Fake Plastic Trees Can Sequester Carbon

Trees are natural carbon sinks, taking in atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it for decades. Scientists at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy have now created their own artificial, plastic trees for carbon sequestration. The “trees” could be employed to create a closed carbon loop. The CO2 they scrub from a power plant’s emissions could be combined with hydrogen molecules to create gasoline to power cars (effectively reducing the need for some traditional gasoline production).

Image: CarbonNYC

Solar Cells Take Cue from Tree Leaves

Another group of scientists looking to trees for inspiration is the team at the Japanese company Kyosemi. They are mimicking the ability of a tree’s leaves to capture sunlight from all different directions to make better photovoltaic cells for harnessing solar energy. Rather than flat solar panels, Kyosemi made Sphelar, a flexible matrix of small photovoltaic spheres that can get exposure to sunlight from multiple angles, allowing it to convert 20 percent of the sunlight it contacts to power--which is on par or exceeds the performance of traditional solar cells.

Image: swisscan

Coral Reefs Inspire Cement

In order to make reefs, coral sequester carbon dioxide and transform it into calcium carbonate (with the help of minerals in the surrounding seawater) to make a natural cement. In contrast, when humans make concrete by heating limestone, they release carbon dioxide. By using a method similar to coral, California-based Calera is developing a process for making cement that traps carbon, rather than releasing it--by taking carbon dioxide from a smokestack and mixing it with seawater.

Image: dachalan

Smart Grids Run on Swarm Logic

We’ve already seen applications for so-called “swarm logic” in both the health and engineering sectors. Playing off the behavior of groups of insects could also benefit environmental systems. By making use of the logic underlying swarms, Regen Energy in Toronto developed software algorithms to manage electricity usage in networks from building ventilation systems to smart grids. The city of Los Angeles recently discussed partnering with the company to help it more efficiently open its power grid to electric vehicles.

Image: Vermin Inc

Re-assembling Solar Cells Steal From Plant Cells

Converting sunlight into energy is a destructive process. Even plants, which make the trick seem easy, sustain damage while performing the task. But, they’ve evolved over time to quickly repair components within their cells to keep things humming along. This self-repairing mechanism inspired MIT scientists to develop solar cells that can essentially be cleaned out, so they won’t lose efficiency over time. When exposed to a detergent, the synthetic molecules and carbon nanotubes that make up the cell will break apart and then self-reassemble, ready to get back to the job of trapping solar energy--which they do at 40 percent efficiency (twice that of normal solar panels).

Image: snopek

Power Based On The Motion Of The Ocean

Ever noticed the somewhat surreal, wavy movements of plants on the sea floor? Well, the Australian company BioPower Systems definitely did because it designed a system that mimics that motion to generate electricity. Resembling the head of a pitchfork (if the tines were more sausage-shaped) the buoy-like projections waver efficiently just above the ocean floor as directed by the current--with that motion, of course, transferring energy. A project to install a 250-kilowatt proof-of-principle bioWAVE farm is ongoing off Tasmania’s coast.

Image: CodyHanson

Solar Panels Creep Up Walls

If putting solar panels on your roof isn’t enough to sate your appetite for energy efficiency, Brooklyn-based company SMIT has just what you’re looking for. Mimicking the ivy that grows on walls, such as those in the outfield of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, SMIT developed photovoltaic “leaves” to capture energy from sunlight. The leaves screw into a stainless steel mesh mounted onto a wall. The pitch, angle, and the density of the assemblage are determined by software to maximize the rays each leaf of Solar Ivy is exposed to.

Image: Sean Rogers1

Humpback Whale-Fin Turbine Blades

Humpback whales cut through the water with ease thanks to bumps on their fins known as tubercles--which can cut down drag by up to a third. Toronto-based company WhalePower, Inc. added tubercle-like ridges to the edges of fans to make them more energy efficient. Now, they are incorporating them into wind turbines, estimating that they can increase productivity of wind farms by 20 percent. The technology most recently made its way into tidal turbines, thanks to scientists at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Image: Chris Devers