Firefly belly inspires way to enhance LED brightness by 55 per cent

firefly_LED-1024x671A fond memory of my family’s annual camping weekend at Sandbanks Provincial Park is the late-night walk to the comfort station just before hitting the tents.

With the sound of crickets haunting the evening and smell of campfire smoke on their hoodies, my daughters carefully scan the darkness in search of fireflies, or in their world fairies with magic dust.

We never grow bored of these amazing little creatures, which through an oxygen-induced chemical reaction that takes place in their lower abdomen can cause their bellies to light up. The process is called bioluminescence, and it has earned these small flying beetles the nickname “lightning bugs.”

Human observation of fireflies throughout history has led to some useful products, such as emergency glow sticks, which offer the benefit of not needing batteries. But researchers have struggled to achieve the kind of efficiencies studied in fireflies.

One answer to the puzzle, it seems, has nothing to do with chemical reactions. Earlier this month, in two research papers published in the journal Optics Express, scientists from Belgium, Canada and France revealed that the design of a firefly’s abdomen plays an important role in enhancing the bug’s trademark glow.

In fact, they were able to replicate the outside structure of the firefly’s “lanterns” — the organs within the insect’s abdomen — to create a coating that, when applied to the surface of a light-emitting diode (LED), boosted light efficiency by roughly 55 per cent.

It’s a classic example of biomimicry in action. “There are many things in nature that can be adapted for many fields,” said nanotechnology specialist Ali Belarouci, a senior research scientist at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec. “With the equipment we have today we’re able to see phenomena (in nature) we couldn’t see before.”

Belarouci said Belgian researchers were studying firefly lanterns with an electron microscope when they noticed a pattern of irregular scales with sharp edges and protruding tips. Using computer simulations, they looked at how these scales might affect the transmission of light out of the abdomen.

What was interesting is that the scales, which they described as having the shape of a factory roof, could be viewed at the micrometer level — that is, each scale tip was positioned about 10 micrometres apart, or about one-tenth the width of a human hair.

Small to us, a micrometre is massive in the world that defines nanotechnology, and this is where previous research on fireflies and other insects had largely focused. But at that level, the structures were observed to have a small impact on efficiency — a few per cent increase at most.

The Belgian team was quite surprised to find much larger efficiency gains at the larger micro-level, and this encouraged them to take their research to the next level.

That’s when Belarouci and his research colleagues in Sherbrooke entered the picture. Their role in the collaboration was to replicate the jagged scale structure of a firefly’s lantern and adapt it to an LED device. They did this using a photolithographic process. It involved coating the top of an LED with a light-sensitive material, in this case a type of polymer, and using a laser to create the factory-roof profile.

“We can do this with most LEDs,” said Belarouci, emphasizing the simplicity of the process. “The advantage is that you can add the coating to an existing LED. You don’t have to redesign the whole thing.”

That they have demonstrated the ability to boost LED efficiency by more than 50 per cent has major implications for a market that’s just finding its stride and a technology already known for being 85 per cent more efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs.

Never mind that LED bulbs last more than 20 times longer and don’t contain mercury, one of the biggest criticisms of compact fluorescent bulbs.

As the New York Times reported this week, prices for LED lights are falling and growth is picking up. It cited the fact that LED technology, despite higher retail prices, accounted for 20 per cent of lighting revenues at Philips last year, and that LEDs are expected to outsell incandescent lights in Canada and the United States in 2014, according to technology research firm IMS Research.

By 2016, IMS predicts shipment of LED bulbs for use in standard residential sockets will hit 370 million units. That’s more than 10 times the shipments reported in 2012.

As for the firefly-inspired coating, the researchers figure that modifying existing LED manufacturing techniques to incorporate the light-boosting layer are achievable and could lead to even better energy savings from LED lights within the next few years.

Has the research caught the attention of industry? “So far we haven’t been contacted,” Belarouci said.

It’s only a matter of time.

And it’s not just LEDs that could benefit from this discovery. “You could use the same kind of concept to improve photovoltaic cells,” he said. In other words, solar cells with the coating could potentially absorb more sunlight and produce more electricity per cell.

