University of California – San Diego researchers used supercomputers and data mining algorithms to develop a new phosphor that can make LEDs cheaper and render colors more accurately. They have developed a simple recipe to make it in the lab and built prototype white LED light bulbs using the new phosphor. The prototypes exhibited better color quality than many commercial LEDs currently on the market. Unlike many phosphors, this one is made of inexpensive, earth-abundant elements and can easily be made using industrial methods. As computers predicted, the new phosphor performed well in tests and in LED prototypes and it produces LEDs that render colors more vividly and accurately.

The UC San Diego and Chonnam National University in Korea researchers’ paper has been published in the journal Joule.

Under UV light, the phosphor emits either green-yellow or blue light depending on the chemical activator mixed in. Image Credit: Photos by David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Click image for the largest view.

Phosphors, which are substances that emit light, are one of the key ingredients to make white LEDs. They are crystalline powders that absorb energy from blue or near-UV light and emit light in the visible spectrum. The combination of the different colored light creates white light.

The phosphors used in many commercial white LEDs have several disadvantages, however. Many are made of rare-earth elements, which are expensive, and some are difficult to manufacture. They also produce LEDs with poor color quality.

The new phosphor that avoids these issues, made of the elements strontium, lithium, aluminum and oxygen (a combination dubbed “SLAO”), was discovered using a systematic, high-throughput computational approach developed in the lab of Shyue Ping Ong, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and lead principal investigator of the study.

Ong’s team used supercomputers to predict SLAO, which is the first known material made of the elements strontium, lithium, aluminum and oxygen. Calculations also predicted this material would be stable and perform well as an LED phosphor. For example, it was predicted to absorb light in the near-UV and blue region and have high photoluminescence, which is the material’s ability to emit light when excited by a higher energy light source.

Researchers in the lab of Joanna McKittrick, a materials science professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering, then figured out the recipe needed to make the new phosphor. They also confirmed the phosphor’s predicted light absorption and emission properties in the lab.

A team led by materials science professor Won Bin Im at Chonnam National University in Korea optimized the phosphor recipe for industrial manufacturing and built white LED prototypes with the new phosphor. They evaluated the LEDs using the Color Rendering Index (CRI), a scale that rates from 0 to 100 how accurate colors appear under a light source. Many commercial LEDs have CRI values at around 80. LEDs made with the new phosphor yielded CRI values greater than 90.

Thanks to the computational approach developed by Ong’s team, discovery of the phosphor took just three months – a short time frame compared to the years of trial-and-error experiments it typically takes to discover a new material.

“Calculations are quick, scalable and cheap. Using computers, we can rapidly screen thousands of materials and predict candidates for new materials that have not yet been discovered,” Ong said.

Ong, who leads the Materials Virtual Lab and is a faculty member in the Sustainable Power and Energy Center at UC San Diego, uses a combination of high-throughput calculations and machine learning to discover next-generation materials for energy applications, including batteries, fuel cells and LEDs. The calculations were performed using the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

In this study, Ong’s team first compiled a list of the most frequently occurring elements in known phosphor materials. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that there are no known materials containing a combination of strontium, lithium, aluminum and oxygen (SLAO), which are four common phosphor elements. Using a data mining algorithm, they created new phosphor candidates containing these elements and performed a series of first-principles calculations to predict which would perform well as a phosphor. Out of 918 candidates, SLAO emerged as the leading material. It was predicted to be stable and exhibit excellent photoluminescence properties.

“It’s not only remarkable that we were able to predict a new phosphor compound, but one that’s stable and can actually be synthesized in the lab,” said Zhenbin Wang, a nanoengineering Ph.D. candidate in Ong’s research group and co-first author of the study.

The phosphor’s main limitation is its less than ideal quantum efficiency – how efficiently it converts incoming light to light of a different color – of about 32 percent. However, researchers note that it retains more than 88 percent of its emission at typical LED operating temperatures. In commercial LEDs, there’s usually a tradeoff with color quality, Ong noted. “But we want the best of both worlds. We have achieved excellent color quality. Now we are working on optimizing the material to improve quantum efficiency,” Ong said.

One can be confident the team will close that quantum efficiency gap. This is a remarkable achievement. A triple hit if one will allow a baseball analogy. One more hit an its a home run.

And a very welcome one indeed, as material research sped up with computing is a very exciting field with huge potential for the future of energy and fuels. Materials are also key in the consumption field. With both getting better and now some acceleration coming, the economy and our lifestyles can only get better.

Colorado State University researchers have found new information for biofuels produced from switchgrass, a non-edible native grass that grows in many parts of North America.

