Milking Magnesium for All It’s Worth

Magnesium carries two positive charges for every one which lithium carries.  This simple fact was inspiration for Jordi Cabana, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor of chemistry in developing a magnesium-based battery.  Using magnesium in place of lithium led to this thought: “Because magnesium is an ion that carries two positive charges, every time we introduce a magnesium ion in the structure of the battery material we can move twice as many electrons,”  He added, “We hope that this work will open a credible design path for a new class of high-voltage, high-energy batteries.”

Cabana and his associates have shown they can replace the lithium ions, each of which carries a single positive charge, with magnesium ions, which have a plus-two charge, in battery-like chemical reactions, using an electrode with a structure like those in many of today’s devices.

Jordi Cabana, Assistant Professor at UIC. leading his team's research on the use of magnesium in batteries - potentially doubling energy over lithium batteries

Jordi Cabana, Assistant Professor at UIC. leading his team’s research on the use of magnesium in batteries – potentially doubling energy over lithium batteries

According to the University, the research is part of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne National Laboratory, that aims to achieve revolutionary advances in battery performance. The study is online in advance of print in the journal Advanced Materials.

The team’s press release explains, “Every battery consists of a positive and negative electrode and an electrolyte. The electrodes exchange electrons and ions, which are usually of positive charge. Only the ions flow through the electrolyte, which is an electric insulator so as to force the electrons to flow through the external circuit to power the vehicle or device.”

During recharging, that exchange is reversed, but with a not perfectly efficient chemical reaction.  Because the ions being moved around distort the structure of the battery, battery life is limited.

Cabana explains that he wants to maximize the number of electrons moved per ion, “”The more times you can do this back and forth, the more times you will be able to recharge your battery and still get the use of it between charges.”  Maximizing the number of electrons moved per ion increases the energy produced while reducing the battery’s distortion from ion flow.

“Like a parking garage, there are only so many spaces for the cars,” Cabana said. “But you can put a car in each space with more people inside without distorting the structure.”

Proving that magnesium can be reversibly inserted into an electrode’s material structure is a step toward a prototype, and Cabana notes that, “It’s not a battery yet, it’s piece of a battery, but with the same reaction you would find in the final device.”

The University gives credit to the researchers on the project and to the agencies funding this research.  None of these projects seem to be garage science, but rather require dedicated researchers and substantial funding.

Chunjoong Kim, postdoctoral research associate, UIC chemistry, was first author of the paper. Tanghong Yi, postdoctoral research associate, and Ryan Bayliss, postdoctoral research associate, UIC chemistry; Patrick Phillips, research assistant professor, and Robert Klie, associate professor, UIC physics; Baris Key, Sang-Don Han, Zhengcheng Zhang and Anthony Burrell, Argonne National Laboratory; Dennis Nordlund, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Meinan He, Argonne and   Worchester, Massachusetts; and Young-Sang Yu, post doctoral research fellow, UIC chemistry and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, were co-authors on the paper.

The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), JCESR is a major partnership that integrates researchers from many disciplines to overcome critical scientific and technical barriers and create new breakthrough energy storage technology. Led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, partners include national leaders in science and engineering from academia, the private sector, and national laboratories. Their combined expertise spans the full range of the technology-development pipeline from basic research to prototype development to product engineering to market delivery. JCESR is a DOE Energy Innovation Hub supported by DOE’s Office of Science.

Additional support was provided by the Advanced Light Source DOE Office of Science awards DE-AC02-05CH11231, and DE-SC0012583. Use of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, is supported by the U.S. DOE, Office of Science, DE-AC02-76SF00515. The UIC JEOL JEM-ARM 200CF is supported by an MRI-R^2 grant from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. DMR-0959470).

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Solar Impulse Readied for Pacific Test

With Andre’ Borschberg recuperating in Switzerland, Bertrand Piccard flew Solar Impulse 2 on the last leg of its China stay, making a 17 hour, 22 minute, 1,344 kilometer (725.7 nautical mile) flight between Chongquing and Nanjing.  The plane is being readied for its biggest leap so far, from Nanjing to Hawaii, a five-day mission that will test the endurance of the pilot and all systems of the giant ultralight aircraft. The Star, a Malaysian newspaper, reported what could be a growing concern.  “’Can we make the pilot sustainable as well?’ Andre Borschberg said by video link from Switzerland, where he is receiving treatment for health problems.”  He described his problems as “shingles,” with frequent migraines, both painful inflictions.

