Going green: The next step in sustainable and renewable energy

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By Corey Samuel
Sep 17, 2015,  7:02 PM
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As we experience rapid progress in technological developments in the last decade, more and more ideas and attempts start to emerge to combat the effects of climate change. Academics and industries, for instance, have become increasingly aware that fossil fuels are becoming less viable and thus tried to come up with various alternative energy solutions that are both more sustainable and renewable. Such effort – as you may think – would have never been an easy process, but the result is well worth it in the end. Two different groups have successfully created potentially life-changing invention in regards to energy creation, which you can read in details below.

As a side note, before we proceed, it is important to keep in mind that the ideas of sustainable and renewable energy – while they share some similarities – at the cores are actually distinct from one another. Sustainable energy is any form of energy that can be created and used without negatively impacting future generations. On the other hand, renewable energy is energy that either is not depleted when it is used or can easily be regenerated after it is used. Both types are environmentally friendly, but sustainable energy can be completely used up if it is not conserved or monitored properly.

Google’s Kite Powered Wind Farm

From the creator of the world’s most popular search engine comes a new source of sustainable energy. Since the purchase of Makani Power – a start-up dedicated to researching wind power – in 2013, Google X has worked on its newest project aptly named Project Makani. Project Makani is a large, 7.3m-long energy kite that can generate more power than a common wind turbine. Astro Teller, Head of Google X believes that, “[if] this works as designed, it would meaningfully speed up the global move to renewable energy.”.

There are four main components of Project Makani. The first is the kite, which is aeroplane-like in its appearance and houses 8 rotors. These rotors help get the kite off the ground and up to its optimal operating altitude. At the correct height, the rotors will shut off, and the drag created from the winds moving across the rotors will start to generate rotational energy. This energy is then converted into electricity. The kite flies in concentric because of the tether, which keeps it connected to the ground station.

The next component is the tether itself. Apart from just holding the kite to the ground, the tether also transfers the electricity generated to the ground station, while at the same time relaying communication information to the kite. The tether is made from a conductive aluminum wire wrapped in carbon fibre, making it flexible yet strong.

Next comes the ground station. It acts as both tethering point during the kite’s flight and resting place when the kite is not in use. This component also takes up less space than a conventional wind turbine while being portable, so it can move from location to location where the winds are the strongest.

The final piece of Project Makani is the computer system. This consists of GPS and other sensors that keep the kite going down its path. These sensors ensure that the kite is in areas that have strong and constant winds.

Optimal conditions for Google X's Makani kite are at altitudes of approximately between 140m (459.3 ft) to 310m (1017.1 ft) above ground level and at wind speeds of around 11.5 m/s (37.7 ft/s) (although it can actually start generating power when wind speeds are at least 4 m/s (13.1 ft/s)). When the kite is at these optimal conditions, it has a circling radius of 145m (475.7 ft).

Project Makani is suggested as a replacement for conventional wind turbines because it is more practical and can also reach higher winds, which are generally stronger and more constant than those closer to ground level. Though unfortunately unlike conventional wind turbines, it cannot be placed on areas close to public roads or power lines, and have to be placed further apart from each other to avoid crash between the kites.

Project Makani was first tested in Pescadero, California, an area which has some very unpredictable and incredibly strong winds. Google X came very prepared, and even ”wanted”  at least five kites to crash in their testing. But in over 100 logged flight hours, they failed to crash a single kite, which Google believed is not exactly a good thing. Teller, for instance, admitted that they were rather “conflicted” with the result, “We didn’t want to see it crash, but we also feel like we failed somehow. There’s magic in everyone believing that we might have failed because we didn’t fail.” This remark would possibly make more sense if we consider that people, including Google, can actually learn more from failing and making mistakes.

Solar Energy Converting Bacteria

The second invention comes from a collaboration between Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School, and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which have resulted in what is called the "bionic leaf". This  new invention uses previously discovered technologies and ideas, along with a couple of new tweaks. The main purpose of the bionic leaf is to turn hydrogen and carbon dioxide into isopropanol with the help of solar power and a bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha – a desired result since isopropanol can be used as liquid fuel much like ethanol.

Initially, the invention stemmed from Daniel Nocera of Harvard University’s success in developing a cobalt-phosphate catalyst that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. But since hydrogen has not caught on yet as an alternative fuel, Nocera decided to team up with Pamela Silver and Joseph Torella of Harvard Medical School to figure out a new approach.

Eventually, the team came up with the aforementioned idea to use a genetically modified version of Ralstonia eutropha that can transform hydrogen and carbon dioxide into isopropanol. During the research, it was also found that different types of bacteria could also be used to create other variety of products including pharmaceuticals.

Afterwards, Nocera and Silver then managed to construct a bioreactor complete with the new catalyst, the bacteria and the solar cells to produce the liquid fuel. The catalyst can split any water, even if it is highly polluted; the bacteria can use the waste from fossil fuel consumption; and the solar cells receive a constant stream of power as long as there is a sun. All combined, the result is a greener form of fuel that causes little greenhouse gases.

So, how this invention works is actually pretty simple. First, scientists need to ensure that the environment in the bioreactor is free of any nutrients the bacteria can consume to produce unwanted products. After this condition is established, the solar cells and the catalyst can then begin to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Next, the jar is stirred to excite the bacteria from their normal growth stage. This induces the bacteria to feed on the newly produced hydrogen and finally isopropanol is given off as waste from the bacteria.

Torella had this to say about their project and other types of sustainable resources, “Oil and gas are not sustainable sources of fuel, plastic, fertilizer, or the myriad other chemicals produced with them. The next best answer after oil and gas is biology, which in global numbers produce[s] 100 times more carbon per year via photosynthesis than humans consume from oil.”


Impact (ONLY use the 'Paste From Word' button to safely copy and paste text from a Word doc) 

With the introduction of new technologies like Project Makani and Harvard’s new bioreactor, we are certainly in the right track of decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and thus lessening the impact of our hunt for energy on the environment. If you are not a scientist, the least we can do together as a good citizen of the world is to promote these positive developments even further, for others to realize that we have alternatives that can work as – if not more – effective as the resources we harness right now. Who knows, maybe in the near future, it would be possible for us to entirely remove the need of fossil fuels and the creation of any products that can be harmful to the environment.

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