Researchers at the University of Delaware-led Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) and investigators from its partner institutions are working to develop a strategy for making lubricants from biomass.

Lubricants are essential for a modern economy keeping the world moving while they take a noteworthy amount of crude oil supply for base stock. The new research provides a strategy to create renewable lubricant base oils efficiently from non-food biomass.

CCEI researchers at UD have outlined a strategy to create renewable lubricants from non-food biomass, such as woodchips (above), grass, and other organic waste. Image Credit: Jaynell Keely, University of Delaware. Click image for the largest view.

Engines, gears, transmissions, plane thrusters, refrigerator compressors, wind turbines – the list of important industrial machinery, agricultural equipment, transportation vessels, construction equipment and home applications that depend on lubricants might be endless. These slick substances quite literally keep the world turning, touching nearly every facet of modern life and comprising a global industry worth more than $60 billion dollars annually.

As essential as they are to our way of life, lubricants leave a heavy environmental footprint. Common lubricants, oils, greases and emollients typically consist of mineral, or petroleum, base oils – often up to 90 percent by weight. Mineral base oils are volatile and tend to breakdown thicken and simply wear out or become dirty, which means that lubricants need to be replaced often, generating waste. Some used products are recycled, some are leaked or spilled and some are dumped into land fills or the environment.

Synthetic base oils are key to efficient lubricants – owing to their better lubrication properties, stability, and suitability for extreme temperatures compared to their regular mineral-base oils counterparts – but producing them with tunable (i.e. customizable) structures and specifications can be both challenging and expensive. This lack of tunability creates a need for mixing the base-oil with several expensive additives, increasing the environmental footprint of lubricants.

Researchers at the University of Delaware-led Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) and investigators from its partner institutions are working to solve these problems. Their findings report a strategy to create renewable lubricant base oils efficiently from non-food biomass – things like wood, switchgrass and other sustainable, organic waste – and fatty acids, which are present in used vegetable oils and animal fat.

The group’s research has been published in the latest issue of Science Advances, and an international patent application has been filed to secure intellectual property rights for their innovative methods.

Dion Vlachos, founder and director of CCEI and the Allan and Myra Ferguson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering said, “This is one of the first attempts to make renewable lubricants from abundant raw materials, and in a very precise chemical way so that the architecture of these large molecules is dialed in, something unachievable using crude oil. The product is clearly a high-performance material with tunable properties, unlike anything in the market.”

Basu Saha, associate director at CCEI, points to catalysis as the key to synthesizing these new base-oils.

“Catalysts are used to accelerate chemical reactions and create new materials,” Saha said. “For lubricants, catalysis allows researchers to not only synthesize new and existing structurally similar base-oils from bio-based feedstock, but lends extensive control over the molecules’ weight, size distribution, branching and specifications.”

Produced base oils are suitable for a wide range of existing applications without requiring high amounts of additives in the lubricant formulation, said Sibao Liu, a postdoctoral researcher at UD and one of the paper’s co-authors.

“We’ve provided a new, efficient and versatile catalytic reaction pathway for synthesis of renewable lubricants with tunable properties,” Liu added. “We hope this could eventually displace the manufacturing process for some lubricants used today and minimize environmental carbon footprint, though there is still a long way to go.”

The press release isn’t saying so but one would hope that these lubricant bases would be more biodegradable. That would be an improvement along with not consuming crude oil, even though lubricants are a quite small part of crude oil’s total use.

Meanwhile, not all additives are going to disappear and some are very much not something one wants spilled or dumped. But however this technology gains market traction,, it will be a good thing as synthetics are a good way to get better economy both in machine life and fuel consumption.

Texas A&M University researchers are one step closer to realizing their goal of creating a battery made entirely of polymers, which has the potential to charge and discharge much faster than traditional batteries.

Polymers, a shorter smaller molecule than plastic, may offer a much better future to rechargeable batteries.

