting their ground fleets to electric power.”

Electric GSEs produce no local pollution, are quieter, and require less maintenance than their fossil-fuel powered predecessors.

Even the airport garage have 48 electrical vehicle recharging stations, “the most of any North American airport,” according to Sea-Tac officials.  The airport does not charge for charging, incorporating that in its normal parking fees.  Sea-Tac hopes to fund an upgrade to 220 Volts for these now somewhat slow charging stations.

With wheel drives finding their way through their various countries’ certification systems, electric ground support will play a vital part in helping reduce the fumes around airplanes on ramps at major airports.  Passengers will welcome the clean air.

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Obviously inspired by seminal research on potato batteries in Portland, Oregon, University of Transylvania researchers led by Dr. James Whale, Director of the Tuber Genetics Energetics Laboratory, announced a major breakthrough in GMO plant life with the hope for impressive gains in electric vehicle dynamics.

Officials in America’s Southeast warn that the U of T is NOT to be confused with Transylvania University, an actual liberal arts college in Lexington, Kentucky.  Such confusion has led to a glut of applications from potential students with “decidedly loopy” academic credentials and “dangerously bizarre” ideas for research, according to a TU spokesperson.

The earlier effort, a low-budget research project, showed that potato batteries in large quantities and wired up like a really big science fair exhibit could generate useful energy.

Enough potatoes wired appropriately in series and parallel can run a sound system

Enough potatoes wired appropriately in series and parallel can run a sound system

“I built a potato battery out of 500 pounds of potatoes. It powered a small sound system. With the help of the Red 76 crew (a local arts collaborative) I installed the battery and sound system in the back of a U-Haul truck and drove it around town inviting people to enter the truck and take a listen.

Even 500 pounds of potatoes leave plenty of room for a sound system

Even 500 pounds of potatoes leave plenty of room for a sound system

“Batteries work by allowing electrons to pass from one electrode to another. In this case the potato provides phosphoric acid, which enables a chemical reaction causing electrons flow from copper to zinc. The zinc came from galvanized nails and copper came from small pieces of copper. You don’t have to use potatoes; any acidic medium such as citrus fruit will work. I chose potatoes because they are traditional and cheap.

“Each potato generates about 0.5 volts and 0.2 milliamperes. I connected groups of potatoes together in series to increase voltage and then connected these groups together in parallel to increase amperage. The entire 500 lb. battery generated around 5 volts and 4 milliamperes.

The writer leaves us with a dietary warning.  “Don’t eat potatoes after using them for a battery.”

Dr. Whale, having examined that report and seeing a way around that last warning, rebuilt his laboratory, which had been destroyed by local peasants waving firebrands and pitchforks, and dedicated it to developing new power sources that would be safer than that obtained by the lightning rods on the roof of the previous edifice.

Dr. Frye, left, assists the late Dr. Frankenstein in the earlier U of T laboratory

Dr. Frye, left, assists the late Dr. Frankenstein in the earlier U of T laboratory

Discovering a heart-shaped potato, Whale and his research associate, Dr. Dwight Frye, felt that this mutation (solanum tuberosum) had the potential to develop into a strong energy source if its high density could be reduced.    “We felt that it would be even better if we could make it light-hearted,” Frye snickered.

Heart=shaped tuber inspired latest round of potato battery research

Heart-shaped tuber inspired latest round of potato battery research

The Laboratory’s development, “Potato Battery Lite™,” reduces the normal potato’s density from 40-to-48 pounds per cubic foot to that of potato chips, which weigh in as low as 3.5 pounds per cubic foot.  Even better, when coupled with lithium-sulfur anodes and carbon nanotube cathodes, the potato chip battery produces an astonishing amount of energy, up to 3 kilowatt-hours per kilogram.  This could reduce a Leaf’s battery from 300 kilograms (660 pounds with control module) to 24 pounds, or with the same battery weight increase the car’s range to over 3,000 miles.

