Hot news in cleantech: Asteroids, solar canals, liquid batteries

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This week in cleantech it’s all about liquids: extracting water (and rare earths) from asteroids; wind turbines that make water from desert air; an idea that marries solar panels with irrigation canals; and the development of the liquid metal battery. Let’s begin with the asteroids…

So, there’s this Washington-based start-up called Planetary Resources (true story), that is backed by Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and X-Price creator Peter Diamandis (still true), which has plans to mine asteroids (from space; true again) for water and valuable cleantech materials. Sure, it sounds like science fiction, but as Earth2Tech reports, it could actually lead to valuable energy resources for future batteries, fuel cells and other electronic devices. Forbes reports that the company’s plan – revealed this week – will focus on two things: precious metals and water. And while launching into orbit to gather resource-rich asteroids might seem a little cost-intensive, Planetary Resources has the economics worked out. “A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the Platinum Group Metals mined in history,” said the company’s press release on Tuesday. “Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space,” wrote Diamandis, who is managing director, co-founder and co-chairman of the company. “As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications.”

But rare earths aside, says Forbes, “water may be the most valuable resource asteroids have to offer.” As Earth2Tech explains it, water is particularly valuable because it’s made up of hydrogen and oxygen – two important sources of fuel for powering rockets and supporting life in space, says Chris Anderson, another co-founder of Planetary Resources. “We will create a network of gas stations that opens the roadway to the solar system. It will dramatically decrease the cost of deep space exploration,” added Thomas Jones, an advisor to Planetary Resources and a former NASA astronaut who can remember a time when the cost of bringing water to the International Space Station was $20,000 per liter. “The promise of Planetary Resources is to apply commercial innovation to space exploration,” said Jones. “They are developing cost-effective, production-line spacecraft that will visit near-Earth asteroids in rapid succession, increasing our scientific knowledge of these bodies and enabling the economic development of the resources they contain.”

“It can be done and yes it’s difficult. No question,” said Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary Resources during a press conference, adding that “the economic returns and benefits to humanity are extraordinary.” And to illustrate his point, Diamandis explains that an asteroid that is 50 meters in diameter contains enough carbonaceous chondrite to provide the hydrogen and oxygen to power every space flight in the history of the space shuttle program. (The Earth is surrounded by nearly 9,000 asteroids.) And there are other believers. “I see the same potential in Planetary Resources as I did in the early days of Google,” said Ram Shriram, founder of Shirpalo and Google board member. And the big names don’t stop here. Chris Lewicki, the former flight director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, who reportedly has an asteroid named in his honor, will head up operations at PR, as its president and chief engineer. And the company also has filmmaker James Cameron and former Microsoft chief technology officer David Vaskevitch as advisors.

Wind to water

“Give us wind, we’ll give you water.” That is the motto of French company Eole Water, whose latest concept – which is currently being tested in the Abu Dhabi desert – uses a wind turbine to condense water from the air. TreeHugger reports that Eole founder, and creator of the technology, Marc Parent, got the idea from the amount of water that dripped from his air conditioner unit when he was living in the Caribbean, which got him thinking of ways in which water could be condensed from air in areas without access to grid power. The 30kW wind turbine he came up with houses and powers the whole system. Air is taken in through vents in the nose cone of the turbine and then heated by a generator to make steam. The steam goes through a cooling compressor that creates moisture which is then condensed and collected. The water is then sent through pipes to stainless steel storage tanks, where it’s filtered and purified.

The company has been testing a prototype of the technology in Abu Dhabi since October and has found it capable of producing 500-800 litres of clean water a day from the desert air. Eole Water says it is confident that volume could increase to 1,000 liters a day with a tower-top system. The system requires wind speeds of 24km/hour or higher to produce water. And while the concept of condensing air into water is not new, the use of a wind turbine is, and it makes the technology especially promising for remote communities, without ready access to power grids, as well as disaster areas. Eole has signed up 12 industrial partners for manufacturing the turbines.

Canals and panels

Meanwhile, in Gujarat – where the government has just approved plans to develop India’s first ocean tidal power project – a 1MW solar array has been built over nearly half a mile of the Narmada Canal in the western Indian state, with the three-pronged goal of producing electricity, conserving arable land and conserving water. Earth2Tech reports that the project, which is being developed by Gujarat State Electricity Corp, who have employed US-based SunEdison to build it, is meant to show an efficient use of land in an agricultural region by putting solar panels over a waterway rather than over fertile farmland. It is also expected to reduce the evaporation of canal water by an estimated 237,750 gallons a year, according to the state government.

As Earth2Tech points out, Gujarat has fast become one of the largest renewable energy producing states in India. With at least 600MW of solar and 2,580MW of wind energy generation now installed, the state has already achieved its renewable energy purchase goal – solar energy installation has been boosted by the government’s  guarantee of premium prices for the electricity it generates – a concept that is yet to take off in Australia. Meanwhile, Gujarat’s 1MW solar project only covers a small section of the canal, says the website, whose overall length is about 11,806 miles. So if it all works out – potential plus.

Hot battery news

We’ve said it before (well, last week, actually) and we’ll say it again – energy storage really is shaping up to be the new cleantech frontier. And so, to the basements of MIT-spinoff Liquid Metal Batteries, where the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based start-up is working to make batteries that can cheaply store wind power generated at night – the time when wind most consistently blows – for use during times of peak demand during the day. MIT’s Technology Review reports that the Liquid Metal Battery concept – powders in battery cells (thick-walled steel cans) are heated to the melting point, causing them to separate into three layers: positive and negative electrodes, and electrolyte sandwiched inbetween. These liquid materials are highly conductive, so the batteries can be discharged and charged quickly, to help stabilise fluctuations of supply and demand on the power grid – has attracted millions of dollars in early-stage investments from the likes of Bill Gates, French oil company Total, and the US Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.

TR says the idea for the technology originated with MIT chemistry professor Donald Sadoway, and MIT materials science professor Gerbrand Ceder; who wondered if it might be possible to reverse processes like those used to make aluminum to produce electricity, creating a system that would function as a battery. A graduate student of Sadoway’s, David Bradwell, then found a way to get the electricity that’s put into the process back out again. From a marketing point of view, the decision to build batteries that are not only capable of storing large amounts of energy at low-cost, but which can also respond in milliseconds, means being able to store and deliver power to the grid to make up for fluctuations in supply and demand – a quality that’s becoming more and more important as more wind and solar power is installed.

And in other news…

– Researchers at Cambridge University are working on a new process for creating solar-grade silicon that will be up to 80 per cent more efficient in terms of energy consumption and cost and 90% less carbon intensive in production. (Energy Matters)

– Microsoft is designing a data center that will be powered by biogas given off from landfills and other sources. The tech giant plans to locate the data center directly at a source for biogas, like a landfill or wastewater treatment plant, and use this to power fuel cells, which would supply power to the data center and make it independent from the grid. (CNet News)  

  • Interesting snippet you provided about “wind to water”! At the heart of this concept I expect there to be a condensation heat pump. Air, containing water vapour, is expanded and condensation forms once the temperature drops below dew point. The condensate is collected and the air is returned back to atmospheric pressure. Power is required for the process and the outlet air will be hotter and drier than ambient air. The reverse process is an evaporation heat engine to generate power from hot air and water. These processes are patented in Australia by Sunoba Pty Ltd. Further details available at