Five New Government-Backed Energy Projects that Stand Out

Sixty-six new energy research projects were announced on Wednesday. Here are some interesting ones.

By Kevin Bullis on November 28, 2012

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E)—one of the few government agencies with solid, bipartisan support in Congress—announced 66 new research projects on Wednesday that will collectively receive $130 million. Here are five projects from the list that stand out.

Liquid fuel from natural gas

The most striking difference between this set of ARPA-E research awards and previous ones is the explosion of natural-gas-related projects, something no doubt prompted by the surge of natural gas production in the United States.

Several projects to receive funding propose to develop technology to inexpensively convert natural gas into chemicals and fuels that are liquid at room temperature. This is something researchers have been trying to do for decades, in part because a cheap way to use natural gas in conventional engines would greatly decrease oil imports. Among these projects is a nearly $4 million award to Pratt & Whitney to develop an approach that would partially oxidize natural gas at high temperatures and pressures in a gas turbine, creating compounds that could more easily be converted to liquid fuel. One of the benefits of the process, the company says, is that the turbine could, at the same time, be used to generate electricity.

A possible solution to the rare-earth crisis

Rare-earth materials are vital to the manufacture of wind turbines, hybrid cars, and consumer electronics due to their powerful magnetic properties. But they are also expensive and come almost entirely from China, which sometimes restricts exports.

Electron Energy, based in Landisville, Pennsylvania, is getting $3 million to develop a new manufacturing process that could greatly reduce the amount of rare-earth materials needed for the magnets. The idea is to seed cheaper materials with tiny particles of rare-earth materials, using the magnetic field from these particles to change the magnetic properties of the surrounding material.

“The magic sauce is knowing how to get the right material with the right atomic structure to propagate the magnetic field,” says Eric Toone, ARPA-E’s director.

Electron Energy is also focused on keeping down the cost of manufacturing the new materials. “It has to be cheap,” adds U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu. “We can hand-tailor this material, building it atom by atom, but that’s not cheap.”

Cheaper superconductors

In a similar project, Grid Logic of Lapeer, Michigan, is receiving nearly $4 million to create cheaper superconductors by using superconducting particles to improve the superconducting properties of other less expensive materials. This could make it more practical to transport power over long distances, helping to enable renewable power like wind.

Wind turbines made of cloth

The bigger the wind turbine, the more efficient it can be. But the size of wind turbines is limited by the challenge of delivering extremely long wind turbine blades, which have to be maneuvered through towns and under power lines to reach a turbine.

GE Water and Power is getting nearly $4 million to develop a new kind of wind turbine blade made of cloth stretched over a frame. The blades could be shipped in pieces and assembled on site, making larger wind turbines more practical.

Halving natural gas use at power plants

If you could burn natural gas in pure oxygen, at extremely high temperatures, you could greatly improve the efficiency of power plants, cutting fuel consumption in half while keeping pollution under control. But the high temperatures could melt the materials usually used in gas turbines.

Pratt & Whitney is receiving $600,000 to apply its experience with liquid-fueled rocket engines to develop a cooling system that could make such turbines practical. It’s one of the smallest awards from ARPA-E, but the impact of cutting fuel consumption in half would, of course, be huge.

U.S. lays out plan for achieving worldwide AIDS-free generation

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON | Thu Nov 29, 2012 2:16pm EST

(Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday unveiled a game plan for achieving a global “AIDS-free generation,” committing the United States to rapidly scaling up medical interventions that are beating back what once was seen as an unconquerable disease.

Clinton, announcing the next stage of the decade-long U.S. fight against AIDS around the world, said advances in drug treatment and prevention strategies had brought the end of the epidemic within reach.

“HIV may well be with us into the future but the diseases that it causes need not be,” Clinton declared, saying it was possible to foresee a time when the number of people receiving treatment worldwide outpaces the number of new infections.

“That will be the tipping point. We will then get ahead of the epidemic, and an AIDS-free generation will be in sight,” she said.

