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MIT Boosts Fuel Cell Efficiency With A New Way to Spread Catalysts

Michael Kanellos: October 15, 2009, 12:32 PM

Platinum. It's one of the many banes of the fuel cell industry.

The catalytic membranes inside of methanol fuel cells are coated with it: it helps convert hydrocarbons into electric power. Platinum also helps eliminate particulates in the catalytic converter in your car. Although companies like Nanostellar are developing platinum substitutes, platinum remains the industry standard and it's not getting any cheaper. A few years ago, thieves would steal converters out of big rigs to get at platinum.

MIT researchers, led by associate professor of mechanical engineering and material science Yang Shao-Horn, have come up with a way to double the efficiency of fuel cells by creating textures on the membrane surface. Instead of forming a smooth layer, the platinum is arranged in a stair-step manner. This increases the reactive surface area of a finite amount of platinum and hence increases the power output. It's a classic nano play: increase the surface area and get better results. The platinum particles in fact get their stair-step arrangement because they are arranged on top of carbon nanotubes, the ultimate nano material.

Many have tried to promote methanol fuel cells for portable devices. They have yet to hit big. Oorja Protonics has taken a different tack. Instead of small fuel cells, it builds large scale methanol fuel cells for fork lifts. It has started selling some to Nissan.

Meanwhile, Osaka Gas and Panasonic have started selling methane fuel cells that can produce 1 kilowatt of power to homes in Japan.

Nanosolar’s CEO Speaks, Doesn’t Say Much

Eric Wesoff: October 15, 2009, 12:09 AM

Nanosolar is a poster child for Silicon Valley solar innovation.

What does it have?

  • Half a billion in venture and strategic investment? Check.
  • Top shelf VC investors? Check.
  • Secretive and allegedly disruptive technology? Check.
  • Ornery technology? Check.
  • Ornery and driven CEO? Check.
  • Billions in alleged order backlog? Check.
  • Periodic rumors of them being the next monster IPO in greentech? Check.

It's been hard to separate fact from fiction with this company. And that's been its prerogative. It's a privately held firm and doesn't have to disclose a thing if it doesn't want to. Which is one reason why Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen's short speech filled the 327 person capacity auditorium at the Palo Alto Research Center on Wednesday's night meeting at the SVPVS.

Nanosolar has spent a lot of money. "If I don't get a request to sign-off on a $70K P.O. every day, then our metrology guys must be out sick," joked Roscheisen. The company has 350 employees, 350 patents and has focused on reinventing CIGS with regard to capital efficiency and cost. It's been at work on this mammoth project since 2002.

I'd like to tell you that Roscheisen dropped several bombshells and gave all us the scoop on their next milestone and conquest, but it was not to be. You can probably learn more about Nanosolar's recent activities in this article from Ucilia Wang, in this blog on Nanosolar patents from Eric Lane and in the sleuthing of Ed Guenther than you could learn from Martin's slide show.

Roscheisen is adept at controlling the information flow from his company and tonight was no exception. He side-stepped or flat-out ignored questions he didn't want to address concerning yield and production targets.

Here are a few things he did say:

  • "We're producing about a Megawatt a month right now."
  • "We've gone beyond the standard industry testing to make sure we're beyond reliability issues."
  • "We expect to be profitable at a price point of $1/W."
  • "We expect to be three times as capital efficient as First Solar."

He added that, "Capital efficiency is going to be a huge driver" for new solar companies and that he expected Nanosolar's factory cost to be a third of First Solar's dollar per watt, adding that the Applied Materials line cost $3 per Watt.

He returned to the First Solar theme quite a lot in his presentation. Clearly Nanosolar has ambitions of being on price parity and at the scale of the extraordinarily successful Cadmium Telluride PV leader First Solar. Roschesen spoke of the balance of system cost advantage that Nanosolar had over First Solar because of the larger panel size, of the higher power per panel, of the lower mounting labor costs, and the stability of CIGS vs CdTe.

Despite the hundreds of megawatt capacity claim, Nanosolar is producing just 1 megawatt per month.  

Nanosolar has accomplished a lot in its seven years. It seems to have tamed the difficult CIGS materials system, it has worked through hundreds of hurdles with regards to substrate materials, encapsulation, packaging, production and reliability. Perhaps most importantly, the company has moved the PV manufacturing model from one that looks like semiconductor wafer production to one that looks like printing. And it deserves immense credit for this.

