Hot news in cleantech: Solar vision; hybrid Ferraris; home heliostat

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PV implants for the eyes; Ferrari and Porsche go hybrid EV; while Delphi goes to gas; and a heliostat for the home.

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What can’t you do with solar power? Really, solar’s list of capabilities is growing longer and more comprehensive by the day. And this week, you can add a particularly impressive one: “helping the blind to see.” Nature journal reports that a team of scientists from Stanford University in California are working on a way to combine photovoltaic retinal implants and video goggles to help make vision restoration more practicable. As Nature‘s Leigh Phillips writes, “the development of retinal implants has been dogged by problems of unwieldiness since the first implantable stimulator for vision restoration was developed in 1968.” But James Loudin and his Stanford colleagues may have found a way around this by creating special glasses that fire infrared signals into the eye and onto an implanted array of silicon photodiodes. These photovoltaic implants are much thinner, and are wireless, and the pulses deliver both visual information to the photovoltaic array as well as powering it, reducing the number of components that need to be implanted.

“Surgeons should be much happier with us. We’ve just got the one implant,” says Loudin. “Other approaches require pretty big pieces of hardware to be stuck in the body: 1–2 centimetres in size.” The PV system also enables patients to scan with their own eyes, within the visual field of the goggles. And befitting of a scientific type, Loudin employs a bit of Star Trek analogy to further explain how the goggles work: “I’m not well versed in Star Trek any more, and I don’t think Geordi had implants,” he says. “However, like his visor, our patients cannot see without the goggles.”

Hybrid technology picks up pace

The global EV industry picked up some speed this week, with both Porsche and Ferrari announcing the release of new hybrid electric models. Ferrari flagged on Monday that it would be launching its first ever HEV at the end of the year, The Guardian reporting that the elite Italian sports car maker plans to release a hybrid version of its Enzo model – one of Ferrari’s “glitziest” cars, apparently. Reports put the price at above the €660,000 (£527,000) cost of the Enzo, and say the HEV will be the carmaker’s most powerful model – combining two electric motors with a 12-cylinder gas engine, allowing for a 40 per cent cut in fuel use (although it’s Ferrari we’re talking about here, so even an Enzo with half the CO2 emissions will be at the upper end of the greenhouse gas emitters on the roads.)

German prestige carmaker Porsche, meanwhile, is an old hand at hybrids – back in 1900, Dr Ferdinand Porsche’s first car was one – but it looks like its latest offering is just a touch more tricked up. The Porsche 918 Spyder has a combined electric and gas output of 770 horsepower, says Jim Motavalli on Mother Nature Network, 570 of which come from a 4.6 litre V8. It goes from 0 to 60mph in under three seconds and has a top speed of 202mph, and an efficiency rating of 78mpg. “If all that seems to defy the laws of physics, that’s because it does,” says Motavalli. “The 918 can’t do all those things at once, but its plug-in hybrid layout – which is a first for Porsche – enables it to have a split personality.”

As with the Ferrari, Motavalli questions just how green a hybrid Porsche like this really is. “The car could be quite environmentally friendly if you drove it conservatively,” he writes. “There’s an estimated 15 miles of electric driving from the 6.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack, with a 93mph top speed in zero-emission mode. But why would you spend that kind of money on a 770-hp car and drive it as if it was grandpa’s Oldsmobile? I guarantee when you’re screaming down the autobahn, you’re not achieving that virtuous 78mpg.” Porsche says the 918 is currently undertaking driving trials in Europe, and the company has plans to deliver cars by the end of next year. But hurry and save your $845,000, cos they’re only making 918 of them.

And if all that wasn’t exciting enough news for the EV sector, there was also the report this week that newly elected French president, Francois Hollande, has named the Citroen DS5 diesel-hybrid as his preferred presidential ride. Green auto blog Gas 2.0 reports (via MatterNetwork) that the diesel-electric Citroen that will be Hollande’s “limo” uses a diesel engine and small motor to power the rear wheels and can get between 24 and 34 mpg, depending on how it is driven – not bad for a small SUV, and a great deal better than the Porsche and Ferrari.

Back to gas

For those not yet ready to embrace the electric vehicle future, there is good news for you, too. Auto parts supplier Delphi is reportedly developing engine technology that aims to improve the fuel economy of petrol powered cars by 50 per cent, which would make them around the same shade of green as hybrid vehicles, but at a much cheaper price. Technology Review reports that the company has demonstrated the technology in a single-piston test engine under a wide range of conditions, and is beginning tests on a multicylinder engine that will more closely approximate a production engine. Estimates suggest that engines based on the technology could be far more fuel efficient than even diesel engines, say TR‘s Kevin Bullis.

The Delphi technology aims to combine the best qualities of diesel engines, which are 40-45 per cent efficient in using the energy in fuel, and gasoline engines, which are roughly 30 per cent efficient. The company’s approach, called gasoline-direct-injection compression ignition, combines a collection of strategies that use advanced fuel injection and air intake and exhaust controls. And just to give the EV camp the last word of the day, Delphi’s engineering manager of advanced powertrain technology, Mark Sellnau, says the engine could be paired with a battery pack and electric motor, a la hybrid cars, to improve efficiency even more – although for added cost.

Home heliostat

To finish up this week, we give you a fairly simple, relatively cheap and quietly ingenious – not to mention carbon neutral – way of harnessing the sun’s natural light and warmth and channeling it into your home: A SunFlower. Not the plant; it’s the name of a small-scale heliostat, designed, priced ($US300) and manufactured for residential use by the team at Massachusetts-based Wikoda. Like its botanical counterpart, however, it tracks the sun throughout the day, moving with it and creating the effect of a stationary sun (helio = sun, stat = stationary) by reflecting the sunlight with a flat mirror to one particular place – usually a solar panel in a solar thermal plant, but in this case a window.

According to Wikoda, a single SunFlower Home Heliostat can reflect up to 50,000 lumens of sunlight (the equivalent of 50x 60W bulbs) into what might be an otherwise shaded room, adding warmth as well. The company estimates that, based on a typical $0.15 per KWhr cost of electricity, the SunFlower should provide households with $US200 to $US600 of free lighting per year, depending on local weather conditions. Not half bad for a $300 garden ornament.

SunFlower Home Heliostat

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