Whale and Frye caution that the current battery is prone to crumbling into microscopic bits when accidentally sat on during NCAA playoffs, and nearly impossible to vacuum out of couch crevices.   With ordinary  light potato chips priced at around $3.29 for a 12-ounce bag, costs for the new batteries could be revolutionary, although cycle lifetime (especially because of their salty goodness) is not yet established.

Further research may lead to a sea salt and vinegar combination that promises even greater energy density.

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UPS Tests Lithium Battery Cargo Safety Aids

Aviation Week reports that United Parcel Service (UPS) “is ready to start FAA certification testing of an active fire-suppression system fitted to the cargo carrier’s new fire-resistant containers, preventive measures aimed in large part at protecting crews from lithium-type battery fires.”   The fire-resistant containers are the center of attention right now, though.

After the fatal crash of a UPS Boeing 747-400F in Dubai in September 2010, United Arab Emirates investigators “determined that a large fire developed in the palletized cargo on the ‘Class E’ main deck in an area that included ‘a significant number of lithium-based batteries and other combustible materials,’” according to the Aviation Week report.  That fire had filled the flight deck with smoke within three minutes of its detection and the intense heat had damaged aircraft control systems.

MacroLite AMJ-size cargo containers for UPS weigh 65 pounds less than their conventional counterparts

MacroLite AMJ-size cargo containers for UPS weigh 65 pounds less than their conventional counterparts

MACRO Industries of Huntsville, Alabama makes composite armor for military vehicles.  Their MacroLite panels are half the weight of aluminum and provide superior fire protection.    UPS looked at this material as part of a study by the UPS Independent Pilots Association (IPA) fire safety task force’s efforts to eliminate the dangers that lithium battery fires could pose to aircraft.

Tests simulating a “Class A fire load” showed that MacroLite could contain internal temperatures of 1,370° Fahrenheit, generated by 90 boxes filled with 2.5 pounds each of shredded paper and ignited by a nichrome wire – equivalent to a “large-scale lithium battery fire caused by thermal runaway.”  Added testing show the containers can confine an internal fire of 1,200° F for four hours.

“When you look at statistics, pilots now have only 19 minutes, on average, after a fire breaks out to get that aircraft safely on the ground,” says Bob Brown, a UPS captain and member of the IPA task force.

UPS made an initial order for 100 MacroLite containers.  After the containers survived 13,000 revenue flights over one year, UPS determined they were “virtually indestructible, with no differences in loading and unloading.”  Although they cost more than legacy models, UPS feels the added expense is offset by weight savings and reduced maintenance.

MacroLite sells sheets of its compressed composite materials, a 4-foot by 8-foot panel of its 5/16-inch thick material priced at $600.  Such a piece could make a large number of light aircraft battery boxes.

Randall Fishman of ElectaFlyer displays the stainless steel battery container on his ULS ultralight.  A similar MacroLite box could be lighter

Randall Fishman of ElectaFlyer displays the stainless steel battery container on his ULS ultralight. A similar MacroLite box could be lighter, according to its makers

UPS is not content to test only one fire-containment material.  For palletized loads, the type often carried with boxes of lithium batteries stacked in a large square, “UPS is testing fire-containment covers built by AmSafe.”   These soft covers can confine a fire up to 1,500° F for up to four hours, and are rugged enough to allow their loads being picked up with forklifts. Such toughness also helps physically restrain otherwise loose cartons.  The first 575 trial covers are being used on 17 “lanes” out of Asia for large lithium battery shipments and have completed more than 3,000 flights.

Weight saving and extreme fire resistance are a good combination on any aircraft, adding to the overall safety of flight.

Those visiting the MACRO web site may be impressed with the four-rotor vertical takeoff and landing machine shown there.  We’ll be back to visit that soon, along with the company’s rather complete history of flying cars.

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Many voluminous government documents hold single paragraphs of great importance to the affected parties.  In the case of the FAA’s 322-page Draft Policy 8130(H), a few lines will probably spark intense interest in the small but growing electric aircraft community.

Will the single seat GreenWing International ultralight be allowed to fly?

Will the single seat GreenWing International ultralight be allowed to fly?