The U.S. PEPFAR program, launched by former President George W. Bush in 2003, has been a catalyst for advancing HIV treatment, particularly in Africa. It now supports some 5.1 million people worldwide who are receiving anti-retroviral drugs.

The U.N. AIDS program said this month that ending the pandemic was now “entirely feasible” as it released an annual report showing that both deaths from AIDS and new infections with the HIV virus that causes it were falling.

Worldwide some 34 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2011, the UNAIDS report said. Deaths from AIDS fell to 1.7 million in 2011, down from a peak of 2.3 million in 2005 and from 1.8 million in 2010.

The number of people newly infected with HIV, which can be transmitted via blood and by semen during sex, is also falling. At 2.5 million, the number of new infections in 2011 was 20 percent lower than in 2001.

Despite the good news, not everyone is optimistic that the end of the epidemic is around the corner.

The ONE foundation, a charity founded by Irish rock star Bono, said this week that budget cuts in major donor countries were slowing efforts to reduce new infections and that a goal set last year by global leaders of turning the corner on AIDS by 2015 was now unlikely to be reached until 2022.


The new PEPFAR blueprint aims to accelerate the fight by scaling up both drug treatment and new strategies for combating the spread of AIDS including voluntary male circumcision, microbicide gels and interventions to stop pregnant women from passing the virus on to their unborn children.

“We can reach a point where virtually no children are born with the virus, and as these children become teenagers and adults they are at far lower risk of acquiring HIV than they are today,” Clinton said.

Clinton has lobbied hard to save U.S. overseas development spending in an era of increasingly tight budgets, and has stressed that Washington will not step back from the AIDS fight despite potential cuts to other programs.

The Obama administration has asked Congress for $6.4 billion for PEPFAR and other AIDS programs in 2013, down from $7.2 billion in 2012. Officials say economies of scale and savings from the purchase of generic drugs are making programs more efficient.

The U.S. government spent roughly $46 billion on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria programs from 2003-2010.

U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby said the new PEPFAR plan could likely lead to increased spending on anti-retroviral drugs as more people start the treatment earlier.

But he emphasized that the United States would not be paying for this alone, and said that U.S. efforts now would be to rally support from other donors as well as the recipient countries themselves.

“This administration has put a huge amount of political capital on this issue from day one. We remain committed. And we realize that we’re the major motor on the planet,” he said in an interview.

The new PEPFAR plan includes a greater emphasis on marginalized populations most at risk for HIV, including injecting drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men, as well as turning over more responsibility for management and oversight to recipient countries.

Reaction to the new PEPFAR plan was broadly positive, although some advocates said the onus was now on Congress to fully fund the campaign.

“What we’ve needed for a while is an action plan that had caught up to the science of today. The blueprint takes us a step toward that,” said Chris Collins, director of public policy at the Foundation for AIDS Research.

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Xavier Briand)

Scientists make wheat genetic code breakthrough

LONDON | Wed Nov 28, 2012 1:20pm EST

(Reuters) – Scientists from Britain, Germany and the United States have unlocked key components of the genetic code for wheat, helping to create varieties that are more productive and better able to cope with disease, drought and other crop stresses.

The identification of around 96,000 wheat genes, and insights into the links between them, comes just two years after UK researchers published the raw data of the wheat genome.

“Since 1980, the rate of increase in wheat yields has declined,” said one of the project leaders, Keith Edwards of the University of Bristol.

“Analysis of the wheat genome sequence data provides a new and very powerful foundation for breeding future generations of wheat more quickly and more precisely, to help address this problem,” he added.

The research was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“Bread wheat is a complex hybrid, composed of the complete genomes of three closely related grasses. This makes it very complex and large; in total it is almost five times bigger than the human genome,” said another of the project’s leaders, Klaus Mayer of Helmholtz-Zentrum Munchen.

“Because of this, we took a novel approach to analyzing the data and we have been successful in turning it into an accessible and useful resource that will accelerate breeding and the discovery of varieties with improved performance – for example better disease resistance and stress tolerance.”

Jan Dvorak of the University of California, Davis led the U.S. contribution to the project.

The study was welcomed by other scientists.