Over the past thirty years the corn industry has driven biofuels produced from corn as a fuel source to power motor vehicles and, perhaps soon, airplanes. Meanwhile the global warming scare has driven scientists, companies and government agencies to hard work on decreasing greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions.

For those not watching the fuel markets there remains the belief that corn is problematic as a biofuel source material. The press release asserts corn is resource-intensive to grow, creates many environmental impacts, and is more useful as food. While a semi accurate, and semi false belief, the global warming scare does serve to drive alternative energy sources.

The study from Colorado State University found new information for biofuels produced from switchgrass, a non-edible native grass that grows in many parts of North America that could substitute for corn and perhaps reduce corn’s massive overabundance.

The scientists used modeling to simulate various growing scenarios, and found a “climate footprint” ranging from -11 to 10 grams of carbon dioxide per mega-joule – the standard way of measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

To compare with other fuels, the impact of using gasoline results in 94 grams of carbon dioxide per mega-joule.

The team’s study paper, “High Resolution Techno-Ecological Modeling of a Bioenergy Landscape to Identify Climate Mitigation Opportunities in Cellulosic Ethanol Production,” was published in Nature Energy.

We’ll take the global warming scare as a driver because the research offers some very useful results for alternative fuel production and soil building with soil conservation. If this research helps pull land from corn production to a more sustainable agricultural economy it is very important research, indeed.

John Field, research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at CSU, said what the team found is significant. “What we saw with switchgrass is that you’re actually storing carbon in the soil. You’re building up organic matter and sequestering carbon.” Organic carbon in soil is what makes the worlds best soils better than poor soil.

His CSU research team works on second-generation cellulosic biofuels made from non-edible plant material such as grasses. Cellulose is the stringy fiber of a plant. These grasses, including switchgrass, are potentially more productive as crops and can be grown with less of an environmental footprint than corn.

“They don’t require a lot of fertilizer or irrigation,” Field said. “Farmers don’t have to plow up the field every year to plant new crops, and they’re good for a decade or longer.”

An aerial image of the research study area in southwestern Kansas. Image Credit: Colorado State University. Click image for the largest view.

The researchers chose a study site in Kansas since it has a cellulosic biofuel production plant, one of only three in the United States.

The team used DayCent, an ecosystem modeling tool that tracks the carbon cycle, plant growth, and how growth responds to weather, climate and other factors at a local scale. It was developed at CSU in the mid-1990s. The tool allows scientists to predict whether crop production contributes to or helps combat climate change, and how feasible it is to produce certain crops in a given area.

Previous studies on cellulosic biofuels have focused on the engineering details of the supply chain. These details have included analyzing the distance between the farms where the plant material is produced, and the biofuel production plant to which it must be transported. However, the CSU analysis finds that the details of where and how you grow the plant material is just as significant or even more significant for the greenhouse gas footprint of the biofuel, said Field.

The biofuel industry is experiencing challenges, due to low oil prices. The production plant referenced above has new owners and is undergoing a reorganization.

But, Field said, the future looks bright for biofuels and bioenergy.

“Biofuels have some capabilities that other renewable energy sources like wind and solar power just don’t have,” said Field. “If and when the price of oil gets higher, we’ll see continued interest and research in biofuels, including the construction of new facilities.”

For now these kinds of researching efforts are far and few between. The corn industry has closed the supply gap with mountains of corn going unused, the petroleum industry has closed the oil and gas supply gap with huge supplies of petroleum fuels. Both industries are reeling form very low prices that have caused job losses, business closings and bankruptcies. The petroleum industry is nearing the end of the tunnel while agriculture has a way to go.

Breaking the sugars out from cellulose materials has made improvements. But the real test might come at the top of the next fuel price cycle. Can the cellulosic raw materials and processes get some market share and survive the next fuel cycle low price period?

As the CSU press release noted, the cellulosic plant didn’t get through the last low price range of the fuel cycle. Perhaps this research will help get breakeven on production worthwhile even with very low prices.

University of California – Irvine researchers assert that the United States could reliably meet about 80 percent of its electricity demand with solar and wind power generation.

The ideas are about immense amounts of money and very likely, deeply understated.

According to scientists at the University of California, Irvine; the California Institute of Technology; and the Carnegie Institution for Science noted meeting 100% of electricity demand with only solar and wind energy would require storing several weeks’ worth of electricity to compensate for the natural variability of these two resources.

Steven Davis, UCI associate professor of Earth system science said, “The sun sets, and the wind doesn’t always blow. If we want a reliable power system based on these resources, how do we deal with their daily and seasonal changes?”

The team’s renewable energy study has been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

The team analyzed 36 years of hourly U.S. weather data (1980 to 2015) to understand the fundamental geophysical barriers to supplying electricity with only solar and wind energy.