It’s something to think about the next time you spot a firefly, or, if you prefer, fairies with magic dust.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Could “switchable salts” be a game-changer for desalination market?


saltwaterCanada, the land of abundant fresh water, has little need for desalination technologies to quench the thirst of its citizens.

This makes it all the more amazing that Canadians are behind some of the most innovative new approaches to taking salt out of seawater, the need for which is expected to rise substantially over the coming years.

According to a recent report from the National Intelligence Council, which reflects the combined input of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, global water demand will exceed sustainable supplies by 40 per cent by 2030.

That means certain countries, particularly in the already volatile Middle East region, will need to rely increasingly on the ocean as a source for drinking water and crop irrigation. Just as important, they will need more efficient and low-cost ways of doing it.

Vancouver-based Saltworks Technologies, which has been mentioned many times in this column, is an example of a company responding to the need. Assisted by waste heat or solar heat, it uses specially tuned filters that selectively block the natural flow of sodium, chlorine and other ions as they move through various stages of concentration.

The approach requires little pressure, making it tremendously energy-efficient when compared to conventional methods of salt removal such as distillation and reverse-osmosis.

Now researchers at GreenCentre Canada, the government-funded green chemistry research lab based at Queen’s University in Kingston, have come up with yet another novel and promising approach based on the well-known concept of forward osmosis.

Osmosis, as you might remember from high-school science class, is the natural movement of a solvent through a partially permeable membrane from a low concentration to a high concentration until a balance is reached on both sides. This natural movement is called “osmotic pressure.”

One of the most popular approaches to water desalination today is reserve-osmosis, which is designed to work against osmotic pressure. Seawater is pumped through a salt-blocking membrane to produce purified water on the other side. This uses a lot of energy because it requires high pressure. The membranes also tend to get fouled up with contaminants, boosting maintenance costs.

Forward osmosis, on the other hand, goes with the flow by taking advantage of osmotic pressure. Instead of using electricity to force water through a membrane, a draw solution with much higher salt concentrations than seawater is used to pull the pure water through the membrane.

While efficient and effective, it doesn’t quite do the job. “The problem is, what you have at the end of the day are two buckets of salty water,” said Rui Resendes, executive director of GreenCentre Canada.

But GreenCentre researchers cleverly got around this issue by creating an additive they call “switchable salts,” building on the ground-breaking research of Philip Jessop, an organic chemistry professor at Queen’s University.

When in its salt form, the additive is used to create a super-concentrated brine solution that draws pure water out of the much lower-concentrated seawater on the other side of a membrane. The sea salts and other contaminants are left behind.

It’s at this point that the magic of green chemistry takes over. To end up with pure water, the additive in the super-concentrated solution must be removed. “We simply switch off the salt and turn it into a gaseous byproduct that just leaves the water,” explained Resendes.

Huh? How does one “switch off” salt? That’s the Cadbury secret, but it has something to do with bubbling air through the solution at about 50 degrees C. Somehow it interacts with and alters the chemical properties of the salt additive, turning it into a gas that rises out of the solution.

The beauty of this whole process – which sounds simpler than it is – is that the gas can be collected and reused to create the next batch of super-concentrated brine solution, creating a sustainable loop that depends on relatively little input of outside energy.

“It stands the conventional reverse-osmosis approach on its head,” said Resendes. “The past process has been all about forcing the water out of the system. We leave the water alone and focus on getting the salt out of the system. It’s working with nature, not against it.”

The researchers have proven that it works in the lab. The challenge now is to lead it along the path to commercialization. A company, Forward Water Technologies, was spun out of GreenCentre late last year and is now focused on building a larger tabletop demonstration unit.

“We believe we can achieve that within 12 months,” said Resendes, who has temporarily taken on the job of president and CEO of the new company.

Forward Water already has a major multinational water company on board as a strategic partner. The hope is that in 2014 they’ll be ready to start planning for a larger-scale pilot project.

But the company is determined not to rush. It wants to get the technical work right before marching boldly into the crowded $13-billion desalination market.

Besides, the need for better approaches to desalination isn’t going away. “Think of all the human condition challenges – political strife, drought, famine – all of this is connected to future supplies of fresh water,” Resendes said.

“Technology that can make fresh water sustainably can really take a bite out of the world’s major issues.”

