Tag Archives: solar

Thailand’s massive floating solar farm lays the foundation for its emission-free future

The Kingdom of Thailand wants to seal its commitment to green energy with its new hybrid solar-hydropower generation facility that covers a water reservoir in the northeast of the country.

The installation covers an immense 720,000 square meters of the reservoir’s surface and produces clean electricity around the clock: solar power during the day, hydropower at night. Christened the Sirindhorn dam farm, this is the “world’s largest floating hydro-solar farm”, and the first of 15 such farms planned to be built by Thailand by 2037. They are a linchpin in the kingdom’s pledge for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Floating towards the future

“We can claim that through 45 megawatts combined with hydropower and energy management system for solar and hydro powers, this is the first and biggest project in the world,” Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) deputy governor Prasertsak Cherngchawano told AFP.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha officially announced his country’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, and a net-zero greenhouse emissions target by 2065. Thailand also aims to produce 30% of its energy from renewables by 2037 as an interim goal.

The Sirindhorn dam farm project, which went into operation last October, is the cornerstone of that pledge. The farm contains over 144,000 solar cells and can output 45 MW of electricity. This is enough to reduce Thailand’s carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 47,000 tons per year.

Thailand’s energy grids continue to rely heavily on fossil fuel; some 55% of the country’s power generation as of October last year was derived from such fuels, while only 11% came from renewable sources such as solar or hydropower, according to Thailand’s Energy Policy and Planning Office, a department of the ministry of energy. Still, projects such as Sirindhorn show that progress is being made.

The $35 million project took two years to build, with repeated delays caused by the pandemic, which saw technicians falling sick and deliveries of solar panels being repeatedly delayed. EGAT plans to install floating hydro-solar farms in 15 more dams across Thailand by 2037, which would total an estimated 2,725 MW of power.

Currently, power generated at Sirindhorn is being distributed mainly to domestic and commercial users in the lower northeastern region of the country.

Thailand is also betting that its floating solar farms will be of interest to tourists, as well. Sirindhorn comes with a 415-meter (1,360-foot) long “Nature Walkway” which will give a breathtaking view of the reservoir and the solar cells floating across its surface. Locals are already flocking to see the solar farm, and time will tell if international travelers will be drawn here as well.

Local communities report that with the solar floats installed, catches of fish in the reservoir have decreased — but they seem to be positive about it. State authorities say that the project will not affect agriculture, fishing, or other community activities in the long term, and are committed to taking any steps necessary towards this goal.

“The number of fish caught has reduced, so we have less income,” village headman Thongphon Mobmai, 64, told AFP. “But locals have to accept this mandate for community development envisioned by the state.”

“We’ve used only 0.2 to 0.3 percent of the dam’s surface area. People can make use of lands for agriculture, residency, and other purposes,” said EGAT’s Prasertsak.

Stronger, longer-lasting perovskite solar panels could be on the way

New research at Soochow University, China, is looking at how and why perovskite materials degrade — with the hope of engineering solar panels with much longer lives.

Image credits Wikimedia / Ken Fields.

Perovskite panels aren’t the only type of solar panels out there, but they are very popular ones. They’re constructed around an active layer of perovskite, which forms crystal structures. Over time, stresses inside the material sandwich can create distortions in these crystals, which reduces their symmetry — essentially wearing them out. Environmental factors like sunlight or temperatures also degrade the layer.

“It is important to understand the degradation mechanisms under different conditions, including light, heat, humidity, electrochemical environment, and intrinsic stability, if you want to improve the durability of perovskite solar cells,” said co-author Zhao-Kui Wang.

“It is important to guarantee that the perovskite and the other layers have the best intrinsic stability and then to do some adjustments for further improving environmental resistance.”

The paper, together with a research update published in the journal APL Materials looked at the factors that influence the degradation of this layer, how degradation influences its performance, and examined possible approaches to making them more resilient.

The update focuses on chemical degradation, caused mainly by the transporting layers (integral parts required for the devices to work which sit in direct contact with the perovskite layer). The authors also analyzed the intrinsic stability of the perovskite layer and how factors such as moisture, oxygen, light, and heat affect it.

One of the most promising ways of reducing degradation seems to be bonding passivation — the removal of tiny gaps formed when assembling the layers together.

The team also points to hydrophobic (water-repelling) and ionic liquids as useful for this purpose under several types of environmental conditions. Ionic liquids can help maintain a stable internal temperature while the panels generate energy, and hydrophobic materials keep moisture out — which further improves the devices’ lifespan. Ionic liquids can be easily modified to possess hydrophobic properties, they add.

“The low volatility means ion liquids can be considered an environmental-friendly solvent for perovskites, yet the efficiency of the device still needs improvement,” Wang said.

“We have proposed the concepts of pure oxygen stability and flexible stability, which are valuable for other researchers to pay attention. Moreover, we hope that these strategies are not only useful in perovskite solar cells but also in other photoelectrical systems, such as organic photovoltaics, photodetectors, and light-emitting diodes.”

As solar power stands poised to take the lead in our energy grids, such research could help dramatically slash operation costs and increase the active lifespans of solar power plants — which would mean less pollution and cheaper energy for us all.

The paper “Durable strategies for perovskite photovoltaics” has been published in the journal APL Materials.

New, ultrathin solar cell doubles the current efficiency record by reaching almost 50%

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have created a record-shattering new solar cell. The device can convert sunlight to energy at nearly 50% efficiency, much better than present alternatives.

NREL scientists John Geisz (left) and Ryan France testing their prototype panel.
Image credits Dennis Schroeder / NREL.

Solar cells today typically run with between 15% and 23% efficiency, meaning they convert roughly 1/6th to 1/4th of incoming energy (in the form of sunlight) to electricity. But a new, “six-junction solar cell” designed at NREL boasts an efficiency of almost 50%, a huge increase.

More bang for your sun

“This device really demonstrates the extraordinary potential of multijunction solar cells,” said John Geisz, a principal scientist in the High-Efficiency Crystalline Photovoltaics Group at NREL and lead author of a new paper on the record-setting cell.

The cell has a measured efficiency of 47.1% under concentrated illumination, with one variant setting a new efficiency record under one-sun (natural) illumination of 39.2%.

The team used III-V materials — so called because of their position in the periodic table, also known as the boron group of semiconductors — to build their new cell; such materials have a wide range of light absorption properties that made them ideal for the task. Due to their highly efficient nature and the cost associated with making them, III-V solar cells are most often used to power satellites

The cell’s six junctions represent photoactive layers, and each is designed to capture light from a certain part of the solar light spectrum — in essence, each layer is specialized in absorbing as much as it can from certain parts of incoming light. The device also contains about 140 layers of various III-V materials to support these junctions, however, it’s only one-third the thickness of a human hair, the team explains.

“One way to reduce cost is to reduce the required area,” says Ryan France, co-author and a scientist in the III-V Multijunctions Group at NREL, “and you can do that by using a mirror to capture the light and focus the light down to a point. Then you can get away with a hundredth or even a thousandth of the material, compared to a flat-plate silicon cell. You use a lot less semiconductor material by concentrating the light. An additional advantage is that the efficiency goes up as you concentrate the light.”

