Tag Archives: energy

Bill Gates Expected to Create Billion-Dollar Fund for Clean Energy

Bill Gates will announce the creation of a multibillion-dollar clean energy fund on Monday at the opening of a Paris summit meeting intended to forge a global accord to cut planet-warming emissions, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

The fund, which one of the people described as the largest such effort in history, is meant to pay for research and development of new clean-energy technologies. It will include contributions from other billionaires and philanthropies, as well as a commitment by the United States and other participating nations to double their budget for clean energy research and development, according to the people with knowledge of the plans, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the fund.

The announcement of the fund, which has the joint backing of the governments of the United States, China, India and other countries, the people said, is intended to give momentum to the two-week Paris climate talks.

Negotiators hope to strike a deal committing every nation to enacting policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Mr. Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, will join more than 100 world leaders, including President Obama, in Paris on Monday to begin the talks.

The pending announcement was first reported by ClimateWire, an online news organization. A spokesman for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

If successful, the Paris meeting could spur a fundamental shift away from the use of oil, coal and gas to the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. But that transition would require major breakthroughs in technology and huge infrastructure investments by governments and industry.

Where that money would come from has been a question leading up to the Paris talks. Developing countries like India, the third-largest fossil fuel polluter, have pushed for commitments by developed nations to pay for their energy transition, either through direct government spending or through inexpensive access to new technology.

India has emerged as a pivotal player in the Paris talks. The announcement by Mr. Gates appears intended to help secure India’s support of a deal.

As secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged that developed countries would send $100 billion annually to poor countries by 2020 to help them pay for the energy transition. Indian officials have demanded that the Paris deal lock in language that the money would come from public funds — a dealbreaker for rich countries.

This summer, Mr. Gates pledged to spend $1 billion of his personal fortune on researching and deploying clean energy technology, but the people with knowledge of his plans said the new fund would include larger commitments.

In a blog post in July, Mr. Gates wrote: “If we create the right environment for innovation, we can accelerate the pace of progress, develop and deploy new solutions, and eventually provide everyone with reliable, affordable energy that is carbon free. We can avoid the worst climate-change scenarios while also lifting people out of poverty, growing food more efficiently and saving lives by reducing pollution.”

Mr. Gates met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. In a June meeting in Paris, Mr. Gates told President François Hollande of France that the Paris deal should include robust provisions on clean energy research and development.

“Bill’s been making that point for years, and he’s going to make it more emphatically in Paris,” said Hal Harvey, chief of Energy Innovation, an energy consultancy. Mr. Harvey noted that at the core of the emerging Paris agreement are plans and pledges already put forth by more than 170 countries detailing how they will reduce emissions.

“If you tote up the plans, you see a very significant demand signal, and Bill wants to see that we meet that cheaply,” he said.

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Morocco will launch Africa’s biggest solar farm

The plant will be the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant and power one million homes

Morocco will host the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant at the edge of the Sahara desert, to help generate renewable electricity which will power nearly half of the country by 2020.

The first phase of the project, a 160 MW power plant called Noor 1, will be completed next month, the Guardian reports.

The project, which will be built in the Moroccan city of Ouarzazate, involves installing a complex of four linked solar plants (Noor 1 is the first) which will occupy a space as big as Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, and produce roughly 500 MW of electricity – enough to power one million homes.

According to African Development Bank Group, which financed the first phase of the project, Morocco imports almost 97pc of its energy to meet its energy needs, as of 2013. “Noor 1 will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the emission of 240,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year over a 25-year period,” the bank said in its announcement.

The $9 billion(£6 billion) project is the Moroccan government’s plan to expand the desert country’s renewable energy supply. “We are not an oil producer. We import 94pc of our energy as fossil fuels from abroad and that has big consequences for our state budget,” Morocco’s environment minister, Hakima el-Haite, told the Guardian.

The CSP technology works by using 0.5 million crescent-shaped mirrors, in 8000 rows to concentrate the sun’s rays onto a liquid. The liquid, mixed with water, heats up to 393C and creates steam that can, in turn, power a generator.

Because this system can store power for when the sun goes down, it will be able to generate power at night-time, a huge advantage compared to othersolar power technologies.

The upcoming Noor 2 and 3 plants of the complex are set to launch in 2017. The two solar plants can apparently store energy for up to eight hours, which would provide solar energy in the Sahara and surrounding regions on a continuous basis.