The Solar Impulse Team is always on hand, and always enthusiastic.  SolarImpulse.com

The Solar Impulse Team is always on hand, and always enthusiastic. SolarImpulse.com

“’This will be the human challenge when we tackle the next leg,’ he told an audience of reporters.”  Borschberg is scheduled to rejoin the airplane in Nanjing, where he and Piccard will plan the Pacific crossing.  This may be a greater issue than the meteorological or mechanical problems faced so far.  This leg of the round-the-world voyage was delayed for three weeks while the team waited for a favorable “weather window.”

14,000 feet above the Chinese countryside, a perfect setting for an adventurous selfie.  SolarImpulse.com

14,000 feet above the Chinese countryside, a perfect setting for an adventurous selfie. SolarImpulse.com

While on way to Nanjing, Piccard became to first user of a Chinese selfie stick to snap a few pictures of himself and SI2 14,000 feet above the earth.

Your editor discovered this revelatory video on Youtube, providing insights into the construction, operation, and problems of the four-meter (over 13 feet) propellers that pull HB-SIB through the air.  The fact that the team had to install a “teetering” mechanism in the propeller hubs resembles the solution Eric Raymond used on his propeller on Sunseeker I.  The device helps to reduce vibrations at different frequencies as the props vary their speeds.

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e-Genius Extends Its Range

Shown at the E-Flight Expo at Friedrichshafen’s Aero 2015, Stuttgart University’s e-Genius had an aerodynamic-looking pod next to one wing, containing an ENGIRO range extender consisting of a Wankel-type engine and a generator.  The unit could, as its name implies, help e-Genius go for new records to add to its already significant collection.

Bill Lofton at EV Hangar has detailed the extender, now associated with the e-Genius and in a larger variant on the Equator P2 amphibian being built in Norway by Tomas Broedreskift.

Aixro/ENGIRO Hybrid pod   next to e-Genius at Aero 2015

Aixro/ENGIRO Hybrid pod next to e-Genius at Aero 2015

Equator’s web site describes its power system: “The hybrid propulsion system being developed by Equator is called EHPS (Equator Hybrid Propulsion System). The engine specific project is being co-funded by Transnova and the company doing the development work with us on this is ENGIRO. We will design a custom engine and generator specified specifically for the P2. Power out in the prop is 100kW (approx. 130HP) and the generator will produce 57-60kW of power charging the batteries. The combustion engine will be a Wankel engine that runs on bio-diesel fuels and jet-fuel. The fuel tank can hold 100l and this should give you a flying time of 5-6 hrs. max.”

Engiro RE15-1 hybrid generator unit with Wankel engine on right, generator on left

Engiro RE15-1 hybrid generator unit with Wankel engine on right, generator on left.  20 kW model is identical, but turns over faster

The version on the e-Genius is the smaller 20 kilowatt model, comprising an Aixro Wankel engine and “a permanent excited synchronous machine (most compact electrical machine)” generator.  The demonstrated efficiency of e-Genius, having set seven world records in two days in July, 2014 with Klaus Ohlman at the controls, was reported by Soaring Café:

– Airspeed on a 100 kilometer out and return distance: 178.1 km/h (110.42 mph)
– Airspeed during 500 km out and return: 93.03 km/h (57.68 mph)
– Distance of 504 km (312.48 miles)
– Absolute altitude gain: 6,376 meters (20,918 feet)
– Time to climb up to 6000 m (19,685 feet) : 1 h 53 min
– Altitude kept during at least 90s: 6,350m (20,833 feet)
– Airspeed in a straight line of 15 km: 229.7 km/h (142.41 mph)

The extremely compact unit (said to fit on an A3 sheet of paper (420 mm x 297 mm, or 16.5 inches x 11.7 inches), weighs 32 kilograms (70.4 pounds).  It generates 20 kilowatts (26.8 horsepower) of electrical output, with the four-stroke Wankel engine turning 6,000 rpm.  According to the data sheet, the 294-cc engine consumes five liters per hour at an output of 15 kW.

Given the clean nature of e-Genius, having toured the Green Flight Challenge course in 2011 at a fuel economy equivalent to 387.3 passenger miles per gallon at over 100 mph, a range extender on less than full power would enable extremely long flights while recharging the airplane’s batteries, and maybe allow removal of some of the 300 kilograms (660 pounds) carried by e-Genius.

Even an expensive (the engine costs $5,450 minimum from an American supplier) range extender would cost less than several hundreds of pounds of lithium batteries, and the energy density of a non-fossil fuel would keep economies high.

