Solar Energy Prepares to Shine

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Solar energy has been the promise of the future for a long time now—the solar cell was invented in 1883. Yet it looks as if the coming decades will be when solar power truly finds its place in the sun.

Solar panels

There’s been a six-fold reduction in the cost of solar panels since 2008. The full implication of that isn’t as widely appreciated as it could be,” says Martin Green, professor at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “Solar panels now are getting to the kind of cost that makes them interesting for more applications.”

Those future applications could see commercial and residential buildings clad in solar panels. Already, the Delta, a self-powered building in New York built by Voltaic Solaire, uses solar panels on two sides of the building, as well as other solar panels that act as awnings above the windows.

Eventually “we will make transparent or semitransparent windows that use some of the light to generate electricity and the rest to light the interior,” Dr. Green says.

Drones may use solar panels to allow them to stay perpetually in flight. Mainstream aviation could someday use solar panels to make hydrogen for fuel. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana are working on paint with nanoparticles that will convert sunshine to power and turn any surface into a solar panel.

“If electric vehicles take off the way they’re supposed to, solar power could be a range-extender,” Dr. Green says. A rechargeable electric vehicle could juice up its batteries any time it’s parked in the sunlight.

Meanwhile, there’s an electric-car charging station in Pflugerville, Texas, that uses a giant sail made by Pvillion, a New York maker of flexible solar panels.

Another solar technology could recharge electric cars in a flash. Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany, drives a fuel-cell car requiring hydrogen as a fuel. The Fraunhofer Institute has a charging station that converts solar power into hydrogen. A fill-up there takes only five minutes at 700 bar, to deliver three kilograms of hydrogen, which can power the car for 300 kilometers.

Photovoltaic panels keep getting more efficient—commercial panels are able to convert 20% of the sunshine that falls on them, up from 7% to 8% when the industry began. “I think we will [reach] 30% to 40% efficiency in 20 years,” Dr. Green says.

Greater efficiency means cheaper panels because they could be smaller, and glass and packaging account for a large part of the cost. The key material in photovoltaic panels is silicon, which is the second most abundant element on Earth after oxygen, and is nontoxic to boot.

Solar cellsThe silicon used in solar panels is in a crystalized form, which resembles that of diamonds, and are nearly as strong as the gems.

Diamonds are for ever and silicon is almost the same,” Prof. Weber says. “Silicon has a very, very long lifetime.”

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New technologies continue to be developed. There are efforts to use a multilayer structure, which is very efficient but costly. To reduce the cost, the panels are cut into 1,000 small cells, each about two millimeters square. These are placed under a big lens that focuses the light on them, but the cells must move along two axes to track the sun, Prof. Weber says.

Solar power has entered a virtuous circle, where technological advances have led to greater efficiency, which has brought down the cost, which has expanded the market and has generated interest in research and development for new solar technology, Prof. Weber says.

Solar electricity in Frankfurt now costs about €0.10 ($0.14) per kilowatt-hour, he says. In Africa, it can cost as little as six or seven cents per kwh.

By contrast, average residential electricity prices, including taxes, in 2012, were €0.26 per kwh in Germany and €0.19 on average for the 15 original members of the European Union, according to the European Residential Energy Price Report by VaasaETT, a global energy think tank based in Helsinki. Electricity from oil costs about €0.20 per kilowatt-hour.

Most people are not aware that solar electricity has a lower cost of production than for electricity from oil,” Prof. Weber says, adding: “In a decade or two, solar energy will cost just two to three cents per kilowatt-hour.”

For private homes in Australia, “it’s cheaper to install solar panels than to buy electricity from the power company,” Dr. Green says. It’s no wonder that one in eight homes in Australia is installing solar panels.

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Shopping centers also have discovered the benefits of solar power. Retail buildings consume power during the day—when tariffs tend to be the most expensive—yet that’s ideal for making the most of solar power, he says.

One of the drawbacks of solar power—that it’s available only during the day—could one day change as well. Not just through better battery technology, but by creating a global grid.

We can imagine a world that’s globally connected,” Dr. Green says. “We’ll be able to transmit electricity from wherever the sun is shining to where it’s needed.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Recycling Gets Smarter as Demand Grows and Technology Evolves

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Recycling gets smarterTo understand how recycling will evolve in the future, follow the money.

