GreenFuel is in talks with a number of commercial power plants in the United States and hopes to begin construction on its first large-scale facility by 2008. But power plants are just the beginning; the technology can be deployed at any facility with a large carbon dioxide output--manufacturing plants, wastewater treatment facilities, and more.
After launching dozens of companies, including NetZero, Citysearch, and WeddingChannel.com, Bill Gross, founder of the technology incubator Idealab, is turning his attention to solar energy. And as usual, he's approaching the problem differently than most of his peers.
Most solar systems use large, flat panels to capture the sun's energy, often using mirrors to concentrate that power. Energy Innovations, which is based in Pasadena, California, and backed by the VC firm Mohr Davidow, is focused on getting more juice out of less surface area. Its crucial design difference: more cheap mirrors, fewer pricey photovoltaic cells. The company's Sunflower 250 system uses a circle of 25 mirrors, each guided by a microprocessor directing two motors, to track the course of the sun as it moves through the day. The light is bounced directly at a thin, wedge-shaped solar panel suspended above the mirrors. The system remains under development, but when completed, it's expected to cost just two-thirds the price of a standard solar-energy system of the same size.
Imagine submerging 200 windmill turbines in New York's East River. The turbines would generate enough electricity to run 8,000 households through the power of the natural currents and tides. That's the grand plan for New York-based Verdant Power, and the company recently began installing two turbines as a test.
Verdant is using New York as a proving ground, but its bold longer-term goal is to fuel the rapidly expanding economies of countries like China, India, and Brazil. "The technologies have been there, but what's been missing is making them commercially viable," says Trey Taylor, a former marketing executive who co-founded Verdant in 2000. Verdant recently raised funds from Tudor Investment Corp. And the prospect of a new source of clean, renewable energy between Queens and Manhattan has inspired the State of New York to chip in some 30 percent of the cost of the project, along with engineering talent. The 30-employee company is also planning a project in the St. Lawrence River in Ontario, Canada.
It's easy to get behind the idea of solar power, but solar panels themselves have been far from lovable. They're large, rigid, and expensive, and have to be mounted on rooftops or other exposed surfaces. But Nanosolar is making solar technology that anyone can love. Using nanotechnology, the company has created a kind of photovoltaic ink that can convert sunlight into electricity. The ink is coated onto sheets of foil with a printing-press-like device, a manufacturing process that costs a tenth of that of conventional solar cells. The company calls its cells PowerSheets.
Founded in 2002 by Martin Roscheisen, a 37-year-old serial entrepreneur who sold his last company, eGroups, to Yahoo for $450 million, Nanosolar has raised about $100 million from some powerful investors, including Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, and Jeff Skoll, founding president of eBay, as well as top-tier venture capital firms like Benchmark Capital and Mohr Davidow. The company is using that cash to build one of the largest solar cell factories in the world near its headquarters in Palo Alto, California. When completed, the factory will produce a million solar panels a year.
What if you could take a lump of coal and transform it, via a nonpolluting process, into clean-burning pipeline-grade natural gas? That's what GreatPoint Energy is attempting at its test facility in Des Plaines, Illinois, and it has attracted a lot of believers, including some leading VC firms, among them Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
Converting coal into gas is not novel. But until now, the process has led to the creation of another dirty fuel called Syngas. GreatPoint's technology, on the other hand, converts coal directly into natural gas, and Andrew Perlman, the firm's CEO, believes the company will be able to produce the gas at roughly half the current market price. The impact could be huge, because coal isn't going away anytime soon. "If you want to do something in the next hundred years to deal with global warming and air emissions and mercury pollution and acid rain, you have to clean up coal," Perlman says. "You can't just wish it away."
Randell Mills is thinking big by thinking small. Really small. The founder and CEO of BlackLight Power, in Cranbury, New Jersey, is rethinking the hydrogen atom--and if he's right, he just might solve all of the world's energy problems.
This is heady, obscure stuff, and more than a little controversial. According to conventional physics, whenever an electron moves closer to a nucleus, energy is released. But the single electron in a hydrogen atom, physicists have long agreed, cannot get any closer to its nucleus. Mills argues that this is not the case. When you heat hydrogen into a plasma, and add a catalyst like potassium or argon gas, he says, you create a chemical reaction that forces the electron sphere to shrink, giving off up to 1,000 times more energy than conventional combustion. That means you could create a highly efficient energy source from mere water.
Most physicists are highly skeptical. But some chemists and engineers are intrigued. And so are some major financial players-- including Neil Moskowitz, CFO of Credit Suisse, and Michael Jordan, chairman of Electronic Data Systems--who have invested nearly $50 million in BlackLight. The payoff could be a ways off. Mills has been working on this for 15 years and estimates that it will be at least another two years before anything hits the market. It's about as big a long shot as there is. But if Mills is right, the upside is limitless.
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