Welcome to a New Blogger – Mark Bitterman, Editor of Superconductor Week

I want to welcome our new blogger – Mark Bitterman, the Editor of Superconductor Week.

Mark is the leading journalist and writer on the superconductor industry. He is the Executive Editor of Superconductor Week, which is the most comprehensive and widely read newsletter covering the technology and commercialization of superconductors. Superconductor Week does original reporting, exclusive interviews, and expert analysis on both low and high temperature superconductors. We are very active in the superconductor industry and consider it a key technology area of energy tech and cleantech, so I’m excited to have Mark join us!

Mark will be doing a Thursday blog column around strange and interesting news in superconductors.

Their website is www.superconductorweek.com.

Thanks Mark.

What Will Superconductivity Bring to Cleantech in 2006?

In 1986, high temperature superconductors (HTS) were discovered, capable of conducting electricity with zero resistance at a relatively warm -196 Celsius (-321 Fahrenheit). This presented the possibility of developing new generation of devices employing the extraordinary properties of superconductors using inexpensive liquid nitrogen as a coolant.

Since then, efforts around the world have worked to develop HTS wires and other materials for use in a host of devices for electric power systems, including: superconducting power cables, fault current limiters, flywheel energy storage devices, magnetic energy storage devices, transformers, motors, generators, and more.

The promise of such technologies devices is vast.

In the U.S., HTS is hoped to provide grid stabilization solutions that reduce costs and inefficiencies in downstream transmission and distribution infrastructure, facilitate bringing online fluctuating renewable resources such as wind and solar energy, and extend the life of an aging grid by delivering more power more efficiently. Outside the U.S., in addition to these benefits, HTS is also seen as an important technology to help reduce greenhouse gases emissions.

Driving the effort to realize the potential of HTS, venture capitalists, public shareholders, and government programs have poured countless millions into HTS R&D, yet commercial success has proven slow to materialize. Nonetheless, there are important indications of progress: more and more organizations are working to produce HTS wires, and major demonstration projects are underway around the world.

The key to understanding the status R&D in HTS power applications is to track all the technologies involved, including cryogenic refrigeration, dielectrics, and superconducting materials. In addition, because no single country dominates in HTS R&D, the effort must be viewed globally. Two decades after the discovery of HTS, 2006 is sure to bring some exciting new advances. It will also bring the achievements of last year into greater perspective.

Mark Bitterman
Editor, Superconductor Week

Mark Bitterman is the Executive Editor of Superconductor Week, the most comprehensive and widely read newsletter covering the technology and commercialization of superconductors. Original reporting, exclusive interviews, and expert analysis spans low- and high-temperature superconductors in small- and large-scale applications, from the proven growth of the MRI industry to the anticipated revolution of advanced power devices, from recent success in all-digital RF receivers to key advances in cryocoolers.

Subscribe online at www.superconductorweek.com.

Clean Coal: An Oxymoron?

To many people who are passionate environmentalists, the words “clean” and “coal” couldn’t be more polarized opposites. The thought of coal directly implies powerplant smokestacks belching carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants.

Certainly, it is true that coal-burning powerplants have historically been largely responsible for high quantities of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions that contribute to acid rain and local air quality non-attainment issues (e.g., haze, surface ozone). And, it remains true that coal powerplants continue to be perhaps the most important single contributor to global warming, by virtue of their high CO2 emissions.

But, is a no-tolerance anti-coal perspective justified on an environmental basis? In my mind, no. In fact, it is theoretically possible to reconcile the concept of zero-emissions coal utilization. This entails the use of an integrated gasifier coal combined-cycle (IGCC), along with carbon sequestration.

This is the vision of the FutureGen Alliance. FutureGen Alliance Announcement This initiative, announced in late 2005, embraces many of the largest and most important parties in coal-fired generation to develop a standardized coal-to-electricity technology that produces no air emissions. The combined-cycle part of the technology is well-understood, having been widely utilized for many years now. In contrast, there are two relatively new technologies that remain to be commercialized for the zero-emissions coal vision to be realized:

The first is gasification technology — converting coal to a synthetic gas (“syngas”) similar to natural gas for use in the combined-cycle. There have been a number of gasification technologies employed for decades, and they work reliably, but none have yet to achieve the holy grail of being deemed “commercially economical”.

The second is carbon sequestration technology — capturing CO2 emissions from the exhaust stream and then injecting it underground. Again, the science is well understood, but the economics of carbon sequestration have always been challenging, particularly because of the intensive energy requirements.

If these two technologies can be commercially improved, making sequestered-IGCC economically-viable, then our future energy and environmental situations are much more assured. We have plenty of coal to last for well more than 100 years, and if we can use it in an environmentally-benign way, it seems like a no-lose resource for us to employ, until we can get to some energy system (solar with storage? hydrogen fuel cells? fusion?) that can realistically serve the human species for millenia.

More Cleantech News – Honda Enters the Solar Business

There is more bad news for cleantech startups looking for an easy time of it in the solar business. Honda has announced it is entering the solar business and will start shipping from a 27.5 MW plant next year.

Good news perhaps, for the industry overall, further validating that we are in a massive growth period that could bring solar into the mainstream (or else a solar manufacturing bubble). However, probably bad news for solar startups expecting to compete in what is becoming a more and more competitive market for solar panels.

Honda is the first car maker to enter the solar market, with what one report said would be an investment in the US$85 mm range. I’ve been saying for a while that US and European startups need to worry about the major industrials like GE, as well as the Japanese leaders in solar production, closing the window of opportunity for a new startup to build a significant position. Honda now joins the ranks of Kyocera, Mitsubishi Electric, and Sharp as major Japanese industrials leading the solar sector.

All that being said, at 27.5 MW and with no established distribution, Honda has a long way to go to become one of the big boys. By the way, all the notes I could find said that the cells would be non-silicon thin film manufacturing processes. I would be interested if anyone knows what the process is Honda is using, and where it was developed.

Article on Honda For another interesting new solar player, take a look at my previous post on the coming NYSE IPO of China’s Suntech.