“As we struggle to confront the increasing challenges of population increase, land degradation and climate change that are contributing to food insecurity, it will be vital to understand the underlying genetics of staple crops like wheat,” said Denis Murphy of the University of Glamorgan.

“The newly published wheat genome will be a vital resource for researchers and crop breeders across the world in their efforts to maintain global food supplies.”

(Reporting by Nigel Hunt; Editing by Alison Birrane)

Infosys to shift U.S. listing to NYSE Euronext

By Harichandan Arakali

BANGALORE | Fri Nov 30, 2012 9:27am EST

(Reuters) – IT services firm Infosys Ltd, the first Indian company to list on Nasdaq, will shift its American Depositary Shares to the NYSE Euronext in a move it said is intended to increase access to the stock for European investors.

Infosys, India’s second-largest software services provider, is also seeking listing of its ADS on the Paris and London boards of NYSE Euronext. The moves will not affect its float or capital structure, the company said on Friday.

The company, which has been listed on the Nasdaq OMX Group Inc board since 1999, is the third most widely held Indian stock. It will trade under the “INFY” symbol on NYSE Euronext starting December 12.

Infosys Chief Executive S.D. Shibulal said the shift to the NYSE Euronext and its London and Paris bourse will also “broaden the trading window available” for foreign investors.

Infosys and larger rival Tata Consultancy Services Ltd want to boost their business in Europe, as more European companies look to outsource IT services to cut costs.

Europe accounted for nearly 22 percent of Infosys sales in the quarter ended in September, while North America brought in 64 percent of its revenue.

(Reporting By Harichandan Arakali; Editing by Tony Munroe and Hans-Juergen Peters)

House votes to expand visas for high-tech foreign workers

WASHINGTON | Fri Nov 30, 2012 1:36pm EST

(Reuters) – A bill to create a permanent visa program for foreigners with advanced science and technical degrees cleared the House of Representatives on Friday, the latest salvo in the broader fight over U.S. immigration reform.

The Republican-backed measure would reserve 55,000 permanent residence visas for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with master’s and doctoral degrees in the “STEM” disciplines of science, technology,engineering and math.

Many Democrats including President Barack Obama oppose the bill because it would eliminate an existing program, often called the green card lottery, which provides visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

The bill passed 245-139 in the Republican-controlled House, largely along party lines. But Democrats control the Senate, and a similar bill there has little chance of passing this year.

Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who introduced the “STEM Jobs Act,” said the high-tech visa program would help the United States retain U.S.-trained workers to spur innovation and job creation.

“In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors,” Smith said.

Democrats argued that the bill unfairly pits lower-skilled immigrants against those with more education and qualifications in the battle for visas.

“Talk about picking winners and losers,” said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“There was no special line for PhD’s and master’s degree holders at Ellis Island. There was no asterisk on the Statue of Liberty that said your IQ must be this high to enter.”

Democrats, emboldened by strong support from Hispanics and other minorities in the November 6 election, are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh and Richard Cowan; Editing by Xavier Briand)

Building Start-Ups via Stars’ Ties to Fans

Published: November 25, 2012

You might have heard Jessica Alba on daytime TV talking about her new e-commerce company, which sells diapers and other baby supplies, or seen Kim Kardashian pitching her online shoe store in the tabloids.

The man behind the companies, Brian Lee, is far from a household name. Yet in the world of tech start-ups, he is an emerging force.

Mr. Lee, a lawyer turned entrepreneur, has a simple formula: partner with a celebrity that fans associate with a certain product, whether stilettos or baby supplies. He first did it in 1999, when he cold-called Robert Shapiro, O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, and persuaded him to join him at his first start-up, LegalZoom, for creating your own legal documents.

Hiring a famous face to represent your brand is the oldest marketing trick in the book. But Mr. Lee is doing it with an Internet twist. He uses celebrities’ social media connections with fans, coupled with recent innovations in e-commerce, to sell things in ways that were not possible just a few years ago.