France adds that exceeding the 50% efficiency mark is “actually very achievable”, but reaching 100% efficiency is impossible due to the fundamental limits of thermodynamics — then again, that stands true for all engines and devices used to generate or convert power.

Geisz explains that the current hurdle in exceeding 50% efficiency is presented by resistive barriers that form inside the cell which make it harder for electrical currents to flow. While the team is working on tackling this issue, NREL overall is working heavily towards making III-V solar cells more affordable, to give this technology a competitive edge on the market.

The paper “Six-junction III–V solar cells with 47.1% conversion efficiency under 143 Suns concentration” has been published in the journal Nature Energy.

US and Chinese researchers develop cheap solar still to produce drinking water

A team of researchers from the US and China has developed a passive, solar-powered desalinization system that could quench the thirst of remote, arid coastal areas on the cheap.

Image credits Zhenyuan Xu et al., (2020), Energy Environ. Sci.

The system employs several layers of solar evaporators and condensers stacked on top of each other in a vertical array, topped off with an insulating layer of (transparent) aerogel.


“When you condense water, you release energy as heat,” says corresponding author Evelyn Wang, professor of mechanical engineering and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “If you have more than one stage, you can take advantage of that heat.”

The system uses heat released by each layer to take salt out of seawater, eventually yielding drinkable water. Essentially, it’s a series of solar-powered liquor stills all working in tandem — the energy released by each layer (or ‘stage’) is captured by the next one and re-used. The team showed that their rig can achieve a very impressive 385% conversion rate of sunlight into energy used to evaporate water.

The flat panels absorb heat from sunlight and transfer it to the water, making it evaporate. As the vapor rises, it encounters the next stage, where it condenses on the surface of a new panel. This also helps to transfer heat from the vapor to the receiving panel. Turning water vapor into liquid is as simple as cooling it down; in a traditional still, waste heat from the vapor is released into the environment. The team designed their multi-layered evaporator specifically to retain and reuse this energy, boosting its overall efficiency and speed.

In theory, extra layers can be added to make the system even more efficient at churning our drinkable water, but each layer means more cost and weight. They settled on a 10-stage evaporator as an acceptable compromise between cost and efficiency and installed it on an MIT building rooftop.

They report that the device yielded 5.78 liters per square meter of solar collecting area (1.52 gallons per 11 square feet) per hour, or about twice as much as any other passive solar-powered desalinization system, according to Wang. The still showed no signs of salt accumulation and didn’t produce any brines that needed to be disposed of, the team adds, meaning that the still can be set out in “a free-floating configuration” during the day

The device is still at a proof-of-concept stage, and the team plans to further refine it — they plan to double its efficiency. It’s also built from inexpensive materials, such as a commercial black solar absorber and paper towels. The aerogen layer on top is the single most expensive component, but the team says less expensive insulators could be used as an alternative.

Ultimately, the team plans to scale-up their device and tailor it for commercial use. They hope the still — which they call a thermally localized multistage desalination system — will help provide drinking water for developing areas that lack reliable electricity but have ample seawater and sun.

The paper “Ultrahigh-efficiency desalination via a thermally-localized multistage solar still” has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

A closeup of one of the first Tesla Solar Roof installations. Credit: Green Tech Media.

Tesla’s new solar roof will cost as much as a shingle roof and electricity bill

At this year’s shareholder meeting, CEO Elon Musk said that Tesla’s next generation of solar roof tiles will be even less expensive than initially announced. Musk says that a Tesla solar roof should cost less than the cost of a composite shingle roof and a home’s associated electric utility bill.

A closeup of one of the first Tesla Solar Roof installations. Credit: Green Tech Media.

A closeup of one of the first Tesla Solar Roof installations. Credit: Green Tech Media.

Traditionally known for making fast electric roadsters, Tesla is now a much more robust company with big ambitions in energy generation and storage (PowerWall series), not just in sustainable transportation.

In 2017, not long after Tesla’s merger with Solar City, Elon Musk presented a new product line consisting of roof tiles capable of harvesting solar energy. Tesla officials had announced that customers would have access to the tiles in 2018, but so far only some company executives and a few select customers have gotten their hands on them.

In a recent shareholder’s meeting, Musk said that the company was forced to delay volume production in order to meet very stringent requirements. The tiles not only need to look good, but they also have to be cheap and last for at least 30 years. Progress, however, seems to be good. According to Tesla’s CEO, the company is now close to finishing version 3 of the solar tiles, which ought to be no more expensive or cheaper than a composite shingle roof plus the home’s electricity bill.

“I am very excited about version 3 of solar roof. We have a shot at being equal to a comp shingle roof plus someone’s utility cost or being lower than that. That’s one of the cheapest roofs available. So you can have a great roof with better economics than a normal fairly cheap roof and your utility bill.”

Credit: Tesla.

Credit: Tesla.

A shingle roof can cost as little as $4 per square foot. If Tesla can beat this price — taking into consideration electricity savings over decades — the offer would be unbeatable. Last year, the solar tiles cost about $21.85 per square foot, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Many people want to transition towards solar energy, but their big objection is that solar panels ruin the home’s aesthetics and lower its value. Tiles that are beautiful and mask the solar generation component can deliver the best of both worlds. But even with the announcement of this 3rd iteration in the technology, it’s still not clear when mass production will be ramped up. “I’m sometimes a little optimistic about time frames — it’s time you knew,” Musk joked at the meeting.


Solar wind plus moon soil plus meteorite impacts create water on the Moon, researchers report

Researchers are smartening up to a new mechanism of water formation, one which can explain how the liquid got to the Moon.


Image credits Patricia Alexandre.

A cross-disciplinary group of researchers has shown chemical, physical, and material evidence for water formation on the moon. The research is the product of two teams of researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa working together — physical chemists at the UH Mānoa Department of Chemistry’s W.M. Keck Research Laboratory in Astrochemistry and planetary scientists at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP).

Their findings could help explain recent findings of water ice being present on the moon, as revealed by data from the Lunar Prospector and the hard lander Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

Actually squeezing water from a stone

“Overall, this study advances our understanding on the origin of water as detected on the moon and other airless bodies in our solar system such as Mercury and asteroids and provides, for the first time, a scientifically sound and proven mechanism of water formation,” says Jeffrey Gillis-Davis, who led the HIGP team.

Data beamed back by the two craft does indeed suggest the existence of water ice on the moon’s poles, but where this water came from was far from clear. It’s an especially interesting question for bodies such as NASA, because lunar water represents one of the key requirements for establishing a permanent colony on the moon. Water can be broken down into breathable air or hydrogen fuel, used to grow food, and is, obviously, in high demand with parched spacefarers.