“The reason recycling happens is because you can make money. Nobody aspires to pick through somebody’s trash. They have to have an economic incentive to do it,” says Adam Minter, author of the book “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.” “Good intentions don’t turn old beer cans into new ones. If you want to have a sustainable recycling industry, you have to focus on the economic side of it.”

Recycling revenue in the European Union from seven main categories almost doubled to €60 billion from 2004 to 2008. Recycling revenue fell in 2009 along with the global economic slump as because prices for secondary materials fell but it has since recovered, according to Eurostat.

Recycling isn’t just about the environment—it’s about manufacturing. “The recycling industry is a raw-materials industry,” Mr. Minter says. “It competes with mines, forests, oil drillers.”

Indeed, improving technology now makes it possible to recycle an aluminum can using 95% less energy than to make a new one from raw material.

China is the biggest importer of waste for recycling. While China is a low-cost country, the picture is more complicated—after all, wages in China are about 10 times more than those in India, which imports less waste for recycling. The key is that China, as the world’s largest manufacturing nation, needs the raw materials.

Recycling follows manufacturing. If there isn’t demand for raw materials, recycling isn’t going to happen,” he says. “We’re entering an era of relative resource scarcity. Everything has gone up in price because there are more middle-class people in the world who want more resources. As raw materials become scarcer and more expensive, recycling will grow. If there’s value in something and it can be transported to a recycling plant, it’s being recycled now.”

Take Christmas tree lights, an example Mr. Minter details in his book and one that illustrates how recycling is likely to evolve in the future. The U.S. has many wire recyclers, who reprocess power lines and other kinds of wire, provided it contains at least 80% copper. “Anything below that, they’ll pass on,” Mr. Minter says. “Before China came along, a lot of that would go to a landfill. That includes Christmas tree lights, which are about 28% copper. They’re not as worthwhile to recycle.”

However, in the mid- to late 1980s, scrap yards in the U.S. began collecting Christmas tree lights and sent them to China, eventually exporting 20 million pounds of discarded strings of lights a year. At first, the garlands would be burned to eliminate the insulation and get to the copper. However, after 2007 the price of plastic started to escalate, driven by the price of oil.

Suddenly, it became attractive to recover the insulation. So recyclers changed their methods, chopping up the Christmas tree lights and using water to separate the heavier copper from the glass and plastic. The plastic is recycled into items like soles for bedroom slippers, Mr. Minter says. It’s also used to make new Christmas tree lights.

Developed countries tend to see themselves as dumpers of waste, with poorer countries as the dumpees. However,

Recycle sign

“nothing goes from the U.S. to the developing world to be dumped,” Mr. Minter says. “That electronic waste moving from the U.S. to China is being bought. Somebody does it to make money. The means they use to extract value from it might not be clean. But a lot of that stuff is still legal to dump in a landfill,” which isn’t an environmentally friendly solution either.

The generation of waste also is evolving. Members of the growing middle classes in emerging markets are buying and using technology. In 2012, China generated 7,253 metric kilotonnes of electronic waste, and India 2,751 metric kilotonnes; the U.S. produced 9,359 metric kilotonnes of electronic waste, according to the Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative, a global effort of United Nations organizations.

A discarded computer in the U.S. will be shredded, and magnets and other technology used to pull out what’s valuable—about 40% to 60% of the total. However, in China or other developing countries, hand labor will dissect that computer and pull out more than 90% of it for recycling, Mr. Minter says.

The search for raw materials in waste is likely to become ever more ingenious as demand grows and technology creates new possibilities.

Researchers are working on ways to break down thermosets, a kind of heat-resistant, chemically stable plastic that hasn’t been recyclable. And some companies are recycling plastic back into oil. Meanwhile, researchers in Poland have found a way to recover nickel from spent consumer batteries to be used for electrodes in new batteries.

There are constant improvements in the technology,” Mr. Minter says. “But recycling is not the panacea. It just extends the life of materials a little longer. Eventually you need new materials. If you care about the environment, reduce your consumption and extend the life of what you already have. Once you’ve done that, then recycle.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

How 3D Printing Is a Revolutionary Sustainable Innovation

By Asheen

3D printingAs a sustainable innovation leader at a technology company, I’m often asked about the implications of recent advances on sustainable innovation. In this article I’ll highlight the potential of 3D printing to revolutionize sustainable innovation.

