UW Energy Talks Dive Deep into Boeing Biofuels, Smart Grid Savings, and Solar Cells

3/19/09Follow @gthuang

New ideas for alternative energy and cleantech were in the air on Tuesday at the University of Washington, which hosted a regional meeting of the National Academy of Engineering and a public symposium on energy topics. We’ve taken a keen interest in this subject lately at Xconomy as we prepare for our own Northwest cleantech event next week, and wanted to hear from a couple of our very own Xconomists—Ed Lazowska of UW computer science and engineering (who co-organized the meeting), and Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and the former president of MIT.

In his opening remarks, Vest noted that the National Academy of Engineering will soon release a report called “America’s Energy Future.” “We hope it will become a bible for policymakers to understand what the technological and economic facts are about most of the major technologies that may play a role in the next 10 to 20 years in the distribution, generation, and transportation of electrical energy,” Vest said. “It will not be a policy document, but it will be a basis of facts which we hope those in Congress and the administration will utilize.”

Here are a few highlights from three of the ensuing energy talks:

—Rob Pratt, a staff scientist and program manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, spoke about “smart grid” technologies and how minute-by-minute communications and monitoring of energy use could lead to huge overall savings in cost and carbon emissions.

In California, for example, an estimated 1 percent decrease in electricity demand would lead to a 10 percent decrease in energy bills, because electricity generation is most expensive during times of peak demand (e.g., hot summer days). That could translate into some $50 billion in savings for the U.S., if people had enough information about power usage to adjust their consumption levels.

Pratt presented the results of a trial of 112 homes on the Olympic Peninsula, in which letting customers explicitly control their energy usage and savings (and guaranteeing they would not pay more than normal) led to a 15 percent decrease in peak load demand over the course of a year. “You need a simple, intuitive interface,” Pratt said. “Do you need standards for [smart grid] communication? Ours were simple—you need to understand cost, quantity, and time.”

As for his outlook, Pratt said, “I predict this country will embark on an energy efficiency program that will make anything else we’ve done look like child’s play.” He noted that the cleanest power plants are the ones that produce energy for intermediate demand levels—not the peak, not the lowest. And he sees a big opportunity in electric vehicles, provided people manage the timing of charging them up. Giving consumers and utilities minute-by-minute data to track usage levels will be crucial. “The smart grid can help sort this out,” he said. “If we buy the smart grid, this is free. This is like software.”

—Tim Rahmes, biofuels program manager at Boeing (he’s based in Everett, WA), spoke about his team’s recent efforts to test biofuels for aviation. Boeing’s customers in the airline and defense industries are concerned with carbon emissions, fuel availability, and fuel costs, he said. The most important thing about Boeing’s biofuel effort is that it must be sustainable, and not compete with food, water, or deforestation, Rahmes added.

Boeing has used four types of biofuels in engine tests and flight tests—produced from jatropha, halophytes, algae, and camelina feedstocks. There are various tradeoffs between the plant types—for instance, algae can produce a lot of oil, but the challenge is how to extract it efficiently, so it is probably eight to 10 years away from commercial use.

Several companies we’ve reported on at Xconomy have been involved in these tests. Seattle-based Imperium Renewables provided biofuel for a Virgin Atlantic engine test about a year ago. San Diego-based Sapphire Energy (backed locally by Arch Venture Partners and Bill Gates) provided algae-based biofuel for a test with Continental Airlines a few months ago. And most recently, Seattle-based Targeted Growth grew the camelina used for a flight test with Japan Airlines.

Rahmes detailed the painstaking steps necessary to lower the freezing point of these biofuels (and tune other properties) for flight use. But so far, so good—his team is seeing “equivalent or better-than performance,” of biofuels as compared to conventional jet fuel, in terms of both power and emissions. “We’ve tested the feasibility,” Rahmes said. “Now we need to drive commercial viability…At Boeing, we hope to hit an inflection point, like windmills did, for aviation biofuels.”

—Alex Jen, a professor of materials science and engineering at UW, spoke about thin-film, printable organic solar cells—a technology that could make solar power much more affordable. (Last month, Rachel wrote about Jen’s research, and a new startup that is forming around it, called Soluxra.)

Jen made the case that energy is the No. 1 problem facing the world in the next 50 years, ahead of other issues like water, food, and disease. What’s more, cleantech is the key to protecting the environment. “Coal and oil can last hundreds of years, but burning fossil fuels causes global warming,” he said. “Renewable and clean energy is the solution.”

Solar power still makes up only a tiny fraction of the world’s energy consumption, because conventional silicon-based solar cells are so costly to make. Jen’s group has developed methods to print out thin films of polymer-based solar cells that are cheap, stable, and relatively efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. (The knock on organic solar cells has always been that they don’t provide enough juice.)

One key, said Jen, is to develop the right kind of light-harvesting polymers that absorb a greater portion of the solar spectrum so the sunlight will knock more electrons and “holes” (positive charges) free inside the material. Then there is plenty of work in surface engineering and nano-scale materials to get the polymer solar cell to collect more of the free electrons and holes in the nanoseconds before they can recombine, in order to produce more electricity. Jen said the remaining challenge, beyond boosting the efficiency of the materials, will be ramping up the production of massive sheets of the materials, which could eventually cover large areas in the desert, office buildings, and even car windows.

But at the end of the day, the best line came from Guozhong Cao, also a UW professor in materials science and engineering. Cao (pronounced “Chow”) leads the lab that spun out the energy storage technology behind Seattle-based EnerG2 (backed locally by OVP Venture Partners). Cao was speaking about how crucial it is to do the practical, nuts-and-bolts work to turn all these grand research ideas—nanostructures, nanocrystals, nanomaterials—into commercial technologies. “Engineering is important,” he said, “because we don’t want to live in a nano-house and make a nano-salary.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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