Chemistry Professor Ralf I. Kaiser and HIGP’s Jeffrey Gillis-Davis designed a series of experiments to understand how the liquid got all the way to the moon. Their working hypothesis was that interactions between solar wind, the minerals in lunar soils, and/or micrometeorite impacts, might hold the key. However, due to a lack of available lunar material to work with, the team substituted it with samples of irradiated olivine, a dry mineral that is a good proxy for lunar regolith (soil). The team simulated solar wind — mainly protons — with a flow of deuterium ions.

At first, the study seemed to be a bust. Experiments using only deuterium and the irradiated samples “did not reveal any trace of water formation, even after increasing the temperature to lunar mid-latitude daytime temperatures,” explains Cheng Zhu, a UH Manoa postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the paper.

“But when we warmed the sample, we detected molecular deuterium, suggesting that deuterium—or hydrogen—implanted from the solar wind can be stored in the lunar rock.”

“Therefore, another high-energy source might be necessary to trigger water formation within the moon’s minerals followed by its release as a gas that can be detected,” Kaiser added.

The second round of testing involved more of the same — bombarding the sample with the ions, then heating them up to temperatures that would be seen on the moon — but the team subsequently blasted the sample with powerful laser pulses. This step was meant to simulate the thermal effects of micrometeorite impacts. Analysis of the gas produced by the laser showed that water was indeed present in the sample at this time.

“Water continued to be produced during laser pulses after the temperature was increased, suggesting that the olivine was storing precursors to heavy water that were released by laser heating,” said Zhu.

Hope Ishii and John Bradley from the HIGP used focused ion beam–scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy to image these processes as they were unfurling. They observed sub-micrometer-sized surface pits, some partially covered by lids, suggesting that water vapor builds up under the surface until it bursts, releasing water from lunar silicates upon micrometeorite impact.

The paper “Untangling the formation and liberation of water in the lunar regolith,” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Caffeine solar cell.

Researchers figure out how coffee can boost (some) solar cells

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Solargiga Energy in China have tried to perk up solar panels with coffee. It worked.

Caffeine solar cell.

One of the solar cells the team made using the new method.
Image credits Rui Wang and Jingjing Xue.

The team reports that caffeine can help improve the efficiency with which perovskite solar panels convert light to electricity. The finding could help them a more competitive and cost-effective alternative to silicon solar cells.

Wakey, wakey

“One day, as we were discussing perovskite solar cells, our colleague Rui Wang said, ‘If we need coffee to boost our energy then what about perovskites? Would they need coffee to perform better?'” recalls Jingjing Xue, a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UCLA and co-lead author of the study.

After, presumably, a few rounds of hearty laughs, the team set their cups down and set to work on trying to see if the idea has any value.

The authors have previously worked on improving the thermal stability of perovskite materials — the blue compounds with a particular crystal structure that forms the light-harvesting layer certain solar cells — to make them more efficient at harvesting sunlight. Part of that work involved trying to strengthen the material with additives such as dimethyl sulfoxide, an approach which showed some success in the short term, but wasn’t stable over longer spans of time. Caffeine, however, is an alkaloid compound whose molecular structures could, the team suspected based on their previous experience, interact with the precursors used to make perovskite materials.

So, they set out to add caffeine to the perovskite layer of forty solar cells and used infrared spectroscopy, an approach that uses infrared radiation to identify a sample’s chemical components, to determine if the materials bonded. They had.

Further infrared spectroscopy tests showed that carbonyl groups (a carbon atom double bonded to an oxygen) in caffeine tied to lead ions in the perovskite layer to form a “molecular lock”. This lock increases the minimum amount of energy needed for the perovskite layer to react to sunlight, boosting the solar cell efficiency from 17% to over 20%. This lock stood firm when the material was heated, which suggests that caffeine could also help to make the solar cells more thermally-stable.

“We were surprised by the results,” says Wang, who is also a Ph.D. candidate in Yang’s research group at UCLA. “During our first try incorporating caffeine, our perovskite solar cells already reached almost the highest efficiency we achieved in the paper.”

The caveat, or caffeat if you so prefer, is that this approach likely won’t work with other types of solar cells. It only works here because it can tie into the unique molecular structure of perovskite precursors. However, it may be enough to give this type of solar cell variety an edge on the market.

Currently, perovskite solar cells are the cheaper and more flexible option available on the market. They’re also easier to manufacture, as they can be fabricated from liquid precursors — their silicon counterparts are cast from solid crystal ingots. Wang believes that caffeine might make them even easier to fabricate on a large scale, in addition to making them more efficient.

“Caffeine can help the perovskite achieve high crystallinity, low defects, and good stability,” he says. “This means it can potentially play a role in the scalable production of perovskite solar cells.”

The team plans to continue their efforts by investigating the chemical structure of the caffeine-infused perovskite crystals and identify what materials would best serve as a protective layer for the solar cells.

The paper “Caffeine Improves the Performance and Thermal Stability of Perovskite Solar Cells” has been published in the journal Joule.


Massive solar storms are naturally-recurring events, study finds — and we’re unprepared for them

Solar storms can be even more powerful than what our measurements so far have indicated — and we’re still very unprepared.


Image via Pixabay.

Although our planet’s magnetic field keeps us blissfully unaware of it, the Earth is constantly being pelted with cosmic particles. Sometimes, however — during events known as solar storms, caused by explosions on the sun’s surface — this stream of particles turns into a deluge and breaks through that magnetic field.

Research over the last 70 years or so has revealed that these events can threaten the integrity of our technological infrastructure. Electrical grids, various communication infrastructure, satellites, and air traffic can all be floored by such storms. We’ve seen extensive power cuts take place in Quebec, Canada (1989) and Malmö, Sweden (2003) following such events, for example.

Now, new research shows that we’ve underestimated the hazards posed by solar storms — the authors report that we’ve underestimated just how powerful they can become.

‘Tis but a drizzle!

“If that solar storm had occurred today, it could have had severe effects on our high-tech society,” says Raimund Muscheler, professor of geology at Lund University and co-author of the study. “That’s why we must increase society’s protection again solar storms.”

Up to now, researchers have used direct instrumental observations to study solar storms. But the new study reports that these observations likely underestimated how violent the events can become. The paper, led by researchers at Lund University, analyzed ice cores recovered from Greenland to study past solar storms. These cores formed over the last 100,000 years or so, and have captured evidence of storms over that time.

According to the team, the cores recorded a very powerful solar storm occurring in 600 BCE. Also drawing on data recovered from the growth rings of ancient trees, the team pinpointed two further (and powerful) solar storms that took place in 775 and 994 CE.

The result thus showcases that, although rare, massive solar storms are a naturally recurring part of solar activity.

This finding should motivate us to review the possibility that a similar event will take place sooner or later — and we should prepare. Both the Quebec and Malmö incidents show how deeply massive solar storms can impact our technology, and how vulnerable our society is to them today.

“Our research suggests that the risks are currently underestimated. We need to be better prepared,” Muscheler concludes.

The paper “Multiradionuclide evidence for an extreme solar proton event around 2,610 B.P. (∼660 BC)” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Graph by Gregor Macdonald.

