New children’s health research projects funded by NIH

Read the full story in Environmental Factor.

Researchers working to improve children’s health now have more opportunities to understand the role environmental exposures play in children’s health and development, thanks to new funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NIEHS joined with NIH Sept. 28 in announcing the recipients of new projects that will provide researchers an expanded range of tools to accurately measure, record, and analyze environmental exposures in children.

2015-16 LiveBIG: Illinois’ Sustainable-Electronics ‘Mission’

In “Mission: Impossible,” one of the recurring plot devices is the message that self-destructs in order to keep that information a secret. The University of Illinois has a different kind of mission: developing electronics that self-destruct for the sake of sustainability.

BESC, Mascoma develop revolutionary microbe for biofuel production

Read the full story from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Biofuels pioneer Mascoma LLC and the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center have developed a revolutionary strain of yeast that could help significantly accelerate the development of biofuels from nonfood plant matter.

The approach could provide a pathway to eventual expansion of biofuels production beyond the current output limited to ethanol derived from corn…

Researchers announced that while conventional yeast leaves more than one-third of the biomass sugars unused in the form of xylose, Mascoma’s C5 FUEL™ efficiently converts this xylose into ethanol, and it accomplishes this feat in less than 48 hours. The finding was presented today at the 31st International Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Minneapolis.

Why is there a huge methane hotspot in the American Southwest?

Read the full story from PBS Newshour.

A team of scientists scrambles to better understand a gigantic cloud of methane looming over the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest. This single cloud is believed to comprise nearly 10 percent of all methane emissions derived from natural gas in the United States. But its origins remain a mystery.

Underfunding of Research Offers States an Economic Opportunity

Read the full story in Governing.

When trying to grow the economy, it’s really tempting for elected officials to spend the public’s money on things that have an immediate impact on jobs and wages. What better way to endear yourself to your constituents than to be the driving force behind a new shopping center or luxury hotel that not only brings jobs but also increases local spending? It’s certainly a lot sexier than spending money on research for some scientific mumbo-jumbo that most people haven’t heard of — especially when you can’t guarantee that research will yield any significant results.

It may be unsexy and it may be risky, but it also may be the best way for states and localities to drive innovation and economic growth. At least that’s the hunch of a growing number of think tank analysts. As the federal government spends less on research and development, they say, states could have a key role to play.

High efficiency concentrating solar cells move to the rooftop

Via Penn State University.

Ultra-high efficiency solar cells similar to those used in space may now be possible on your rooftop thanks to a new microscale solar concentration technology developed by an international team of researchers.

“Concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) systems leverage the cost of high efficiency multi-junction solar cells by using inexpensive optics to concentrate sunlight onto them,” said Noel C. Giebink, assistant professor of electrical engineering, Penn State. “Current CPV systems are the size of billboards and have to be pointed very accurately to track the sun throughout the day. But, you can’t put a system like this on your roof, which is where the majority of solar panels throughout the world are installed.”

Giebink notes that the falling cost of typical silicon solar cells is making them a smaller and smaller fraction of the overall cost of solar electricity, which also includes “soft” costs like permitting, wiring, installation and maintenance that have remained fixed over time. Improving cell efficiency from about 20 percent for silicon toward greater than 40 percent with multi-junction CPV is important because increasing the power generated by a given system reduces the overall cost of the electricity that it generates.

To enable CPV on rooftops, the researchers combined miniaturized, gallium arsenide photovoltaic cells, 3D-printed plastic lens arrays and a moveable focusing mechanism to reduce the size, weight and cost of the CPV system and create something similar to a traditional solar panel that can be placed on the south-facing side of a building’s roof. They report their results today (Feb. 5) in Nature Communications.

“We partnered with colleagues at the University of Illinois because they are experts at making small, very efficient multi-junction solar cells,” said Giebink. “These cells are less than 1 square millimeter, made in large, parallel batches and then an array of them is transferred onto a thin sheet of glass or plastic.”

To focus sunlight on the array of cells, the researchers embedded them between a pair of 3D-printed plastic lenslet arrays. Each lenslet in the top array acts like a small magnifying glass and is matched to a lenslet in the bottom array that functions like a concave mirror. With each tiny solar cell located in the focus of this duo, sunlight is intensified more than 200 times. Because the focal point moves with the sun over the course of a day, the middle solar cell sheet tracks by sliding laterally in between the lenslet array.

Previous attempts at such translation-based tracking have only worked for about two hours a day because the focal point moves out of the plane of the solar cells, leading to loss of light and a drop in efficiency. By sandwiching the cells between the lenslet arrays, the researchers solved this problem and enabled efficient solar focusing for a full eight hour day with only about 1 centimeter of total movement needed for tracking.

To lubricate the sliding cell array and also improve transmission through the lenslet sandwich they used an optical oil, which allows small motors using a minimal amount of force for the mechanical tracking.

“The vision is that such a microtracking CPV panel could be placed on a roof in the same space as a traditional solar panel and generate a lot more power,” said Giebink. “The simplicity of this solution is really what gives it practical value.”

Because the total panel thickness is only about a centimeter and 99 percent of it — everything except the solar cells and their wiring — consists of acrylic plastic or Plexiglas, this system has the potential to be inexpensive to produce. Giebink cautions, however, that CPV systems are not suitable for all locations.

“CPV only makes sense in areas with lots of direct sunlight, like the American Southwest,” he said. “In cloudy regions like the Pacific Northwest, CPV systems can’t concentrate the diffuse light and they lose their efficiency advantage.”

The researchers tested their prototype concentrator panel outside over the course of a day in State College, Penn. Even though the printed plastic lenses were not up to specification, they were able to demonstrate over 100 times solar concentration.

Others working on this project include Jared Price, graduate student, Penn State; Xing Sheng, postdoctoral fellow; John A Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign; and Bram M. Meulblok, technical representative, LUXeXcel Group B.V., The Netherlands.

The U.S. Department of Energy funded this research.