The Xairo XF40 Wankel engine, a higher-speed, higher output version of the engine on the e-Genius hybrid pod

The Aixro XF40 Wankel engine, a higher-speed, higher output version of the engine on the e-Genius hybrid pod.  Unit puts out 35 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, weighs 41.2 pounds

RennTech Karting, a distributor in Florida, sells the Aixro engines, and even has an aeronautical version.  It’s rare to see a manufacturer and distributor willing to take on the challenges of aerial applications, so this may have some potential for American homebuilt aircraft types to try their hand at creating a domestic hybrid.

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The Ypselon – Beauty Two Years in the Future

Dan Johnson, reporting on his web site, said that on seeing this lovely display item at the E-Flight Expo at Aero 2015, he “was tempted to pass by as merely a concept that might go nowhere.”  His talk with the designer, airline pilot David De Ridder, convinced him that this project has funding and substance behind it.

Ypselon is a Y-tailed speedster that is also aerobatic, according to its video

Ypselon is a Y-tailed speedster that is also aerobatic, according to its video

Don’t send a deposit check just yet.  De Ridder told Johnson that the development of the aircraft should be finished by 2017 and kits should be available by 2019.  In the meantime, the project’s web site provides a tantalizing vision of what could be in electric light sport aircraft.

Although the site is an alluring demonstration of computer graphics and slick word play, the numbers in the specifications section (subject to change without notice), are something that might be accountable, and don’t seem unduly optimistic, given current technology.  A maximum cruising speed of 173 knots (199 mph) and economical cruising speed of 130 knots (149.5) don’t seem unrealistic given the sleek lines of the Ypselon.  Its wing doesn’t seem too diminutive to support a stall speed of 50 knots (57.5 mph) although its span may be marginal with the peak power (90 kilowatts or 130 horsepower) to achieve the promised 1,500 feet-per-minute rate of climb – especially fully loaded.  Despite the video, all this is probably predicted by computer drawings and calculations at this point, with no physical wind tunnel involved.

The airplane seems designed to fit into current European standards for two-seat light aircraft, with a loaded weight of 1,210 pounds (550 kilograms) and a payload of 484 pounds, more than enough for two average-sized Europeans and their luggage, but not for batteries, so those must be included in the airplane’s empty weight, or however the rules will shake out for future electric LSAs.  That would leave the empty weight at 726 pounds, possibly enough, with modern construction, to allow batteries for the promised 500 kilometer (310 mile) range.  That would require a little over two hours endurance at its economical cruising speed, which, given the empty weight, may allow enough batteries to make that possible.  In two to four years, the whole game may change significantly.

5 to 8 euro per hour operating costs would make the airplane a wonderful platform on which to go sightseeing

5 to 8 euro per hour operating costs would make the airplane an affordable platform on which to go sightseeing

Ypselon is what might be thought of as an aspirational airplane, much like a Lincoln Continental is an aspirational car for Ford Focus owners.  When new pilots earn their certificate in an Alpha Electro or Airbus or PC-Aero trainer, they might desire something like Ypselon.  The 100,000 euro ($109,000) price tag for the kit makes that a reasonable aspiration, a lateral move price-wise from the trainer market.  With its beautiful lines and promise of fun flying, the airplane will attract attention and buyers.

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With today’s AVWeb report from Mary Grady at Aero in Friedrichshafen, Germany, the wraps are off the commercial reality that Pipistrel is ready to market its Alpha Electro, a new airplane for the training market.   The production version of the former WattsUp, the airplane’s primary mission is to provide training in the pattern for aspiring pilots.

Details abound in the video, with Tine Tomazic, Chief Engineer for the Slovenian firm, showing Mary the features of the craft.  One of the best features may be its 100,000 euro price tag, well under pricing for many conventionally-powered light sport aircraft that would compete in the trainer market.

Since Aero brings in exhibitors from all over the world and incorporates an E-Flight Expo, one can expect to see the latest developments in electric flight there, all displayed under the motto, “Electrical, Ecological, Evolutionary.“

The Chinese RX1E from Liaoning General Aviation Academy, similar in configuration and slightly lagging in performance to the Electro, is being displayed in the Expo, allowing potential buyers to make reasonable comparisons.

