Wild ideas take flight on cutting edge of clean tech

Oct 19, 2010 By Tiffany Hsu

Spray-on solar panels, power beaming down from outer space and gasoline-like fuel made from bacteria. Sound far-fetched? Maybe, but these and other futuristic concepts for producing power are being taken seriously in scientific, business and academic circles. Some have even raised millions in funding.

This is the dream era for green technology, when even concepts that sound wildly innovative or insane -- depending on who's describing them -- are getting attention.

"People who aren't afraid to take chances in completely uncharted waters sometimes succeed beyond their wildest dreams and turn the world on its head," said industrial designer and entrepreneur Richard Alan Hales.

Investment firm Khosla Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif., considers fringe ideas to be a virtue. The outfit, which lists former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a consultant, provides seed money to those with "a crazy idea that may have a significantly non-zero chance of working," according to its website.

Among the companies in which Khosla has invested is AltaRock Energy Inc, which has a geothermal plan to inject water into the Earth as far down as three miles, and then use the steam that rises up to produce energy.

"In the areas where there's very little risk, the upside is also a lot smaller," said David Mann, who holds the chief of staff title at Khosla.

Khosla, founded in 2004 by former Sun Microsystems Inc. Chief Executive Vinod Khosla, doesn't mind if 90 percent of its ventures fail, as long as 10 percent hit the jackpot, Mann said.

U.S. Energy Department Secretary Stephen Chu had just about the same ratio in mind when he announced last year that the agency was giving $151 million to clean-tech ventures -- including one that proposed bacteria be used to produce gasoline-like fuels -- in the form of 37 grants.

Chu said that only three of the projects had to work out for the funding program to be a success.

"We are trying to hit home runs, not base hits," Chu said.

Last month, Chu announced a $3 million grant for Makani Power Inc.'s project to develop its Airborne Wind Turbine, which looks like a giant wing. The unmanned device flies about 1,500 feet up, connected to the ground by a tether, to use wind currents to produce electricity.

"Technology like this could solve so many problems," said the Alameda, Calif., company's CEO, Corwin Hardham. "But people are naturally afraid of the unknown. So the only way to mitigate that is to prove the technology."

Some of the more edgy ideas in the alternative energy field come under the heading of solar power. Solaren Corp., a Manhattan Beach, Calif., company, plans to put solar collectors a lot higher up than the roofs of buildings. It hopes to launch the collectors 23,000 miles into space, from where they'll beam the power back to Earth.

That notion, which may sound like something out of a sci-fi comic book, got the attention of California utility giant PG&E Corp., which has signed a contract to buy power from Solaren.

San Francisco-based PG&E, which provides power to about 15 million people, has not invested money in the project, however. And Solaren needs a lot of money -- more than $2 billion -- to get the project literally off the ground.

Solaren CEO Gary Spirnak is optimistic. He said that if the project works out, "we'll be able to provide power at a cost that's comparable with anything on Earth."

Nanotechnology experts hoping to create solar panels that can be sprayed or painted onto surfaces are working with particles just a few billionths of a meter in size that can absorb and convert sunlight into electricity.

The so-called quantum dots are mixed into an ink that could potentially charge electronics, vehicles and buildings. That technology is being worked on at several academic institutions, including the University of Texas-Austin, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Toronto.

University of California-Santa Barbara professor Alan J. Heeger -- who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2000 -- is developing flexible plastic solar cells that could end up costing far less than rigid silicon-based panels.

And at the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., experts are trying to conjure liquid fuel from thin air by using technology -- and a $122 million federal grant -- to replicate the photosynthesis process used by plants to derive energy from sunlight.

More down to earth is a venture at New Energy Technologies Inc. in Maryland to develop a device that, when installed into roads, would collect kinetic energy from braking cars and convert it into power for street lights.

The gee-whiz ideas might be exciting, but investing private funds in them is another matter, cautioned Walter L. Schindler, managing partner with clean-tech venture capital firm Sail Venture Partners in Costa Mesa, Calif.

"There are an awful lot of deals in this marketplace that look good, but the fat lady hasn't sung yet," Schindler said.

Of the roughly thousand clean-tech pitches that the firm looks at each year, it only pulls the trigger on five at most.

