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UC Berkeley finds nature’s dimmer switch

Michael Kanellos: May 15, 2008, 8:04 AM

Scientists at UC Berkeley have identified a protein that controls the flow of solar energy into organisms, which one day potentially could lead to much more efficient solar panels.

The pigment-binding protein CP29, found inside green plants, acts as a valve to release or block solar energy. The scientists further went onto to speculate that control over the protein might be possible through raising or lowering pH levels.

Conceivably, an artificial version of the protein could be incorporated into solar panels that work on photosynthetic principles. Scientists at MIT and other places are already trying to adapt photosynthesis for solar energy. Green plants are able to convert sunlight to chemical energy (note, not electrical emergy) at an energy transfer efficiency rate of approximately 97 percent, according to UC Berkeley. That’s a lot better than solar panels. Crystalline silicon panels are expected to top out at 29 percent efficiency.

Synthetic biology, the science of re-creating natural processes in industrial settings, is also being deployed to develop artificial microbes that, ideally, will convert plant matter into fuel cheaply. Nature has been around for millions of years, venture capitalists Steve Jurvetson among others have noted, and proteins and microbes are one class of employees that don’t require benefits packages. Back in 2002, when speakers talked about synthetic biology at conferences, most of the audience went “huh???? But since then companies like Amryis (medicines and fuel from synthetic biology) and Synthetic Genomics have made progress, garnered VC funds, and stopped the confused snickering.

“This is really the first detailed picture ever obtained of the molecular mechanism behind the regulation of light harvesting energy,??? said Graham Fleming, one of the leaders of the project, in a prepared statement. “We believe we will soon be in position to build a complete model of the flow of energy through the photosynthetic light harvesting system that will include how the flow is controlled. This model could then be applied to the engineering of artificial versions of photosynthesis.???

Here is a diagram of how it works. If you can figure it out, I will give you a microbiology merit badge.

Is the future of wind turbines with jet engines?

Michael Kanellos: May 15, 2008, 7:08 AM

A spin-out from a Massachusetts aerospace company has come up with a novel wind turbine that it says can harvest two to three times the amount of power from the wind than conventional turbines.

The FloDesign Wind Turbine is based around the design of jet engines, something that its parent company FloDesign designs. (Some of FloDesign’s ideas are incorporated into the Gulfstream II, a jet I have never been inside of.) The system effectively channels wind into a vortex, which then spins a kitchen-fan like set of blades that then help convert wind to power. Conventional turbines can’t really suck air in like this. The FloDesign can also harvest power in low-wind conditions. The design in some ways is similar to a tidal turbine touted by Ireland’s OpenHydro.

FloDesign hopes to have a prototype running in about 18 months.

If it works, it could ameliorate some of the NIMBY problems surrounding wind power. Neighborhood groups often oppose the construction of wind turbines because they are tall and the blades can present problems for birds. (Investment banks and manufacturers, however, love to put wind turbines in their alt energy ads.) The wingspan on some offshore turbines is as long as the wingspan of a jet. FloDesign’s turbines are less obtrusive and safer for wildlife, the company says. They also aren’t as noisy.

And if it harvests wind like the company says it can, it could allow the price of wind power to drop even more. Now, wind power is the renewable closest in cost to conventional electricity, according to some estimates and the location where the turbines are placed.

Like the solar industry, the wind industry right now is suffering from a backlog of orders. Put in an order for turbines now, and you might not get them until 2010. If FloDesign can begin to mass produce turbines, particularly with fewer raw materials, it could help out wind farm developers. The technology, though, will likely have to undergo several tests before developers start buying.

The company won two technology awards this week from MIT (netting it $300,000) and is reportedly speaking to Kleiner, Perkins about a $10 million investment, according to Xconomy.