The Honest Company, Ms. Alba’s start-up selling eco-friendly baby supplies, has raised $27 million from investors, including Lightspeed Venture Partners. ShoeDazzle, Ms. Kardashian’s shoe company, has raised $66 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed and others. But despite this investment, it has recently struggled, replacing its chief executive, laying off employees and raising bigger questions about the new breed of subscription e-commerce companies.

E-commerce is going through a shift, as retailers move beyond publishing print catalogs online to creating new business models for the Web. According to the National Venture Capital Association, venture capitalists invested $2.2 billion in e-commerce start-ups last year, almost three times as much as the year before and more than they have invested since the first Internet boom, which created and eBay.

Mr. Lee’s companies tap the latest e-commerce trends, including selling monthly subscriptions, using software algorithms to determine personal style suggestions and eliminating middlemen by designing products in-house and selling them directly to consumers.

“Given the choice between shopping at a boutique or warehouse, if the styles were right, which would my wife choose?” Mr. Lee said, describing the strategy behind ShoeDazzle and Honest. “A large group of women would choose that kind of curated boutique.”

At Honest, customers sign up for monthly deliveries of diapers festooned with anchors or hearts as well as items like shampoo and detergent, each formulated in-house to reduce chemicals. Ms. Alba conceived the idea, along with Christopher Gavigan, former chief of the nonprofit Healthy Child Healthy World, and turned to Mr. Lee for a business model.

When ShoeDazzle was founded in 2009, it was the first of a flurry of subscription e-commerce start-ups. The shoes, generally $39.95, are suggested based on the results of a style quiz the customer takes. They are designed by ShoeDazzle and manufactured at the same factories that big shoe brands use.

But ShoeDazzle has been struggling with that model, and analysts say that could foreshadow problems for its many imitators, which, in addition to Honest, include Birchbox for cosmeticsWittlebee for children’s clothingJustFab for shoes and handbags, and BeachMint, which has sites for jewelry, T-shirts, skin care, shoes, home décor and lingerie. Earlier this month, Walmart joined the trend, introducing a monthly subscription box of food called The Goodies Company.

“Subscriptions were the hot trend in the last year, but I think some of that energy has really flattened,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst at Forrester.

While subscriptions have worked well at companies like and for necessities like toilet paper and diapers, shoppers might find it harder to justify a recurring credit-card charge for colorful suede booties.

ShoeDazzle switched to a nonsubscription model this year, so shoppers log on whenever they are in the mood to shop instead of receiving monthly boxes. In September, the company replaced its chief executive, Bill Strauss, with Mr. Lee. He laid off 20 of its 220 employees and cut expenses like corporate apartments. Both Honest and ShoeDazzle are capital-intensive because they design, store and ship their own inventory.

“We lost our way,” said Jeremy Liew, managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners. “But there’s real value in this company and customers love the product.”

Mr. Lee said ShoeDazzle would approach $100 million in revenue this year and become profitable next year. Honest is not yet a year old, but its founders say it has proved popular with shoppers. Mr. Lee is the right person for the job, Mr. Liew said, because he has a Hollywood sensibility that Bay Area executives lack.

“He’s a middle-aged, slightly out-of-shape Korean guy who got Jessica Alba and Kim Kardashian to start companies with him,” Mr. Liew said. “That is like sheer force of will and personality. This guy has become the person that Hollywood goes to when they want to talk about starting companies.”

Many Silicon Valley veterans write off celebrities flocking to tech as a sign of a bubble. But Mr. Lee has a keen understanding of how to take advantage of their fame in social media, Mr. Liew said.

His celebrity co-founders are not just pretty faces. Instead, they use Facebook and other sites to make direct sales, and it works because their fans think they have some authority in the items they are selling.

“It’s not a picture of Tiger Woods wearing a Rolex in a magazine,” Mr. Liew said. “This is Kim saying, ‘These are great shoes, you’ll love them, you can get them for $39 a month, try it now.’ It’s directly driving a response, not just an abstract brand halo.”

Ms. Alba said her work on Honest was nearly a full-time job (in addition to gun training for “Sin City 2”). “Being the face of something and not having control and input on the manufacturing process is not something I’m interested in,” she said.