Solar and wind supply more than 10% of electricity in 18 US states

Although the United States is lagging behind China and the EU in terms of adding new renewable energy capacity, some states are already growing at a very rapid pace. According to data for 2018 from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), solar and wind accounted for at least 10% of electricity sales in 18 states, which is further evidence that the nation’s transition to renewable energy is fully underway.

Graph by Gregor Macdonald.

Graph by Gregor Macdonald.

The graph above was made by journalist Gregor Macdonald, where blue indicates that wind is dominant and green shows that solar leads the way in a specific state.

“While one can certainly discount the very high proportion of wind power in sparsely populated Great Plains states, (Kansas, for example, with just 2.9 million people where wind power has now reached 47.13% of electricity sales), it’s impressive that in larger states like CA, CO, TX, and MN combined wind and solar are right around the 20% mark. More intriguing is the continued level of low public awareness that wind and solar have come to not only dominate marginal growth in many domains, but have now reached volumes more typically associated with nuclear power or hydropower. In less than a decade, we have moved the needle from a time when many claimed wind and solar couldn’t scale fast enough, to new complaints these sources are growing too fast. What a great problem to have!” Macdonald wrote on his blog.

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According to the August 2018 edition of Electric Power Monthly, an EIA publication, solar in the United States grew by 28% year-on-year to reach 48 TWh – 2.4% of electricity generation nationwide. Together, solar and wind represented almost 10% of the total electricity generation, with wind output growing 11% and expanding beyond traditional strongholds in Texas and the Plains States to more Midwestern states, as well as Oregon and New Mexico. This growth is occurring at the expense of coal, whose use in electricity generation is down 6% year-on-year. Nearly 10 GW of coal was retired in the first six months of 2018 alone.

Graphic by Gregor Macdonald.

Solar and wind show no signs of stopping their upward growth trend. According to the The American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) US Wind Industry Third Quarter 2018 Market Reportseven US states could double their wind capacity in the near-term. Arkansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Maryland, and Massachusetts have all enough wind capacity currently under construction that will more than double their capacity upon completion. Meanwhile, the U.S. is expected to more than double its photovoltaic capacity over the next five years, led by growth in California, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Texas, and New Jersey.


Future Moon colonists could produce water from regolith and sunlight

Future moon settlers could produce all the water they need — by capturing solar winds.


Image via Pixabay.

Streams of charged particles propelled from the surface of the sun (known as ‘solar wind’) slam into the Moon’s surface every day. It’s not a gentle process — these particles reach speeds in excess of 450 kilometers per second (nearly 1 million miles per hour) — but it does enrich the lunar surface with the building blocks of water, a new study reports.

Water from a stone

“We think of water as this special, magical compound,” said William M. Farrell, a plasma physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, one of the study’s co-authors. “But here’s what’s amazing: every rock has the potential to make water, especially after being irradiated by the solar wind.”

The team ran a computer simulation to see what chemical changes take place in lunar rocks under the effect of solar winds.

Solar wind is basically a flow of protons. It continually blasts the Moon’s surface, breaking the bonds among molecules in regolith — lunar soil — pulling apart the atoms of silica (SiO2, basically sand) and iron oxides found within the majority of the Moon’s soil. Some of these protons also grab onto electrons in the lunar surface, producing hydrogen atoms. These atoms then work their way up through the regolith leeching the released oxygen. Together, hydrogen and oxygen make the molecule hydroxyl (OH), which is two-thirds of the water (H2O) molecule.

The findings should help further our goal of sending humans up to the Moon to establish a permanent presence there, says Orenthal James Tucker, a physicist at Goddard who led the research.

“We’re trying to learn about the dynamics of transport of valuable resources like hydrogen around the lunar surface and throughout its exosphere, or very thin atmosphere, so we can know where to go to harvest those resources,” he explains.

The research drew on infrared measurements performed on the lunar surface by several spacecraft — including NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and India’s Chandrayaan-1. These readings offered us insight into the chemistry of the lunar surface, all of them finding evidence that water or its components — hydrogen and hydroxyl — were present in the regolith.

Exactly how such compounds wound up on the moon, however, was still a matter of debate. It was possible that they arrived on the back of meteorites impacting its surface, or that these impacts initiated the chemical reactions that created hydrogen, hydroxyl, and water. Tucker’s simulation, which traces the life cycle of hydrogen atoms on the Moon, supports the solar wind hypothesis.

“From previous research, we know how much hydrogen is coming in from the solar wind, we also know how much is in the Moon’s very thin atmosphere, and we have measurements of hydroxyl in the surface,” he says. “What we’ve done now is figure out how these three inventories of hydrogen are physically intertwined.”

The findings also helped us understand why spacecraft have found fluctuations in the amount of hydrogen in different regions of the Moon. All the hydrogen atoms created by solar wind bombardment eventually escape into space (since it’s much less dense than all other compounds). However, hydrogen tends to accumulate predominantly in the Moon’s colder areas since it gets energized by sunlight, making it escape much faster.

“The whole process is like a chemical factory,” Farrell said.

A key implication of the findings, Farrell said, is that every exposed body of silica in space — from the Moon down to a small dust grain — has the potential to create hydroxyl and thus become a chemical factory for water.

The paper ” Solar Wind Implantation Into the Lunar Regolith: Monte Carlo Simulations of H Retention in a Surface With Defects and the H 2 Exosphere” has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.


Stanford designed software to spot every solar panel in the US (there’s a lot of them)

A new open-access tool developed at Stanford University reveals that, in certain U.S. states, solar panels now account over 10% of total energy generation.


The interactive map of the United States on the DeepSolar website.
Image credits DeepSolar / Stanford University

Policy-makers, utility companies, researchers, and engineers currently have a hard time estimating just how many solar panels installed throughout the country. Stanford University researchers have come to their aid, however, with a new algorithm that makes it easier than ever before to quantify them and analyze development. The tool (accompanied by an open-access website) draws on high-resolution satellite data and automated image analysis.

Sunnyside up

“With these methods, we can not only maintain and update a high-fidelity database of solar installations, but also correlate them at the census-tract level with the amount of incoming solar radiation as well as non-physical factors such as household income and education level,” says co-senior author Arun Majumdar, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford and co-Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

The tool, dubbed DeepSolar, offers unprecedented insight into the trends that drive solar power adoption by society at large, the team says. The algorithm works by analyzing high-resolution images across the U.S., looking for solar panels. When it finds a match, the program records the location and calculates its size.

In stark contrast to its predecessors, DeepSolar isn’t painfully slow. “Previous algorithms were so slow that they would have needed at least a year of computational time” to identify most of the solar panels in the U.S., says co-senior author Ram Rajagopal, a civil engineering professor at Stanford. Meanwhile, DeepSolar only needs a “fraction” of that time.

The team reports using DeepSolar to locate roughly 1.47 million individual solar installations across the country. These included rooftop panels, solar farms, and utility-scale installations. The software should help optimize solar development at the aggregate level, the team explains, especially since decentralization of solar power made it hard to keep track of all the panels being installed.

DeepSolar city.

