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NEED ENERGY? MORE OIL? BETTER SOLAR?

TWO RECENT articles in Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, give indications of energy research in two contrasting areas: How to form hydrocarbons; and how to produce simpler solar cells.

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The first article, “Out of Oil? Just Add Fungi,” Science, 23 August 2013, suggests how decayed plant matter when subjected to intense pressure over millions of years eventually gets transformed into shale oil. Gary Strobel, a plant microbiologist at Montana State in Bozeman, reports that fungi—yeasts, molds, mushrooms—play a hitherto unexpected role.

These fungi are endophylic, that is, they live symbiotically within the plant’s cells. As the plant decays, the fungi eat away at the decomposing material and produce hydrocarbons. Strobel believes the fungi may have speeded up shale oil production by tens of millions of years.

His experimental apparatus, a Paleobiosphere, resembles a laundry sink with additional hoses, seals and fittings.

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Prof. Strobel’s Paleobiosphere simulates an ancient rainforest. Image from Science.

Leaves from maple, sycamore and aspen trees are mixed in the Paleobiosphere with a fungus that grows within a semitropical Key Lime tree. This mash is sandwiched between layers of bentonite shale and flooded with water. The result is a recreation of a rain forest floor of the Cretaceous era, 145 to 66 million years ago.

But Strobel doesn’t have to wait that long. Within three weeks, the growing fungi digest the leaf matter’s sugar, starches and cellulose—and convert them into a variety of hydrocarbons. These fungal-generated hydrocarbons seep into the shale, just as they have in the oil-rich resources beneath Montana.

Forbes magazine has called Prof. Strobel “the Indiana Jones of fungus hunters,” and for good reason. It’s reported in Science that Endrophylics LLC plans to exploit his technique, with an initial patent in the works.

In the second Science item, “Seeking a Simpler Solar Cell,” 13 September 2013, technology familiar to the semiconductor industry is applied to production of solar cells that are less expensive yet more efficient than current ones.

The technology uses perovskites, minerals with compelling properties of superconductivity and magnetoresistance, combined with other semiconductors. Hitherto, such perovskite cell fabrication required intricate—and costly—nanotechnology.

But recent work shows that these cells can be fabricated in flat layers using vapor deposition, a less complex technology familiar to the industry.

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Inexpensive perovskite cells could be the next big thing in solar energy. Image from Science.

According to Science, the perovskite cells convert sunlight into electrical energy with an efficiency of more than 15 percent. By contrast, current amorphous-silicon solar cells display efficiencies of around 10 percent.

What’s more—and a real attention-getter—the new perovskite solar cells could be fabricated for as little at 15¢ per watt, about one quarter the price of silicon counterparts. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013

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