NOTE: I should mention there is one U.K.-based company, Modern Water, having some success in the market with forward osmosis — particularly in the Middle East and China. Here’s what’s posted on their website: In June 2011, the Group won a public tender to construct and operate the world’s first commercial FO plant. Located in Oman, we are now operating the plant after successfully completing construction and commissioning of the plant in September 2012. The Group has a further two proving plants operating in Gibraltar and Oman. They have proven to deliver substantially lower operating costs by reducing energy use by up to 30%, with higher availability than conventional reverse osmosis plants, reducing chemical consumption and carbon footprint. Here’s a link to a fact sheet explaining the process a little better. Boston-based Oasys Water also has a forward-osmosis approach to desalination. Neither Oasys or Modern Water are using anything that resembles Forward Water’s switchable salts.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Wind power isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives

Sorry, posting this a bit late. Have been swamped lately with work….

apple_energy_storageAn intriguing story emerged last week about an Apple patent that has absolutely nothing to do with wireless gadgets, digital music, touch screens or the Internet “cloud”.

The title of the patent, filed in June 2011, is “On-demand Generation of Electricity from Stored Wind Energy.”

Wind energy? Apple? Don’t be so surprised. Like Google, another technology giant increasingly obsessed with clean energy, Apple operates huge data centres that consume tremendous amounts of electricity, much of it based on coal.

Like most consumer-facing companies, it wants to be perceived as a responsible corporate citizen, meaning it’s eager to tap into low- or zero-emission energy alternatives.

In its patent, Apple describes a way to capture thermal energy resulting from the spinning of wind turbines and then use it to heat up a special fluid with a low boiling point. The heat “stored” in that fluid could then be extracted on demand to generate electricity, similar to how a solar-thermal power plant might operate.

The fact that Apple is looking for a way to “dispatch” wind energy highlights what is arguably wind’s Achilles heel: intermittency. It often blows when it’s required least, and often doesn’t when we have our highest energy demands.

This has left wind energy open to attack by those, for whatever reason, who don’t think wind turbines have a place in our electricity mix. Associated with those attacks is much misunderstanding about how wind energy interacts with our existing electricity system.

For example, the Star received a complaint about last Saturday’s Clean Break column, in which I highlighted the hypocrisy of Health Canada for comprehensively studying the health effects of wind farms but not the oil sands.

In addition to accusing me of being an investor in the wind industry and thus having a conflict of interest – which I’m not, and don’t, unless you include the emotional investment I have in dealing with climate change – the writer of the complaint made the following comment about wind turbines:

“Every one of them is equipped with a gas generator to produce power when the wind fails. Nobody I know in the wind industry has ever stated otherwise.”

This statement is consistent with others which claim that for every megawatt of wind capacity installed another megawatt of natural gas generation is needed as backup.

Because of this alleged dependence on back-up generation from natural gas, another individual asserted in an e-mail that “there is a net-zero environmental benefit” from adding wind energy to our grid.

With regard to the first comment, one can say with absolute confidence that wind turbines are not equipped with backup generators that run on natural gas. This isn’t to say that other energy sources, including natural gas, aren’t relied on as a backup for when the wind doesn’t blow.

“When we’re dealing with the variability of wind, we look at a lot of tools,” said Bruce Campbell, vice-president of resource integration at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand on our grid. “You have to look at this from a system basis. You can’t look at it as one individual technology.”

Often we’ll use electricity generated from natural gas plants to step in when the wind steps out, but it’s not coming from a single point. The grid is like a big tub of water, with a bunch of taps at the top (supply) and a bunch of drains at the bottom (demand).

The goal is to keep the water at the level we demand, meaning there will constantly be a different mix of drains and taps that are opening and closing.

Campbell said Ontario hasn’t yet had to increase its requirement for back-up reserves because of the introduction of wind power. The question to ask is: If the wind generation we have no longer existed, what would be there in its place? The answer is more power plants burning coal and natural gas.

If we were to stick with our coal phase-out strategy without wind, we would need to burn more natural gas. The reality is that when the wind blows it gives us the opportunity to burn less natural gas when it’s being used to displace coal. This is partially why greenhouse-gas emissions associated with electricity generation in Ontario have fallen by two-thirds since 2003.