DeepSolar interactive map showing solar panel distribution by county in the region surrounding Chicago.
Image credits DeepSolar / Stanford University.

One area the team hopes to make an immediate impact with DeepSolar is in the U.S. power grid. The tool, they say, could be used to better integrate solar into the grid by accounting for daily and seasonal fluctuations in incoming sunlight.

“Now that we know where the solar panels are, or are likely to be in the future, we can feed that information into questions of modeling the electricity system and predicting where storage units and substations should go,” says Majumdar.

DeepSolar could also help in pinpointing new areas for solar deployment. The team used the program to establish correlations between solar installation density and variables such as population density or household income — which, when pooled together, allowed them to create a model predicting which areas are most likely to adopt solar in the future.

“Utilities, companies that install solar panels, even community planners that are thinking about sustainability, they all can benefit from this high-resolution spatial data and a website where they can explore and analyze the different trends involved,” Rajagopal says.

The team plans to expand the DeepSolar database to include solar installations in other countries with suitably high-resolution satellite images and to improve its ability to estimate energy output based on characteristics such as the angle of incoming light.

The paper “DeepSolar: A Machine Learning Framework to Efficiently Construct Solar Deployment Database in the United States” has been published in the journal Joule.

Test device.

Newly-developed fuel can store solar energy for up to 18 years

Sweedish researchers have developed a new liquid that can store solar heat for almost two decades.

Oil on Water.

Oil on water.
Image via Pixabay.

The main drawback of solar power is that we’re yet to develop reliable, dense, and long-term storage for the energy that it generates. Our only realistic option at this time are batteries, but they’re quite expensive, use on rare or polluting materials, and have a limited capacity. The current research, however, might provide exactly the breakthrough that the industry needs — the new compound, a specialized fluid called solar thermal fuel, can store and release solar heat for up to 18 years.

Chemical storage

“The energy in this isomer can now be stored for up to 18 years,” says one of the team, nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University.

“And when we come to extract the energy and use it, we get a warmth increase which is greater than we dared hope for.”

Solar fuels work similarly to a rechargeable battery that substitutes sunlight and heat in lieu of electricity. The team’s compound is a molecule (norbornadiene) in a liquid form that researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden have been developing for over a year. It’s composed mainly of carbon, with some hydrogen and nitrogen atoms thrown in. So, up to now, it’s a pretty standard organic compound.

What makes this fluid stand out is its interaction with sunlight. When exposed to sunlight, the bonds between the molecule’s atoms get rearranged and stabilize in an energized form — an isomer (called quadricyclane). This transforms heat energy from the sun into chemical energy that can be stored and released. The isomer itself is stable enough to last unaltered for up to 18 years (which is a lot), even at room temperatures.

When the energy is needed, the ‘charged’ fluid can be drawn through a catalyst that unpacks the molecule to its original form. The excess chemical energy is given off as heat.

Test device.

Image credits Chalmers University of Technology.

A prototype rig using this new fuel is already undergoing tests on one of the university’s buildings, the team adds. The system is based on a circuit that pumps the fluid through transparent tubes under a concave reflector (this focuses sunlight on the fuel). The charged fuel is then pumped into storage. The whole installation acts much like a sunflower, tracking the Sun as it moves across the sky.

When the energy is needed, the fluid is filtered through the catalyst, warming it by 63 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). The team hopes that the heat can be used in various roles around the house — heating systems, dishwashers, anything and everything, really — before being pumped back to the roof once again.

“We have made many crucial advances recently, and today we have an emissions-free energy system which works all year around,” says Moth-Poulsen.

So far, the researchers have tested their fuel through 125 such cycles without observing any significant damage to the molecule. Furthermore, they report that one kilogram of the fuel can store 250 watt-hours of energy — which is double what a Tesla Powerwall can boast. However, they’re confident that there are still areas where the fuel can be improved. They hope to have the system generate at least 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) more with further tweaks.

“There is a lot left to do. We have just got the system to work. Now we need to ensure everything is optimally designed,” says Moth-Poulsen.

Moth-Poulsen thinks the technology could be available for commercial use within 10 years.

The paper “Macroscopic heat release in a molecular solar thermal energy storage system” has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Melbourne solar powered canopy that doubles as work of art wins 2018 Land Art Generator Initiative

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Every two years, the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) celebrates the most inspiring designs that integrate renewable-energy production within an urban setting. For elegantly blending art and energy generation, Light Up — a project designed for Melbourne, Australia that incorporates solar, wind, and microbial fuel cell technologies to produce 2,220 MWh of clean energy annually — was awarded the first prize.

You wouldn’t want to take your family to a picnic near a coal-fired power plant, but who could say no to a stroll down Light Up — NH Architecture’s idea for turning Melbourne’s St. Kilda Triangle, the beachside block home to the historic Palais Theatre, into a power plant and work of art both.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

The team of architects led by Martin Heide envisions a grand canopy that arches over St. Kilda Triangle, where 8,600 flexible solar panels attached to a lightweight tensile structure would provide 70 percent of the energy output. Energy harvested from the wind that blows across the canopy and microbial fuel cells connected to plant roots would provide the rest.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

To store all of this energy, the architects propose employing lithium-ion cells sourced from retired electric vehicle batteries. Specifically, 107,000 used EV battery cells from 50 used fully electric cars would be embedded in the handrails of the bridge structures.

“The form of a draping tapestry creates a timeless and instantly recognizable image for St Kilda that compliments existing landmarks without competing with them. With such a large component of the artwork spanning Jacka Boulevard, Light Up manages to create one large functional park space that flows from the Palais forecourt to the beach. The experience of traversing the park will be like walking through a flowing stream of solar energy,” LAGI co-founders Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry said in a joint statement.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Alternatively, St. Kilda could be the seat of an intriguing hydro-solar generator designed by Seattle’s Olson Kundig. The project, called Night&Day, was awarded the second prize for its innovative combination of solar energy and hydro storage to produce 1,000 MWh annually — enough to power roughly 200 Australian homes.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

Credit: 2018 Land Art Generator design competition for Melbourne.

During the day, the site would produce energy from its 5,400 square-meter photovoltaic arrays shaped like a solar sail. Excess energy is used to pump bay water into a suspended hydro battery vessel. At night, gravity does all the work — the potential energy is converted into kinetic energy as the water flows down turbines that generate electricity through a generator.

“We’ve long admired Olson Kundig’s work and the range of projects they engage in. Their LAGI 2018 design is profoundly beautiful and perfectly functional, incorporating solar with energy storage—such a critical component of a successful energy transition—in a way that is playful, viscerally engaging, and educational,” said Monoian and Ferry.

Light Up’s team will receive $16,000 in prize money, while Day&Night will get $5,000. Another 23 teams were shortlisted.

Winning LAGI 2018 does not guarantee that the project will actually be constructed at St. Kilda Triangle, but with enough public support, it could happen.

Today also marks the opening of the LAGI 2018 exhibition, which will run for one week at Fed Square Atrium, and the book launch of “Energy Overlays” published by HIRMER Verlag. The book features the top 50 entries to the competition, along with essays about renewable energy. 

