Renewable Energy:Small Solution for Big Electricity Problem

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 07, 2009 11:34 am    Post subject: Renewable Energy:Small Solution for Big Electricity Problem Reply with quote

Renewable Energy
A Small Solution For a Big Electricity Problem

Rice University faces an uphill battle trying to help the renewable power generation industry take on one its toughest challenges.

The problem is not a lack of big ideas, but money.

Scientists at the Houston-based university are trying to create a new type of wire made from carbon manipulated at the molecular level so that it can carry massive amounts of electricity to populated areas from windy and sunny areas.

If successful, the new technology could greatly enhance the U.S. power transmission system's limited capacity, which hampers the expanded use of wind and solar energy.

Many experts see both wind and solar as the most promising alternative-energy sources. But there aren't many electrical transmission facilities connecting areas that can produce massive solar-and-wind generated electricity with urban centers. And even where there are facilities available, sending the energy is a challenge because transmission systems throughout the country are strained.

Nano-Tubes, Big Conundrum

Rice scientists said they have in their hands a revolutionary solution to create a highly efficient power grid.

They created, in the laboratory, fibers made of "carbon nano-tubes," or molecules of pure carbon, that are 100 times stronger than steel and transmit electricity more efficiently than copper, the material from which most electrical wires are made. But they need at least three to five more years and $25 million for a largescale investigation into these fibers' properties.

"What we need is a person to fund a five-year effort at $5 million a year with the possibility that it might not work," said Wade Adams, director of Rice University's institute for nanoscale science and technology. "We have people who may sign a check for $500,000 but not for $25 million."

But some said the problem with Rice's nano-carbon tube wires is that they are still far from hitting the market as a viable product.

"The idea of a superconducting wire is thought of as the Holy Grail and has been for decades," said Josh Wolfe, an analyst at Lux Research Inc., which specializes in "disruptive" technologies. "What can be probed in a lab does not a product make."

Rice is not alone in its search to develop a superconducting power wire. At least three companies in the U.S. - American Superconductor Corp. (AMSC), Metal Oxide Technologies Inc. and SuperPower Inc. - are already manufacturing wires that are much more efficient than conventional copper-made cables but are still more expensive to produce. These companies use second-generation high-temperature superconductors, rather than Rice's "carbon nano-tubes." The high-temperature superconductors, which are basically ceramic materials encased in metals, were discovered in 1986 by IBM researchers.

In May, American Superconductor started a project with Consolidated Edison Inc. (ED) of New York, a company that provides electric service to approximately 3.2 million customers, to use superconducting wires under the streets of Manhattan.

"Without a doubt we think we are going after a billion-dollar opportunity," said Jason Fredette, American Superconductor's spokesman.

Metal Oxide Technologies is also producing wires using technology developed by the University of Houston using second-generation high-temperature superconductors.

Wade said what Rice's project, called Rice University Armchair Quantum Wire, is trying to provide the power industry with a new material that works regardless the temperature and will have even more conductivity than wires made from high-temperature superconductors.

The project currently operates with a budget of $1.5 million, most of which comes from the Air Force.

Funding allocated from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration fell through at the same time as the death of of the project's founder, professor Richard Smalley, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of a new type of carbon. Adams said Rice has asked several major oil companies, including BP PLC (BP), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA) and Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), to invest a small part of the billions of dollars they have in profits in a technology that they can own and may transform the future energy business.

"But some of they said, 'Come back and talk a year from now to see what progress you are making,'" Adams said. ExxonMobil declined to comment on Rice's project, but a spokesman said the company has long tradition of supporting university research around the world. Shell said it couldn't confirm the company has been contacted by Rice University.

Nano-Tubes, Big Costs

Rice's Smalley founded Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. (CNT.Xx) in 2000 to commercialize carbon nano-tubes. The company merged in 2007 with Unidym.

While the cost of the carbon nanotubes material has decreased significantly, prices average about $150 a gram. Experts, however, predict the cost to fall to $10 a gram in the next few years, making nano-tubes more economically feasible.

"If you ask me if we will ever see a super-conducting wire that does what Rich Smalley envisioned, I think it is possible," Wolfe said. "But I couldn't give you a timeframe or a probability of when that will happen, and those are the two things that anybody that is credible has to do."

CPS Energy, which is a part owner of Texas' grid said the project of Rice's is "too futuristic."

"We contribute and support new research, but this project is too futuristic," said CPS Energy's spokesman Rolando Romero.

But companies that sell electricity and renewable energy services, such as ConEdison Solutions, said they will be open to invest in new technology.

"We support any effort to improve transmission of renewable energy," said Christine Nevin, a company's spokeswoman.

Source:Dow Jones Newswire via
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