The most successful Bay Area companies have also relied on celebrity, if not as obviously, Mr. Lee said. Twitter’s popularity soared after Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher competed to get the most followers, and Lady Gaga’s 53.6 million Facebook likes bring people to that site. It is a rare Silicon Valley party that does not include Mr. Kutcher or M C Hammer.

Mr. Lee has become an expert at bridging the worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Ms. Alba said she tried for three years to find backing for her company before he agreed to join her and accompanied her to pitch venture capitalists.

“I was just turned down by so many people because it wasn’t sexy,” she said. “I think when you walk in with Brian Lee, you’re pretty much golden.”

Economist Proposes a $30 Billion Megafund for New Cancer Drugs

A hedge fund manager aims to solve the funding problems facing early-stage biomedical research.

By Jessica Leber on November 19, 2012

Hedge fund manager and prominent economist Andrew Lo is recognized for developing theories about how markets function and why they failed during the financial crisis. Now Lo, who is also the director of the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Laboratory for Financial Engineering, thinks he can also help create a better market for investing in promising treatments for cancer.

His proposal is to structure a new kind of financial tool, a “megafund,” for funneling up to $30 billion into the discovery of cancer drugs. The project would be unprecedented in scale at a time when the biomedical sector is searching for fresh funding ideas. As Lo says, the community is “ripe for something new.”

In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology earlier this fall, Lo and his coauthors note that large pharmaceutical companies are no longer nurturing early-stage drug development. Venture capitalists, too, are deserting life science startups, which averaged them negative 1 percent returns over the last decade. The result is a growing funding gap between basic lab research and commercial drug development. And fewer drugs are surviving the costly gauntlet of clinical trials to eventually reach FDA approval.

Lo’s proposal would expand the pool of capital available for life science investment by bringing together investors who would not normally fund research at top biomedical universities in exchange for a small percentage of all royalties from successful drugs or licensing revenues that result.

About five drug royalty investment companies already exist, Lo says, but they only invest in drugs that are already approved. His plan would do this at an earlier and riskier stage, and spread the risk using techniques found elsewhere in finance—and familiar from the mortgage crisis—securitizing future revenues, in this case from drug compound licenses, into debts called “research-backed obligations.”

Boosting funding this way could have a big payoff, Lo says. The sheer size of the megafund would reduce risk by diversifying investments across many more projects, and therefore could provide investors stronger guarantees of returns than any smaller fund. Just one blockbuster drug, the paper notes, can net $2 billion in income a year over a decade.

Lo’s computer models, based on historical data, indicate a $5 to $15 billion megafund would yield 9 to 12 percent returns for equity investors, and 5 to 8 percent returns for “research-backed obligation” holders—rates that could be attractive to pension funds, for example. Careful and realistic planning could avoid the “pitfalls” that sank the mortgage companies during the financial crisis, the Nature paper says.

So far, all of this is just words on paper and code in a software model (which Lo has released for others to tinker with).

Melissa Stevens, deputy executive director of Faster Cures, a nonprofit think tank, sees promise in the idea, but says there would also be lots of details to get right—cataloging the assets that exist, and deciding how to choose them, and assessing the levels of risk and time until reward. Hammering out workable agreements between researchers and investors would be a challenge, but not “insurmountable,” she says.

Nor will the concept solve all of the problems involved with life science investing. More money won’t fix, for example, the scientific and regulatory slowdowns that contribute to decreased productivity of each research dollar. “The question is not only how we can attract more capital into R&D, but how we can decrease the amount of capital that we need,” Stevens says. (Lo imagines a megafund could actually help this too, providing shared resources like basic legal support or lab resources among portfolio projects.)

The megafund idea is a relatively radical example of a growing number of new drug research funding models being tried in the face of the industry’s recent challenges.

Meanwhile, to attract more funding, “hybrid” funds are emerging that bring in nontraditional venture capital investors, like governments and philanthropies, willing to absorb more risk or wait longer for a reward, says Stevens.

