Category Archives: videos

Water energy that isn’t hydro

MIT’s Daniel Nocera and team have discovered a new process of electrolysis that might revolutionize the solar industry. Image from Fast Company.

Fast Company is reporting that The Tata Group and Sun Catalytix have joined forces to explore the potential for generating cheap energy directly from water. The founder of Sun Catalytix, MIT professor of chemistry and energy Daniel Nocera, and his team recently found a way to imitate plant photosynthesis by putting a silicon leaf, coated with a proprietary cobalt and phosphate solution,  into a jar of water. The Tata Group is betting that this is a huge breakthrough.

Attempts to replicate the tiny and efficient solar engines found in plants, which breathe (and generate energy in the process) by harnessing the sun’s rays to split water molecules, have been attempted numerous times over the past 100 years. Electrolysis, which can split water molecules by passing an electrical current through the water, is one such attempt. While electrolysis works, the amount of energy required, the need for pure water, and the potential for competing side reactions has made the approach less than ideal.

What Nocera and his team have done is to create a similar process as electrolysis, but without the need for large amounts of energy, the ability to use even waste water, and with less potential for side reactions. When the team plunged their experimental silicon leaf into a jar of water, they were able to generate power at an efficiency rate surpassing modern solar panels.Although the process is still in its very early, experimental phase, Nocera hopes to refine it enough to power a small home from a bottle-and-a-half of water.

The Tata Group, an Indian group of companies operating in a variety of business sectors, is committed to serving the societies they operate within. Part of this commitment is an interest in bringing resources to low-income and under-served sectors. They hope that Nocera’s discovery can lead to the development of refrigerator-sized power plants, bringing energy to the 3 billion people who currently have to do without.

Nocera estimates that if his solution works as expected and can be further developed, a swimming pool full of water would meet the world’s current daily electricity needs of 14 terawatts. Obviously such a discovery would be a tremendous game changer. We’re watching with interest to see what happens next.

You can watch a video about Sun Catalytix below.

A serious case of bad publicity

Oil-stained Northern Rockhopper Penguin on Nightingale Island, South Atlantic (Andrew Evans/National Geographic)

Talk about a serious case of bad publicity for big oil on top of an already catastrophic ecological disaster!

On March 16, the cargo ship MV Oliva, for unknown reasons, hit Nightingale Island in the remote southern Atlantic island chain of Tristan Da Cunha at a speed of 14 knots, spilling its load of soybeans and about 800 tons of fuel oil. The Tristan Da Cunha chain is the remotest set of inhabited islands in the world and Nightingale Island is home to about 20,000 of the endangered sub-species of Northern Rockhopper Penguin. The captain and crew escaped but the ship broke up in the heavy surf and an oil slick spread around the island.

It just so happens that Andrew Evans, a photographer for National Geographic Traveler, was headed to Nightingale Island on assignment. He was there fulfilling a lifelong dream of photographing its pristine shores that lie far “from the ills and pollution that plague other parts of the world.” Instead of an undisturbed ecosystem, he was greeted with the sight of penguins and seals dying beneath a coat of sticky black oil.

Evans photographed and has posted the results of the disaster. He says,

Today I watched as oil-stained penguins preened the oil from their feathers, which causes them to ingest large amounts of petroleum and will kill them if they are not treated. … It was a painful and disturbing scene. My only consolation is that the people of Tristan take their birds very seriously and the entire island is contributing to the rescue efforts.

Read his heart-wrenching blog post here and watch the video he posted of the oil spill’s aftermath below. With the 1-year anniversary of the BP Gulf Oil Spill approaching, this disaster doesn’t help the image of big oil at all. Incidentally, the ship was carrying Brazilian oil. President Obama recently told Brazil that the US stands ready to help them further develop their oil reserves and would be one of their best customers when they’re ready to sell.

Burton Richter’s blunt honest commentary on energy politics

When we interviewed Burton Richter on nuclear energy two weeks ago, just before the Japan earthquake, we ended up talking a fair bit about energy politics in the US. I always enjoy asking Burton about his views on DC and you will understand why when you listen to his views on some of the current political actions or non-actions. Who else would refer to the House Continuing Resolution as a China Advancement Bill of 2011?  He’s got a very good point there.

Check out Burton’s book Beyond Smoke and Mirrors also, and let us know what you think.

A view on nuclear power before Japan

Last Wednesday we interviewed Burton Richter, Professor Emeritus at Stanford and Nobel Laureate, and asked him about his views on the nuclear power policies in the US and energy politics in general. This was before the earthquake in Japan, and before the nuclear meltdown risks. I am sure we’ll go back to him and ask him for a response to this latest nuclear (luckily still potential) disaster.

Burton is a very outspoken and highly knowledgeable energy expert. I always enjoy talking to him and hearing his views.

Geothermal energy, the little-known resource

In Iceland and a few other countries, geothermal energy delivers a large part of the energy used for heating or cooling through geothermal heat pumps. But you may be surprised to learn that there are hundreds and thousands of buildings in the U.S. that are also hooked up to such systems. Geothermal energy is also applied at larger scales for electricity generation in various countries and, faced with rising energy demand, there has been renewed interest in developing this sustainable resource more aggressively.

But what is geothermal energy and how is it developed? Professor Roland Horne, who leads the geothermal institute at Stanford University, gives a lecture on existing and future geothermal energy systems in this Woods Institute Energy Seminar from 2007. While some of the statistics he cites are a few years out of date, his discussion remains relevant and provides an introduction to this potentially important future energy source.

Leadership Lessons from Inside the Oil Spill

Dr. Marcia McNutt explains how decisions were made for the 2010 Gulf oil spill response. McNutt is the director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and a science adviser to the United States Secretary of the Interior. She recently headed the Flow Rate Technical Group in May 2010, which attempted to measure the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Recorded as part of the Conradin von Gugelberg Memorial Lecture Series. Past lectures at…

Recorded Live on Feb. 3, 2011

Old/new ways of life unite in New Zealand’s geothermal production

New Zealand, one of my favorite countries in the world, is very determined to reduce its energy dependency. No surprise for an island nation that pays a hefty premium on imported energy because of its remote location. Luckily, New Zealand is blessed …with large natural renewable resources. It is particularly rich in geothermal energy and keen to expand its production. Many of the geothermal sites are owned by the Maori, the indigeneous people of New Zealand. The Maori have a very strong relationship to the land: they are keepers and guardians that put utmost importance on ensuring that land resources will be available for future generations to come. The exploration of geothermal energy therefore requires a careful synergy of indigenous knowledge and practices and modern day science and engineering. New Zealand is not the only country where this fascinating merge of the old and new ways of life is taking place. The Big Island of Hawaii, for example, is going through a similar process in its exploration of geothermal energy.

We talk to Dan Hikuroa, an earth scientist and Maori who is heavily involved with the geothermal energy expansion in New Zealand, about the challenges in implementing indigenous beliefs in contemporary settings.