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For Greg Glatzmaier, the road between innovation and implementation runs along a dusty stretch of highway about a dozen miles south of Boulder City, Nevada, where his patented idea could solve an industry problem. The destination for his idea is Nevada Solar One, an outpost in the desert where 186,000 parabolic shaped mirrors tilt to capture the sun’s rays.

Greg Glatzmaier tests the high-temperature thermal/mechanical stability of sealants that are being used in equipment installed at the Nevada Solar One power plant. The process reduces trace levels of hydrogen in the power plant and maintains its original design efficiency and power production. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

“When the plant first opened, there was nothing around it but open desert with mountains to the west and east,” said Glatzmaier, a senior engineer in the Thermal Energy Science and Technologies group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “The only other landscape feature is a dry lakebed north of the plant.”

Since Nevada Solar One began operations in the summer of 2007, other utility-scale solar power plants have opened in that lakebed. Nevada Solar One is the only concentrating solar power (CSP) plant in the region, however, and the technology faces a unique set of challenges.

The CSP facility uses concentrated beams of sunlight to heat a fluid flowing through 20,000 tubes to as high as 752 degrees Fahrenheit. The process creates steam to spin a turbine that powers a generator and produces electricity. Over time, however, the heat transfer fluid begins to break down and form hydrogen, which reduces the effectiveness of the process. Tiny metal pellets in the tubes absorb the hydrogen, but after about seven years they become saturated and cannot be removed and replaced. Glatzmaier developed a method to address the hydrogen problem.

“To try to go in individually and address the situation for each tube is not really practical,” Glatzmaier said. “So, the method that I’ve developed, and what’s in that patent, and what this project has been all about, is to reduce and control the level of hydrogen that’s in the heat transfer fluid.”

NREL applied for a patent on Glatzmaier’s invention in the fall of 2017. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last May granted patent protection to what is simply called “Hydrogen sensing and separation.”

Laboratory Filed 188 Patent Applications

Glatzmaier’s patent was merely one of the 40 U.S. patents issued to NREL during fiscal 2020, a bump from the 32 issued during the prior fiscal year. Of the 269 disclosures filed with the laboratory’s Technology Transfer Office as the first step toward either patent or copyright protection, 153 fell in the category of a record of invention and 116 in the area of software.

“We continue to see strong engagement from researchers who submit their ideas for evaluation, with especially strong growth in software,” said Anne Miller, director of NREL’s Technology Transfer Office. “It’s great to see such growth because it tells us that the outreach to the lab to get people to report their innovations and work with us in getting them protected and deployed means that it’s working, that people know who to contact. Hopefully, it means that they have some confidence in our ability to be helpful and steer them in the right direction.”

Anne Miller, director of NREL’s Technology Transfer Office, speaks to laboratory employees at a 2019 event. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL.

NREL filed 188 patent applications in FY20, up from 124 the year before.

Lance Wheeler, a research scientist at NREL, has about a dozen patent applications in the pipeline tied to the discovery several years ago of a way to turn windows into solar cells. The technology relies on perovskite solar cells that enable the glass to darken and generate electricity, and also switch back to a clear pane. The most recent patent approved, for “Energy-harvesting chromogenic devices,” was granted in November, or almost four years after the provisional application was filed.

“It’s much different than writing a paper because you can write a paper and get it published within months,” said Wheeler, who shares credit on the patent with colleagues Joey Luther, Jeffrey Christians, and Joe Berry. “You’ll never get a patent awarded in months. It’s usually at least a year, and three is not crazy.”

Buildings across the United States account for nearly two-thirds of energy used, so the notion of using these “smart windows” to take advantage of sunlight could bring that energy consumption down.

The patents issued so far for Wheeler’s dynamic photovoltaic windows cover foundational aspects of the technology and sprang from the initial research. A series of patent applications followed.

“When you write the first patent application, you don’t know everything,” Wheeler said. “As you learn more and especially for very particular market needs, or what a product might look like, you learn what’s important and you continue to protect the things that are working. Then you make more discoveries, and you patent more things, but they’re all aligned in the same area.”

Perovskite Composition Earns Patent Protection

Alignment, as it turns out, is a key part of making perovskites most effective in capturing the sun’s energy. Unlike widely used silicon, which is a naturally occurring mineral, perovskites used in solar cells are grown through chemistry. The crystalline structure of perovskites has proven exceptionally efficient at converting sunlight to electricity.

NREL researchers have explored possible combinations for perovskite formulas to find the best. That work resulted in a patent issued in April 2020 for “Oriented perovskite crystals and methods for making the same.” The process begins with a small crystal that’s attached to another crystal and then another and on and on. The crystals are also oriented in the same direction. Kai Zhu, a senior scientist and one of the inventors, uses bricklaying as an analogy.