A major hurdle to creating a metal-free, 100-percent polymer battery is finding a polymer that is electrochemically active – meaning it has to be able to store and exchange electrons. Texas A&M University professor Dr. Jodie L. Lutkenhaus, along with a team of researchers including doctoral candidate Shaoyang Wang, think that the organic radical polymers will do the trick. Owing to their chemical structure, organic radical polymers are very stable and reactive. They have a single electron on the radical group, and this unpaired electron allows rapid charge transfer in these polymers during redox reactions.

Lutkenhaus is one step closer to realizing her goal of creating a battery made entirely of polymers, which has the potential to charge and discharge much faster than traditional batteries. Lutkenhaus, an associate professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, has detailed her most recent findings on these polymers in a paper in Nature Materials.

According to Lutkenhaus, the main appeal of this class of polymer lies in the speed of the reaction. “These polymers are very promising for batteries because they can charge and discharge way faster than any common battery in a phone or similar device. This rapid charging could dramatically change the way electric vehicles are used today.”

The redox-active properties of organic radical polymers have been known for some time. However, prior to this research the exact mechanism by which electrons and ions are transported through the polymer had not been described. In part, the scale and speed at which these reactions take place make it difficult to capture reliable data. However, Lutkenhaus and her team were able to capture incredibly detailed measurements using a specialized device, an electrochemical quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation monitoring (EQCM-D).

The use of an EQCM-D is actually quite simple, but it operates on tremendously small scales. Lutkenhaus explained the experimental setup, “As we charge and discharge the polymer we are actually weighing it, so we know exactly how much it weighs even down to nanogram accuracy. The device is so sensitive that we can measure ions going in and out of the organic radical polymer.”

The results of the EQCM-D analysis led to somewhat unexpected results. Before this research the consensus was that only anions were transported in this process. However, the results show that lithium ions are transported as well. Further, the behavior and transport of the ions seems to be more dependent on the electrolyte than the polymer itself.

With this deeper understanding of the underlying processes, Lutkenhaus plans to take a closer look at the electrolyte polymer interactions.

Those of us with decades of life experience can remember when scientists in general thought battery technology had already peaked out. We are several generations into much better technology and as this article shows, much more is to come.

A very quick charge could be a market revolution across many power applications. As for vehicles, right now nothing compares to the energy transfer of 15 gallons of gasoline in two and a half minutes that might yield a range of 375 miles.

One might expect a polymer battery to be lower in weight, leaving the big question about the comparable volume. One wouldn’t want to bet with better than 30 years of recent progress that many ‘something(s) amazing’ are coming.

A new University at Buffalo (UB) study suggests the cause of static electricity’s hair-raising phenomenon is tiny structural changes that occur at the surface of materials when they come into contact with each other. The finding could someday help technology companies create more sustainable and longer-lasting power sources for small electronic devices. Static electricity is one of the most common and yet poorly understand, forms of power generation that is well worth deeper exploration

The UB study suggests help could be on the way from static electricity.

These images show how the surfaces of magnesia (top block) and barium titanate (bottom block) respond when they come into contact with each other. The resulting lattice deformations in each object contributes to the driving force behind the electric charge transfer during friction. Image Credit: James Chen, University at Buffalo. Click image for the largest view.

James Chen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University at Buffalo said, “Nearly everyone has zapped their finger on a doorknob or seen child’s hair stick to a balloon. To incorporate this energy into our electronics, we must better understand the driving forces behind it.”

Chen is a co-author of a study in the December issue of the Journal of Electrostatics that suggests the cause of this hair-raising phenomenon is tiny structural changes that occur at the surface of materials when they come into contact with each other.

The finding could ultimately help technology companies create more sustainable and longer-lasting power sources for small electronic devices.

Supported by a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, Chen and Zayd Leseman, PhD, associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Kansas State University, are conducting research on the triboelectric effect, a phenomenon wherein one material becomes electrically charged after it contacts a different material through friction.

The triboelectric effect has been known since ancient times, but the tools for understanding and applying it have only become available recently due to the advent of nanotechnology.

Chen said, “The idea our study presents directly answers this ancient mystery, and it has the potential to unify the existing theory. The numerical results are consistent with the published experimental observations.”