According to AVWeb.com and verified in Flying magazine, “The FAA is proposing banning passengers from flights in electric-powered aircraft  and ready-to-fly Light Sport aircraft (SLSA) that have been converted to experimental Light Sport (ELSA) aircraft and stopping the aircraft from flying over built up areas or at night.”

The Light Aircraft Manufacturer’s Association (LAMA) cites the following and endorses an activist approach to resisting the restrictions:

“On page 293 under Clause ‘5. Procedure’ it provides a table by aircraft type for issuing potential restrictions.  The proposed restrictions that are of concern are firstly:

“c. Prohibit the carriage of passengers, flight over densely populated areas, and night or instrument flight rules (IFR) operations in the following:

“(1) Experimental LSA aircraft that formerly held a special LSA airworthiness certificate; 

“(6) Electric-powered aircraft.”

AVWeb notes that, “The draft policy is sure to be a topic of conversation at Sun ‘n Fun next week and at the CAFE Electric Aircraft Symposium later in April.”

You can see the entire draft here.

Will GreenWing's two-seater be forced to fly with a lone pilot?

Will GreenWing’s two-seater be forced to fly with a lone pilot?

Stephen Pope, writing for Flying, takes a more sanguine view.  ” The proposed revision to FAA Order 8130.2 really isn’t that big of a concern at the moment since electric-powered airplanes can’t be sold here yet — and even if they could, there aren’t many on the market.”

He goes on to note, “Plans for a would-be electric airplane market in the U.S. could be hamstrung, however, by rules that prohibit carrying passengers. On the other hand, it’s probably a prudent move until such aircraft can prove their safety in flight.”

The FAA logically demands proof of battery aircraft safety in its role as gatekeeper and public watchdog.  (Would this include hybrids such as Pipistrel’s Panthera?)  It probably won’t be long, though, before electric motors’ superior reliability and the overall safety of properly installed and monitored batteries becomes apparent.  The public will be won over by the quietness of electric airplanes passing overhead: flight schools and fixed base operators will embrace the extreme savings in operational costs for electric aircraft.  Such advantages may bring resurgence in aircraft ownership and (rules allowing) student pilot training.

Market forces often have a way of overcoming even the most well-meaning of restrictions.  Since the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve electric flight, the draft’s limits on LSA type electric aircraft are really moot.  Let’s see what happens as Greenwings International, Pipistrel, Eurosport, and American designers bring their new craft to the marketplace. 

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Dr. Jaiwon Shin, NASA Associate Administrator for Aeronautics, will close the Friday, April 25 session of the eighth annual Electric Aircraft Symposium with his keynote address, “The NASA Aeronautics Vision and Strategy – How It Relates to Electric Aircraft.”

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Dr. Shin (front, center) meets with students from NASA Langley Research Center in this 2010 photo. “Dr. Shin and the others seemed to be genuinely interested in our work at NASA Langley and gave great words of encouragement and advice after our presentations,” said [one of the students]. “They really made me feel as if I were contributing toward the future of NASA.”

 As Associate Administrator, Dr. Shin “manages the agency’s aeronautics research portfolio and guides its strategic direction,” according to his official NASA biography.  He co-chairs the National Science & Technology Council’s Aeronautics Science & Technology Subcommittee, a group of federal departments and agencies that fund aeronautics-related research.

Its first presidential policy for aeronautics research and development (R&D) was ratified by Executive Order 13419 in December 2006, and now guides such research until 2020.  Dr. Shin oversees and sets policies for an array of explorations into aerodynamics, propulsion, air traffic control – including NextGen, aviation safety, and the integration of such technologies into broader economic and strategic concerns at the national and international levels.