Potential clients size up the RX1E at Aero's E-Flight Expo

Potential clients size up the RX1E at Aero’s E-Flight Expo

With George Bye and the Aero Electric Aircraft Company (A. E. A. C.) having scored an agreement with Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Oklahoma, the first 20 delivery slots of the new Sun Flyer electric airplane are reserved for that school.  Another client, Independence Aviation in Denver, Colorado, recently made an advance deposit on an early delivery position for a new Sun Flyer.

In the press release, “Bob Stedman, President/CEO of IA, said the management of IA has been extremely concerned about the rapidly rising cost of learning to fly and the impact on the aviation industry. ‘We applaud the efforts of other companies that are working on giving re-birth to Cessna 152s and 172s, and consider those to be important efforts on their part,’ he said. ‘However, even rebuilding those venerable trainers doesn’t have the impact on training and experience costs that needs to happen. Only the new solar-electric Sun Flyer fully addresses those concerns. IA has great faith in looking at the industry differently, whether it is how personal airplanes are used or how we train today’s pilots. We believe the Sun Flyer is a true game-changer for our industry.’”

George Bye and the staff at A. E. A. C. show off the Sun Flyer prototype

George Bye and the staff at A. E. A. C. show off the Sun Flyer prototype

Writing for Wired Magazine in January, Mary Grady headlined the article, “Electric Airplanes Are the Future of Pilot Training.”  That may be less predictive and more breaking news very soon if current trends continue.

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Doubling Down on Sulfur

Lithium-sulfur batteries have been off-stage hopefuls, waiting for their chance to strut their stuff – and that time may have arrived, at least in trial performances.  Researchers at the Department of WCU Energy Engineering, Hanyang University in South Korea and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Rome, Italy have “demonstrated a highly reliable lithium–sulfur battery showing cycle performance comparable to that of commercially available lithium-ion batteries while offering more than double the energy density.”

The team, led by a group from Hanyang University, designed a lithium-sulfur cell using “a highly reversible dual-type sulfur cathode (solid sulfur electrode and polysulfide catholyte) and a lithiated Si/SiOx nanosphere anode.”

Their paper in the ACS journal Nano Letters reported that their cell showed “superior battery performance in terms of high specific capacity, excellent charge–discharge efficiency, and remarkable cycle life,”   The cell delivered ∼750 mAh g–1 over 500 cycles (85-percent of the initial capacity).

Lithium-sulfur battery capacity, charge retention

Lithium-sulfur battery capacity, charge retention

Researchers suggested these “behaviors” may result from “a synergistic effect of the enhanced electrochemical performance of the newly designed anode and the optimized layout of the cathode.”

Battery makers such as Sion Power and Saft, have developed commercially-viable lithium-sulfur batteries, but not with energy densities competitive with lithium-ion to this point.  Lithium-sulfur does offer promise, however, with the low cost of sulfur (partly from its abundance) and high theoretical energy density.  Hanyang and University of Rome see numbers of sulfur-based cathodes of 1,675 milliamps per gram and 2,500 Watt-hours per kilogram, both exceeding those for lithium-ion units.

Researchers had to overcome at least two issues presented by lithium-sulfur batteries, “low active material utilization, and low stability of the sulfur electrodes due to the formation of soluble lithium polysulfides during cell operation.”  Fighting fire with fire (not a reasonable approach in battery development normally) the team added lithium polysulfide to the battery’s electrolyte to improve cycle performance and energy density.

The abstract for their Nano Letters paper gives a few of the reasons for the battery’s superior performance.  “Lithium–sulfur batteries could become an excellent alternative to replace the currently used lithium-ion batteries due to their higher energy density and lower production cost; however, commercialization of lithium–sulfur batteries has so far been limited due to the cyclability problems associated with both the sulfur cathode and the lithium–metal anode. Herein, we demonstrate a highly reliable lithium–sulfur battery showing cycle performance comparable to that of lithium-ion batteries; our design uses a highly reversible dual-type sulfur cathode (solid sulfur electrode and polysulfide catholyte) and a lithiated Si/SiOx nanosphere anode. Our lithium–sulfur cell shows superior battery performance in terms of high specific capacity, excellent charge–discharge efficiency, and remarkable cycle life, delivering a specific capacity of ~750 mAh g–1 over 500 cycles (85% of the initial capacity). These promising behaviors may arise from a synergistic effect of the enhanced electrochemical performance of the newly designed anode and the optimized layout of the cathode.”