Power Production vs Demand. Image Credit: UC Irvine. Click image for the largest view.

Davis said, “We looked at the variability of solar and wind energy over both time and space and compared that to U.S. electricity demand. What we found is that we could reliably get around 80% of our electricity from these sources by building either a continental-scale transmission network or facilities that could store 12 hours’ worth of the nation’s electricity demand.”

The researchers said that such expansion of transmission or storage capabilities would mean very substantial – but not inconceivable – investments. They estimated that the cost of the new transmission lines required, for example, could be hundreds of billions of dollars. In comparison, storing that much electricity with today’s cheapest batteries would likely cost more than a trillion dollars, although prices are falling.

Other forms of energy stockpiling, such as pumping water uphill to later flow back down through hydropower generators, are attractive but limited in scope. The U.S. has a lot of water in the East but not much elevation, with the opposite arrangement in the West.

Fossil fuel-based electricity production is responsible for about 38% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions – CO2 production still being alleged in the press release as the major cause of global climate change. Davis said he is heartened by the progress that has been made and the prospects for the future.

“The fact that we could get 80 percent of our power from wind and solar alone is really encouraging,” Davis said. “Five years ago, many people doubted that these resources could account for more than 20 or 30 percent.”

The team’s effort suggests getting beyond the 80% mark, the amount of energy storage required to overcome seasonal and weather variability increases rapidly. “Our work indicates that low-carbon-emission power sources will be needed to complement what we can harvest from the wind and sun until storage and transmission capabilities are up to the job,” said co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “Options could include nuclear and hydroelectric power generation, as well as managing demand.”

One has to instantly realize the team has made the case for either nuclear technologies or fusion technologies. Hundreds of billions of dollars for an assault of nationwide transmission lines that will immediately face the “not in my backyard syndrome”. These kinds of mandated things tend to double triple and likely even more as projects develop.

If history lessons are forever to be ignored the idea might gain some traction from those affected by central planned economy fantasies. But ask folks in the Northeast about running out of heat in the last storm from a lack of energy due to “planning” in green energy. Or check out the generation long Venezuela central planned socialization program results.

Its good to see some effort going into a fool’s errand to explore the unfathomable desire to find a silver bullet fix. The results are completely frightening.

Hundreds of billions in transmission lines? Check. Trillion or more for batteries? Check. Managing demand? Check. No guess at all for all the wind turbines and solar panels? Check.

Count this writer out.

KTH The Royal Institute of Technology researchers have successfully tested a new material that can be used for cheap and large-scale production of hydrogen.

Currently precious metals are the standard catalyst materials used for extracting hydrogen from water. The problem is these materials such as platinum, ruthenium and iridium – are too expensive. A team from Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology recently announced a breakthrough that could change the economics of a hydrogen economy.

Electron microscope image depicts the new KTH water splitting alloy.  Image Credit: KTH The Royal Institute of Technology. Click image for the largest view.

Led by Licheng Sun, professor of molecular electronics at KTH, the researchers concluded that precious metals can be replaced by a much cheaper combination of nickel, iron and copper (NiFeCu).

Researcher Peili Zhang said, “The new alloy can be used to split water into hydrogen. This catalyst becomes more efficient than the technologies available today, and significantly cheaper. This technology could enable a large-scale hydrogen production economy. Hydrogen can be used for example to reduce carbon dioxide from steel production or to produce diesel and aircraft fuel.”

This is not the first time a cheaper material has been proposed for water splitting, but the researchers argue that their solution is more effective than others.

They published their results recently in the scientific journal Nature Communication.

“The high catalytic performance of core-shell NiFeCu for water oxidation is attributed to the synergistic effect of Ni, Fe and Cu,” Zhang said.

Zhang explained that copper plays an interesting role in the preparation of the electrode. In an aqueous solution, surface copper dissolves and leave a very porous structure to enhance the electrochemically active surface area. “The porous oxide shell with its high electrochemically active surface area is responsible for the catalytic activity, while the metallic cores work as facile electron transport highways,” Zhang said.

Professor Sun has previously made progress in this field of research, including the construction of artificial photosynthesis (Nature Chem. 4/2012), and a catalyst based on nickel and vanadium (Nature Com. 7/2016). His and colleagues’ research was one of the reasons that US President Barack Obama went to KTH in 2013 during the second-ever state visit of an American president in Sweden.

The team has made a big claim here in the face of previous catalysts with great claims over the past few years. Part of the matter is the hydrogen economy is having trouble getting itself marketable in the face of petroleum’s history, ongoing success and drop in crude and natural gas prices.

