Cleaner Electricity Production

Producing electricity is often a dirty and polluting affair. Here in the US most is still produced by burning coal, rather like in the 19th century. Nuclear power production is seen by some as an answer as it doesn’t throw a tone of gasses and toxins into the atmosphere and can produce an enormous amount of power in comparison to the fuel it uses. But nuclear power brings its own sets of problems, you only have to look at recent events in Japan or take a trip to Ukraine to see that. And parts of the North Sea round the British Isles are contaminated from leaks from an infamous UK nuclear power station that shall remain nameless (although like New York it too was so good they named it twice) and the unforeseeable problems involved in storing radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years to name but a few rather thorny issues.

However some people that define themselves as fighting for a cleaner environmental electricity production policy, do argue that nuclear power is a move in the right direction, that alternative forms could never provide enough power to feed the planet and the very fact that nuclear power production does not create tons of carbon means it is advantageous in fighting the possible problems of global warming. There are undoubtedly advantages and disadvantages to this form of power production, but political and financial interests are also important factors to bear in mind.

Clean electricity for a better world

There are several other ways of producing cleaner electricity though as we know, but they too have their problems. Building a dam to use the water to drive turbines can have devastating effects on the surrounding areas. Look at the Yangtze Dam project in China and the effect of this engineering project on the people and animals that used to inhabit the newly flooded areas.

Wind farms also seem a good solution but some people say they are ugly and here in Cape Cod in the US there is a large protest movement growing out of claims by people that live near wind turbines who claim health problems, stress and migraines due to the flickering effect of the blades turning in the sun.

Solar panels are always sold as a good option, but they are expensive to manufacture because processed silicon is costly due to its high demand. There are also the problems of how to dispose of the panel when it is no longer efficient and the nature of the silicon purification process.

In Italy farmers have taken government subsidies and covered their land with solar panels in a bid to improve profits. In some cases the panels form a sort of protection for the crops while they produce electricity, but in a lot of cases the agricultural land is just lost to a sea of silicon, causing people to complain both about the aesthetics and the land use issue. Government green incentives mean that there is no need to ask for planning permission so these ‘silicon farms’ as they are known are cropping up in some rather inopportune places (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) and are in massive expansion as this article demonstrates.

But fortunately as we would hope in a blog like this there have been some really interesting developments recently in non silicon based solar energy production that we can look at.

The sun between someones hands

Harnessing the sun

A couple of years ago researchers in Italy unveiled something called the Dye Solar Cell (DSC). It doesn’t use silicon to produce electricity but guess what? It uses vegetable dye from egg plant (aubergines). Well not being a scientist myself I thought, ‘yes, plants do photosynthesis don’t they, why didn’t I think of that?’, and I wasn’t far wrong.

The cells don’t have the same productive power so the area needs to be bigger to produce the same amount of power but they are incomparably cheaper and greener. Ideal for use for example on large low buildings such as barns or industrial units that can have the entire roof covered in vegetable cells and produce the electricity the occupants require for free. Good news.

But what if you haven’t got a huge roof? Well an Austrian company called Bleiner AG has developed a type of paint called Photon Inside that has the same capability. It has to be applied in a few coats and cost more than standard paint but a 50 square metre wall generates 3 Kw of electricity. It was developed for use on sailing boats so that they could operate a radio and radar while out at sea. Sorry but the only articles I can find online are in Italian.

Konarka is an interesting American company who have developed a power generating plastic. It can be made very thin and comes in a roll that you just cut to size, stick on your Venetian blinds or any other surface that takes a lot of sun and away you go. They also sell Power Fibre, as you would imagine it is a thread that you can weave, so you can make textiles that produce energy and can be made into clothes. I like this idea, you could buy a computer case that charges the computer using sunlight as you walk to work.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) they have recently unveiled their ability to print solar panels on to paper. A great breakthrough as it makes the technology easy to transport and place in position but also cheap and hardwearing (you can laminate it). Research at the University of Verona in Italy goes one step further, they are developing completely transparent thin sheets of solar panels that you can attach to the window and look through.

These final applications described above really take solar electric production to a higher level, as practically any surface can be used to produce electricity. The breakthrough here is in the technology required to transport the current more than its production, as attaching the diodes has long been the most difficult part of thin surface electricity production as they tend to come off with any movement in the surface.

