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February 28th, 2012

Common threads woven through MCARE plenary talks

Published on February 28th, 2012 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Networking opportunities were plentiful at the first full day of the MCARE conference. Credit: ACerS.

The first full day of the Materials Challenges in Alternative and Renewable Energy was dedicated to a range of plenary talks that covered the gamut of potential sources and, of course, the materials challenges each one faced. The sessions were MC’d by conference cochairs George Wicks and Jack Simon.

Put succinctly, each technology is “materials hungry,” and whether it’s solar, hydrogen, wind, hydro or nuclear, the materials mantra is: less, lighter, stronger and more efficient. And, by the way, the materials advances also need to lead to improved processing and manufacturing.

In most cases, speakers, such as Dow Corning Solar Solution’s Eric Peeters, spoke of having clear goals and roadmaps. For solar, the target is $1 per Watt (installed) by decade’s end, which would bring it close to $0.12-0.13 per kWh (comparable to natural gas).

For some, the features of the roadmap are clearer than for others. Peeters spoke of plans to use thinner wafers and glass, plus silicone-sealed frameless panels that use conductive adhesives. DOE hydrogen guru Ned Stetson discussed the short-range challenges of storing and transporting H2 in its pure form (via materials that will permit stronger, lighter cylinders), but that chemical hydrogen storage systems—e.g., metal hydrides—can deliver higher H storage capacity (measured by weight percent) than anything involving just H2.

GM Global R&D manager Bob Powell outlined the evolutionary steps of moving from electrical assist and hybrid technologies, through the “bridge” technologies of extended range electric vehicles, to, ultimately, fuel cell transportation (and auxiliary power generation). He says some of the challenges for the bridge materials are battery performance degradation, shrinkage–expansion and ability to withstand 5000 charge-discharge cycles.

Megan McCluer and Jim Ahlgrimm of DOE’s Wind & Hydropower Technology programs spoke widely about several traditional and novel wind and hydro (including ocean-based) technologies, but they reported that much of it—especially the strong, stable and better sited offshore wind capacity—is largely untapped. The analogy they use is, “What Saudi Arabia is to oil, the US is to wind energy and power.” But, offshore wind assets bring a new set of challenges: corrosion and biofouling, plus larger-scale blades, drivetrains and generators.

McCluer and Ahlgrimm noted their DOE programs cover a huge variety of wind and hydro generation approaches, so much of their work is based on establishing hypothetical production scenarios (e.g., supplying the US with 15 percent of power from water sources and 20 percent from wind), and then working backwards to figure out what advancements would be needed from each technology stream to meet the goals. Lab-academia-industry collaborations have been set up to address the next generation of blades, bearings/gearings and generators (including, ultimately, light-weight full superconductive generators).

Bhakta Rath from the Naval Research Lab took (friendly) issue with the suggestion that Saudi Arabia is the leader in oil and hydrocarbon-based energy reserves. What makes the US the leader, he says, are the largely untapped shale oil deposits in the Green River region of Western United States, plus rich methane hydrate deposits. Rath also mentioned the progress being made in understanding the potential of power generation based on exploiting ocean thermal energy gradients.

Is nuclear power an alternative or renewable form of energy? Savannah River National Lab’s Tom Sanders thinks there is an argument to be made. He says, in essence, whether solar is classified as alternative or renewable, remember that it is the product of fusion. Sanders, however, thinks along more practical lines than philosophical ones: He says small modular nuclear reactors are going to be manufactured, if not by the US, then by other nations. He says they can be made to deliver nuclear fuel efficiency, safety and security. In addition, their 100-300 MW size corresponds to the emerging sweet spot for modular size that existing electric utilities have found works well for new gas-fired turbines. SMNRs would also allow developing nations to leapfrog many grid infrastructure investments, similar to the way cell phones have eliminated the need for “last-mile” telecommunications wiring investments. Finally, Sanders says SMNRs can aid nonproliferation of nuclear weapons by allowing the U.S. to leverage nuclear fuel supplies at the front and back end of the generation cycles.

Each of the plenary speakers have kindly allowed ACerS to put their Powerpoint Presentations (typically converted to a pdf format) on  the Society’s website, via the MCARE Plenary Speakers page. Just click on the title of each presentation.

How do our engineers and scientists find the lighter, stronger, more efficient and easier-to-use materials? Ah—that’s the topic for the next three days of symposia. Stay tuned.

And, here are some of the photos from MCARE on Monday.


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