Northwest Africa (NWA) 11119 is the oldest igneous meteorite recorded. Credit: University of New Mexico.

Unique 4.6-billion-year-old meteorite is a remnant of the early solar system

A never-before-seen space rock — older than Earth itself! — stands out among the 40,000 meteorites researchers have recovered so far. Scientists claim this is the oldest igneous meteorite found thus far and by studying it they hope to learn more about how the solar system formed and evolved.

Northwest Africa (NWA) 11119 is the oldest igneous meteorite recorded. Credit: University of New Mexico.

Northwest Africa (NWA) 11119 is the oldest igneous meteorite recorded. Credit: University of New Mexico.

About 4.6 billion years ago, a massive cloud of gas and dust collapsed under its own gravity, forming a spinning disk with a proto-sun at its center. Under the influence of gravity, material accreted into small chunks that got larger and larger, forming planetesimals. Many such objects likely broke back apart as they collided with each other, but others would have coalesced — eventually becoming planets and moons. However, the journey to building a planet was quite messy. One study published in Nature concluded that Earth lost nearly 40 percent of its mass as vapor during collisional growth.

The weird meteorite described by Carl Agee, the Director of the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Meteoritics, and colleagues provides chemical evidence that silica-rich crustal rocks were forming on planetesimals at least 10 million years before the assembly of the terrestrial planets.

At first, however, the space rock looked pretty unassuming. The researchers initially thought that the rock — called Northwest Africa 11119, as it was discovered in the sand dunes of Mauritania — was terrestrial in origin due to its light appearance and silica-rich content.

The rock, which was originally found by a nomad and later sourced by Agee via a meteorite dealer, was handed over to graduate student and lead author Poorna Srinivasan to study its mineralogy. Using an electron microprobe and a CT (computed tomography), Srinivasan started noticing unusual details in NWA 11119 and concluded it is extraterrestrial in origin, judging from its oxygen isotopes. What’s more, the silica-rich achondrite meteorite contains information involving the range of volcanic rock compositions (their ‘recipes’) within the first 3.5 million years of solar system creation.

“The age of this meteorite is the oldest, igneous meteorite ever recorded,” Agee said in a statement. “Not only is this just an extremely unusual rock type, it’s telling us that not all asteroids look the same. Some of them look almost like the crust of the Earth because they’re so light colored and full of SiO2. These not only exist, but it occurred during one of the very first volcanic events to take place in the solar system.”

Artist impression of NWA) 11119, seen in right bottom corner. Credit: University of New Mexico.

Artist impression of NWA) 11119, seen in right bottom corner. Credit: University of New Mexico.

According to Srinivasan, the mineralogy of the rock is unlike anything the researchers have worked on before. One of its most striking characteristics is that large silica crystals of tridymite — which are similar to quartz — comprise about 30 percent of the total meteorite. This kind of composition is unheard of in meteorites — which typically have ‘basaltic’ compositions with much lower abundances of silica — and can only be found in certain volcanic rocks from Earth.

Subsequent investigations using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry determined the precise formation age of the meteorite: 4.565 billion years.

But where exactly NWA 11119 formed is still a mystery.

“Based on oxygen isotopes, we know it’s from an extraterrestrial source somewhere in the solar system, but we can’t actually pinpoint it to a known body that has been viewed with a telescope,” said Srinivasan. “However, through the measured isotopic values, we were able to possibly link it to two other unusual meteorites (Northwest Africa 7235 and Almahata Sitta) suggesting that they all are from the same parent body – perhaps a large, geologically complex body that formed in the early solar system.”

It’s possible that this larger parent body was torn to pieces through the collision with some other asteroid or planetesimal, ejecting fragments that would eventually hit Earth at a yet unknown time in the past.

“The meteorite studied is unlike any other known meteorite,” says co-author and ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate student Daniel Dunlap. “It has the highest abundance of silica and the most ancient age (4.565 billion years old) of any known igneous meteorite. Meteorites like this were the precursors to planet formation and represent a critical step in the evolution of rocky bodies in our solar system.”

The findings published in the journal Nature Communications are important because they help scientists piece together how the building blocks of planets formed in the early solar system. Specifically, this “missing part of the puzzle that we’ve now found that tells us these igneous processes act like little blast furnaces that are melting rock and processing all of the solar system solids,” Agee said.

“Ultimately, this is how planets are forged,” he added.

Opportunity dusty.

Rumors of Opportunity’s death “very premature”, despite three-weeks silence

NASA’s last contact with the Opportunity Rover took place over three weeks ago. Despite this, the agency believes it’s too early to assume the worst case scenario — the rover’s demise.

Opportunity dusty.

Opportunity covered in dust on Mars.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

We’ve been talking a lot about the huge dust storm that’s engulfed Mars of late, and of how NASA’s two rovers — Opportunity and Curiosity — are weathering the event. Out of the two, Curiosity has been served the much sweeter side of the dish: powered by a nuclear reactor and sitting out of the storm’s way, it’s been free to leisurely capture pics of the weather (and itself).

The older and solar-powered Opportunity, however, is stuck in the massive storm. Besides getting pelted by dust that may harm its scientific instruments, the rover is also unable to recharge. Dust blocks so much of the incoming sunlight that Opportunity’s solar panels just can’t create a spark. Bereft of battery charge, the rover stands a real chance of freezing to death on — fittingly– Mars’ Perseverance Valley.

Tough as old (ro)boots

Opportunity has been on duty for some 14 years now. It’s a veteran space explorer that relayed treasure troves of data for researchers back here on Earth. I’m rooting for the bot to weather the storm. By this point, however, it’s been three weeks since it last established contact with NASA — enough to make even the most resolute worry about its fate.

Dr. James Rice, co-investigator and geology team leader on NASA projects including Opportunity, says we shouldn’t assume the worst just yet.

Talking with Space Insider, Dr. Rice explains during its last contact with NASA, Opportunity also sent back a power reading. It showed the rover managed to scrape a meager 22 Wh of energy from its solar panels. For context, the rover managed to collect 645 Wh of energy from its panels just ten days before. This chokehold on energy is the NASA’s main concern at the moment.

However, he adds that the same storm which prevents Opportunity from recharging its batteries may ultimately also be its salvation.

One of the reasons NASA was caught offguard by the storm is that they simply don’t generally form around this time of the Martian Year. It’s currently spring on the Red Planet’s Southern Hemisphere, but dust storms usually form during summer. The only other dust event NASA recorded during the Martian Spring formed in 2001, and even that one came significantly later in the season than the current storm.

Mars storm.

The first indications of a dust storm appeared back on May 30. The team was notified, and put together a 3-day plan to get the rover through the weekend. After the weekend the storm was still going, with atmospheric opacity jumping dramatically from day to day.

Still, at least it’s not winter — so average temperatures aren’t that low on Mars right now. The dust further helps keep Opportunity warmer, as it traps heat around the rover.

