THIS WEEK IN SOLAR, RENEWABLE AND SUSTAINABLE NEWS
In this week’s solar news: Iron/air batteries take a big step toward commercialization, a Florida community built with hurricanes in mind, and waiting for the worms to fix our plastic problem
- Iron batteries get financial vote of confidence
- Florida community built for hurricanes
- Worms fix plastic problem
- This Week’s Sunsong
Iron batteries get a big financial vote of confidence
Earlier this year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted “Lithium batteries are the new oil.” What Musk didn’t mention is that rust may be the new lithium.
Mateo Jaramillo, Tesla’s former energy-storage mastermind, left that company and launched Form Energy, which plans to manufacture batteries based on iron and air in the U.S. in the next two years. The technology stores energy by adding a charge to iron oxide, or rust, to turn it back to elemental iron. Oxygen is released back into the atmosphere as a byproduct. When energy is needed, it is released by allowing the iron to turn back to rust in an electrolyte bath.
The technology addresses a hole in the market in long-term energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries lose measurable charge after just a few hours, while Form’s iron batteries are designed for multi-day use. Iron batteries improve on the ubiquitous li-ion batteries in several other important ways, including presenting an easy path to recycling, eliminating the risk of fire and thermal runaway, and doing away with heavy metals. According to Canary Media, the company raised $450 million in its second round of funding this past week and will build out a manufacturing facility in the coming months. It also moves Form to a prominent position in the shift away from li-ion batteries. Although lithium is a quite common element, mineable deposits are scarce, and have been subject to increasing supply chain issues in recent years.
It doesn’t look like Mr. Musk will be installing Form’s batteries in any of his sleek cars any time soon. Form’s baseline battery is the size of the typical washer/dryer combo and is targeted for utility-scale installations. The company is developing a one-megawatt proof-of-concept site in Minnesota, which they expect to be operational in 2024.
How to build for climate change
The devastation left by Hurricane Ian is some of the most extensive in American history, with estimated costs approaching $50 billion and immeasurable personal tragedy. The town of Fort Myers Beach is at the center of that destruction, with countless homes leveled or so badly damaged they’ll have to be demolished. But less than thirty-five miles away, a development built with the idea of climate resiliency rode out the storm without even losing power. Babcock Ranch, a development that calls itself “The Hometown of Tomorrow” was built to withstand the catastrophic storms that are likely in that part of the country. Houses were built with far more structural
reinforcement than the state of Florida required while greenspace and wetlands were incorporated throughout the development to allow stormwater to flow into natural waterways.
Beyond that, the community of 2,000 homes is 100% powered by a 75-megawatt solar farm and an energy storage facility. The farm, with over 650,000 panels, produces enough juice to power 30,000 homes and supplies energy to adjacent Florida Power & Light customers.
Additionally, its power and communication cables are buried underground, making them much less vulnerable to wind, falling trees, and auto accidents.
That investment in resiliency proved to be prudent as damage was limited to a few fallen trees and the traffic light at the entrance to the community. NPR reported that estimated top winds at Babcock Ranch were 100mph, considerably less than the 150 mph winds that hit Fort Myers Beach, but even the placement of the development was intentional.
By moving it off the coast, the community also avoided the worst of the winds and the storm surge the hurricane brought to coastal properties.
PBS News Hour previewed the community in 2018
Grubbing away at plastic waste
Federica Bertocchini had a problem. The beehives she kept at his home near Madrid were infested with grubs. So, she did what any other amateur beekeeper would do. She opened the hives, scooped out the worms, and wrapped them up in plastic bags. A couple hours later, the bags had developed holes, and the worms had spread throughout the room she left them in.
For most people, that would look like an even bigger problem. For Bertocchini, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council, it looked like a solution to a global environmental disaster. Polyethylene is the most used plastic in the world, but it is a huge source of pollution and disposing of it is one of the biggest challenges in environmental science. What Dr. Bertocchini recognized was that the worms were not physically chewing through the polyethylene bag, they were somehow degrading it chemically.
In a new paper, Dr. Bertocchini and her fellow researchers detail the first plastic-degrading enzymes found in nature and describe how an hour’s worth of exposure to the natural chemicals oxidizes the plastic to the same degree as years in a natural environment. Once in the oxidized state, the degraded materials are much easier to reuse. Commercialization is still years away, but Andy Pickford, the director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the UK’s University of Portsmouth, tells The Guardian, “The reaction happens within a few hours at room temperature suggesting that enzymatic breakdown may be a route to making use of polyethylene waste.”
The enzymes are named “Demetra” and “Ceres”, after the goddess of agriculture, motherhood and the earth.
The Weekly Sunsong
House of the Rising Sun is a folk ballad, first documented in the early 20th century but with roots possibly reaching into Shakespearean England. This version, a hit for The Animals in 1964, is set in New Orleans, not too far from ADT Solar’s hometown of Mandeville, Louisiana. Our attempts to rename the company “House of the Rising Solar Panel” have failed to this point, but we continue to be optimistic.