"There are companies that have been funded out there that I have been surprised were funded," Schindler said. "We have trouble sometimes raising money from institutions who think the whole space is flaky because they see all these questionable deals being done."

Which is why some project heads are taking a non-bombastic tack when seeking funding.

Siblings Gia and Abe Schneider, founders of Natel Inc., are developing small, water-driven generators to generate power in slow-moving streams and manmade waterways such as canals.

"We're taking a very measured approach," Abe Schneider said from Natel's office, which is on the same former naval air base that houses Makani. "We haven't tried to oversell it as the most amazing thing since sliced bread."

The entire clean-tech market suffers when companies make green products that end up having little practical purpose, said Frederic Scheer, CEO of El Segundo, Calif.-based bioplastic maker Cereplast Inc. The public company creates compostable resins from starch that are used in utensils, containers and other products. Scheer plans to begin doing the same with an algae byproduct.

"When you're cutting-edge, you still need to make sure you have all the elements to make your product mainstream," Scheer said. "At the end of the day, we're a business, not a lab."

Others throw caution to the wind. Hales, 64, is developing his FreeWind concept that would strategically place turbines and generators at airports to use aircraft exhaust blasts to produce power. So far, however, he's not been able to get investors to chip in the tens of thousands of dollars needed for a prototype.

"Most people don't want to stick their neck out, and I understand that," Hales said. "They want hard numbers, something that already has legs."

But he's not about to apologize for coming up with the idea.

"You have to be a little crazy," he said. "And I guess I'm a little crazy."

Explore further: Idealistic Norwegian sun trappers

4.3 /5 (9 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Khosla Ventures raises 1 bln dlrs for green tech

Sep 02, 2009

Two new US venture capital funds have raised more that one billion dollars to help propel a green technology revolution, the company founded by influential investor Vinod Khosla said.

Space-Based Solar Power Coming to California in 2016

Apr 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- In the near future, a solar power satellite may be supplying electricity to 250,000 homes around Fresno County, California. Unlike ground-based solar arrays, satellites would be unaffected ...

European space company wants solar power plant in space

Jan 21, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- EADS Astrium, Europe's biggest space company, plans to put a solar power satellite in orbit to demonstrate the collection of solar power in space and its transmission via infrared laser to ...

Could solar wind power Earth?

Oct 04, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- As we strive to find sources of alternative energy, a number of researchers continue to look to what we consider the ultimate in renewable energy -- the sun. However, on earth creating efficient ...

Recommended for you

Idealistic Norwegian sun trappers

3 hours ago

The typical Norwegian owner of a solar heating system is a resourceful man in his mid-fifties. He is technically skilled, interested in energy systems, and wants to save money and protect the environment.

Peugeot hybrid compressed-air car set for Paris Motor Show

23 hours ago

An 860-kilogram concept city car from Peugeot indicates impressive fuel economy. This latest concept "has its sights set on meeting the French government's goal of putting an affordable 2.0l/100km (141mpg) car into production by 2020," said Jordan Bis ...

User comments : 18

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Caliban
2.7 / 5 (3) Oct 19, 2010
Yes, and this model also guarantees that any green technology that is successfully developed will remain a captive of the private sector, to be exploited for profit, at the expense of the end user, under the "charge whatever the traffic will bear" system of freemarket capitalism.

It's a fine way of ensuring that only those who can afford the cost can enjoy the benefit, and that all profits are diverted to private pockets, and the public at large picks up the tab for the "external costs".

Brilliant!

apex01
5 / 5 (3) Oct 19, 2010
Wow, i'm all for investing in alternative energy tech but some of these crack-ideas are way out there...place wind turbines behind aircraft exhaust blasts? Devices that collect kinetic energy from braking cars and convert it into street light power? Tethered UAVs that collect wind power? It seems to me like the profit/risk ratio for these kinds of uninspiring ventures would be marginally net positive at the very best. Why not invest in far more promising and efficient technologies like solar thermal, maglev wind turbines, and algae bio-fuels??? If there were IPOs for the latter three, i'd buy into them.
marjon
5 / 5 (2) Oct 19, 2010
""In the areas where there's very little risk, the upside is also a lot smaller," said David Mann, who holds the chief of staff title at Khosla."
Duh!
captive of the private sector,

Let's hope so. If you turn it over to the govt, it will cost 10 times more and be 100 times more inefficient. Just like the post office and Amtrak.
Quantum_Conundrum
3.5 / 5 (4) Oct 19, 2010
If you turn it over to the govt, it will cost 10 times more and be 100 times more inefficient. Just like the post office and Amtrak.