In a recent email exchange with a Nanosolar board member whom I respect, the exchange ended with the investor saying that slow and steady will win the CIGS game. And Nanosolar seems to be slowly and steadily making headway into commercialization. There are still plenty of challenges ahead.

There is a good book to be written here about innovation and risk in the Nanosolar story.

Whether that book has a happy ending remains to be seen.

GE Also Invests in Grid Net, Tendril

Jeff St. John: October 14, 2009, 10:59 AM

General Electric's undisclosed, first-time investment in Israel-based SolarEdge Technologies was matched by two other investments in companies with which GE has quite a bit of experience.

Those would be Tendril, the maker of home energy management technology, and Grid Net, the GE-backed maker of software and systems for WiMax-enabled smart meters. GE's investment arm, GE Energy Financial Services, announced the investments Wednesday.

While GE hadn't invested in Tendril before, it and the Boulder, Colo.-based startup have a partnership to use Tendril's software platform to enable GE's planned line of "smart" home appliances that can turn on and off via homeowner or utility commands to cut down on peak power demand.

As for San Francisco-based Grid Net, GE participated in a 2006 funding round that got the company going, and has reportedly been testing Grid Net's WiMax technology in GE smart meters in pilot projects in Australia.  

GE Energy Financial Services investment arm didn't disclose the amount of its investments in the three companies.

Nanosolar’s Patent-Pending PV is Encapsulated But Boxless

Eric Lane: October 13, 2009, 11:40 AM

Nansolar, a San Jose, California thin-film solar company, has made a lot of press announcements lately for various news items, including opening a solar panel assembly facility in Germany, boosting its CIGS cells’ efficiency and unveiling new Utility Panel technology (read the Greentech Media story here).

According to Nanosolar, its Utility Panel is the first solar electricity panel specifically designed for utility-scale systems. 

The company’s white paper says the new solar panel provides electrical benefits (increased power per panel), reliability benefits (better sealing and encapsulation to prevent moisture damage) and mechanical benefits (superior strength due to tempered glass panes on both the back and front of the panel).

Nansolar has several pending patent applications relating to its encapsulation technology and large-scale solar modules.  U.S. Application Pub. Nos. 2007/0295385 (’385 Application), 2007/0295386, 2007/0295387, 2007/0295388, 2007/0295389 and 2007/0295390 comprise a family of applications directed to encapulated solar cells.

The ‘385 Application describes a solar cell (10) having a protective layer (20) mounted in packaging that includes pottant layers (30, 32).  The packaging has at least one outer barrier layer (40), which may be made of tempered glass.


The packaging may also have a backside support layer (50).  Edge sealing material (54) prevents moisture penetration and may be made of butyl rubber tape or epoxy.

U.S. Application Pub. No. 2008/0041434 is directed to a photovoltaic module designed to be used without a junction box. 

The module (10) includes a rigid transparent upper layer (12), a pottant layer (14) and a plurality of solar cells (16).  The transparent upper layer (12) is made of glass and provides structural support and acts as a protective barrier.


A protective backsheet (20) has an electrically insulating layer (22), a support layer (24) and another electrically insulating layer (26).  In one embodiment, the electrically insulating layers are made of black alumina to maximize emission of heat, and the support layer is made of aluminum.

Openings (30) in the backsheet (20) allow wire (40) or wire ribbon (42) to extend outward from the module (10) and be connected to another module to create an electrical interconnection between modules, eliminating the need for a junction box.

According to the ‘434 Application, this solar module design reduces manufacturing costs and redundant parts in each module.

Eric Lane is a patent attorney and intellectual property lawyer at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in San Diego, where he is in the Intellectual Property and Climate Change & Clean Technology practices. Eric is the founder and author of Green Patent Blog, which provides discussion and analysis of intellectual property law issues in clean technology.

A Jet Flies on Natural Gas: A Market Finally for GTL?

Michael Kanellos: October 13, 2009, 9:24 AM

Gas-to-liquid fuels have been under development by Shell and ExxonMobil in Qatar for a number of years. The high expense, however, has made it a difficult sell for the car and truck industry.