The paper, “Highly Cyclable Lithium–Sulfur Batteries with a Dual-Type Sulfur Cathode and a Lithiated Si/SiOx Nanosphere Anode,”  by authors Sang-Kyu Lee, Seung-Min Oh, Eunjun Park, Bruno Scrosati, Jusef Hassoun, Min-Sik Park, Young-Jun Kim, Hansu Kim, Ilias Belharouak, and Yang-Kook Sun was published in Nano Letters this month.

Many of the same researchers performed related work on a polysulfide-added electrolyte as a buffer to prevent cathode dissolution.  Their full paper on that research can be seen here.

The abstract for their Nano Letters paper gives a few of the reasons for the battery’s superior performance.  “Lithium–sulfur batteries could become an excellent alternative to replace the currently used lithium-ion batteries due to their higher energy density and lower production cost; however, commercialization of lithium–sulfur batteries has so far been limited due to the cyclability problems associated with both the sulfur cathode and the lithium–metal anode. Herein, we demonstrate a highly reliable lithium–sulfur battery showing cycle performance comparable to that of lithium-ion batteries; our design uses a highly reversible dual-type sulfur cathode (solid sulfur electrode and polysulfide catholyte) and a lithiated Si/SiOx nanosphere anode. Our lithium–sulfur cell shows superior battery performance in terms of high specific capacity, excellent charge–discharge efficiency, and remarkable cycle life, delivering a specific capacity of ∼750 mAh g–1 over 500 cycles (85% of the initial capacity). These promising behaviors may arise from a synergistic effect of the enhanced electrochemical performance of the newly designed anode and the optimized layout of the cathode.”

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BASF NiMH Battery Rebirth?

BASF, according to Wikipedia, is the largest chemical producer in the world and is headquartered in Ludwigshafen, Germany.  BASF originally stood for Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (English: Baden Aniline and Soda Factory). Today, the four letters are a registered trademark….”

With ongoing research into increasing energy storage capabilities of nickel metal hydride (NIMH) batteries to rival or exceed that of lithium batteries, BASF could make breakthroughs in building a safer, lower-cost battery.  Using an Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) award of $3.8 million, the company is working on a project titled, “High Performance NiMH Alloy for Next-Generation Batteries.” Funding applies through February of next year.

Imagine this Prius battery 1/10th the volume or incorporated into the vehicle structure, as BASF would like to see

Imagine this Prius battery 1/10th the volume or incorporated into the vehicle structure, as BASF would like to see

ARPA-E’s project description lists some of the anticipated benefits of “these new battery chemistries,” including better energy density allowing up to three times the driving range of current products, prevention of overheating, and immunity to catastrophic failure.  The improved NIMH batteries could be “incorporated into the structure of a vehicle to improve strength in some cases. Much of this can be accomplished at a 30% lower cost compared to conventional batteries, thus bolstering widespread adoption of EVs.”

Over five million EVs drive around on NiMH power today; newer designs strive for lighter weight and higher energy density in their power packs.  BASF wants to compete with a lighter, more powerful NiMH battery pack.  One benefit of the nickel batteries is their longevity.  One friend who owns a first-generation Prius reports his has over 200,000 miles and is “just fine,” while PriusChat.com has corroborating reports with some owners having over 300,000 miles on Gen 2 and 3 Priuses with their original battery packs.

Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, writing for TransportEvolved.com, reports that BASF hopes to increase the energy density of NiMH batteries by 1,000 percent, the much-desired 10X battery for which EV designers keep hoping.  Even though they start with an energy density of 60-120 Watt-hours per kilogram, BASF projections could have them at 600-1,200 wh/kg if their research goes well, topping the best lithium batteries at 300 wh/kg.  BASF is apparently shooting for 700 wh/kg, a big jump over current technology – and if accompanied by much lower prices – a strong sales point.

The stability and freedom from flammability make the NiMH batteries worth examining.  At the cell level, lithium batteries are much more powerful for their weight than NiMH, but when one adds the battery management system (BMS) required to keep things under control in the lithium battery pack, that advantage is reduced considerably.

Current state of relative energy density of NiMH, lithium batteries could change radically if BASF research bears fruit

Current state of relative energy density of NiMH, lithium batteries could change radically if BASF research bears fruit, with the NiMH battery going literally off the chart upward and to the right

TransportEvolved suggests that such a breakthrough in NiMH technology “could very well pave the way to cars that could travel more than 1,000 miles on a battery pack the same size as the ones in today’s mid-priced electric cars.”

Perhaps stretching the point, the writer adds, “At that point, the use of hydrogen fuel cells and indeed any kind of fossil fuel, would become something of a moot point for most car drivers.”

