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Archive → September, 2010

The Walmart-ization of Thin Film Solar?

Walmart is a name synonymous with affordable, or perhaps even cheap. The same cannot be said today for thin-film CIGS solar modules. CIGS stands for copper indium gallium selenide, the ingredients of what promises to be the only thin film technology that can compete with crystalline silicon on solar efficiency.

In an interesting development, Walmart said yesterday that it would work with SolarCity to put CIGS (and thin-film cadmium telluride) on roofs of dozens of stores in California and Arizona. That means a very mainstream company will be getting renewable energy from a non-mainstream source of solar power. The announcement is also an opportunity to check in to see how CIGS is doing in general.

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Sunlight to Fuels with Joule

Is it possible to take sunlight and CO2 and make liquid fuel from it? The folks at Joule Unlimited think so. Today the firm announced that it has been awarded a patent for technology that purports to convert the ubiquitous inputs into diesel fuel. The firm uses photobioreactors to supply sunlight and CO2 to engineered cyanobacteria that produce n-alkanes.

It’s different than most biofuel start-ups that we read about in that there is no food for the bacteria (often called bluegreen algae, though not technically an algae) other than sunlight and CO2. So, no sugar, either from corn, cellulose or other source. Also there’s no harvesting because the process is designed to be continuous.

Having learned about some of the ins and outs of various biofuel technologies, what sounds nifty about Joule’s technology is the directness of it. As any engineer will tell you, the problems with any process come at the interfaces. Getting cheap cellulosic material to the front door is a problem for a cellulosic ethanol producer. Separating algae from water and squeezing oil out of the humble creatures is a problem for algal oil firms. Doing away with the feeding and the squeezing might be a good idea.

But just because this week’s technology avoids the pitfalls of last week’s doesn’t at all mean it will be successful. If you want to put your own odds on Joule’s prospects, take a look at their shiny new patent (or their almost-as-shiny patent on “Hyperphotosynthetic Organisms.”

And you can read today’s New York Times story on the company, which says the bacteria actually “sweat” n-alkanes. Nice visual, there.

Are the Green Jobs All in China?

Three articles in this week’s Washington Post and New York Times examine the question of whether the shift to clean energy will really create more U.S. jobs or just hasten the shift of jobs to China. It seems like there is strong evidence for the latter case.

Today’s New York Times covers the news that the United Steelworkers union plans to file a case with the Obama Administration accusing China of violating free trade rules in its subsidies for exports of clean energy equipment. Here’s a taste:

“The union says the violations have helped Chinese companies expand their share of the world market for wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power plants and other clean energy equipment, at the expense of jobs in the United States and elsewhere. The filing asks the Obama administration to begin formal proceedings at the W.T.O. in Geneva to force China to repeal the subsidies.

“Unless China’s policies are urgently addressed, the U.S. may never get a fair shot at making the green technologies of the future,” the filing says.”

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An Early Harvest of Biofuels News

Here it is, the second day of September, and I’ve got a small pile of releases here about goings-on in the biofuels industry. Venture Capital maven and biofuels booster Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures is backing the first three companies in this roundup.

Renewable Crude by KiOR, Credit: KiOR

First I need to go back in time a little bit (to Aug. 17) and commend Range Fuels on getting its commerical cellulosic biofuels plant up and running near Soperton, GA. Range Fuels uses thermochemical processes (heat, pressure and steam) to convert woody biomass to synthesis gas (often called syngas). The gas is passed over a catalyst to produce mixed alcohols. The current product of the Soperton plant is methanol, which will be used to produce biodiesel. The plant will also have ethanol output beginning in the third quarter, according to the company.

Its been a long road for Range. (Though the commerical-scale biofuel road will be even longer for most other firms, as commercial facilities are as rare as ice in the Sahara [or you can insert your own lame metaphor]) Continue reading →