One does hope the team has a home run here. Yet there remains a market problem of great significance. Hydrogen storage that is low cost, doesn’t leak, isn’t heavy, and has fairly quick load and unload times. Its a tall order.

University of Delaware’s Yushan Yan and his coauthors provide an authoritative overview of work done in the areas of hydrogen oxidation and evolution, present key questions for debate, and provide paths for future innovation in the field. The team is aiming to tackle a fundamental debate in key reactions behind fuel cells and hydrogen production, which, if solved, could significantly bolster clean energy technologies.

In the open access article, “Perspective — Towards Establishing Apparent Hydrogen Binding Energy as the Descriptor for Hydrogen Oxidation/Evolution Reactions,” there is an invitation to other researchers to engage and further the field.

The new Perspective article, published in the Journal of The ElectroChemical Society provided Yan and his coauthors a unique platform to present their ideas. Instead of a traditional research article, ECS Perspective articles allow researchers to discuss new insights into their field, with the ability to generate new ideas and advance the fields related to electrochemistry and solid state science.

Yan said, “The Perspective article allowed us to summarize what’s going on in this area, but more importantly, outline what could be done or what needs to be done in the future. In publishing with the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, I felt we’d reach the most appropriate audience that is well-equipped to come up with new ideas.”

Yan hopes this article can stimulate a conversation around fundamental reactions in fuel cells and begin an exchange of ideas, potentially accelerating advancement in the field.

“My dream scenario,” Yan said, “is that someday, I would see my hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cell get implemented in a car.”

This publication idea is a great idea that your humble writer hopes is taken up by lots of researchers. Now back to the technology Yan’s team is working on.

Hydrogen oxidation and hydrogen evolution reactions are two of the simplest electrochemical reactions, yet happen to be the backbone to developing critical clean energy technologies.

“These two reactions are the foundation for clean fuel cells,” Yan said. “With hydrogen oxidation, you have a fuel cell reaction. If you do hydrogen evolution, producing hydrogen from water, that’s water electrolysis, which produces clean hydrogen for fuel cells and other applications.”

Currently, fuel cells are primarily known for their role in electrifying transportation. Fuel cell cars have been brought into the marketplace by companies like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, who continue to back vehicles powered by clean energy technologies. The majority of modern fuel cells, specifically those used for automotive applications, are proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which functions by exchanging protons across an acidic polymer membrane to produce electricity and heat.

However, Yan and his team are looking to improve this model, examining fundamental ways to produce a fuel cell that is more affordable.

“What we want to do is move from an acid to a base,” Yan said. “It may sound very simple, but this change allows us to use nonprecious metals as catalysts instead of the very expensive platinum group metals. We’re really looking to solve the barrier in front of PEM fuel cell technology, making it cheaper and therefore deployable to the mass market.”

The researchers found that as they began the move from an acid to a base fuel cell, both the hydrogen oxidation reactions and hydrogen evolution reactions became much slower, impacting the technology’s efficiency. In the Perspective article, the group outlines this problem and begins to formulate opinions of why this happening, as well as inviting peers in the field to get involved in the conversation.

“Doing research can be competitive, but at the same time, we also need to have more people join the conversation in order for things to start happening faster,” Yan said. “With this article, we’re looking for more people to pay attention to this problem and join us in the debate.”

By taking a closer look at the fundamental reactions that are essential to propelling fuel cell and clean hydrogen production technologies, Yan believes significant strides could be made for future applications.

“When you tackle these very fundamental questions, there could be immediate impact,” Yan explained. “In this article, we’re talking about hydrogen oxidation, which is for fuel cells. But we’re also talking about the reverse reaction, which is hydrogen evolution. Hydrogen evolution is about producing hydrogen out of water using wind and solar energy. It’s clean hydrogen. Sure, that hydrogen can support fuel cell vehicles, but hydrogen has many other applications.”

Some of those other applications include ammonia synthesis. Without ammonia-based fertilizers, the world would be unable to grow enough food to feed its population. While ammonia production is critical to humanity, the hydrogen that is needed to produce it comes from fossil fuels. Ammonia is currently made by a reaction between nitrogen and hydrogen, called the Haber-Bosch process, where hydrogen is produced from reforming natural gas. If the hydrogen used in this process was instead produced in a clean method, the overall environmental impact would be extremely improved.

This isn’t a science breakthrough or even a technological step. But it does represent an effort to improve the communication process that should likely improve and speed up research. After eight years of a U.S. administration shifting to choosing industrial winners and losers over funding basic research followed by one that hasn’t gotten around to this area due to ‘resistance’, energy research in the U.S. is, well, lets say in the doldrums. This team’s effort will help and your humble writer hopes lots of researchers join in and other fields try this method too.