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MIT team genetically engineers a quantum virus for efficient energy transport

When MIT phenoms Seth Lloyd and Angela Belcher put their heads together to create the perfect peanut butter cup, you know we are going to be there to take a bite. Lloyd, of quantum computer fame, realized that certain features of the kinds of viruses which Belcher builds are ideally dimensioned for trying increase the efficiency of photosynthetic energy transport via quantum effects. When he mentioned that to her, she said her lab was already making them. A short time later, the team had their prize: quantum viruses genetically engineered for optimal exciton transport.

What are excitons you might ask? Technically speaking, they are neutral quasiparticles consisting of an electron and an electron hole bound by an electrostatic Coulomb force. They are formed when a photon is absorbed by insulators or semiconductors, and can transport energy on the smallest of scales without transporting net charge.

There is now considerable evidence that proteins, including those which harness various chromophore molecules, act as semiconductors — in many cases even so-called quantum critical semiconductors. When a photon hits a photosynthetic chromophore, an exciton is generated just like it might in more familiar semiconductor materials. It then hops along additional chromophores until it bumps into a reaction center where the energy is used to string together molecules from freely diffusible CO2 plucked straight from the air.


The magic comes into play during this hopping stage. The wavelike nature of the particle provides a mechanism for it to simultaneously explore multiple pathways and ultimately resolve the optimal route. If the spacing of the chromophores, and the lifetimes of their excitons, are not “just so,” then the particle takes much longer to arrive at the reaction center. Much the same situation applies to electron tunneling through proteins in the mitochondrial respiratory chain. Lloyd whimsically describes these general phenomena as examples of the Quantum Goldilocks Effect: “Natural selection tends to drive quantum systems to the degree of quantum coherence that is ‘just right’ for attaining maximum efficiency.”

Lloyd notes that the total excitonic lifetime in photosynthesis, which is on the order of nanoseconds, spans six orders of magnitude in going down to the fastest measurable femtosecond events. The overall transfer time from absorption in the photosynthetic antenna harvesting system to capture in the reaction center is a few tens of picoseconds. In extending the classical Goldilocks principle of biology into this quantum system, Lloyd would have it that natural selection has brought about a convergence of the relevant timescales by adding the necessary quantum processes in between photosynthetic events.

What may make all that a tough pill to swallow whole is that overall the full photosynthetic ecosystem of the larger chloroplastic endosymbiont of the cell is far from perfect. While Lloyd maintains that the level of quantum coherence and complexity must be exactly right to efficiently transport 100% of the excitons generated at the antenna to the reaction center (something that he says can occur), that doesn’t imply there is ever 100% efficiency of anything. For example, we previously noted that while the so-called theoretical photocurrent efficiency for photosystem II often gets quoted at 95%, in the real world it is more like 5% — and when you try to take a closer look at where that number comes from you inevitably ask yourself, 5% of what?

At this point you might be wondering what all this has to do with viruses. Belcher’s group had previously been able to bind chromophores known as zinc porphyrins to the M13 virus, and also use them to explore various solar, electrolysis, and battery applications. Zinc porphyrins can naturally form in our blood cells when there isn’t enough iron around to get incorporated in the porphyrin core. In chlorophyll, incidentally, a magnesium atom is used at the heart of much the same basic porphyrin cofactor.

To make the new quantum M13 virus, Belcher instead used a few of the more exotic new chromophores — Alexa Fluors 488 as the acceptor and 594 as the donor. These synthetic molecules can be made with narrow and well-separated absorption bands, and the proper spectral overlaps for efficient energy transfer. They were bound to the virus via the primary amino groups of the viral pVIII coat protein.

The net result was that the genetically-enhanced viral antenna system achieved a 68% longer diffusion length and a fourfold increase in the number of donors transferring energy to acceptors. Traveling at effectively double the speed, the excitons migrated significantly further before dissipating. To observe the light-harvesting events and verify that quantum coherence was enhancing transport the group used laser spectroscopy and theoretical modeling of exciton dynamics.

Although the virus has demonstrated the ability to capture and transfer light energy, the reality is that there is no actual reaction center in the works yet. Without localized machinery transduce this energy, there’s no way to harness it to produce actual power. Nor is there a mechanism to direct that energy into fuel, or into structural molecules, as plants do. That may come. But in the meantime, we have a few new tools to further explore many of the exciting new concepts in quantum biology.

