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.

Louis Vuitton’s Newest Landmark: The Jewel of the Bois De Boulogne

By Akio

The following is a reprint of a Compass: The 3DEXPERIENCE Magazine article by Dominique Fidel.

Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation by Frank O. Gehry

In Fall 2014, the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation will spread its glass wings in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. This epic project is guided by two overarching themes: the celebration of visual art and the creativity of meeting a unique technological challenge.

Louis Vuitton’s Newest Landmark: The Jewel of the Bois De Boulogne

by Dominique Fidel

A spaceship, a cloud, a crystal chrysalis: Observers have found many metaphors to describe the structure under construction for the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, a new art museum that will open to the public in Fall 2014.

Born from a dream shared by architect Frank Gehry and Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and caretaker of the one of the world’s largest private art collections, this glittering glass gem is the new architectural jewel of western Paris.

The foundation, officially founded in 2006 after a 15-year strategy of cultural sponsorship, supports the commitment of Arnault and the LVMH group to contemporary art.

 

“Artistic creation has always been central to the Louis Vuitton fashion house,” said Christian Reyne, the foundation’s deputy director. “With this internationally recognized venue, we offer a great cultural breathing space in western Paris. The goal is to build more bridges connecting heritage, innovation, youth and tradition.”

The artistic programming of the “glass ship” remains secret for now, but its purpose is clear. The foundation will offer permanent collections and temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, plus multidisciplinary events, debates and conferences.

The collection as a whole is known to be one of the world’s largest private art collections, and the opening will mark the first time that many of the pieces have been on public display.

Breaking With Tradition

For Gehry’s second structure in the French capital (after the American Center, in 1993), the Canadian-American master architect proposed a revolutionary project, breaking with the signature style he has developed throughout his career.

Here, visitors will find no shiny metal casing or deformed, powerful volumes. Despite its imposing proportions, the foundation’s new home has an airy silhouette that seems to fly above the Bois de Boulogne by sheer force of its glass wings.

This architectural sculpture will soon house 11 exhibition galleries, or “chapels,” in a flexible, modular convention space that can accommodate nearly 400 people.

With plenty of room for reception, entertainment, leisure and research areas, the building covers an area of 145,313 square feet (13,500 square meters) on two levels and is 150 feet (46 meters) high.

Only by observing the building up close can one appreciate its structural complexity. In effect, the foundation’s home consists of two structures overlapping one another.

In the center is the “Iceberg,” the functioning body of the building, made of reinforced concrete, steel and wood and covered with a façade of approximately 19,000 white concrete wafers.

Surrounding this mass is the glass superstructure, consisting of 12 cantilevered sails of curved glass with a wingspan of 98 feet (30 meters) each. The sails have a steel-and-wood frame covered in aluminum mesh, which in turn supports the 3,400 glass panels.

Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation by Frank O. Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne

Ongoing Innovation

The design took 13 years of development.

“This is a one-of-a-kind creation – without a doubt, one of Frank Gehry’s wildest challenges,” Reyne said. “He made an initial sketch in 2001, after his first meeting with Bernard Arnault. Three years later, the Gehry Partners teams began working on the architectural model, and the following year LVMH commissioned the Paris office of the Studios Architecture agency to manage the project in France.”

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Studios Architecture Paris was a natural choice due to its past experience working with LVMH. “We already knew LVMH because we had done the interiors of two of their office buildings,” said James Cowey, the company’s CEO. “And we had worked with Gehry on the IAC building in New York. But we never imagined what challenges were in store for us, both art- and technology-wise.”

Renaud Farrenq, the engineer in charge of coordinating the project at Studios Architecture, lists some of the challenges the team faced: “Unpredictable curves and counter-curves in the central building, extremely demanding load calculations, bending plates of glass to the millimeter, identifying industrial partners capable of carrying out work that had never been done before, and fire and wind testing.”

A Unique Collaborative Environment

Given the complexity, the team had more than 800 people working simultaneously during the study phase, and then 750 workers at the peak of construction.

 

“In this kind of project, requiring ongoing technological innovation, seamless cooperation among everyone involved is crucial,” Reyne said. “In fact, we decided to put all the teams – architects, engineers and contractor – together in one place. In addition, we all relied on a single tool: 3D design software.”

The software, built by Gehry Technologies on top of a three-dimensional (3D) computer-aided design solution developed for the aerospace industry, brings together the data from all the different trades – including construction, reinforced concrete, glass, plumbing, electrical, etc. – allowing everyone to work on the same digital model and to share information in real time.

“It was the first time that this software was used on a construction site in France,” Cowey said. “So we had to adapt it to French reality, especially to French law. But it’s clear that it played a key role in the success of a project that pushed the limits as much as possible.”

In 2012, its use of the software program earned the Louis Vuitton Foundation the BIM Excellence award, bestowed by the American Institute of Architects. Since then, the building has won several prestigious awards and is now studied in the architecture school’s curriculum at Harvard University.

A Pioneer in Eco-Friendly Building

In addition to its artistic and technological achievements, the Louis Vuitton Foundation building rose to many environmental challenges.

It aims to set examples in its use of geothermal energy, high-performance insulation, recycled and recyclable materials, passive cooling, rainwater harvesting, site management and more.

 

“With its environmental design, the project took on an ambitious sustainable profile, as demonstrated by its comprehensive HQE (High Environmental Quality) certification. The Foundation is also a pioneer in adapting the HQE standard to historic buildings,” said Renaud Farrenq, engineer in charge of the project for Studios Architecture Paris.

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Related Resources

Compass: The 3DEXPERIENCE Magazine

Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation

Dassault Systemés’ Business Process “Design Optimization”

Gehry Technologies (GT) Digital Project



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