“We went from generating a healthy 645 watt-hours on June 1 to an unheard of, life-threatening, low just about one week later. Our last power reading on June 10 was only 22 watt hours the lowest we have ever seen” Dr. Rice explained.

“Our thermal experts think that we will stay above those low critical temperatures because we have a Warm Electronics Box (WEB) that is well insulated. So we are not expecting any thermal damage to the batteries or computer systems. Fortunately for us it is also the Martian Spring and the dust, while hindering our solar power in the day, helps keep us warmer at night,” he added.

The storm has reached 15.8 million square miles (41 million square kilometers) in size this June. It poses a real risk to Opportunity’s wellbeing, but ground control remains optimistic. Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin believes that the massive storm may have already peaked — but, considering that it took roughly a month for it to build up, it could take a “substantial” amount of time before it dissipates completely.

“As of our latest Opportunity status report Saturday (June 30) this storm shows no sign of abating anytime soon. We had a chance to conduct an uplink last night at the potential low-power fault window. We sent a real-time activate of a beep as we have done over the past two weeks. We had a negative detection of the beep at the expected time,” Dr Rice added.

“A formal listening strategy is in development for the next several months.”

Among all this, or rather also because of all that’s happening to Opportunity, I can’t help but feel genuine admiration for it as well as the people who helped put it together. Opportunity was first launched in 2004 and along its sister craft Spirit, was supposed to perform a 90-day mission. Spirit kept going until 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong today (and hopefully for longer). That’s a level of dedication I can only dream of.

Based in part on the rover’s rugged track record, Dr. Rice believes that “rumors of Opportunity’s death are very premature at this point.”

City of London.

London’s Square Mile to use 100% renewable energy by October

The City of London will draw on 100% renewable energy by the end of the year.

City of London.

City of London skyline.
Image credits Diliff / Wikimedia.

London’s famous “Square Mile” central district is going green — not in paint, but in spirit. Though not technically still a mile, as the district’s official bounds now enclose some 1.12 square miles, the major financial center will source 100% of its power from renewable sources starting this October, according to the City of London’s ruling body. The supply will come from solar panels installed on local buildings, further investments in larger solar and wind projects, and clean energy already in the grid.

The renewable mile

The City of London Corporation, the governing body of Square Mile (also colloquially known as the City of London), announced that it wants to draw only on renewable power from October 2018 onward. The City of London will install solar panels on the buildings it owns and will invest in installations such as wind and solar farms elsewhere in the UK.

Members of the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee backed measures that would turn their own sites across London into electricity-producing units. They also signed off on investments in off-site renewable energy installations and backed the purchase of renewable energy already available in the grid. Some of the buildings the Corporation plans to turn into renewable-generation units include social housing across six London boroughs, 10 high-achieving academies, three wholesale markets, and 11,000 acres of green space including Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest. More than enough space for the City to develop clean energy for the city as a whole.

“Sourcing 100% renewable energy will make us cleaner and greener, reducing our grid reliance, and running some of our buildings on zero carbon electricity,” Catherine McGuinness, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“We are always looking at the environmental impact of our work and hope that we can be a beacon to other organisations to follow suit.”

The Greater London area has been struggling with pollution for the past few years. However, they’re also making important efforts to change — like adopting more electric vehicles and taxing polluting ones, creating more green spaces, and relying more heavily on clean energy. Electric taxis and buses are already zipping through the streets, and last December Shadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, announced plans to extend the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to include London-wide buses, coaches, and lorries, as well as expanding the Zone to include North and South circular roads for all vehicles.

Artist impression of an early solar system. Credit: NASA.

Scientists collect interstellar dust that formed the Earth and solar system

Researchers have discovered an enormous body of interstellar dust that predates the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. The findings might revolutionize our understanding of how the solar system came to be, as well as all other planetary bodies.

Artist impression of an early solar system. Credit: NASA.

Artist impression of an early solar system. Credit: NASA.

It sounds unbelievable, but some of the original interstellar dust that went to form the sun, Earth, and all the other planets in the solar system can be still be found floating around in our neighborhood, even hitting our atmosphere from time to time. Presolar dust particles can no longer be found in the inner solar system, as it was long ago destroyed, reformed, and reaggregated in multiple phases. However, presolar dust can still be found in the outer solar system, specifically in some comets.

When these comets pass close enough to the sun, they release presolar dust that can reach Earth’s orbit and settle through the atmosphere, where it can be collected and later studied. Dr. Hope Ishii of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and her colleagues used electron microscopy to study such dust particles, as well as data gathered from the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) aboard the Cassini Saturn orbiter during its two-decade mission.

The presolar dust particles in question are actually called GEMS – or ‘glass embedded with metal and sulfide’. They’re less than one hundredth the width of a human hair in diameter and contain a variety of carbon known to decompose when exposed to even relatively gentle heating.

An electron micrograph of an interplanetary dust particle of likely cometary origin. Credit: Hope Ishii

Ishii and colleagues write that the GEMS likely formed in the interstellar medium due to grain shattering, amorphization, and erosion from supernovae shocks, then later went through subsequent periods of aggregation. Irradiation likely provided enough energy for the amorphous silicates which comprise the dust to absorb small amounts of metal atoms, the authors reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

“With repeated cycling in and out of cold molecular clouds, mantled dust and any aggregates were repeatedly and progressively partially destroyed and reformed. Cassini mission data suggest the presence of iron metal in contemporary interstellar dust,” the researchers wrote in their study.

This first generation of GEMS aggregated with crystalline grains that were likely transported from the hot inner-solar nebula, creating second-generation aggregates. Later this 2nd generation of aggregates was likely incorporated into small, icy cometary bodies.

The researchers concluded that the grains they studied represent surviving pre-solar interstellar dust that formed the very building blocks of planets and stars. As such, they provide unique insight into a pre-solar system environment, ultimately telling us how our planet and others like it came to be. We only have a rough picture of how our solar system formed from a huge disk of dust and gas, and these little grains could be the missing pieces that complete the puzzle. In the future, the researchers plan on collecting more comet dust, particularly that sourced from more well-protected comets that pass by the sun.

Proxima Flaresauri.

Massive flare in the Proxima Centauri system puts its habitability into question

The Sun’s closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, might not be as welcoming as we believed — a team of astronomers have detected a flare so powerful from the star that it throws the habitability of its system into serious doubt.

Proxima Flaresauri.

Artist’s impression of a flare from Proxima Centauri.
Image credits Roberto Molar Candanosa / Carnegie Institution for, NASA/SDO, NASA/JPL.

A team of astronomers led by Meredith MacGregor from the Carnegie Institution for Science discovered the flare while reanalyzing recordings taken last year by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an array of 66 radiotelescope antennas nestled in the Atacama desert.

Now, by their very nature, solar flares are some of the most violent and energetic events we know of. Think of them as magnetic short-circuits in a star. What happens during a flare is that ebbs and flows in a star’s magnetic field start accelerating electrons (negatively-charged particles) close to the speed of light. Enough of these build up that they start interacting with stellar plasma (highly electrically charged atoms), ripping it out of the star, causing it to erupt. This eruption can be seen across the electromagnetic spectrum.