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New microprocessor claims 10x energy improvement

As power consumption has become one of the most important metrics of CPU design, we’ve seen a variety of methods proposed for lowering CPU TDP. Intel makes extensive use of dynamic voltage and frequency scaling, ARM has big.Little, and multiple companies are researching topics like near threshold voltage (NTV) scaling as well as variable precision for CPU and GPU operations. Now, one small embedded company, Ambiq Micro, is claiming to have made a breakthrough in CPU design by building a chip designed for subthreshold voltage operation — with dramatic results.

Ambiq’s new design strategy could be critical to the long-term evolution of the wearables market, the Internet of Things, and for embedded computing designs in general — if the company’s technology approach can scale to address to a wide range of products.

Subthreshold and near-threshold voltage operation

The threshold voltage of a transistor is the voltage point required to create a conducting path between the source and drain terminals. In simplest terms, this is the point at which the transistor turns “on.” The voltage threshold is not an absolute, however — operation is possible in both the near-threshold and subthreshold regions.


The problem with NTV and subthreshold designs is that they tend to suffer from high amounts of leakage current, as shown above, and are capable of only very low operating frequencies within these voltage ranges. This can actually lead to higher energy consumption overall — by constantly operating in the subthreshold region, the total amount of energy a chip leaks can result in higher power consumption than would result if the SoC just ran at conventional voltages and then power gated cleanly or shut itself off.

To understand the problem with subthreshold circuits and performance, imagine you had to distinguish between an alternating field of white and black squares. The human eye can perform this feat relatively easily — even when the white-black swap occurs at high speeds, we can tell the difference between the two.

Ask people to identify the difference between two slightly different shades of gray, however, and they can only do so when the frames are presented for a much longer period of time. The eye will tend to combine the two shades into a single perceived hue — this fact is widely used in Twisted Nematic (TN) monitors to produce simulated 8-bit color using fast 6-bit panels. Instead of displaying a given shade — say, Red 250 — the monitor will alternate between Red 246 and Red 254. Flip between these two shades quickly enough, and the eye naturally “averages” them out to Red 250.

This difficulty between determining the “on” versus the “off” state is a major limiting factor on subthreshold operation and requires designing circuits to extremely tight tolerances. What Ambiq claims to have developed is a new method of designing circuits, dubbed Sub-threshold Power Optimized Technology (SPOT). The company’s full whitepaper is available.

Ambiq is claiming that its Apollo microcontroller, which is based on the ARM Cortex-M4 design with FPU, can deliver power consumption equivalent to a Cortex-M0+ part without compromising its M4 with FPU performance. That’s actually more significant than it sounds — the graph tot he right shows the results of a performance comparison and power analysis between the Cortex-M0 and Cortex-M4 , as published by EDA360 Insider.


The green line is the M4, while the yellow line is the Cortex-M0. According to that report: “The ARM Cortex-M4 with its SIMD and floating-point capabilities ran the tests 12 to 174 times faster than the ARM Cortex-M0 core and consumed 2x to 9x more power.”

In other words, a subthreshold version of the Cortex-M4 with Cortex-M0 power consumption would be an embedded chip that meshed the best of both worlds — incredible power efficiency and far more embedded performance than is currently available.

Why subthreshold embedded performance matters

In previous years, accomplishments like this in the embedded market would be of limited interest to anyone else. The combined pushes for better wearables and the growing Internet of Things, however, makes innovations like subthreshold voltage critically necessary. While there’s still a vast gulf between even a high-powered embedded chip like the Cortex-M4 and a Cortex-A7 smartphone class CPU, the only way to close that gap is to continue to push embedded performance per watt into new frontiers.

Ambiq is arguing that its new design and implementation approaches can double to quadruple power efficiency. Whether this is solely an embedded shift or if it can boost higher-end hardware is still unknown, but approaches like this could revolutionize embedded hardware — and make all-day smartwatch battery life a reality in the long run.

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Carbon-negative energy, a reality at last — and cheap, too

In Berkeley, Calif., All Power Labs is turning out machines that convert cheap and abundant biomass into clean energy and rich, efficient charcoal fertilizer.

In 2007, officials from this famously liberal city shut off the electricity to an artists space known as the Shipyard. That action, which forced the artists there to seek a new way to power their flamethrowers, is the origin story of a company that now produces what it says is the world’s only carbon-negative power source.