Lo is organizing a conference for next year to bring together investors, researchers, executives, and the National Cancer Institute to hammer out more details. He thinks it should all be an easier sell in the post-financial crisis, post-bailout world: “We spent billions on General Motors, which sells cars people don’t want to buy. So $30 billion for cancer research should not be a big deal. These numbers don’t look that big to me now.”

Exploding Engine Could Reduce Fuel Consumption

The military and GE have made strides toward a practical detonation engine.

By Kevin Bullis on November 23, 2012

A new kind of engine under development, called a detonation engine, could save the military hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel costs every year. The technology, which military researchers are working on together with scientists at GE and other companies, could reduce fuel consumption at power plants, in ships, and on airplanes by as much as 25 percent. The Navy alone estimates that retrofitting its ships with the technology would reduce annual fuel costs by $300 to $400 million.

It could be over a decade before such engines are put to practical use. But DARPA, having finished detailed plans, is now in the middle of a $62 million program aimed at building the first full-scale demonstration of one version of the technology. (GE is involved in the project: see “GE’s Risky Research.”) Meanwhile, Navy researchers are using sophisticated simulations to advance a version of the concept that could make it far more practical.

Detonation engines would replace jet engines in airplanes and the gas turbines that run power plants and Navy ships. A set of rotating blades at the front of those engines compresses air, which is then mixed with fuel and combusted in a steady flame. That produces hot gases that do the work an engine is designed to do, whether it’s turning a propeller, propelling a jet, or spinning a generator to produce electricity.

Improving the efficiency of conventional jet engines has involved finding ways to increase air compression. But the cost and complexity of that approach is making it harder to realize improvements. Detonation engines offer another way to achieve high pressures. In a detonation engine, fuel combustion generates a shock wave that raises pressures to levels 10 times those inside a conventional engine. “It’s like an explosion or a bomb,” says Kazhikathra Kailasanath, a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. “If you burn something in an open flame, the pressure stays the same as the surrounding pressure. The big difference with a detonation engine is going from that to a confined type of combustion, where the pressure goes up and the combustion occurs more rapidly.”

The most highly developed form of detonation engine, which has been in the works for many years, is the pulse detonation engine, the type GE is developing. Whereas combustion occurs continuously in a conventional jet engine, pulse detonation involves setting off a series of detonations—say, 60 to 100 per minute.

The Naval Research Laboratory has another idea. It involves the use of a specially designed doughnut-like combustion chamber. One explosion is set off with a spark in one part of the chamber. As the shock wave propagates out from that explosion, the researchers keep it going by feeding in a precise mixture of fuel and air ahead of it. A handful of research groups have tested small versions of the engine that burn hydrogen. And the Navy researchers recently published a paper that shows the idea can work with hydrocarbon fuels like the ones that would be used in a ship, at least in detailed computer simulations. An advantage of this approach is that it produces a constant stream of hot gases, which more closely resembles what’s seen in a conventional jet engine. It’s also simpler, in that there’s no need to engineer a system to create detonations at a high rate.

Kailasanath says that while people had dreamed of making detonation engines for decades, it’s only the advent of advanced computer simulations that is making it possible to understand the fast reactions involved. Many challenges still remain, especiallly building engines that are strong enough to withstand the detonations. That’s easier to do for stationary application like power plants, where the weight of the engine isn’t much of an issue. But detonation engines for airplanes might require new materials. They also require careful engineering, says Narendra Joshi, advanced technology leader for propulsion technologies at GE. “The detonation is like a hammer blow,” he says. “You have to be careful where that hammer blow goes.”

New start-up hubs challenging Silicon Valley: study

By Tarmo Virki

Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:41am EST

(Reuters) – Silicon Valley remains the world’s most attractive spot for technology start-ups with other locations around the world catching up, according to a report published on Tuesday.

Silicon Valley-based start-ups raise, on average, a third more capital than those in other areas, the report, conducted by research firm Startup Genome and funded by Spanish group Telefonica, said.

Silicon Valley continued to lead in metrics including the amount of serial entrepreneurs, revenue models, and the level of education among business founders. Tel Aviv was ranked second, followed by Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Boston.