And that’s where the bad news starts: even by solar flare standards, what the team discovered was humblingly violent. The flare they detected from Proxima Centauri was over 10 times brighter, at its peak, than the largest flares that we’ve ever recorded from the Sun at similar wavelengths.

“March 24, 2017 was no ordinary day for Proxima Cen,” said MacGregor.

The flare increased Proxima Centauri’s brightness by a factor of 1,000 over 10 seconds. It was also preceded by a smaller flare. Taken together, the event lasted for under two minutes — which would explain why nobody noticed them in the first place. For context, ALMA observed the star for over 10 hours between January and March of last year, when the flares erupted.

We knew from previous observation that Proxima Centauri was prone to regular bouts of flares, although they were much smaller and emitted chiefly in the x-ray spectrum. However, the findings now cast a lot of doubt on the habitability of the exoplanet Proxima b, which up to now raised a lot of interest as a potentially habitable planet. Proxima b orbits its star around 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun, so flares of this magnitude are a huge problem. The team estimates that a flare 10 times larger than a major solar flare would drench the planet with 4,000 times more radiation that Earth gets from a solar flare. That’s enough to raise literal hell on the planet, the team explains:

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare,” says MacGregor.

“Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

So it might be healthier to steer away from Proxima b until we find a way to accurately predict, and then successfully weather, these flares.

The findings also allowed the team to get a better image of the Proxima Centauri system, and infirm previous estimation that it contains large bodies of dust and larger particles, similar to our asteroid belt.

The paper “Detection of a Millimeter Flare From Proxima Centauri” has been published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Credit: Pixabay.

Price of new solar energy plummets by 26% in one single year

Credit: Pixabay.

Credits: Pixabay.

Market studies over the last year reveal major price cuts for solar energy at a global level. As far as new installations go, prices have fallen by 26 percent on average, though in some areas, they got much lower. This drop comes on top of an 80 percent price slash over the last ten years. In fact, today’s context is of such a nature that it makes economic sense to start building new utility solar today rather than continuing operating existing coal or nuclear plants.

Bloomberg reports that in China, the price for electricity sourced from solar dropped 44 percent last year, while last October saw a new record low price set in India. Such progress was made possible by ever lower prices for solar panels, but also smarter government incentives like China’s and India’s auction systems which determine how much a developer should get paid based on real-time demand. China, in fact, grew too much solar for its own good. The communist state now generates more renewable energy than its grid can accommodate — it’s the worst renewable curtailment problem in the world. But even in this situation, the transition to an auction system seems to do wonders, putting a lid on overly enthusiastic clean-energy booms that might end up doing more harm than good.

“Only those that have the most efficient technology, most precise and best practice of manufacturing, most solid financing and strongest control over the supply chain can survive,” said Qian Jing, the vice president of JinkoSolar Holding Co., the world’s biggest solar-panel maker.

Credit: Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Solar panels have become much cheaper this year. Credit: Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Since 2012, the most renewable energy capital has flowed into the Asia-Pacific region, where solar and wind capacity has effectively tripled over the last five years. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any signs of slowing down. China is on track for another year of record installations, according to BNEF, which estimates the nation ought to finish the year with 50 new gigawatts of solar power. That’s more than Japan’s entire photovoltaic capacity.

Thanks to the auction system, the price for solar has been pushed lower than it has ever been and things are moving at an astonishing pace. Last year, Saudi Arabia set a world record for the lowest price for kWh any renewable technology was able to achieve. Today, the same price is this year’s highest price, Think Progress reported after Saudi Arabia crushed its own record with a jaw-dropping lowest bid of 1.79 cents/kWh. Elsewhere, Mexico’s latest auction on November 29 may not have set a new world record but has impressed analysts nevertheless. Market newcomer Mitsui-Trina placed the lowest solar bid, at $19.74 per megawatt-hour, officially the lowest solar price in Latin America so far. 

“Most regulators are discovering competitive auctions are better in capturing the actual cost of building renewable energy projects,” explained Justin Wu, who oversees the Asia-Pacific region for BNEF.

The bottom line is that solar is expanding aggressively and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. After all, there is a lot of ground to cover. 

Wind vs coal.

Nobody is going to make coal great again, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder

With new technologies hitting the markets every day, renewables are becoming cheaper far faster than anyone anticipated. This trend puts clean energy in investors’ cross-hairs and spells the end of coal as the mainstay of power grids around the world.


Image via Pixabay.

Michael Liebreich, founder of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), says clean energy will take the cream of future investments, leaving fossil fuels in the dust. In a presentation he held at the research group’s conference this Tuesday in London, Liebreich said emerging tech is making clean energy more economical than fossil fuels for utilities in many countries around the world. In light of this trend, he estimates that the clean energy sector will attract 86% of the $10.2 trillion likely to be invested in power generation by 2040.

BNEF first took shape as New Energy Finance, a data company focused on energy investment and carbon markets research based in the United Kingdom and was purchased by Bloomberg L.P. back in 2009. When the company first began collecting data in 2004, it could already spot a trend towards larger machines and installations in the wind energy sector, all designed to deliver more power to the grid. A trend that is continuing even today, with both Siemens and Vestas Wind Systems working on plans for huge turbines, with wingspans larger than that of the world’s biggest aircraft, the Airbus A380.

This trend also carries with it the promise of even greater cost-efficiency, so much so that offshore wind developers in Germany are promising electricity without subsidy for their upcoming projects.

“One of the reasons those offshore wind costs have come down to be competitive without subsidies is because these turbines are absolute monsters,” Liebreich said. “Imagine a turbine with a tip height that’s higher than The Shard.’’

The cost per unit of energy from photovoltaic solar panels is also continuing to drop, making them more and more competitive against fossil fuels. That’s why Liebreich predicts two “tipping points” in the future, which will make fossil-fuel-generated power increasingly unattractive from an economic point of view.

“The first is when new wind and solar become cheaper than anything else,” Liebreich said.

“At that point, anything you have to retire is likely to be replaced by wind and solar,” he added. “That tipping point is either here or almost here everywhere in the world.”

Wind vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

These tipping points won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and their exact dates aren’t set in stone; it’s a process. A slide from Liebreich’s presentation, however, shows we could expect Japan to reach this milestone (i.e. building a PV plant will become cheaper than building a coal-fired generator) in 2025, while India will pass it by 2030, but for wind power.

Further down the road, the second tipping point will come when running costs for coal or gas plants become higher than those of solar or wind. According to this chart published by BNEF, that point may arrive sometime in the middle of the next decade in both Germany and China.

Running costs clean vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Energy prices vary quite considerably from country to country, so it’s difficult to make a precise estimation of when renewables will overtake fossil fuels in supplying power grids. Still, Liebreich is convinced that the economics of solar and wind are becoming attractive enough to overtake coal’s dominant position in the global power equation, no matter what incentives President Trump imposes on the US.

“This is going to happen,” Liebreich said, reffering to the transition to clean enery. “Coal is declining in the US. Nobody is going to make coal great again.”