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Solar trade war PDF Print E-mail
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The European Commission has proposed a tough 47pc “anti-dumping” tariff to penalise the imports, it emerged on Wednesday.

The move would benefit European manufacturers, who allege their Chinese rivals - whose panels are as much as 45pc cheaper - are unfairly subsidised by Beijing.

Chinese solar panel production quadrupled between 2009 and 2011, exceeding global demand, and EU manufacturers say China has now captured 80pc of the European market.

However, action against the Chinese imports is fiercely opposed by European solar panel installation companies which have thrived on the cheap supply and claim that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be at risk.

On Wednesday night Britain said it was “working hard to ensure the Commission’s response, and any measures imposed, are proportionate and take account of wider effects on the industry”.

The EC is expected to consult with member states before taking a formal decision on penalties in early June.

China’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, Yi Xiaozhun, told Reuters that the move would “send the wrong message to the world that protectionism is coming”.

The plans come at a time when Chinese relations are already tense for both Britain and the wider EU.

The EU, China’s largest export market, has already clashed with China over a series of trade issues. In September, the EC launched its anti-dumping probe into Chinese solar panels, prompted by complaints from primarily German and Italian companies who have struggled to compete against the cheap imports.

In November, the EC escalated its action with an anti-subsidy investigation. Both investigations will take nine months at the end of which it will report back to member states and decide whether to impose provisional duties.

China retaliated to the investigations with an inquiry into European exports of polysilicon, a key component for solar panel makers.

The Alliance for Affordable Solar Energy said reports of the EC’s provisional anti-dumping duties were “extremely worrying” and warned that levies over 15pc could destroy 85pc of the European market for solar panels.

It said that “punitive tariffs, no matter at what level, would cause irreversible damage” to the solar power industry in Europe.

Britain’s energy minister Greg Barker told a UK confererence on solar power late last month that the technology would be “at the heart of the UK’s energy mix” but admitted the Chinese issue was the “elephant in the room”.

He urged solar companies to continue lobbying against the proposals through their trade associations.

Self repairing concrete PDF Print E-mail
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Experimental concrete that patches up cracks by itself is to undergo outdoor testing.

The concrete contains limestone-producing bacteria, which are activated by corrosive rainwater working its way into the structure.

The new material could potentially increase the service life of the concrete - with considerable cost savings as a result.

The work is taking place at Delft Technical University, the Netherlands.

It is the brainchild of microbiologist Henk Jonkers and concrete technologist Eric Schlangen.

If all goes well, Dr Jonkers says they could start the process of commercialising the system in 2-3 years.

Concrete is the world's most widely used building material. But it is prone to cracks, which means that structures need to be substantially reinforced with steel.

"Micro-cracks" are an expected part of the hardening process and do not directly cause strength loss. Fractures with a width of about 0.2mm are allowed under norms used by the concrete industry.

But over time, water - along with aggressive chemicals in it - gets into these cracks and corrodes the concrete.

Longer life

"For durability reasons - in order to improve the service life of the construction - it is important to get these micro-cracks healed," Dr Jonkers told BBC News.

Bacterial spores and the nutrients they will need to feed on are added as granules into the concrete mix. But water is the missing ingredient required for the microbes to grow.

  Concrete is the world's most popular building material, but cracking is a problem

So the spores remain dormant until rainwater works its way into the cracks and activates them. The harmless bacteria - belonging to the Bacillus genus - then feed on the nutrients to produce limestone.

The bacterial food incorporated into the healing agent is calcium lactate - a component of milk. The microbes used in the granules are able to tolerate the highly alkaline environment of the concrete.

"In the lab we have been able to show healing of cracks with a width of 0.5mm - two to three times higher than the norms state," Dr Jonkers explained.

"Now we are upscaling. We have to produce the self-healing agent in huge quantities and we are starting to do outdoor tests, looking at different constructions, different types of concrete to see if this concept really works in practice."

The main challenge is to ensure the healing agent is robust enough to survive the mixing process. But, in order to do so, says Dr Jonkers, "we have to apply a coating to the particles, which is very expensive".

The team is currently trying to reduce the cost this adds to the process. But he expects an improved system to be ready in about six months.

