There’s a large and growing list of renewable energy projects pumping out cleaner electricity these days. Photovoltaic panels produce direct current and solar concentrators drive steam turbines using sunlight. Wind turbines churning out megawatts of power dot the landscape of many countries. Other projects are looking to light communities through tides, running rivers and even the heat of the Earth.
Creating current is all well and good for energizing homes, businesses and even motor vehicles, but when it comes to flying airplanes or turning the screws on big ships, batteries storing alternative-energy-produced electricity just can’t yet deliver the power needed. That’s why these large machines still need combustible liquids like diesel, aviation fuel and bunker oil that pack a bunch of energy into small volumes to drive their engines.
For these and other high-power applications, renewable energy needs to up its oomph. The best way to do that would be to concentrate sunlight’s energy, for instance, into a machine that converts it directly into fuel. For well over a century, we’ve been using a version of this that comes out of the ground in the form of petroleum products, which are the hydrocarbon-rich remnants of organic matter that lived eons ago. The ancient organisms that form our fossil fuels are the concentrated distillates of sunlight.
The possibility of using nonfood plants to cheaply and sustainably fuel our vehicles may have just veered into the fast lane.
Scientists report they have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to convert complex carbohydrates in tough grasses directly into ethanol, a type of alcohol that can fuel internal combustion engines.
“Making biofuel from plants is really important because it’s carbon neutral—the same CO2 you put in to grow it comes out when you burn it,” says Janet Westpheling, a University of Georgia genetics professor who led the research. “It’s one of the reasons why the future of energy in this country has to rely at least in part on plants.”
At the heart of the work conducted at UGA and Oak Ridge National Lab, is what Westpheling calls a paradigm shift in approaching a longstanding problem in producing biofuels.
This week on Txchnologist, we investigated some of the newest innovations that could completely change the world around us. First, scientists have been able to push stem cells from mouse teeth and grow them into cells functionally similar to neurons. The new cells aren’t neurons yet, but the researchers believe such a technology could improve the prognosis and treatment of stroke.
Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon University roboticists working in the macroworld developed a new robot dubbed CHIMP for a DARPA competition. CHIMP is being designed to respond to natural and man-made disasters and has highly sophisticated moving parts to perform many manual tasks.
Now for some food for thought. Chirality is a natural phenomenon found in everything from molecules to shells. Chirality is a form of asymmetry that displays “handedness,” like how your left and right hands don’t map to each other exactly. One mathematician has designed a first-of-its-kind spinning top that exhibits chirality.
Models are getting better and better at predicting everything from the Big Bang to weather patterns. Japanese atmospheric scientists have designed a new algorithmic model on a supercomputer which could help predict monsoons and cyclones up to a month in advance.
2051 is still far away but scientists have built a land-use forecast for what the United States will look like. Researchers from several universities and the World Wildlife Fund have put together a study outlining different aspects of 2051 to inform policymakers about decisions and future consequences.
Now we’re bringing you the news and trends we’ve been following this week in the world of science, technology and innovation.
We get a jolt of energy after eating food sweetened with sugarcane or sorghum, so why can’t our engines?
Separate research teams in February presented their work on coaxing the two globally important, high-sugar-content crops into becoming better raw materials for biofuel production. Their work was part of the showcase presented at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.
The first, led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plant biologists, say they have successfully introduced genes into sugarcane plants to make them withstand cooler climates and produce more oil that can be turned into biodiesel.
“Our goal is to make sugarcane produce more oil, be more productive with more photosynthesis and be more cold-tolerant,” said Stephen P. Long, a UI plant biology professor and leader of the initiative, in a university statement. “Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre.”