Using the sea is also an option. Off the UK there is the giant Sea Snake trial taking place as well as the Oyster wave generator installation, and in the US buoys have been developed that generate electricity from their constant up and down motion, easy to place and a help rather than a hindrance to shipping.

As Christopher pointed out in a recent post, global warming is a real and serious problem and electricity production could be a major element in pollutant gas production, but as I hope to have shown above there are many interesting developments if we allow ourselves a slightly different point of view on electricity management.

A less centralized way of thinking and we could produce a lot of the electricity we need in situ, using our own buildings as power plants.

I have written more extensively on this problem on the Bassetti Foundation website and there are also various related articles about renewable energy sources and the problems involved in their use.

Next week I will have a look at possible engineering solutions for the problematic issue of global warming.

16 thoughts on “Cleaner Electricity Production

  1. These are a great bunch of suggestions. It’s really sad that we all what we need and what is right but can’t do anything about it. I’ve always felt that the government was taking sides with the big corporations. In this world of ours, money and power talks.

      • Christopher (admin team)

        I know what you mean Chris, governments have to try to appease everyone though…

        Thanks for the comment, welcome to the blog!
        Christopher – Admin Team

    • It requires a different way of thinking, less centralization. Instead of having a large power producer and lots of cables why not produce power where it is needed. As you suggest though some people might not like this idea. This is of course all personal opinion, governments and power produces tell us that they are leading the way in clean production.

  2. It’s really sad that we all what we need and what is right but can’t do anything about it. Thanks for sharing this to us…

  3. solar panels sheffield

    Well This is indeed a very informative blog .and this is true time has come where we should apply some other techniques for producing electricity as first we need to reduce the pollution caused by generating electricity second our sources for generating electricity is also ending.

    • Christopher (admin team)

      Reducing pollution and sourcing cheaper, cleaner sources of power seems to be the way forward. Fossil fuels will run out, and Nuclear has huge opposition, so the likes of biomass, solar, tidal, hydro electric and wind, look like they hold the key to the future!

      Thanks for the comment, welcome to the blog 🙂
      Christopher – Admin Team

  4. Once again you have provided an inspiring blog. I learn so much reading and then looking up all of the information you provide. Very exciting technology going on and the more people who know about it the more momentum builds.

    Thank you for your research and your obvious passion on the subject. I was particularly interested in the Photon Inside paint. I will look forward to reading more about it when the information is not solely in Italian!

    • Thanks, I am glad you like it. I am passionate about the problem of responsibility, and problems of the environment are about responsibility. We are all responsible at the end of the day. This is a difficult thing to reconcile. I live in Italy, I am working in the US and my mum lives in the UK. I may think about not wasting things everyday, walk whenever I can, buy fair trade products and produce my own food like a good Earth lover, but I also fly many times a year, and so all good deeds are undone. We each have to determine our line, and information helps us to do that.

    • Unfortunately politicians are hard to convert. A couple of weeks ago Canada pulled out of the Kyoto agreement and the US and China do little or nothing in terms of improvement and they are the big polluters. Newly industrializing countries will do what they need to do in order to grow and feed their populations, and who are we to criticize when the Industrialized countries did the same and are reluctant to change even now?

  5. Christopher (admin team)

    Sorry I have taken a while to comment Jonny, I just sort of forgot at the time, so here I am 🙂

    It is a really interesting article, and I really hope that we can make our electricity production more efficient via the use of new technologies. The future can look good, we just have to keep working on it!

    I do think that more people should put solar on their roofs, especially those who live nearer to the equator, it can earn you money, reduce your bills and help the environment, by using space more efficiently!

    Solar paint, that sounds cool, I am eagerly awaiting further developments in that!

    A really good article, well done you – it’s always good if you can get a pun in somewhere, you seem better at it than me 😉

  6. I think electricity generated by nuclear fission is the way to go for the future. Yes there are riskes like we saw in Japan but they were also behind on security measures. Coal reserves will run out one day after all.


    • coal is certainly not the way forward, but I am not taken by nuclear power myself. Thousands of years of unstable waste to cope with for one, and the possibility of disaster for another. I accept though that at the moment options seem limited, but that should not lead to pulling away from research into other fields.

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