The research Chen and Leseman conduct is a mix of disciplines, including contact mechanics, solid mechanics, materials science, electrical engineering and manufacturing. With computer models and physical experiments, they are engineering triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs), which are capable of controlling and harvesting static electricity.

Chen explored the future with, “The friction between your fingers and your smartphone screen. The friction between your wrist and smartwatch. Even the friction between your shoe and the ground. These are great potential sources of energy that we can to tap into. Ultimately, this research can increase our economic security and help society by reducing our need for conventional sources of power.”

As part of the grant, Chen has worked with UB undergraduate students, as well as high school students at the Health Sciences Charter School in Buffalo, to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

As kids know in the winter static charges can seem fairly powerful, even throwing a blue spark. Static does offer some quantifiable power well worth the research. It won’t be long for some products emerge as lots more devices need recharging and the device charging needs change.

That will leave engineers with the qualitative power questions. Some interesting questions likely answered soon will be the DC watt possibilities and the atmospheric conditions in which design ideas will work. One might imagine a personal electronic device that doesn’t need a plug in to the grid charger someday.

University of Houston researchers have reported a new way to raise the transition temperature of superconducting materials, boosting the temperature at which the superconductors are able to operate.

Researchers Liangzi Deng, left, and Paul Chu, founding director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, examine a miniature diamond anvil cell, or mini-DAC, which is used to measure superconductivity. Image Credit: Photo by Audrius Brazdeikis, University of Houston.  Click image for the largest view.

The results, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest a previously unexplored avenue for achieving higher-temperature superconductivity, which offers a number of potential benefits to energy generators and consumers.

Electric current can move through superconducting materials without resistance, while traditional transmission materials lose as much as 10 percent of the energy between the generating source and the end user. Finding superconductors that work at or near room temperature – current superconductors require the use of a cooling agent – could allow utility companies to provide more electricity without increasing the amount of fuel required, reducing their carbon footprint and improving the reliability and efficiency of the power grid.

The transition temperature increased exponentially for the materials tested using the new method, although it remained below room temperature. But Paul C.W. Chu, chief scientist at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH) and corresponding author for the paper, said the method offers an entirely new way to approach the problem of finding superconductors that work at a higher temperature.

Chu, a physicist and TLL Temple Chair of Science at UH, said the current record for a stable high-temperature superconductor, set by his group in 1994, is 164 Kelvin, or about -164° Fahrenheit. That superconductor is mercury-based. The bismuth materials tested for the new work are less toxic, and unexpectedly reach a transition temperature above 90 Kelvin, or about -297° Fahrenheit, after first predicted drop to 70 Kelvin.

The work takes aim at the well-established principle that the transition temperature of a superconductor can be predicted through the understanding of the relationship between that temperature and doping – a method of changing the material by introducing small amounts of an element that can change its electrical properties – or between that temperature and physical pressure. The principle holds that the transition temperature increases up to a certain point and then begins to drop, even if the doping or pressure continues to increase.

Liangzi Deng, a researcher at TcSUH working with Chu and first author on the paper, came up with the idea of increasing pressure beyond the levels previously explored to see whether the superconducting transition temperature would increase again after pressure dropping.

It worked. “This really shows a new way to raise the superconducting transition temperature,” he said. The higher pressure changed the Fermi surface of the tested compounds, and Deng said the researchers believe the pressure changes the electronic structure of the material.

The superconductor samples they tested are less than one-tenth of a millimeter wide. The researchers said it was challenging to detect the superconducting signal of such a small sample from magnetization measurements, the most definitive test for superconductivity. Over the past few years, Deng and his colleagues in Chu’s lab developed an ultrasensitive magnetization measurement technique that allows them to detect an extremely small magnetic signal from a superconducting sample under pressure above 50 gigapascals.

Deng noted that in these tests, the researchers did not observe a saturation point – that is, the transition temperature will continue to rise as the pressure increases.

They tested different bismuth compounds known to have superconducting properties and found the new method substantially raised the transition temperature of each. The researchers said it’s not clear whether the technique would work on all superconductors, although the fact that it worked on three different formulations offers promise.