The dismissers don’t believe it. They contend that fossil fuel plants run less efficiently when backing up wind because of the increased need to start up and cycle. In fact, they claim the inefficiencies are so great that they offset the benefits of wind power.

The efficiency argument contains a tiny kernel of truth, but the impact is negligible according to a detailed study published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. It appeared last March in the journal Environmental and Science Technology.

Using the state of Illinois as a case study, researchers found that the inefficient use of coal and natural gas plants and its impact on carbon dioxide emissions is hardly noticed until wind exceeds a 20 per cent share of electricity supply. At 40 per cent of supply, inefficiencies are more visible, but CO2 reductions of 33 per cent are still achieved.

To put this in context, wind was roughly 3 per cent of Ontario’s mix last year and the goal is to achieve 10 per cent penetration through a combination of wind and solar by 2015. We have a long way to go to get to 20 per cent, let alone 40 per cent.

It’s important to point out that the authors of this study didn’t account for the retiring of old, inefficient coal power plants as more wind is introduced to the grid, or the addition of more flexible and efficient natural gas turbines that companies such as General Electric have started selling as a complement to wind.

They also didn’t account for some of the other tools at the disposal of system operators, such as demand-response, dramatically improved wind forecasting, and energy storage, all of which will play a growing roles over the years in Ontario and other jurisdictions.

Who knows, maybe Apple will even make something of its wind-turbine storage patent. Could there be an iWind in our future?

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

From the horse’s mouth: the Ontario PC plan to abandon green and go nuclear

mcnaughtonNot that this comes as a surprise, but in case you thought the PCs plan to be gentle on the green energy file if elected, think again. Below are comments made on Dec. 19 by Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton, representing Lambton-Kent-Middlesex. McNaughton was speaking at a municipal council meeting, during which he outlined how his party, if elected this year, plans to obliterate the province’s feed-in-tariff program, including reneging on thousands of projects in the queue. It seems the PCs don’t just want to get rid of the FIT program, but are hostile to wind and solar power altogether and plan to alter course dramatically, starting with a moratorium on all green energy development. This would include a big commitment to build new nuclear reactors at a time when there is nothing but controversy around the high cost and long-term dangers of the nuclear option. In other words, the PCs would bring Ontario’s grid back to the dark ages with a false promise that doing so would cause electricity prices to fall, which couldn’t be further from the truth. As usual, McNaughton spews mistruths about the high cost of wind and fails to mention the much higher cost of going nuclear.
But you can read for yourself where the PCs stand by reading excerpts of his comments below:


On PC plans to get out of FIT contracts…

…we realize that when we make the commitment, we’re not going to build them, if they’re not built. So scrap the 50,000 projects that are in the queue.  We realize that there is going to be a cost, our lawyers have told us that there are opt-out clauses and we sure as hell are going to pay those out because it’s going to be cheaper to pay them out than to honour contracts for 20 years. So we’ve been clear that we will not going ahead with however many projects are left, if we’re fortunate enough to form the next government after the next election. But clearly there will be a cost associated with that, but it will be cheaper to buy them out than to honour them for 20 years.

Secondly, I guess we’re not going to know the entire extent of all of these contracts signed until if we form government, until we actually get in and take office. That’s why we’ve been clear that in the 24 hours after the election, we’re going to call for a moratorium. But we are going to call for a moratorium almost immediately so we can figure where the hell things are at and how deep a hole energy has gotten us into.

We have been extremely clear that we are are going to end the wind & solar projects across this province. We’re going in a completely new direction. We’re not going to continue abiding by the special interests that are at Queens Park every single day of this government. We’re taking Ontario down a completely new path and we’re not going to continue what’s been going on the last 10 years. We’ve been crystal clear about it. We’re going to really explore Hydro. We’re going to expand nuclear … which isn’t that popular in a lot of corners. But we are going in a different direction including part of our energy supply is going to be buying energy from other jurisdictions.

Enough is enough: Wind industry needs to go on offensive in 2013

windprotestersWhen Health Canada announced in July that it would study the relationship between wind turbine noise and health effects, the government said it was responding to questions from residents who live near wind farms.

“As always, our government is putting the health and safety of Canadians first,” read a Health Canada statement, which outlined the research approach it would take, while stating that the results would be published in 2014.