Noting that although results so far are only at the lab scale, the article explains that BASF is a huge company with enormous research resources, and seems willing to press on with this effort.

Kevin Bullis, writing for the MIT Technology Review, says that “BASF researchers are aiming for batteries that cost $146 per kilowatt-hour, roughly half as much as the cheapest lithium-ion electric car batteries.”  This would put the cost of a Nissan Leaf battery pack at around $3,800, about two-thirds the cost of the pack now being used.  The 4.75 kw-hr battery pack used in the Pipistrel “Plug and Play” system would cost under $700, not counting charging or battery management systems – the latter much simpler than those for lithium systems.

MIT reports NiMH batteries “don’t catch fire if they overheat or are overcharged so their cooling systems and electronic controls are far simpler. Safety systems can add about 25 percent to the cost of a lithium-ion battery pack, and increase their weight by 50 percent, based on data from the industry group U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium.”

Relative heat tolerance of NiMH batteries compared to lead acid, Nicad and lithium-ion cells

Relative heat tolerance of NiMH batteries compared to lead acid, Nicad and lithium-ion cells

Because of this added weight, “One recent analysis found that the total usable amount of energy storage in lithium-ion electric car batteries is between 60 and 120 watt-hours per kilogram. Researchers still need to test whether BASF’s cells can last as long as conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries.”

If BASF is able to pull off these radical changes in NiMH cells, there may be a new contender in EV energy storage, including batteries for electric aviation.

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Corn Stalks and Cobs Into Clean Hydrogen

Hydrogen has several demerits in coming to the energy market.  A primary issue for H2 critics – that hydrogen requires more energy to produce than it gives back – may have been answered by Dr. Percival Zhang of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, which is in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering.  We’ve covered his work before, usually in terms of turning corn into biofuels or in finding biological ways to produce hydrogen with low energy input.

Percival Zhang (right), and his recent doctoral graduate Joe Rollin in their Virginia Tech laboratory

Percival Zhang (right), and his recent doctoral graduate Joe Rollin in their Virginia Tech laboratory

Part of his exploratory mandate comes from his ECHo cycle.  “I wish to suggest constructing the electricity-carbohydrate-hydrogen (ECHo) cycle… could meet four basic needs of humans: air, water, food and energy, while minimizing environmental footprints. In it, electricity is a universal high-quality energy carrier; hydrogen is a clear electricity carrier; and carbohydrate is a hydrogen carrier, an electricity storage compound and sources for food, feed and materials. By using this cycle, we could replace crude oil with carbohydrates (CH2O), feed the world, power cellular phone[s], produce renewable materials, etc.”

Zhang and his researchers have used sugar cane and corn as means to produce biofuels, and found ways to break down xylose, an abundant sugary component of plants, to produce hydrogen with very low heat and therefore low energy inputs.

Better yet, he’s advanced his program to use non-food materials – in this case corn stover, the stalks, cobs, and husks from that plant – to produce hydrogen, fulfilling at least part of his ECHo philosophy.  Leaving the kernels for people and animal feed, the usually non-edible parts of the plant supply the energy to maintain our high-flying lifestyle with minimal environmental effects to air and water.

You and the cattle will never eat this, but it makes great hydrogen fuel

You and the cattle will never eat this, but it makes great hydrogen fuel

Virginia Tech says, “The team’s findings, published Monday in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help speed the widespread arrival of the hydrogen-powered vehicles in a way that is inexpensive and has extremely low carbon emissions.”  For those who want to pursue the findings, the Proceedings makes this article available as an open-source document.

Zhang explains the importance of the work“This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy – producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources. The team already has significant funding for the next step of the project, which is to scale up production to a demonstration size.” 

Joe Rollin is a former doctoral student of Zhang’s at Virginia Tech and co-founder with Zhang of the start-up company Cell-free Bioinnovations. He graduated in 2013 with a doctorate in biological systems engineering.  He and Zhang are building on previous work with xylose “to develop cell-free enzymatic biosystems that can economically competitive produce biofuels (e.g. hydrogen, electricity), biochemicals, fine chemicals, biomaterials, food and even feed from nonfood biomass.”  They’ve received over $375,000 in funds from the National Science Foundation and the U. S. Department of Energy.

Skipping the steps of cleaning and refining the source sugars, Zhang’s researchers used “dirty” biomass – the husks and stalks of corn plants – create their fuels.  Using local fuel sources further helps save manufacturing costs.