But boosting superconductivity through high pressure isn’t practical for real-world applications. The next step, Chu said, will be to find a way to achieve the same effect with chemical doping and without pressure.

Its been a while for superconductor news. While this isn’t a breakout it does strongly hint on how research should continue. The field isn’t going at great speed, but we are really a very long way up from absolute zero (−459.67 °F). Installations of supercapacitors are taking place in some very special fields such a electromagnets. Its very encouraging news even in the face of such a long way to go.

University of Bonn researchers’ idea suggests that if ship hulls were coated with special high-tech air trapping materials ships could save up to 20 percent of fuel as a result of reduced drag. If antifouling effects are also considered the reduction can even be doubled. Of note in the total transport fuel consumption the saving would be worth up to one percent of global CO2 emissions avoided.

The aquatic fern Salvinia molesta traps underwater in a thin layer of air, which it can hold for many weeks. Image Credit: © Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Barthlott / University of Bonn. Click image for the largest view. More images available at the press release link above.

The team’s study has been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions A.

Ships are among the worst fuel guzzlers in the world. All together, they burn an estimated 250 million metric tons per year and emit around one billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air – about the same amount as the whole of Germany emits over the same period.

The main reason for this is the high degree of drag between hull and water, which constantly slows the ship down. Depending on the type of ship, drag accounts for up to 90 percent of energy consumption. This also makes it a huge economic factor: After all, fuel consumption is responsible for half of transport costs.

Drag can be significantly reduced using technical tricks. For example, the so-called “microbubbles technology” actively pumps air bubbles under the hull. The ship then travels over a bubble carpet, which reduces drag. However, the production of the bubbles consumes so much energy that the total savings effect is very small.

Novel high-tech coatings may promise a solution. They are able to hold air for long periods of even weeks.

Dr. Matthias Mail from the Nees Institute for Biodiversity of Plants at the University of Bonn, one of the authors of the study explained, “Around ten years ago, we were already able to demonstrate on a prototype that in principle it is possible to reduce drag by up to ten percent. Our partners at Rostock University later achieved a 30-percent reduction with another material developed by us.”

Since then, various working groups have taken up the principle and developed it further. The technology is not yet mature enough for practical use. Nevertheless, the authors forecast a fuel-saving potential of at least five percent in the medium term, but more likely even 20 percent.

In their publication in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the British Royal Society, founded by Isaac Newton, they calculated the economic and ecological advantages this would bring. For example, a commercial container ship on its way from Baltimore (USA) to Bremerhaven could reduce its fuel costs by up to $160,000 USD. Worldwide, emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide would be reduced by a maximum of 130 million tons.

Taking into account the reduced growth of barnacles and other aquatic organisms, which causes enormous additional drag loss, this quantity even rises to almost 300 million tons, corresponds to almost one percent of global CO2 emissions. “Of course, these figures are optimistic,” says Mail. “But they show how much potential this technology has.”

The high-tech layers are based on models from nature, such as the floating fern Salvinia molesta. This is extremely hydrophobic: When submerged and pulled out again, the liquid rolls off it immediately. After that, the plant is completely dry. Or to be more accurate: It was never really wet in the first place. Because underwater the fern wraps itself in an extremely thin dress of air. This prevents the plant from coming into contact with liquid – even during a many weeks-long dive. Scientists call this behavior “superhydrophobic.”

Salvinia has tiny egg-beater-like hairs on the surface of its leaves. These are water-repellent at their base, but hydrophilic at their tip. With these hair-tips, the aquatic fern firmly “pins” a water layer around itself. Its little dress of trapped air kept in place by the water layer. Perhaps this principle will soon cause a sensation in a completely different context: as a potent lubricant for oil tanker and other ship’s hulls.

There is huge promise in this work. Folks don’t think a lot about the fuel used transporting the world’s goods at sea. It is quite a large industry.

There are some matters of curiosity. Can the researchers actually come up with a coating that works and lasts along with being applied without dry docking the ship? Interested minds want to know.


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