John Andrews, president of IPC Energy, a wind energy developer based in Mississauga, was surprised by the move.

The modern wind turbine has been in commercial use since the 1970s. Surely others, especially the Europeans, had more experience than a late-comer like Canada. If turbines were bad for us, wouldn’t the red flags have emerged in Germany and Denmark? Or are Danes and Germans genetically different from Canadians?

By the end of 2012, there was expected to be 280 gigawatts of wind capacity installed worldwide — equaling roughly 140,000 average-sized wind turbines. Even so, a comprehensive study released in early 2012 by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health concluded “there is insufficient evidence that the noise from wind turbines is directly causing health problems or disease.”

But that’s not what really bothered Andrews. After all, the more studies the merrier to prove that wind turbines are, in fact, as benign as your electric toothbrush, cell phone or SUV. What raised his ire was the fact that the federal government has yet to do a comprehensive study on the oil sands and its effects on human health.

In a letter to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkag, Andrews asked a simple question: Why the double standard?

Aglukkaq’s response, in a letter dated Aug. 16, stated: “The provinces and territories have the designated authority for determining and mitigating potential health impacts within their jurisdictions for any resource development.

“Health Canada has not undertaken any studies as to the impacts to health from the oil sands developments, as these potential impacts fall within the jurisdiction of the province or territory in which the project receives approval.”

But wind is a natural resource, too. And electricity generation is provincial jurisdiction. Shouldn’t the same reasoning apply to the potential health impacts of wind turbines? Aglukkaq didn’t address this. Indeed, she left out any mention of “wind” in her response to Andrews.

It’s only fair to mention that wind energy isn’t without its problems. The turbines do make noise, becoming an annoyance to some if not properly located. There’s no question that some wind developers need to be more responsible.

Wind turbines do kill birds, but at about the same rate as nuclear power and far less than coal plants, buildings, communications towers and cats.

The wind farm construction process does temporarily kick up dirt on roads, like any infrastructure project.

The turbines don’t generate electricity on demand, but this is manageable with new wind forecasting technologies and when used in combination with demand-response, other forms of generation and smart grid tools, such as energy storage.

For some, they do spoil the view.

But this is a form of electricity generation that emits zero pollution and requires zero fuel. Shale gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing methods is contaminating drinking water in the U.S. northeast. Pollution from fossil-fuel power plants and vehicle tailpipes continue to impose a heavy burden on our healthcare system. Oil pipelines are springing leaks. Offshore oil rigs are running aground in sensitive Arctic waters. The Arctic is melting far faster than our earlier worst predictions. Coral reefs are dying off at an alarming rate. Biodiversity is rapidly dwindling.

There’s plenty to be concerned about in the world — both near and far — and for those of us inclined to speak out, there’s plenty to protest. Given the above, which is a mere sample of humanity’s reckless footprint, it’s perplexing that that a certain segment of the population chooses to treat the wind industry as its punching bag.

Busloads of anti-wind protesters routinely hijack municipal information sessions and council meetings, shouting down wind-industry officials and slinging profanities. The Power Workers’ Union continues to run advertisements that criticize wind and sugar-coat nuclear and coal power.

In July, one anti-wind protester allegedly pulled a shotgun on a London wind-farm worker who was sitting in his vehicle. It hardly made the news. Can you imagine if that happened to an oil sands or nuclear worker?

My own writing about wind issues has also been attacked, having twice been the subject of a complaint to the Ontario Press Council, which tossed out the matter both times.

The Environmental Review Tribunal has been inundated with appeals from wind-farm opponents, who claim turbines harm human health and that a moratorium should be placed on their development. The appeals typically go nowhere because of lack of evidence.

One opponent has gone so far as to argue that wind farms should be disallowed not because it will harm health, but because certain individuals believe wind turbines will make them sick.

By that standard, we should put a moratorium on . . . well, everything.

It’s because of all this that I believe the wind industry, which employs thousands of people in Canada and is an important and growing contributor to our economy, will and should start hitting back in 2013.

Enough is enough.

NOTE: And for those looking to debunk the claims of those against offshore wind, you may want to check out this excellent blog post by Mark Lynas.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.