Virginia Tech explains, “Rollin used a genetic algorithm along with a series of complex mathematical expressions to analyze each step of the enzymatic process that breaks down corn stover into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. He also confirmed the ability of this system to use both sugars glucose and xylose at the same time, which increases the rate at which the hydrogen is released. Typically in biological conversions, these two sugars can only be used sequentially, not simultaneously, which adds time and money to the process. “

Rollin’s alorithmic model tripled reaction rates, decreasing the required facility size to about that of a gas station, which reduces associated capital costs.  Localization of manufacturing and distribution could help solve one of the major impediments to hydrogen’s acceptance – the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure.

Each one of these gas station-sized centers would benefit from the efficiency of the process, “at least 10 times that of the fastest photo-hydrogen production system,” according to Virginia Tech.  The reaction takes place at “modest conditions,” with the high-purity hydrogen easily separated from aqueous reactants and enzymes – ready to be used in fuel cell vehicles.

“We believe this exciting technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around the world and displace fossil fuels,” Rollin said.

The project was funded in part by the Shell GameChanger initiative and the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer program.

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On Monday, while waiting for Bertrand Piccard to land Solar Impulse 2 in Chongqing, China, Andre’ Borschberg tweeted, “Congratulations to Yael Maguire’s team on their first test flight with #Aquila, taking Mark’s vision to a new level.” “Mark” refers to Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook, and Aquila refers to a 737-size, solar-powered drone that will be capable of months-long flights, bringing Internet access to billions who lack connectivity today.

Test flights of Aquila are currently being held in England, although it's hard to tell if this is a full-size prototype

Test flights of Aquila are currently being held in England, although it’s hard to tell if this is a full-size prototype

According to the Christian Science Monitor, “At this week’s F8 developers conferenceFacebook has highlighted exactly how far the company is looking to expand beyond its social-network roots. “On Thursday, the tech giant announced that it had completed the first test flights for its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, in the United Kingdom.” The New York Times reports that the Aquila weighs as much as a small car and has a wingspan of 95 feet, slightly larger than a Boeing 737.  Developers say it can maintain flight at 60,000 to 90,000 feet for three months at a time, beaming Internet connections via laser beams.

Juliette Garside, reporting last year on the Guardian web site, said “Facebook has bought a Somerset-based designer of solar-powered drones for $20m (£12m) as it goes head-to-head with Google in a high-altitude race to connect the world’s most remote locations to the internet. “Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has unveiled plans (Editor’s Note: Where else, but on his Facebook page?) to beam broadband connections from the skies, using satellites, lasers and unmanned high-altitude aircraft designed by the 51-year old British engineer Andrew Cox. “His Ascenta consultancy will become part of Facebook’s Internet.org not-for-profit venture, joining a team of scientists and engineers who formerly worked at Nasa and the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory.”

In a strange kind of competition with Google, which has been promoting its high-altitude Internet program, Project Loon, the two web giants use two very different technologies.  Google proposes using a network of stratospheric balloons to provide “an uninterrupted Internet signal around the 40th parallel of the Earth’s southern hemisphere,” according to the Guardian. Financial incentives abound to there “first with the most.”  Facebook serves 1.3 million existing Internet users.   Four million are not currently on the net, a sizable new client base that could potentially triple revenues for either Facebook or Google.

Yael Maguire, an Internet.org engineer and engineering director at Facebook, explains: “In suburban environments we are looking at a new type of plane (he prefers that phrase to “drone”) architecture that flies at 20,000 meters (65,800 feet), at the point where the winds are the lowest. It’s above commercial airlines, it’s even above the weather. They circle around and broadcast internet down but significantly closer than a satellite.” Invisible infrared laser beams, which can carry large amounts of information at high speeds across space using free-space optical communication technology (FSO), will connect the satellites to each other and to receivers on the surface of the Earth. A possible explanation for Google’s south-of-the equator strategy is that only 16-percent of Africa’s population used the internet last year, compared with 75-percent of Europeans.

Balloons and slow airplanes will also present a challenge for ground controllers, both in Google centers and national air control systems.  Either’s ascent or descent through other traffic will have to be monitored carefully, with pre-determined protocols probably necessary to prevent conflicts.  Existing FAA rules in this country require airplanes, because of their greater maneuverability, to give the right-of-way to balloons, and maintaining separation between slow-moving aerial vehicles at high altitude will certainly add a new level of need for some form of sequencing and separation.

