Four Cutting-Edge Technologies that Could Change the Face of Cleantech

http://www.flickr.com/photos/argonne/3987628520/KurzwielAI.net is a very interesting blog maintained by Ray Kurzwiel, artificial intelligence expert and inventor of the electronic synthesizer. The blog highlights cutting-edge technologies that are information-based, such as medical and computing advances, and recently featured four neat scientific breakthroughs that could potentially change the face of cleantech.

Many people dispute the ability of high technology to provide substantive replacements for our oil-intensive lifestyles. Kurzweil has proposed a compelling reason why technology will, in fact, make a huge difference: the accelerating nature of information-based technologies. The logic goes something like this: any science or technology that is built upon information and information technologies will grow at an exponential pace (detailed analysis here). The following are a few examples of just how fast the pace of science and technology is currently advancing.

Solar cells could make fossil fuels virtually redundant if they were cheaper, but their use of rare elements and complex manufacturing processes makes them expensive. – PhysOrg.com article about new IBM solar cells

Two of the recent advances relate to increasing the efficiency of solar cells. KurzweilAI.net highlights a Technology Review article about a new coating for solar cells, “Stanford University spinoff Broadband Solar is developing coatings that increase the amount of light that inexpensive amorphous silicon solar cells absorb, making them competitive with the leading thin-film solar cells.” The company projects that its coating will provide a four-percent increase in the efficiency of amphorous silicon cells, with no increase in cost, and says it can do the same for traditional thin-film solar cells. The Technology Review article also states that, “Amorphous silicon has the advantage of being much more abundant than the materials used by [companies like] First Solar.”

The second solar advance is another type of solar cell which purportedly is cheaper than conventional cells. Summarizing a Physorg.com article, KurzweiAi.net states, “IBM Research has developed a prototype photovoltaic cell using common, cheap elements (tin, zinc, copper, selenium, and sulfur) to replace expensive rare elements indium and tellurium, and an inexpensive manufacturing process.” The process involves printing nanoparticles, called kesterites, onto a glass substrate. The Physorg.com article includes this, extremely tantalizing, quote: “Solar cells contribute under 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s electricity supply at the moment, largely due to their expense and the rarity of their key elements. The IBM solar cell could change all of that. IBM will patent and license the technology and says it is open to partnerships with existing photovoltaic cell manufacturers to bring it to the market.”

Another PhysOrg.com article (via Kurzweil as well) explains a team from the University of Michigan have discovered how to reduce power consumption in electronic devices by using “near-threshold computing (using lower voltages than normal to reduce energy consumption).” Although the article focuses mostly on how this process can be used to increase the performance of microprocessors (power consumption being a major barrier), the strategy could also be used to lower the power consumption of a device while maintaining its performance. According to the article, the potential increase in energy efficiency could be over 100%.

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The last item could be a blessing for any clean technology that needs power storage, including wind, solar and electric vehicles. According to EE Times (via KurzweilAI.net), “Intel researchers are exploring nanoscale materials that could be used to create ultra-capacitors with a greater energy density than today’s lithium ion batteries. If successful, the new materials could be mass produced in volumes to power systems ranging from mobile devices to electric vehicles—even smart grid storage units.” Although this particular strain of research into ultracapacitors (a much more environmentally-friendly type of battery) in in an extremely early stage, it highlights a theme that runs through many of the breakthroughs: nanotechnology, which is manufacturing at a molecular scale. As in this case, many of the current efforts utilizing are in the form of liquids and coatings.

Reading about these types of scientific breakthroughs over the last couple of years has really made me a believer in the idea of accelerating change. The current pace of change is simply astounding. But, while I believe that new technologies will be a major factor in overcoming the huge challenges facing us, I also know that technology is not the only answer. Its still going to take a huge amount of cultural and social change, and human effort, if these challenges are going to be successfully surmounted.

What do you think? How will technology and science factor into our future?

Resources:

High-Efficiency Solar Cell with Earth-Abundant Liquid-Processed Absorber, Advanced Materials, IBM Research abstract (via Physorg.com)

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: What is Nanotechnology?

Who Made America?: Ray Kurzweil (via PBS.org)

Ray Kurzweil and the Law of Accelerating Returns (shanemackey.com)

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Steve Puma is a sustainability consultant in the Bay Area. He currently writes for 3p as well as on his personal blog, ThePumaBlog, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can contact Steve through email or LinkedIn, or follow him on twitter.b>

Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.