Hot news in cleantech: Offshore biomass and solar wallpaper | RenewEconomy

Hot news in cleantech: Offshore biomass and solar wallpaper

Seaweed biomass grown in offshore wind farms; wind-water turbines; and an innovation that could make solar power cheap, easy and ubiquitous.


What do you get when you marry offshore wind farms and biomass plants? Well, bio-offshore, of course. Also known as offshore biomass, it’s the name of the game behind an innovative approach to seaweed cultivation that Netherlands-based renewables and climate group Ecofys recently began testing off the Dutch coast. How do wind turbines come into the equation? According to Ecofys project manager Anouk Florentinus, offshore wind farms could help provide ideal growing conditions for seaweed. “A wind farm is closed for shipping and commercial fishing,” says Florentinus. “This makes it a kind of marine conservation area. Fish will be attracted to the seaweed fields and use them for shelter and even as a nursery.”

The company is testing this concept with a cultivation module, which it launched last week, and positioned at a disused sand extraction area 10km west of the Dutch island of Texel. By late June, it hopes to harvest the first supply of seaweed to go towards the production of animal feed, biofuels and energy. Ecofys’ purpose-built, 20x20m seaweed cultivation module, consists of a set of steel cables held two metres under the water by anchors and floating buoys. Horizontal 10x10m nets are suspended between the cables, while seaweed plants native to the North Sea are attached to the nets.

Ecofys hopes the trial will find the module to be “North Sea proof,” while also testing the survival and growth rate of the various seaweed species, and any ecological impact. If the tests prove a success, Ecofys says it will have reached a global milestone, where large-scale seaweed production at sea can replace large land areas of food-based biomass production. “These are offshore renewables in the broadest sense,” says Florentinus.

Meanwhile, it seems scientists from Tel Aviv University have had a similar offshore biomass-type epiphany, with Cleantechies reporting this week that the Israeli researchers have “discovered” that marine macroalgae – i.e. the common seaweed – can be grown unobtrusively along coastlines more quickly than land-based crops and harvested as fuel without sacrificing usable land – and with the added benefit of clearing the water of excessive nutrients. “In other words, it is a potential source of clean bioethanol.” (Sounding familiar?) The blog says the researchers are currently developing methods for growing and harvesting the seaweed. Perhaps someone should tell them about the wind farm thing.

Wind-water turbines

And in another innovative blending of clean energy technologies, Earth Techling reports that Austrian research company IAT21 has come up with a concept for a floating turbine that generates power from wind as well as flowing water. The Dalus W-Water – which Earth Techling rightly points out looks like a spacecraft from Star Wars – is based on the ‘cyclogyro’ rotor that, in its original form, it is part of an aircraft propulsion system. But in the Dalus W-Water the process is reversed and the modified rotor assembly captures both water and wind energy, and converts it into electricity. The turbine has an outside covering that increases the water flow speed around it by a factor of about 1.5. And unlike typical marine or hydro power technologies, it can produce electricity in both low and high water flows, and so could be used effectively in rivers and streams. Earth Techling says the turbine was also designed so that it could be installed locally and immediately, making it perfect for disaster situations.

Solar all over

To solar cells now, and an innovative approach to their fabrication that recently earned its creator – MIT graduate Miles C Barr – the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. EarthTechling (via Matter Network) reports that Barr, a PhD in chemical engineering, and his team have come up with a way to make solar cells that could allow them to be printed directly onto common materials like paper and textiles – a breakthrough that could dramatically boost the adoption of solar power, while also reducing its cost. “There is a huge opportunity to harvest energy from the light that hits every surface around us,” Barr said, in a statement. “If we can take that energy and convert it into electricity without compromising the aesthetics of everyday surfaces, that is extremely powerful.”

Barr’s lightweight and bendable solar technology has the potential to open up untapped venues for solar in commercial applications, including wall paper, window shades and clothing, says EarthTechling. Its portability is also a huge plus, potentially making solar power generation both inexpensive and ubiquitous. Which brings us to the name of Barr’s company: Ubiquitous Energy. Founded in 2011, it won that year’s MIT Clean Energy Prize in the renewables category, and the Fraunhofer-Techbridge U-Launch Award, a US DoE-funded award focused on helping promising clean energy start-ups. Barr and his colleagues recently secured the initial funding to develop the company’s commercial prototypes, and are currently focused on developing new technologies to deploy solar energy harvesting capabilities in products and surfaces like tissue paper, newsprint, copy paper and plastic wrap.

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