Located in one of the grittiest areas of town, where train tracks, garbage, and broken down carsare far more prevalent than the hippies Berkeley is famous for, All Power Labs has set up shop inside the Shipyard. Run by CEO Jim Mason — who owns the space — the 5-year-old startup now produces technology used to transform dense biomass like corn husks or wood chips into clean, sustainable, and cheap energy.

All Power Labs makes machines that use an ancient process called gasification to turn out not only carbon-neutral energy, but also a carbon-rich charcoal by-product that just happens to be a fertilizer so efficient that Tom Price, the company’s director of strategic initiatives, calls it “plant crack.”

Gasification, in which dense biomass smoldering — but not combusting — in a low-oxygen environment is converted to hydrogen gas, is nothing new. Price said that ancient cultures used it to enrich their soils, and during World War II, a million vehicles utilized the technology. But after the war, it more or less vanished from the planet, for reasons unknown. Until Mason needed a way to power his flamethrowers, that is.

All Power Labs has taken gasification and combined it with two of the Bay Area’s most valuable commodities — a rich maker culture, and cutting-edge programming skills — to produce what are called PowerPallets. Feed a bunch of walnut shells or wood chips into these $27,000 machines and you get fully clean energy at less than $2 a watt, a fraction of what other green power sources can cost.

Global climate change is a result of too much carbon being put into the sky, most scientists agree, and most energy sources, even others based on biomass, contribute to the problem. That’s because, Price said, burning the biomass releases the carbon back into the atmosphere. By comparison, because there’s no combustion in All Power Labs’ gasification process, the carbon isn’t released into the air.

Rather, it is pulled from the biomass and converted into charcoal. Thanks to gasification and the fact that that charcoal can be put back into the ground, the process of releasing carbon is reversed, Price argued.

That’s why All Power Labs has already sold more than 500 of its machines — many to some of the world’s poorest nations. During a recent visit to the company’s headquarters, it had orders pending from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Thailand, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile, among others. That’s because, Price said, while many energy sources in the developing world can cost 50 or 60 cents per kilowatt, a PowerPallet can do it for a dime.

Since its founding five years ago, the company has been doubling its revenues every year, and now does $5 million in sales. One reason for that growth is that dense biomass is everywhere. Think about America’s heartland, where corn grows as far as the eye can see. Or California’s Central Valley, where walnuts are a major crop. All those cobs and shells can now be used as the basis for cheap energy. Similarly, startups are generating electricity with the machines in Liberia, and Italian farmers are buying them because that country offers lucrative incentives to produce renewable power. To an Italian farmer, Price said, a PowerPallet is “an ATM machine.”

In some countries, it can cost $5,000 a month to power a cell phone tower, Price said. But a PowerPallet could do the job for a fraction of the cost, meaning the machine could pay for itself in months. And that alone is a huge opportunity for the company given that a third of the 650,000 cell towers in Southeast Asia and Africa are off the grid, Price said.

Patented but simple 

All Power Labs has gotten several patents for its technology, mainly having to do with its innovations in system control, integration, and configuration. But the PowerPallets are still relatively simple, at least as far as their users are concerned. For one, thing Price explained, much of the machine is made with plumbing fixtures that are the same everywhere in the world. That means they’re easy to repair.

At the same time, while researchers at the 50 or so institutions that have bought the machines are excited by opening up the computer control system and poking around inside, a guy running a corn mill in Uganda with a PowerPallet “will never need to open that door and never will,” Price said.

For now, All Power Labs is making only 10 kW and 20 kW versions, though the U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Minnesota recently gave the company a grant to build a 100 kW version. And while the system can’t convert every form of biomass, Price said that one of the company’s biggest aims is to make it possible to use any organic material. He estimated that goal is about five years away.

All of this explains why the company now employs more than 30 people. And the fact that last year, the City of Berkeley honored All Power Labs with a proclamation on its fifth birthday. The city didn’t quite appreciate the irony of granting that honor given the company’s origins, Price said.

Now, All Power Labs is turning out a machine a day, and slowly but surely building a business that it hopes will one day contribute to the reversal of global warming. That may well be overly ambitious, but at the very least, the company has carved out an impressive niche for itself in the power business, an industry dominated by some of the biggest, richest, and most powerful outfits in the world. But Price isn’t worried that All Power Labs will incur those rivals’ wrath. “They don’t even know we’re here,” Price said. “By the time they figure it out, we’ll be everywhere.”

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