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Hot news in cleantech: algae lamps, solar bonsai

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Amid the various green auto happenings at this week’s Geneva Motor Show came the exciting news that Ford has finally merged into the EV lane, so to speak, with the arrival of its $39,200 Focus Electric. But the good news for Ford lovers doesn’t stop there. The US EPA has evaluated the Ford Focus Electric’s range on a single charge at 76 miles, giving it a city MPGe rating of 99 and a highway MPGe rating of 110, for a combined rating of 105 MPGe. And this is news good, how? Well, we’ll let EarthTechling explain that one:

“MPGe means ‘miles per gallon equivalent.’ It represents the number of miles a vehicle can go using a quantity of fuel with the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. Gasoline offers energy equal to about 34 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity, so the EPA is saying that in city driving the 2012 Ford Focus Electric will go 105 miles on 34 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Got it?” The bottom line is, that’s a better MPGe than what is bound to be the Focus EV’s closest competitor, the Nissan Leaf, which has a  73 mile range and a 99 MPGe combined rating. Sure, it’s not all that much better (and sure, the Nissan Leaf is a couple of grand cheaper), but it’s enough to kick Ford’s EV sales campaign into gear.

And there are a couple of other importance points of difference that might help with that too, says Christopher DeMorro on MatterNetwork. “Unlike the Leaf, the Focus Electric looks pretty much like any other Focus on the road, minus the exhaust pipe,” says DeMorro – which could appeal to EV drivers who would prefer not to wear their environmental leanings on their bumper bar. And Ford is also offering to sell EV buyers a solar-powered battery charging system for around $10,000, installed. “This could help take Focus Electric owners completely off the grid,” says DeMorro, “saving them even more money.”

Micro-algae: green light to a low-carbon future

A slightly strange, and yet strangely alluring video (see below) has been doing the cleantech rounds this week, in which a French biochemist named Pierre Calleja discusses his potentially world-saving micro-algae street lamps. If you don’t have the time to watch the video (although you really should make time) here’s what’s going on: microbiology specialist Calleja and team have developed a unique kind of “lighted aquarium” that not only serves as a pretty fancy-looking street lamp, but allows the bright green, illuminated micro-algae (“man’s best friend,” says Calleja, via an interpreter) contained within to feed on the CO2 in the air. Apparently, a demonstration lamp that was recently installed in a Bordeaux parking lot can capture and filter one tonne of CO2 per year which, as Calleja points out, makes them potentially more powerful than forests as CO2 sinks.

Solar ski helmets, coming to a slope near you

German outfit Fraunhofer IZM (in partnership with TEXSYS and the Technische Universität Berlin) announced a breakthrough in solar cell structure and encapsulation techniques last week, which could see solar cells integrated into complex surfaces on the shelves by the end of this year. The high efficiency (>20 per cent) solar panels are based on “extremely high quality” mono-crystalline silicon cells that can be divided into tiny individual chips and adapted to three-dimensional, curved shapes – like, say, a ski helmet.* The properties of the cells also reduce the risk of breakage and can be laid out redundantly, explains TreeHugger, so that even if a cell breaks, power continues to be generated.

*A ski helmet? It turns out this is the medium that the Frauenhofer Institute has chosen to test its technology, the Berlin company reporting that bluetooth-ready ski helmets that can power devices, like phones or MP3 players, will be on sale for around £300 by the end of 2012. Why a ski helmet? Because testing in the temperature extremes experienced by skiers should help “optimise the performance of the solar cells (which become more efficient as temperatures drop) and the batteries (which suffer performance losses in the cold),” says Treehugger. Makes perfect sense.

Tiny, silver, solar bonsai

And if you think power-generating ski helmets are an exciting solar cell development, how about tiny, silver, solar bonsai? According to a team of chemists at the University of California, Davis, microscopic “fractal trees” grown from silver could be the basis of a new type of solar cell. UC Davis’ News and Information website says that “fractals are patterns that repeat over multiple length scales” – in this case, branches of silver 1-50th the width of a human hair, which extend into smaller and smaller branches, forming a treelike pattern. These “silver trees” are then coated with light-absorbing polymers which, when hit by photons, produce short-lived electrons and holes in the polymer. The positively charged holes are then collected through the silver branches, while the electrons move to the counter-electrode to create an electrical potential.

“We expect these structures will allow us to make better, more efficient solar cells,” said Professor Frank Osterloh, a principal investigator on the $100,000 grant. Osterloh compared the nano-silver structures to real trees, whose networks of branches and twigs work to spread a wide canopy of leaves for optimal sunlight collection. Aside from the potential for greater efficiency, says CleanTechnica, “the solar cells’ fabrication method (which depends primarily on a chemical reaction rather than mechanical processes) represents a broad approach to lowering the cost of solar energy. Other factors are the cost of materials, the installation process, and the permitting process, all of which are being tackled under President Obama’s SunShot Initiative.” The project is being funded by the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, and is one of three “spontaneous proposals” that gained backing during the organisation’s investigators meeting last year.

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