With myriad Aeronautics Research Mission Directorates (ARMD) and at least 37 such agreements with foreign countries, NASA hopes to lead efforts to “solve the challenges that still exist in our nation’s air transportation system: air traffic congestion, safety and environmental impacts.”  Directing these diverse efforts requires a person great skill and intellect.

dr shin nasa three planes

NASA’s Dr. Jaiwon Shin will have a large role in determining the look of future air travel

Very much in line with the CAFE Foundation’s goals, NASA’s endeavors will bring an enhanced aviation environment.  “Through green aviation, NASA is helping create safer, greener and more effective travel for everyone. Our green aviation goals are to enable fuel-efficient flight planning, and reduce aircraft fuel consumption, emissions and noise.” 

Below, we see one of the shortest and most exciting Ted Talks ever, by the  Green Flight Challenge’s winning team leader, Jack Langelaan.  Dr. Shin will help develop the transition from what Dr. Langelaan calls the “Lindbergh Moment” of the 2011, NASA-funded Green Flight Challenge to technologies that will help that moment become the arc of the future.

He should be the ideal candidate to oversee that transition.  Dr. Shin’s entry into his current position brought this statement from NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in 2008: “Jaiwon brings expert knowledge of aeronautics and technology to a critical position at NASA. He’s helped develop the aeronautics research roadmap for the 21st century. His leadership of the directorate will assure our continued recognition as the world’s premiere aeronautics research organization.”

His education and previous experience make him a highly-qualified administrator.  According to his NASA biography, “Dr. Shin received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia. His bachelor’s degree is from Yonsei University in Korea and his master’s degree is in mechanical engineering from the California State University, Long Beach. His honors include NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal, NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal, a NASA Group Achievement Award, Lewis Superior Accomplishment Award, three Lewis Group Achievement Awards, and an Air Force Team Award. He is a graduate of the Senior Executive Fellowship Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has extensive experience in high speed research and icing, and has authored or co-authored more than 20 technical and journal papers.”

Dr. Shin served as Chief of the Aeronautics Projects Office at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and before that, Deputy Director of Aeronautics for the Center.  From 1998 to 2002, he was Chief of the Aviation Safety Program Office, and Deputy Program Manager for NASA’s Aviation Safety Program and Airspace Systems Program.

That his address at the EAS includes electric aircraft in NASA’s grand plan is a promising sign that the “Lindbergh Moment” of the 2011 Green Flight Challenge will find a champion at the highest levels of NASA.  He is a great presence and apt speaker for this coming age of green aviation.

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Robert Cringely, writing in EVWorld.com foresees a paradigm-shifting event that will happen sooner rather than later.  “A black swan is what we call an unexpected technical innovation that disrupts existing markets. Intrinsic to the whole black swan concept is that you can’t predict them: they come when they come.  Only today I think I’ll predict a black swan, thank you, and explain exactly how the automobile business is about to be disrupted. I think we’re about two years away from a total disruption of the automobile business by electric cars.”

He quotes the respected auto journalist Robert Cumberford.  “’I see the acceptance of electric cars happening in a sudden rush. Maybe not this year, maybe not for a couple of years yet. But it will happen in a magic rush, just as the generalized adoption of computers happened in only a few years’”.

Here, the blog looks at three potential “black swan” battery technologies.  Although the story of the black swan usually associates the creature with darkness and an evil mystique, the birds here may indeed be forces for a better future.

Aqueous lithium-air

Similar in some respects to the Bay Area’s Polyplus Battery Company, which coats its aqueous-based lithium electrodes to protect them from even salt water, Mei University’s experimental cells may store more energy and last longer than conventional lithium units.  Nobuyuki Imanishi, Ph.D. and his team  added a protective material to the lithium metal.  One drawback of this is that most such coatings decrease the battery’s power.  Imanishi’s researchers tried layering a highly-conductive polymer electrolyte with a solid electrolyte in between the lithium electrode and the watery solution. 

Dr. Imanishi's lithium-air-aqueous battery

Dr. Imanishi’s lithium-air-aqueous battery. with artificial SEI (solid-electrolyte-interphase) immersed in aqueous electrolyte, and capable of double the energy storage capabilities of conventional lithium cells

The result, according to Imanishi’s paper for a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, is a unit with the potential to pack almost twice the energy storage capacity, as measured in Watt hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), as a lithium-ion battery.

