Hot news in cleantech: Breathing lightbulbs; power from water pipes

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A breathing lightbulb becomes a big boost to efficiency; how to generate electricity from water pipes; and recycling lightweight trains.

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For those who were not aware of it, this week saw the Las Vegas staging of Lightfair International, North America’s largest annual commercial and architectural lighting show. And while that might not seem like a world-stopping event to some, it did play host to some pretty exciting unveilings and announcements – at least in cleantech terms. The main one worth mentioning was the unveiling, by GE, of its 100-watt equivalent LED bulb, which CNet’s Martin LaMonica describes as “the clearest example yet of how high-tech lighting has become.” Set to be released in the first half of 2013, GE’s “Energy Smart” LED bulb  consumes 27W to give off the same amount of light as a 100W light. And it “shows lighting manufacturers have finally cracked one of the toughest challenges in LED lighting,” says LaMonica – “making lamps able to give off a lot of light in all directions.

This new globe also does something that no household light bulb has ever done before, says John Funk, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer – it breathes. What Funk means by this is that the GE globe incorporates something called synthetic jet cooling technology, which comes from a company called Nuventix, wherein a diaphragm embedded in the bulb vibrates to create a current of cool air. Glenn Kuenzler, lead design engineer for the project, describes it thus: “The principle is oscillating flow, blow out, breath in. When you blow out, the fast moving air helps cool you. When you breath in, you are getting the next breath.” In this case, a miniaturised oscillating membrane synthetic jet inside the bulb pulls air in and out, moving it across the metal fins on the outside of the bulb.

Credit: GE Lighting

Nuventix engineers worked with GE engineers for more than a year miniaturising its technology – which was originally developed to remove heat from electronic equipment – to fit into a standard light bulb right along side the extra LEDs, a miniaturized electronic controller and an entire optic system to make the light shine in all directions, says Funk. “That’s pretty high-tech for a light bulb,” says Technology Review. And the end result is a light globe that gives off the same amount of light as regular 100W bulb, while only consuming 27W of energy. It gives off 1,600 lumens, and will last for 23 years at three hours per day – and is dimmable. And for the specs junkie, adds TR‘s David Zax, “the bulb’s ‘color temperature’ is 3000 Kelvin. For the layperson: that’s white light.”

So what will all this souped up, energy efficient lighting technology cost us? At this stage, GE estimates that the initial price will be between $US39 and $US49. But for that amount, points out Funk, “a consumer is buying a bulb that is rated to last 25,000 hours. Compare that to 850 hours for the old 100-watt incandescent.” As a side note, Philips also introduced its 100-watt LED equivalent on Monday, as did Osram Sylvania, with both globes due to be on store shelves in mid-2012. Osram Sylvania’s A21 100-watt replacement LED – which the company says was the first to move from laboratory to market at last year’s Lightfair, and this year will be the first to hit the shelves – provides up to 82 per cent energy savings over traditional incandescent lamps, has a rated life of 25,000 hours, and lasts up to 25 times longer than traditional light sources.

Empire State lighting

Another exciting-ish LED-related announcement at the Lightfair this week came from the owners of New York City’s Empire State Building, who have decided to replace the landmark structure’s 400 existing standard lamps with 1,200 newly designed fixtures using the latest LED technology. The installation of the LED lights – which is due to start a few weeks from now and should be completed in the second half of the year – is expected to save 75 per cent in annual energy costs and last three to six times longer than the existing fixtures. But The New York Times reports that the decision to make the switch was not based on money-saving efficiency alone. Another great attraction to the building owners was that the colors of each LED fixture – bought from Philips Color Kinetics – can be manipulated independently and instantaneously via computer; meaning that lighting effects like rainbows, ripples, cross-fades and burst effects, can be created that appear to be animated, continuously moving and changing. “We’ll have some real fun with our ability to manipulate the new lights,” said Anthony E. Malkin, president of Malkin Holdings, an affiliate of the entity that owns the building. “We want the Hong Kong experience,” he said, referring to the often-dramatic lighting seen on buildings there, but “we won’t be showing TV shows on the side of the building.”

Water-piped power

Another New York-based story now, with a new proposition for what NYT.com describes as “arguably the world’s greatest urban water system: people are trying to figure out if, on its way to your shower, the water can also drive turbines and make electricity.” Essentially, this is another take on hydropower, but as Frank Zammataro – president and founder of Rentricity Inc., a company that has installed small generators that create electricity from the flow in water systems in New Hampshire, and near Pittsburgh – points out, it’s on a different scale: “we’re not talking about building the Hoover Dam.” Instead, this is about harvesting hydroelectric power from the city’s water mains as a renewable source of carbon-free power that would also be completely predictable. As the Times‘ Jim Dwyer explains, NYC’s water supply “runs downhill 125 miles from the Catskill Mountains,” powered only by gravity, at nearly a million gallons a minute. “From streams dammed in the hills and mountains north of the city, the flow moves with such force that even as it branches into pipes that run down every street, it rises to a height of six stories on pure momentum. Below that, most buildings need no pumps,” Dwyer says.

Zammataro, who grew up in Brooklyn, began chewing over the water-pipe power concept after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the city, after which the small wireless company he was working had to move temporarily to Times Square. Looking out their 4oth floor office windows, he and a partner noticed water tanks below them, on the roof of a building next door and began wondering whether water could be used to power an emergency lift during a catastrophic event. An engineering friend then suggested the use of water mains as a source, and Rentricity was born. The company’s project in New Hampshire captures water flowing into a treatment plant and generates up to 62KW of power – enough to keep the plant running. A generator due to come on line this year in California will provide 350kW. At this stage, however, the city’s water authorities are “openly sceptical” about the technology’s practical use for New York, says Dwyer. Apparently, space is already pretty tight below the city’s streets, and as Anthony J. Fiore, a deputy commissioner, said on the matter last year, “It does not seem prudent to encroach upon and deplete this valuable underground real estate for unproven benefit.”

Take the R train

One would not be alone in thinking Australia’s rail networks could learn a lot from their European counterparts, what with the punctuality, the frequency and the seemingly seamless ticketing systems. And now Poland is setting a new benchmark, with the upcoming introduction of recyclable subway cars for its Metro Warszawskie. CleanTechnica reports that the metro cars are being developed by Siemens and BMW Group DesignworksUSA, an independently operating BMW Group subsidiary, with 35 of them due for delivery in Poland’s autumn. As well as being 97.5 per cent recyclable, says the blog, the cars are ultra lightweight, making them more energy efficient than typical train carriages, and have additional energy-efficiency features, like air conditioning systems with carbon-dioxide sensors and LED lighting. They also feature distinctive and stylish tree-like structures for standing passengers to hold onto. And they have a life expectancy of around 40 years. As CleanTechnica points out, the Warsaw Metro already has some green cred, with work underway on a project with ABB to capture and reuse the braking energy of some its trains.

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