Why is it people think the government couldn't possibly do anything right?

Roads, bridges ring a bell, maybe?

Energy infrastructure isn't really all that different.

This whole, "I hate everything about the government," thing has got to stop. It's BS.

At least I got to vote for president and congress, and governor, etc. I got no say so in who makes decisions on Wall St, or at the top of any corporation.
apex01
2.8 / 5 (4) Oct 19, 2010
Quantom_Conundrum

"I got no say so in who makes decisions on Wall St, or at the top of any corporation." Then pay to be a rightful shareholder.

Roads, bridges? Yeah sure but they most likely get payed by the hour and not by the job, and what incentive is that to be productive with somebody else's money? The bigger government is, the more power it has to corrupt. It's very understandable to be at least skeptical of the government because all the alleged naysayers need to argue with is STIMULUS BILL and all of it's earmarks. And last time i checked, we still have approximately 10% unemployment.

This whole, "I hate everything about the government," thing deserves a little more attention.
marjon
2.8 / 5 (4) Oct 19, 2010
Roads, bridges ring a bell, maybe?

Why do you think the govt does these right?
There is a great example of how a private company rebuilt a Los Angeles freeway bridge that collapsed in a major earthquake. The company accomplished the job under budget and on time, or sooner. I think it was a major bridge on an I-10 interchange.
I got no say so in who makes decisions on Wall St, or at the top of any corporation.
You get to vote once every 4 years for a president, but you can vote many times a day to patronize a company, buy or sell their stock, etc.
marjon
3 / 5 (4) Oct 19, 2010
"Less than three months after the Northridge earthquake knocked down two sections of the world's busiest thoroughfare, Gov. Pete Wilson announced Tuesday that the Santa Monica Freeway will reopen next week, ending frustrating delays and bottlenecks for thousands of commuters.
Spurred by the promise of an extra $200,000 a day for every day work was completed ahead of schedule, the contractor, C. C. Myers Inc., will finish the project 74 days before a June 24 deadline and rack up a $14.5-million bonus for the company.

The high-speed construction was made possible by crews working around the clock, seven days a week, and by state officials cutting through red tape."
http://articles.l...-freeway
Too bad all govt projects are not managed this way. Profit is a great incentive.
Caliban
1.3 / 5 (3) Oct 19, 2010
The high-speed construction was made possible by crews working around the clock, seven days a week, and by state officials cutting through red tape."


Why then, Marge, did the contractor not bid the job to be completed that early, based on a calculation of round the clock effort in the first place, then?

The answer is simple- the contractor would have taken as long as possible, in the hopes that changes would be made to the construction plan and engineering specifications of the job, so that the contractor could up charge for the changes, while at the same time paying the minimum for labor and benefits for those employed to get the work done.

Essentially, this contractor was bribed to get the job done ahead of schedule -pure and simple. Why should the Government -or anyone, for that matter- have to pay a premium to get the job done properly and on time?
Caliban
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 19, 2010
Quantom_Conundrum

"I got no say so in who makes decisions on Wall St, or at the top of any corporation." Then pay to be a rightful shareholder.


Then you better have the cash to buy a very large chunk of the preferred shares/voting shares of the firm, and, just for good measure, get a seat on the firm's Board, otherwise, your vote(S) will probably be as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane in terms of imposing your will upon the corporate decisionmaking process.

I've read some astonishingly un-(if not dis-)insightful things here on physorg, but that admonition was particularly uninformed.
Caliban
4 / 5 (4) Oct 19, 2010
Let's hope so. If you turn it over to the govt, it will cost 10 times more and be 100 times more inefficient. Just like the post office and Amtrak.

And for the Trifecta: Mangy- can UPS, FedEx, or any other for-profit, privately held corporation deliver my letter (or first-class small parcel for a small upcharge) across the entire country in 3-5 days for under 50 cents?