“You lay one layer down, you put one next to another, you align them perfectly,” he said. “You have to do this in order to build a very large wall. But if you have some randomness in it, your wall will collapse.”

The patent, which covers the composition of the perovskite, was issued to Zhu, Berry, and Donghoe Kim of NREL and to a scientist in Japan. NREL filed the patent application in 2017. Compared to a perovskite solar cell made of crystals allowed to grow randomly instead of in a specific orientation, the NREL-developed composition has been proven to have fewer defects and able to move charge carriers quickly. The result is a perovskite solar cell capable of reaching the highest efficiency.

“This represents the current best performing perovskite composition for the single-junction solar cell,” Zhu said.

Software Filings Reach New Record

NREL’s Technology Transfer Office received 116 software record (SWR) disclosures in fiscal 2020, establishing a new record and marking a big increase from 72 the prior year. The growth in submittals is partly due to more software being developed and authorized for free open-source release. One software record approved for closed-source licensing last year and now available for commercial users is the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Projection tool, or EVI-Pro. A simplified, open-source version, known as EVI-Pro Lite, also has been released.

The core of EVI-Pro allows users to forecast the demand for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in a particular area. The predictive nature of the software also enables users to determine in advance how an influx of electric vehicles might affect the grid and energy demand. EVI-Pro relies on real-world information.

Eric Wood, the NREL researcher who oversaw the development of EVI-Pro, said it is not enough to simply consider how many charging stations were installed in an area previously and make an educated guess based on that information.

“That misses some key points,” he said. “The vehicle technology is evolving. The charging technology is evolving. And the behavior of individuals that own these vehicles is evolving.”

Early adopters of electric vehicles could charge them at home, in their garage. As the market expands, Wood said, people living in apartments or who have to park on the street need to have a place to plug in.

“The role of public charging infrastructure is going to continue to elevate as the market grows,” he said. “Continuing to develop the software with an eye on reflecting the latest situation in the market is one of the challenges that we face, so keeping EVI-Pro relevant and current is important.”

From the Laboratory to the Outside World

For Glatzmaier, the journey to see how well his invention could perform at isolating and removing hydrogen from the concentrating solar power plant was not a quick one. Grounded from flying because of the pandemic, last year he made four trips to the Nevada site by car. Each trip took about 13 hours one way.

Scientists typically keep close to their laboratory space, with companies able to license ideas that sprang from the inventive minds at NREL. Often, with license in hand, a company will conduct research using its own people. In Glatzmaier’s case, Nevada Solar One signed cooperative research and development agreements that have kept the scientist and company working closely together since 2015.

Glatzmaier initially planned to address the hydrogen buildup using two processes: one to measure the amount of the gas, and a second to extract it. Laboratory-scale tests showed his ideas would work, but he still expected some hesitation from company executives when it came time to trying out the devices on a much larger scale.

“I was thinking, they’re going to be very reluctant because companies tend to not want to make changes to their power plants once they are up and running,” he said. So he proposed installing the mechanism to only measure hydrogen buildup. Instead, the company wanted him to move ahead and tackle both problems at once. From the initial idea to installation has been a long road, but it does not end in Nevada.

Glatzmaier said 80 concentrating solar power plants exist around the world, and talks are in their final stages to license the technology for its use in these plants.

Learn more about licensing NREL-developed technologies.

—Wayne Hicks

Article courtesy of the NREL, The U.S. Department of Energy.


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Elon Musk says Tesla has a ‘performance Cybertruck’

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Elon Musk says Tesla has a 'performance Cybertruck'

Elon Musk reveals that Tesla has a ‘performance Cybertruck’ – indicating that it could be one of the first versions of the electric pickup truck.

Tesla is on the verge of delivering the first Cybertruck.

Despite the automaker having produced likely hundreds of trucks and being about to start deliveries, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the electric pickup truck.

Tesla first unveiled the Cybertruck in 2019 and announced specs and pricing at the time, but the automaker is known to update its vehicles significantly from prototype to production. On top of it, the auto market has changed a lot since then, and that is expected to completely change the prices that Tesla announced for the Cybertruck.

Those expected changes have led to speculation about which Cybertruck models are going to be available, when, and at what prices.

We have recently seen evidence that at least some of Tesla’s Cybertruck release candidates are dual-motor powertrain trucks, which is leading people to believe that it might likely be the first

Now CEO Elon Musk is now adding some information into the mix by saying on X that he recently drove a “performance Cybertruck”:

I just drove the performance Cybertruck today and it kicks ass next-level.

This means that Tesla currently has a “performance” version of the Cybertruck, which could mean it could be amongst the first versions to come to market.