The Internet giants at the core of these new technologies are stretching the limits of communication and our ability to make the World Wide Web a truly world-wide part of everyone’s life.

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Solar Impulse 2’s 20-hour flight from Mandalay, Myanmar to Chongqing, China included the slowest ground speeds in the massive solar airplane’s history.

The Solar Impulse web site reported at 17:35 UTC on “Bertrand Piccard has finally landed Si2 in Chongqing, China, under the applauses of the solar teams and solar impulse fans around the world. The landing has been difficult as the pilot had to manoeuver the aircraft in a rather windy spot after a 20h30 long flight. The team in Monaco is honored to receive the visit of Prince Albert of Monaco at the Mission Control Center. “

Bertrand Piccard's wife, Michelle, happily displays her pass that allows her to be on hand for SI2's landing at Chongqing.  Logistics for this trip must be daunting

Bertrand Piccard’s wife, Michelle, happily displays her pass that allows her to be on hand for SI2′s landing at Chongqing. Logistics for this trip must be daunting

Piccard reached 26,500 feet on his traversal of the Himalayas, certainly a cold and hazardous flight in the dark.  Earlier, he enjoyed an earth-friendly serving of taboulé, quinoa & spelt over Myranmar at 24,000 feet.

According to MSN, “The flight has already set two records for solar-powered flight. The first was for the longest distance covered – the 1,468 kilometers from Muscat, Oman to Ahmedabad, India. The second was for the speed of 117 knots (216 kilometers per hour) reached during the leg to Mandalay from Varanasi, India.”  This leg set a record for the slowest speed, with Piccard battling headwinds that actually had SI2 flying backwards as it neared the airport at Chongquing.

It hardly seems that either pilot has time to sit down during their stays in the countries they visit.  In Chongquing, they reached out to 1,500 junior high students, and gave them a lesson in solar flight and the applications such technology might have in their polluted land.  To be fair, China is making intense efforts to close down coal-fired power plants and replace them with systems powered by solar and wind energy.

The kids, obviously intelligent, well-informed and energized could not have helped asking the questions which The Daily Mail, an English tabloid, had also presented to the two explorers.

Their lead sentence on the flight displays the curiosity most juveniles and adults possess, along with the audacity to ask questions which many would find embarrassing.  “Imagine spending five days cooped up in a cold box with barely enough room to stretch your arms as you forego shaving, showering and eating proper meals.

“That’s what two pilots flying around the world in the Solar Impulse plane are currently subjecting themselves to.

“But while the conditions sound grim, the pioneers are keen to stress that the flight is essential to prove to the world how useful solar power can be.”

The Mail explains that one can’t stand or move about easily, and that “A ‘visit’ to the toilet is pretty uncomfortable too – they simply use a hole in their seat.”  There.  Now we all know.

Piccard and Borshchberg do not shower, using wet tissues to clean themselves.  They don’t shave on board, since the weight of a razor is unwelcome.  “…They must eat things that are sustainable and rewarding for their bodies.  The daily intake for the pilots is 5.2 pounds (2.4 kilograms) of food, 84.5 ounces (2.5 liters) of water, and 33.8 ounces (one liter) of sports drink.”  Their personalized diets are designed by Nestle.

Changing clothes is a challenge, since pilots must keep their harness on at all times.  “’On the harness you have a life preserver, you have all your materials, in case you have to jump out in an emergency. Everything has to be on you at all times.’”  The Daily Mail reports, along with the news that the airplane moves like a “leaf in autumn” in windy conditions.  This requires the pilots to retain control at all times until they find a spot of calm air, put the airplane on its partial autopilot, and take a “catnap.”

For a massive airplane, the cockpit of SI2 has little wiggle room

For a massive airplane, the cockpit of SI2 has little wiggle room

“’We plan to rest 20 minutes at a time, sitting sometimes, laying down other times – and only over the ocean of course,’” Borschberg told the Mail.  The pilots’ yoga training comes in handy here, beyond its ability to help them withstand long hours in the cramped cockpit.

“Flashing goggles” wake the pilots, along with a vibrating chair and auditory alarms.  With five-day ocean crossings and 20-minute naps, enforced alertness will be a necessity.

Winning over officials and students along their flight path, Piccard and Borschberg are elevating their mission to educate people of every major culture along their way.  They’ve even made it to hero status with a major tabloid newspaper and expanded their message to a broader population.  That is a major accomplishment in a media-saturated and often bored world.

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