“Some years ago it was only Silicon Valley. Now there are also other innovation hubs and this trend is only going to strengthen,” said Gonzalo Martin-Villa, chief executive of Wayra – a Telefonica unit that nurses start-ups.

“Flourishing communities in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia have grown considerably over recent years and are now beginning to challenge Silicon Valley’s domination in technology innovation,” the report said.

Phil Liblin, chief executive of Silicon Valley-based writing app maker Evernote, said in a recent interview: “Silicon Valley does have a lot of magic in it. It is still the only place you can get $20 million without owning a suit, but you do not need 20 million any more.”

The proliferation of Apple and Google app stores, Facebook and Twitter have enabled starting a global company with just $50,000 or $100,000, he said.

“I think the main structural advantages are disappearing. Silicon Valley’s greatest innovation in the last couple years have made itself less unique.”

(Reporting By Tarmo Virki; Editing by Dan Lalor)

All-Carbon Solar Cells Will Mean Cheap and Flexible Solar Panels

Flexible photovoltaics made of carbon promise low cost and durability, if their performance can be improved.

By Katherine Bourzac on November 15, 2012

Using a grab bag of novel nanomaterials, researchers at Stanford University have built the first all-carbon solar cells. Their carbon photovoltaics don’t produce much electricity, but as the technology is perfected, all-carbon cells could be inexpensive, printable, flexible, and tough enough to withstand extreme environments and weather.

The goal is not to replace solar cells made from silicon and other inorganic materials, says Zhenan Bao, professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University, who led the work. Rather, it is to fill new niches. “Carbon is one of the most abundant elements on earth, and it is versatile,” Bao says.

Carbon is remarkably tough—atom-thick graphene and long, thin carbon nanotubes are two of the strongest materials ever tested. So carbon photovoltaics might be sprayed on the sides of buildings, or rolled up and taken into the desert. Various forms of carbon can be printed to make thin, flexible, transparent, and even stretchable electronics.

Thanks to its versatility, carbon in one form or another was used to make each solar-cell component. The three main parts—a nanotube cathode and a graphene anode sandwiching an active layer made of nanotubes and buckyballs—were all made by printing or evaporating from inks.

Making the cathode work was the trickiest part, says Bao—researchers have had a hard time making carbon nanomaterials that collect electrons. The Stanford researchers solved the problem by picking the right flavor of nanotubes and giving them a chemical treatment. This work is described in the journal ACS Nano.

The all-carbon photovoltaics convert less than 1 percent of the energy in light into electricity (by comparison, a silicon solar cell converts around 20 percent of light into electricity). However, Bao says that her group worked mostly with off-the-shelf materials, with just a bit of tuning. She attributes part of the problem to the roughness of the carbon films, which trips up traveling charges, and says it should be possible to smooth them out by working on the processing methods.

Carbon nanomaterials “are still relatively new materials,” says Bao. “There’s a lot of research on how to control their properties and how to use them.”

IBM Yorktown researcher and 2011 MIT Technology Review young innovatorFengnian Xia, who is not involved in the work, agrees, saying that the solar cells need better-quality starting materials and processes. “The idea is great, and this is a good first demonstration, but it’s not ready for realistic applications,” he says.

Other groups are focused on making better carbon materials for the active layers of photovoltaics. According to theoretical calculations by Jeffrey Grossman at MIT, carbon solar cells should be able to reach 13 percent conversion efficiency.

For carbon solar cells to be commercially viable, says Shenqiang Ren, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Kansas, their efficiency must cross 10 percent. Ren’s lab set the conversion-efficiency record for carbon solar cells (equipped with conventional metal electrodes) at 1.3 percent this September, in work that appeared in ACS Nano. That’s about how well the first polymer solar cells performed, he notes.

Ren is working with computational materials scientists, including Grossman, to design better carbon photovoltaics by picking the right kinds of carbon nanomaterials. With this guidance, Ren says, his lab has already made carbon solar cells that convert 5 percent of light energy into electricity, and he expects to go higher still.