The outdoor tests should begin after this; the team is already talking to several construction firms that could provide help.

The concrete will then have to be monitored for a minimum of two years to see how it behaves in this real-world setting.

"Then, if everybody's happy, we can think about trying to commercialise the product," said the TU Delft researcher.

Even if the healing agent adds 50% to the concrete cost, this makes up just 1-2% of the total construction cost. Maintenance is a much higher percentage of this total cost, so Dr Jonkers expects big savings through extending the concrete's service life.

Japans sea bed ice gas PDF Print E-mail
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Japan has extracted natural "ice" gas from methane hydrates beneath the sea off its coasts in a technological coup, opening up a super-resource that could meet the country's gas needs for the next century and radically change the world's energy outlook.

The state-owned oil and gas company JOGMEC said an exploration ship had successfully drilled 300 metres below the seabed into deposits of methane hydrate, an ice-like solid that stores gas molecules but requires great skill to extract safely.

"Methane hydrates available within Japan's territorial waters may well be able to supply the nation's natural gas needs for a century," said the company, adding that the waters under exploration also contain large reserves of rare earth metals.

Government officials said it was the world's first off-shore experiment of its kind, though Japan been working closely with the Canadians. The US and China have their own probes underway.

The US Geological Survey said methane hydrates offer an "immense carbon reservoir", twice all other known fossil fuels on earth. However, it warned that the ecological impact is "very poorly understood".  

The immediate discoveries in Japan's Eastern Tankai Trough are thought to hold 40 trillion cubic feet of methane, equal to eleven years gas imports. The company described the gas as "burnable ice", saying the trick is free it from a crystaline cage of water molecules by lowering the pressure. Tokyo hopes to bring the gas to market on a commercial scale within five years.

The breakthrough comes after 17 years of research and several hundred million dollars of investment. It could be the answer to Japan's prayers, ending its reliance on expensive imports of fuel to meet almost all energy needs.

The country's trade surplus has vanished since the government shut down all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and switched to other fuels, mostly liquefied natural gas (LNG).

It imported a record 87m tonnes of LNG last year at roughly five times the cost of shale gas available to US chemical companies and key industries, putting Japanese firms at a huge disadvantage.

Japan's Institute of Energy Economics said methane hydrate could be the "game-changer" that restores Japan's flagging fortunes, acting as a catalyst for revival much like the shale revolution in the US.

The state oil group plans to drill as deep as 7,000 metres below the sea floor eventually, going out in seas with depth of up to 4,000 metres.

Environmentalists are deeply alarmed by new focus on ice gas, fearing that it will set off a fresh energy race in the fragile eco-systems of the oceans and may cause landslides on the seabed.

The risk of methane leakage into the atmosphere could be a major snag. The US Geological Survey says the gas has ten times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen from liquid fuel PDF Print E-mail
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A new process for extracting hydrogen from a liquid fuel could sweep aside one obstacle to a "hydrogen economy".

Hydrogen produced from renewable resources is a promising source of clean energy, but the gas is difficult to handle and transport.

An international team has now published details of an efficient, low-temperature method for generating it from methanol.

This can then be used to produce electricity using a fuel cell.

The research has been outlined in the journal Nature.

Hydrogen has a high energy density and is clean - burning to leave only water vapour.

Proponents of a hydrogen economy want to produce the hydrogen with excess electricity from renewables such as wind power and solar energy.

But because it is a gas, hydrogen can only be transported and stored safely if it is liquefied or compressed, which takes a lot of energy.

Methanol contains 12.6% hydrogen and is a liquid at ambient temperature, enabling it to be used as a means of temporarily "storing" hydrogen until it is needed.

Current methods used to release the gas from methanol require high temperatures (above 200C) and high pressures, which limits the potential applications.

'Promising' method

The new approach described by Matthias Beller, from the University of Rostock, and colleagues uses a ruthenium-based catalyst, which can efficiently generate hydrogen from methanol at 65-95C and at ambient pressure.

The authors believe their system could combine the advantages of methanol as a hydrogen carrier and of proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for efficient energy production. PEMs are one of the most promising fuel cell technologies.