Of Course Not!!! And why is that? Because there is NO PROFIT IN IT.

eurekalogic
5 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2010
after reading these comments I am both elated and depressed. I am probably like most informed in some areas and ignorant in others. Lets just agree that we all need to move forward with something. The barbarians are at our gates and we still squabble.
LivaN
not rated yet Oct 20, 2010

Why then, Marge, did the contractor not bid the job to be completed that early, based on a calculation of round the clock effort in the first place, then?


Because adding $14.5-million to your bill for a two and a half months reduced construction time is a losing bid in every other sinario.

Not only that, but when you rush a job, you are more error prone. To avoid that requires more money (since time is not an option). You also need more workers, most of which you will be paying overtime.

I would sumise that of those bidding, the quickest estemated construction time was chosen, after which the incentive was added.
marjon
1 / 5 (3) Oct 20, 2010
Of Course Not!!! And why is that? Because there is NO PROFIT IN IT.

NO, IT IS AGAINST THE LAW!
USPS contracts with FED EX and UPS to ship first class mail. Why would they do that?
Then you better have the cash to buy a very large chunk of the preferred shares/voting shares of the firm,

So how does one vote every 4 years for an elector for president compare? Sounds rather meager to me.
If I don't like a company, I can actively NOT buy their products, every day and I can actively campaign to encourage others to do the same.
How much influence do you think you have with Obaama if you voted for him?
marjon
1 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2010
Why should the Government -or anyone, for that matter- have to pay a premium to get the job done properly and on time?

I am not surprised you don't understand the power incentivization.
But, since the govt does not have the capability of rebuilding the bridge, it must hire people to do so. The govt was losing tax revenue every day the bridge out of service. It was in the best interest of the govt to get the job done in a timely fashion and incentives, like bonuses for finishing early are a great incentive, obviously.
Caliban
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 22, 2010
Of Course Not!!! And why is that? Because there is NO PROFIT IN IT.

NO, IT IS AGAINST THE LAW!
USPS contracts with FED EX and UPS to ship first class mail. Why would they do that?


No, MORON, it is not against the law, the law stipulates that in order to be the carrier of the US Mail, the Universal Service Obligation must be met. Ups, FedEx, et al have exactly ZERO INTEREST in being the universal carrier, because they understand that this is not a structure that lends itself to the advancement of the profit motive. In order to make a profit, a for profit company would price itself out of ability to satisfy the USO.

USPS contracts the Airfreight services of any carrier, public or private, that can compete, pricewise -not just UPS/FedEx, et al. Why is that, the moron rhetorically enquires? Why, to get the mail moved large distances, inexpensively, and to avoid the additional costs associated with owning and operating a fleet of Jet Aircraft, dipshit.
marjon
1 / 5 (2) Oct 23, 2010
"Making the Tough Choices to Preserve Universal
Mail Service.” The report advocated a “first-do-no-harm” approach, stating that “a postal monopoly will
likely be necessary for many years” and that:
First and foremost the nation’s commitment to affordable universal postal service must be upheld.
From the office buildings of Manhattan to the bush country of Alaska, the near daily appearance
of the Postal Service at virtually every U.S. home and business remains essential to American
commerce and society.83"
http://www.usps.c...tory.pdf

It IS against the law.
marjon
1 / 5 (2) Oct 23, 2010
"Making the Tough Choices to Preserve Universal
Mail Service.” The report advocated a “first-do-no-harm” approach, stating that “a postal monopoly will
likely be necessary for many years” and that:
First and foremost the nation’s commitment to affordable universal postal service must be upheld.
From the office buildings of Manhattan to the bush country of Alaska, the near daily appearance
of the Postal Service at virtually every U.S. home and business remains essential to American
commerce and society.83"
http://www.usps.c...tory.pdf

It IS against the law.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 23, 2010
after reading these comments I am both elated and depressed. I am probably like most informed in some areas and ignorant in others. Lets just agree that we all need to move forward with something. The barbarians are at our gates and we still squabble.

We are the barbarians at the gates. That's why these conversations are important, however, I as well as many others have become too polarized in our discussions. Realistically we all need to take a breather and speak, rather than talk, on the topics.

It IS against the law.

No, using Blackwater to conduct a war or interrogation is against the law. Having a mail carrier use UPS or FedEx is called a contract.