May 31, 2012

Forbes

4 Cool Tech Ideas Helping the Planet

I’m no technocrat. I don’t think cool tech alone is going to get us out of the fine mess we’ve made of the planet. But everyday people come up with things that, while not saving the world, at least make it a tiny bit better. Here are four of them.

1. Electric apps: I love the idea of the iPhone PlugShare app, which not only finds available public electric car charging stations — some cars’ built-in software does that — but also connects users to a networks of share-friendly private owners with home chargers. Click on the map, and details of the station (accessible if the garage is locked, for instance) pop up.

And another iPhone idea, for would-be early adopters: The iEV Electric Car Simulator. Take your regular drive in the gas guzzler, and the app tells you what it would have been like (cost, carbon generated) in a Tesla Roadster or a Nissan Leaf. You’ll also be able to check your driving habits against EV range, using the iEV algorithm. It could help you decide if an EV would fit your lifestyle.

2. Lease that electric bike: Micah Toll is trying to “change the way people think about urban transportation. We want to take bicycles beyond recreational uses and replace cars on the road.” Toll, a recent University of Pittsburgh graduate, hooked up with two of his classmates to form Pulse Motors, which will market an electric bicycle, the student-produced Personal Electric Vehicle Zero, or PEV0. They’ve put 4,000 miles on prototypes, and plan to lease the bikes, at first just to students at about $1 a day. They’ll also sell the bikes, which have lithium-ion-phosphate battery packs and are speed governed to 20 mph, starting around $2,000.

According to Thorin Tobiassen, the ponytailed chief technology officer, the company’s goal is to get the production version down to 60 pounds from its current 70, and then start leasing. Campuses are only the start — Toll says the company has international plans, including expansion to Israel, which has a built-in electric charging network, courtesy of Better Place. Inc. Magazine identifies Pulse as one of 2012’s “Coolest College Startups.”

3. River power: Graduate student Tim Bagatti pushed a button at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and set a miniature river in motion at seven feet per second. He’spart of a team that’s trying to capture hydrokinetic energy not from ocean waves, but from the abundant river currents in America. In the tiny river is what looks like a snow plow blade on springs, and the movement of the waves makes it bounce up and down vigorously.

Reports Bagatti, “The Department of Energy says there is a gargantuan amount of energy in river waves, second only to ocean waves. Our work is with asymmetrically shaped prisms, and we’re testing morphing prisms that change shape with the intensity of the water flow.” He thinks commercial versions can be ready in two years. River energy systems are definitely kinder to aquatic life than dams, but it will be important to make sure no fish are harmed in the production of electricity.

4. Saving renewable energy: Solar and wind power are the future, right? Maybe, but they have a few significant hurdles first. Wind blows strongest at night, when electricity demand is low. Solar is strongest during the day, but cloudy weather means it’s unpredictable. Both sources are intermittent, so the big challenge is storing the energy when it’s generated. Enter Aquion Energy, a new battery company that uses nontoxic aqueous hybrid ion (AHI) chemistry to produce large-scale battery storage for renewable energy. The batteries are 100 percent recyclable, and currently have 5,000-cycle life (the company wants 20,000 cycles, plus 20-year calendar life).

Batteries have challenges: All the cells on Earth can store only 10 minutes of the world’s energy needs. Jay Whitacre, a Carnegie Mellon professor as well as founder and chief technology officer of Aquion, is trying to change the equation. He claims that his cells have twice the system life and 25 percent less cost than the sodium sulfur in wide use today.

Ted Wiley, an Aquion vice president, tells me the company is currently deploying in the kilowatt-hour scale, but will have megawatt-hour systems online next year. Aquion plans to take on A123 and other stationary cell players with big packs that Wiley said “have lower cost, last longer and are safer than the competition.” Commonly available materials such as activated carbon and manganese oxide are key to controlling costs, he said. 

This is the age for big battery claims. We need breakthroughs, and it looks like we’re getting them. I talked to Grant Norton, a mechanical engineering professor at Washington State, who’s pioneering tin-based anodes for lithium batteries. The value of tin has long been recognized, Norton said, but the lack of scalable production methods sidelined it in favor of carbon. But Washington State had a breakthrough, and that production is in sight, potentially yielding triple the energy density, faster recharge times and greatly reduced cost. It’s still at the lab scale, but expected to ramp up quickly, either through a spinoff company or a license to industry. It joins a broad range of other battery tech waiting to enter the market.