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Hot news in cleantech: Cable trucks and battery breakthroughs

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Los Angeles has been on some sort of a green roll this week: Not only did it become the largest US city to enact a ban on plastic bags (which means stores throughout LA will be required to phase them out by the end of the year) but it’s about to become one of the the first cities in the world to adopt a new electric freight trucking system, using technology that was unveiled by electrical engineering giant Siemens last week at the 26th Electric Vehicle Symposium, or EVS26, held in LA. The LA Times reports that the technology, called eHighway, is a highway electrification system that uses overhead electrical wires to transmit energy to freight trucks in separate vehicle lanes, similar to modern-day streetcars. Sounds a bit unwieldy, sure, but Siemens is pretty sure it’s on a winner. “When most people think of vehicle emissions, they assume cars do most of the damage, but it’s actually commercial trucks that are largely to blame,” said Daryl Dulaney, CEO of Siemens Infrastructure & Cities (US). “Freight transportation on US roadways is expected to double by 2050, while global oil resources continue to deplete. And by 2030, carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to jump 30 per cent due to freight transport alone.”

Siemens Corp.

The eHighway’s catenary system uses diesel hybrid trucks fitted out with software that senses when an overhead electrical line is available and automatically connects or disconnects as needed (although even when the trucks are in hybrid diesel mode they will consume 30 per cent less fuel). As SustainableBusiness.com (via Matter Network) puts it, “when trucks detect and attach to overhead wires they automatically go into electric mode, and when they detach they automatically switch back to diesel. Pretty cool.” Pretty cool indeed… and pretty dear too: Siemens estimates the system will cost $5 million to $7 million per mile to build. But cost aside, Siemens says that as the technology becomes more widely adopted, every truck equipped with an electric drive system will be able to use the eHighway: diesel electric, pure battery, fuel cell range extended or natural gas. Based on a pilot project in Germany (LA Times says the eHighway concept has been getting a test run on an old air strip near Berlin for the past year), trucks can make the switch at speeds of up to 90 kilometres/hour.

Green steam

If you thought cable trucks sounded like an unlikely modern transportation development, how about a carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive? That’s what the Coalition for Sustainable Rail announced on Tuesday it plans to create: “the world’s cleanest, most powerful passenger locomotive, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.” Cleantechnica reports that the locomotive – developed by CSR, a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Sustainable Rail International – will run on torrefied biomass, or biocoal – a biofuel created through an energy-efficient processing of cellulosic biomass, which has the same energy density and material handling properties as coal, but is  carbon-neutral, contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke, and other harmful pollution. CSR plans to put its technology to the test by attempting to break the world record for steam locomotive speed, shooting for 130 miles per hour.

And while this might sound like an exercise in locomotive nostalgia, the successful use of biocoal in this manner has important and wide-ranging implications, and not just in the world of rail transport. The University of Minnesota says that locomotive engineering on combustion and boiler technologies allows CSR to design power boilers and electric generators on scales from 5 to 5,000kW. The technology is adaptable for homes in villages of the developing world as well as for use in the US. In May, SRI completed a cosmetic restoration and stabilisation of Locomotive 3463 – a large test bed steam locomotive, built in 1937, which the group acquired from the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka, Kansas. The plan is to move the locomotive to Minneapolis within the next 12 months,  where CSR will complete the detailed engineering needed to modernise and reconfigure it.

“Participation in the Coalition for Sustainable Rail has enabled our team to pursue one of the more exciting and potentially groundbreaking research projects in the history of IonE,” said Rod Larkins, Special Projects Director of IonE’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. “Once perfected, creating the world’s first carbon-neutral locomotive will be just the beginning for this technology which, we hope, will later be used for combined heat and power energy in the developing world as well as reducing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.” CleantTechnica says that preliminary research shows CSR’s test locomotive will cost less to maintain and less to fuel, while having greater handling and performance than any diesel-electric locomotives available today.

Promoting the renewable flow

In the eternal quest to develop battery technology equal to the task of storing energy generated from renewable sources and delivering it to the grid when needed, engineers at the City University of New York’s Energy Institute in Manhattan say they have found an answer: a nickel-zinc battery technology that is as cheap as lead-acid batteries and as long-lasting as costly lithium-ion batteries. Clean energy “is already expensive, and if you add expensive battery systems to that, then it’s not economical,” says Sanjoy Banerjee, the institute’s director and a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at the City College of New York. “To make it really work, it has to be very cheap.” And as InsideClimate News reports, that’s where the four-year-old Energy Institute comes in. It’s in the process of launching a company called Urban Electric Power that will commercialise its Nickel-Zinc Flow Battery system, which connects by cable to rows of wind turbines or fields of solar panels, storing the electricity they generate on windy nights or extra-sunny days and sending it to the grid in peak periods.

The technology is also cheap, says InsideClimate, with a kilowatt-hour cost of between $300 and $500, or as much as $100,000 for a 200-battery system with a life of up to 15 years. That price is expected to fall to within 12 months to $200/kWh as the technology improves, the institute says, making it the same price as a lead-acid battery, which lasts only a year, and a good deal cheaper than its lithium-ion counterparts, which can cost up to $1,200/kWh. One of the keys to this technology’s low cost is the use of zinc. But with zinc’s various upsides – low-cost, non-toxic and readily available – it has a major downside; every time the battery is charged and recharged, it forms dendrites, or branch-like structures, which build up and cause the batteries to short out. This is why Urban Electric Power is only one of about a dozen startups using zinc for grid-scale battery storage. But the company’s team of engineers have also found a way to tame the dendrites, says the blog. “The core of each battery, a series of flat metal rods, sits in an aquarium filled with constantly circulating water-based liquid called the electrolyte. The flow helps to smooth out the zinc dendrites and to extend by 10 times the battery’s life. With this setup, batteries can be “deep-cycled” 3,000 to 4,000 times, which means they can last for 10 to 15 years with daily use.”

Backing the technology, to the tune of around $US20 million since 2008, is the US Department of Energy (including a $3 million grant from the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Con Edison, Mitsubishi and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If the team is successful, ARPA-E  has said the Energy Institute’s technology could “put the US on a path towards creating a smarter grid with low-cost batteries that are capable of storing enough electricity to power homes, cars and cities.”  

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