Three-dimensional printing — or more specifically, additive manufacturing, the term generally used to mean commercial-scale production using 3D printing technologies — is a concept that deserves its geek fandom. But I’d wager that few people have appreciated its revolutionary implications as a sustainable technology. Philosophically, 3D printing is the first technology that has the potential to enable a more biomimetic production model by aligning with one of nature’s fundamental tenets: the tendency to manufacture locally. (These and other deep design principles from nature are collectively known as the practice of biomimicry.)

Why Additive Manufacturing is a Shift

To understand why, consider the difference between how an object is traditionally manufactured and how one is produced additively. Traditional manufacturing methods focus on milling a starting blank — that is, removing material until you’ve achieved the desired shape — or injecting material into a mold. Both types of processes rely on expensive, high-throughput machinery to achieve high economies of scale that minimize costly raw material waste, so such manufacturing is generally performed at a company’s main production facility and then shipped around the world. In an additively manufactured product, in contrast, the product is printed layer by layer, with each cross section stacked on top of the one below it. Since this operation can be performed without huge, high-throughput machinery, it can be performed at hundreds or thousands of remote locations — or millions, if you consider the potential of a 3D printer in every household — with near-zero waste.

This hints at a very interesting shift for commercial product makers: they can focus on designing the best product as the source of their intellectual capital, rather than on how the design can be cheaply manufactured. Imagine, for example, if we could purchase the 3D model of an object we wanted to buy, rather than the object itself, and then download and print it in our home 3D printer. By buying this design from an “app store” of 3D objects rather than a brick-and-mortar shop, and printing it ourselves, we’ve completely eliminated all of the waste of traditional manufacture, as well as 100% of the energy and material normally consumed in transportation and packaging — while enjoying a more custom-tailored and convenient shopping experience.

3D Printing Materials

Sustainable Manufacturing

It’s also worth highlighting the materials that are typically used in a 3D printer — surprisingly, here too we can find a sustainability story. The most common materials used for the printing of plastic parts are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Both are thermoplastics; that is, they become soft and moldable when they’re heated, and return to a more solid state when they’re cooled. ABS is far from environmentally friendly, but PLA is actually a sugar-derived polymer, so it can be made from plants; most commonly, it’s made from corn. (If you’ve ever drunk from a clear plastic cup or used a plastic fork marked “compostable” or “made from corn”, that was PLA.) Provided that we use ecologically sound agricultural practices, we could sustainably grow the feedstock for all of our 3D-printed objects!

The other beautiful thing about thermoplastics is that they can be re-melted and reshaped into new objects several times (though not infinitely, as their structure will eventually depolymerize). That means that when you’re ready to change your toy truck into a toy airplane, you could, in theory, toss it back into the 3D printer to be reshaped into the new object. This gets to one of the biggest sustainability challenges with plastic products today: their end-of-life treatment. Putting plastics into curbside recycling bins seems like an environmentally sound idea (and it’s still better than throwing them into a landfill), but once they’re trucked, sorted, cleaned, and usually commingled with lower-value resins, there’s usually not much economic margin to squeeze out of these recycled plastics — one reason why their rates of recycling are so low. In contrast, putting your pure PLA back into your 3D printer eliminates this whole recycling chain — so we can add “end-of-life impacts” along with transportation and manufacturing waste to our list of eliminated life cycle impacts.

Metals can also be made using an additive manufacturing practice called selective laser sintering (SLS), although these “printers” are much higher-end. Once these become suitable for casual use, it opens up a whole new category of objects that can be built. Although in theory metal is infinitely recyclable (its simpler crystalline structure does not degrade with re-melting), the grinding steps needed to reprocess the used metal into powder suitable for sintering would require a lot more equipment and energy, and would likely prohibit the recycling of 3D-printed metal objects in the same printer – even a direct SLS printer (which uses a single material powder).

At the Doorstep of Future Usages

True radical innovation occurs not from new technologies, but when those new technologies enable newly possible business models. Take, for example, the cool modular mobile phone concept called Phonebloks. Imagine that you want that new, higher-megapixel cell camera block that they refer to… so you just buy and download the new block, toss your old one back in the printer, and print up the new model in PLA with a metal layer with the electronics sintered on — all powered by the solar panels on your roof. Now, we’re starting to approach the manufacturing process used sustainably by nature over the last 3.8 billion years. And someday; your house?

Asheen PhanseyAsheen PHANSEY is Head of the Sustainable Innovation Lab at Dassault Systèmes



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