Tesla has previously announced a tri-motor version of the Cybertruck with the following specs:

  • Tri Motor AWD with 500+ miles of range, 0-60 mph in 2.9 seconds, top speed of 130 mph, and starting price of $69,900

That could certainly qualify as a “performance version”, but there have also been rumors of Tesla offering a potential quad-motor version of the Cybertruck, which could have even higher performance.

Tesla is expected to announce all the details of the Cybertruck at a delivery event, which could come within the next few weeks.

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This 100 MPH ‘street legal’ 2-seater electric race car from China looks pretty legit

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This 100 MPH 'street legal' 2-seater electric race car from China looks pretty legit

Most of the fun and funky vehicles I manage to dredge up for the Awesomely Weird Alibaba Electric Vehicle of the Week are big on weirdness but short on power. This time that seems to be reversed, as this electric race car is more wild than weird and comes with some seriously impressive performance.

This isn’t some slow crawling electric battle tank or ice-cream truck shaped like a VW bus. Those are more typical of this series on odd Chinese EVs, but this time we’re going all-in for extreme performance.

That means you’d better be ready to buckle in for speeds of up to 160 km/h (100 mph)! And based on some of these product photos, I wouldn’t mind buckling into the passenger seat for the first few rides.

Powering this little racer’s rear wheels is a 10 kW (13.5 hp) electric motor, which might not sound that powerful, but remember just how potent the low end torque from an electric motor is for rocketing off the line.

And since the entire vehicle only weighs 650 kg (1,433 lb), not to mention an extra 45 kg (100 lb) of cover girl model, there just isn’t that much mass here to be accelerated.

Plus the Chinese tend to rate motors with continuous power, not peak power. So there’s probably more kilowatts under the hood than we’re expecting. There’s no information on what kind of controller is powering that motor, but I’d wager that the peak power could be closer to 20 kW (27 hp).

There’s also a surprisingly large battery in this little racer, to the tune of 14.4 kWh. It’s a 96V pack built from LG lithium-ion cells and would give several American electric motorcycles a run for their money.

According to the vendor, it should be enough for 150 km (96 miles) of range per charge, though there’s no mention if that’s on a city street track or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Speaking of city streets, the company says that the vehicle is ECE certified and “can be legally driven on European streets”. I guess we’ll just have to take their word on that, unless someone wants to buy one of these and try it out themselves.

There’s no word on DOT-certification and so it’s likely not street legal in the US. But that might not stop someone from going full-‘Murica doing donuts in the local Krogers parking lot with their bald eagle riding shotgun.

If you want to get some skin in the game (eagle not included), it’s going to cost you a cool US $28,000. Or at least that would be the first payment. There’s no telling how much you’d have to fork over afterwards for ocean freight, import charges, taxes, and other add-on charges along the way.

But for anyone hoping to try their luck with the local European cops, it’s at least comforting to see that these vehicles seem to actually be in real production.

The vendor shared several images of what look like a sea of frames alongside several partially assembled race cars.

I’m not recommending anyone actually try to buy one of these from Alibaba. In fact, I’d probably recommend the opposite. Let’s just treat this as a fun window-shopping exercise.

But for the person who inevitably ignores my warnings (as many of my readers have been known to do) and plunks down some serious cash for one of these, let me know if and when it arrives. I will be there in a second to go for a ride with you!

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This EV fast charging station tells you when its power is at its cheapest and greenest

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This EV fast charging station tells you when its power is at its cheapest and greenest

This DC fast charging station tells EV drivers when renewable energy is at its peak in the grid – and thus when charging prices are cheapest. 

The “Better Energy Charge” station in Sønderborg, Denmark, is owned by renewable energy company Better Energy. (It sits next to the company’s R&D solar park.)

What makes this charging station unique is its dynamic pricing model. It differs from traditional fixed pricing schemes because it incentivizes EV drivers with lower charging prices when renewable energy is at its peak on the grid.

The charging price, which is available the day before, follows the Danish energy spot prices. Similar to a gas station’s pricing signs, the EV charging station’s price board is visible from the road. (Why don’t all EV charging stations do this?)

“We want to encourage people to charge their cars when there is a lot of renewable electricity in the grid by making it cheaper when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing,” said Peter Munck Søe-Jensen, EVP of power solutions at Better Energy.

The Danish company feels its model helps drivers plan in advance to charge their EVs when energy is at its cheapest. And by charging EVs when solar and wind energy production is high, consumers can also increase the probability that it’s renewable, not fossil fuel-powered, energy.

What do you think of this model? Have you seen anything similar? Let us know in the comments below.

Read more: Electrify America, Blink to add Tesla’s NACS connector to their EV chargers


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