Three Bright New Ideas in Biofuels, Solar and Wind Power

Last Updated Jan 21, 2010 4:12 PM EST

The cleantech industry is a constant source of new ideas, for generating energy and for saving it. Many (or most) of these ideas never go anywhere, though. I try to pick out the ones that seem most likely to succeed; the easiest way to do so is look out for new venture capital fundings and pilot projects.

January is proving an especially fertile month, at least for announcements. The three latest companies that look interesting are split across three sectors: FloDesign Wind makes a new type of wind turbine, Joule Biotechnologies is a biofuel startup, and Solar Fusion Power, as you will have guessed, generates solar power with an unusual design.

I've split the three up below to give more detail on each; if that's not enough, the links in each section have even more.

FloDesign Wind
FloDesign hasn't been in hiding; the company previously won a technology competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its alternate wind turbine design, which departs from the traditional "prop" design of a wind turbine with something that looks a lot more like a jet engine.

The short explanation of how it works is that air going through the turbine's rotor and over its cowl joins to cause a "pulling" effect on the air behind it, spinning the blades more quickly than they would otherwise move. The resulting design is a bit odd-looking, as you can see at right, but the basic idea is well proven. Pop over to Youtube to watch FloDesign's video on their technology.

But there are quite a few variations on the prop design, most of which turn out to be less practical based on factors like the amount of material or wind speed required for their use. How to pick through the pile? Unless you're an expert in gas flow dynamics, it's difficult to make objective measurements.

That's a long-winded way of saying that FloDesign should get some attention, because some folks with fairly good judgment are busy throwing money its way. FloDesign won a $8.3 million grant from the the Department of Energy's ARPA-E program, and more recently, announced a $34.5 million investment from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture firm with a sterling reputation.

Joule Biotechnologies This one won't sound too odd at first. Joule plans on putting a microorganism in a pool with nutrients, focusing sunlight on it, and harvesting the resulting oil to use as fuel. Not much different from a greenhouse or plant solarium, right?

It is odd, though, in part because the microorganism isn't one provided by nature; Joule says it's a designer product. The sunlight it's receiving is also more than the usual dosage, having been concentrated by the enclosing panels in each modular unit. Want more fuel? Just add more units.

Algal biofuel producers haven't had much luck with enclosed systems; they tend to be too expensive. But if Joule can up the output of the system by concentrating sunlight, it might prove efficient enough to survive. It's planning to build a pilot plant in Texas that will start operating within a few months.

Solar Fusion Power It has nothing to do with actual fusion, but at least the name is catchy. Solar Fusion Power is a variation, several steps removed, on the now-familiar concept of solar thermal energy, which focuses sunlight with mirrors onto enclosed water, which boils and drives a generator.

One of the advantages of solar thermal, beyond its low cost per watt of energy produced, is the simplicity of most systems. That could be the point on which Solar Fusion falls short. The company's design centers around a "flower" with mirrored petals. The petals bounce sunlight up onto a central lens. This is not small, delicate machine, by the way; a single unit would cover 50 square meters.

After this double-bounce, the sunlight enters an enclosed chamber full of (extremely hot) liquid calcium. The light raises the temperature enough that the calcium can fuse with a stream of hydrogen, which produces energy. Later, the calcium will let go of the hydrogen molecule, producing more energy and allowing the reaction to be repeated. The result: 50 percent of the initial sunlight's energy is captured, more than just about any solar system can use.

Still, to my ear, this all sounds a bit too convoluted to work well, or cheaply. But an Australian company called EMC Solar has invested, and the company plans to run a pilot project in Perth, so it's worth keeping an eye on.