This week, Qatar Airways flew an Airbus 340-800 jet from London to Doha flying a 50-50 blend of kerosene and GTL from Royal Dutch Shell, according to Reuters. The fuel mix cuts down particulate and sulfur dioxide. Airbus has said that 30 percent of jet fuel may have to come from clean alternatives by 2030. And planes will inevitably continue to run on liquid fuel – the nuclear plane and the battery-powered plane aren't likely alternatives.

You can drink GTL too. I kid you not.

If development continues, it could be a good news story all around. GTL is not liquefied natural gas, the stuff carried in tanker ships. In those ships, natural gas gets turned into a liquid through low temperatures and then turned back into a gas when it hits home port. GTL involves cracking methane and converting it into a liquid fuel that stays a liquid at ambient temperatures. The process is similar to the coal-to-liquid process devised by Fischer and Tropsch in the 1920s.

The coal-to-liquid process releases a number of greenhouse gases and is expensive. That's why it has only been popular with countries like Apartheid-era South Africa and Third Reich Germany facing trade restrictions. GTL is far cleaner, but it is still expensive. The gas for GTL generally comes from stranded natural gas deposits that are stranded, i.e., not on pipelines that would make extraction easy.

Earlier, Continental flew a plane partly on algae oil, but the algae constituted a very small percentage – like close to 1 percent – of the fuel consumed.

So with GTL you get a solution to the jet emissions issue and perhaps an economically viable option for GTL. We shall see.

A 1GW PV and Solar Thermal Plant for the DOD

Michael Kanellos: October 12, 2009, 4:18 PM

Not only will it be big, it will involve the two main types of solar.

Acciona Solar Power, Clark Energy Group and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin development of a 1-gigawatt plus power plant at Fort Irwin in California this Thursday.

The plant will include both photovoltaic panels as well as mirrors and turbines for solar thermal power. Consider this the wave of the future. Some companies are already moving toward hybrid power plants which combine gas turbines with solar thermal systems to keep a more constant flow of power on cloudy days. A PV-thermal farm ideally will let landholders maximize their real estate by plunking down solar panels in corners of land where more thermal equipment might not make sense.

Acciona built Nevada Solar One, the 64-megawatt plant outside of Las Vegas that helped reinvigorate solar thermal in the U.S. It is building more plants in various global locations.

The Army considers it a pilot project to meet its energy policy, which calls for conservation and the promotion of alternative energy generation. (More details on the project at that link.) Like the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is setting aside land for solar power development, the military also intends to make some of its vast land holdings available for all types of renewable energy generation.

Supporters Come Out for TV Standards on Eve of Fight

Michael Kanellos: October 12, 2009, 2:32 PM

Last week, manufacturers voiced their concerns about proposed standards from the California Energy Commission that would limit power consumption in TVs. The Los Angeles Times also issued an editorial criticizing the regulations as bureaucratic overkill that could hurt the entertainment industry. A hearing is slated for tomorrow morning in Sacramento.

This week, the Sacramento Bee issued a response in favor of the regulations.

"The new rules are expected to save consumers $18 to $30 per year in utility bills for each television in their home. Once fully phased in, the rules will save enough electricity to power more than 850,000 single-family homes equivalent to the population of Anaheim, Burbank, Glendale and Palo Alto combined," the Bee wrote.

The paper also noted that the CEC has been instrumental in keeping energy consumption in California down. Refrigerators used to be the largest single source of energy consumption in the home. Regulations passed in the 1970s have since lead to dramatic increases in efficiency. Appliance makers opposed those regulations.

More than 400 TVs already would pass muster under the proposed standards, which would require TV makers to reduce power consumption on TVs by 33 percent by 2011 and 49 percent by 2013. Vizio, one of the few U.S. manufacturers, actually has come out in favor of the standards.

The Environmental Defense Fund, meanwhile, said that the regulations could save state consumers $8.1 billion over ten years.

"Improving energy efficiency is the easiest and most cost-effective way to cut pollution and save consumers and businesses money," wrote Lauren Navarro, an attorney with the EDF.

It is going to be an interesting showdown. It pits two powerful state constituencies against each other and both come armed with fairly cogent arguments. TVs have been dropping rapidly in power consumption. At the same time, regulations like this have clearly prodded manufacturers to improve their products without necessarily causing increases in price.

What side are you on? Please write in with your comments.