Prof John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre, said the study was "a very interesting step, and could lead us to much easier and better performance systems for... storage and transport".

But he said that it would "need further development before we can say with certainty".

Prof Loughhead explained: "As methanol contains 12.6% hydrogen by weight, and is a liquid transportable like petrol, this promises to considerably out-perform other... storage systems which typically contain 4% by weight of hydrogen."

He added: "There are issues to resolve to get this into practical service, such as how long does the reaction take, can it respond to changing need, what control and containment systems will be needed, will buffer stores of pure hydrogen be needed, and thus how large, weighty, and expensive would a practical system be?"

More rubbish needed PDF Print E-mail
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Sweden, birthplace of the Smörgåsbord, Eric Northman, and the world’s preferred solar-powered purveyor of flat-pack home furnishings, is in a bit of a pickle: the squeaky clean Scandinavian nation of more than 9.5 million has run out of garbage. The landfills have been tapped dry; the rubbish reserves depleted. And although this may seem like a positive — even enviable — predicament for a country to be facing, Sweden has been forced to import trash from neighboring countries, namely Norway. Yep, Sweden is so trash-strapped that officials are shipping it in — 80,000 tons of refuse annually, to be exact — from elsewhere.
You see, Swedes are big on recycling. So big in fact that only 4 percent of all waste generated in the country is landfilled.
Good for them! However, the population's remarkably pertinacious recycling habits are also a bit of a problem given that the country relies on waste to heat and to provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes through a longstanding waste-to-energy incineration program. So with citizens simply not generating enough burnable waste to power the incinerators, the country has been forced to look elsewhere for fuel. Says Catarina Ostlund, a senior advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency: “We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration.”
Public Radio International has the whole story (hat tip to Ariel Schwartz at Co.Exist), a story that may seem implausible in a country like garbage-bloated America where overflowing landfills are anything but scarce.
As mentioned, the solution — a short-term one, according to Ostlund — has been to import (well, kind of import) waste from Norway. It’s kind of a great deal for the Swedes: Norway pays Sweden to take its excess waste, Sweden burns it for heat and electricity, and the ashes remaining from the incineration process, filled with highly polluting dioxins, are returned back to Norway and landfilled.
Ostlund suggests that Norway might not be the perfect partner for a trash import-export scheme, however. “I hope that we instead will get the waste from Italy or from Romania or Bulgaria or the Baltic countries because they landfill a lot in these countries," she tells PRI. "They don’t have any incineration plants or recycling plants, so they need to find a solution for their waste."
Solar power stored in rust PDF Print E-mail
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Using the power of the sun and ultrathin films of iron oxide (commonly known as rust), researchers at the Technion, Israel's Institute of Technology, have found a novel way to split water molecules to hydrogen and oxygen. The breakthrough, published this week in the scientific journal Nature Materials, could lead to less expensive, more efficient ways to store solar energy in the form of hydrogen-based fuels. This could be a major step forward in the development of viable replacements for fossil fuels

"Our approach is the first of its kind," says lead researcher, Associate Professor Avner Rothschild, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "We have found a way to trap light in ultrathin films of iron oxide that are 5,000 thinner than an office paper. This enables achieving high solar energy conversion efficiency and low materials and production costs."

Iron oxide is a common semiconductor material, inexpensive to produce, stable in water, and — unlike other semiconductors such as silicon — can oxidize water without itself being [oxidized], corroded, or decomposed. But it also presents challenges, the greatest of which was finding a way to overcome its poor electrical conductivity properties. "For many years researchers have struggled with the tradeoff between light absorption and the separation and collection of the photogenerated charge carriers before they die out," says Rothschild. "Our light-trapping scheme overcomes this tradeoff, enabling efficient absorption in ultrathin films wherein the photogenerated charge carriers are collected efficiently."

The breakthrough could make possible the design of inexpensive solar cells that combine ultrathin iron oxide photoelectrodes with conventional photovoltaic cells based on silicon or other materials to produce electricity and hydrogen. According to Rothschild, "these cells could store solar energy for on-demand use, 24 hours per day." This is in strong contrast to conventional photovoltaic cells, which provide power only when the sun is shining (and not at night or when it is cloudy).

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