“Our system’s practical energy density is more than 300 Wh/kg,” Imanishi said. “That’s in contrast to the energy density of a commercial lithium-ion battery, which is far lower, only around 150 Wh/kg.”

So far, the unit has undergone over 100 charge/discharge cycles without notable losses, but more will determine whether this type of battery would have a credible EV life.

Imanishi’s work was supported by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Germanium Nanowire

Tadhg Kennedy and his research team members at the University of Limerick and University College Cork share this:

Germanium nanowires undergoing restructuring during cycle life.  Note flattening of line  charting capacity change during cycles

Germanium nanowires undergoing restructuring during cycle life. Note flattening of line charting capacity change during cycles

“Here we report the formation of high-performance and high-capacity lithium-ion battery anodes from high-density germanium nanowire arrays grown directly from the current collector. The anodes retain capacities of 900 mAh/g after 1100 cycles with excellent rate performance characteristics, even at very high discharge rates of 20–100C. We show by an ex situ high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and high-resolution scanning electron microscopy study that this performance can be attributed numberswiki.com

to the complete restructuring of the nanowires that occurs within the first 100 cycles to form a continuous porous network that is mechanically robust. Once formed, this restructured anode retains a remarkably stable capacity with a drop of only 0.01% per cycle thereafter. As this approach encompasses a low energy processing method where all the material is electrochemically active and binder free, the extended cycle life and rate performance characteristics demonstrated makes these anodes highly attractive for the most demanding lithium-ion applications such as long-range battery electric vehicles.”

Last September, the blog looked at a way of growing a carbon nanotube “forest” on a substrate, then chopping down and rolling the nanotube strands into a cylinder that formed an electrode.  Kennedy and his researchers used a similar approach to grow germanium nanowire arrays on a steel current collector substrate.

By “seeding” tin directly on the substrate, researchers grew germanium nanowire arrays – again resembling a forest, with the nanowires then collected into an anode which “restructures” itself over the first 100 charge/discharge cycles to maintain a high discharge capacity even at a discharge rate of 100C.  The anodes could “retain a reversible capacity of 888 mAh/g after 1,100 cycles at a C/2 rate,” and a discharge capacity of “435 mAh/g after 80 cycles at a discharge rate of 100C.”  These capacities are better than two times and four times those of currently available conventional lithium-ion cells, respectively.

The low-energy manufacturing technique and retention of high capacities, especially at the more gentle C rate, promises a long-life type of battery with good power capabilities.

Sakti 3

The most commercialized (so far) of the three technologies comes from an American firm proud of its corporate and intellectual affiliations.   “Financed by the world’s top cleantech fund, Khosla Ventures, and the world’s largest automotive investor, General Motors Ventures, the company has been recognized for its innovative approaches in Inc., Time, Automotive Engineering, the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and other media.

Sakti 3 solid-state battery, using no electrolyte and manufactured with low-cost methods

Sakti 3 solid-state battery, using no electrolyte and manufactured with low-cost methods

Sakti 3 heralds its manufacturing techniques as being an integral part of its technology.  “Process technology is a big part of what we do. We focused on robust processes. We methodically integrated vacuum technology into our tools which preserved good cell properties, while enabling high quality, large scale production. Today, Sakti’s technology offers high production rates, and scalable, low CAPEX (capital expenditure)-to-revenue production methods that have demonstrated very high energy density battery cells. Our aim is to build batteries everywhere – for all kinds of applications.”

While Sakti 3 is coy about its actual technology, it promotes its solid-state technology that would reduce the size and weight of lithium batteries, as well as the manufacturing costs.  That’s brought over $30 million in funding from Khosla and GM.

In an interview on the “Car Talk” web site, company founder and CEO Anne Marie Sastry said “the company can, in two years, produce cells at half the cost of conventional li-ion, but with double the energy density and half the weight. And they’ll also be very safe, she says. If true, that’s darned disruptive!”

The “next-generation” battery that’s shown at the end of this short video is part of Sakti’s appeal.

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