“Googling” roof energy & efficient sponge metal memory

Thursday 13th July 2017
World rooftops power up

Internet users can assess solar potential of their roofs through a Google developed platform and the online “calculator”, only accessible in the US, has now reached Europe, inevitably starting in Germany. Meantime, researchers from UAB, in collaboration with the ICN2, develop a nanoporous material based on a copper and nickel alloy, with a structure similar to that of a sponge, pores measuring the size of a millionth of a millimetre, which allows handling and storing information using very little energy. Nanosponges could be the base of new magnetic memories for computers and mobile phones with greater energy efficiency than those currently existing.

Despite increasing talk about renewable energy, many people remain far removed from what’s going on. To tackle this, various projects have been developed over the years helping users to better understand and use green energy sources. Among these experiences is Google’s Sunroof platform that, with a few clicks, enables homeowners to calculate the solar potential of their roofs and the cost-benefit ratio of installing solar panels.

People can find out in a matter of seconds if their roof is an untapped economic and environmental resource. And internet giant Google has of course anticipated that internet users may want to “share” their discovery, which could trigger a viral word-of-mouth on social media and thus raise greater awareness about renewable energy. Since its inception in 2015, the platform had only been available in the USA where it covers some 60 million buildings. It now reaches Europe thanks to the  agreement  between Google and E.ON, the Düsseldor European energy company based in Germany.  Sunroof has started to provide information on 7 million German buildings  (where some 40% of the population lives) in the urban areas of Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt Rhine- Main and the Ruhr.

The platform exploits 3D technologies such as Google Earth, based on satellite imagery, and the web mapping service Maps. “All users need to do is enter their address online,” says Markus Nitschke from the E.ON Group, “The solar potential of the roof throughout the year is calculated according to weather data, the sun’s position across the seasons, and the surface and slope of the roof. Also any shadows projected by surrounding buildings or trees can be taken into account.”

Obtained data are used to estimate energy production, the investment required to install a PV system (taking incentives into account) and the savings on electricity bills. The platform can also advise on the characteristics that the system should have (e.g. how many panels needed, considering the roof surface etc.) and can provide a list of nearby developers that users can contact for more information.

Besides Google, other companies have tried to develop similar but smaller scale projects.  Italian Enerpoint offers free software for calculating the best system for a building. However, to use it you need to know and enter specific parameters such as roof orientation surface characteristics. “We launched a set of four photovoltaic simulators in 2011, generating thousands of requests for residential, agricultural, industrial and ‘stand alone systems’, not connected to the electricity grid,” says Valentina Leva, the company’s marketing manager.

David Martin from the R&D department of the Spanish company Onyxsolar hopes that a system like Google’s platform will be also available in his country, and elsewhere in Europe. It is a way to make citizens aware of the need to reduce domestic consumption and to discover the hidden, renewable energy potential of the buildings they live in.

“It would be a step forward and give momentum to the solar energy market,” he points out. The Spanish developer of PV solutions is cooperating with the European project R2Cities, whose aim is to study “smart” replicable solutions for renovation of buildings at district level, in order to dramatically cut energy consumption in cities. Its technologies are being tested in Valladolid (Spain), Genoa (Italy) and Kartal near Istanbul (Turkey).


Nanoporous metal sponge: efficient IT memory
Researchers from the UAB, in collaboration with the ICN2, have developed a nanoporous material based on a copper and nickel alloy, with a structure similar to that of a sponge with pores measuring the size of a millionth of a millimetre, which allows handling and storing information using very little energy. These nanosponges could be the base of new magnetic memories for computers and mobile phones with greater energy efficiency than those currently existing.

In order to store information in the conventional magnetic memories of electronic devices, the materials' small magnetic domains work by pointing up or down according to the magnetic fields. To generate these fields it is necessary to produce electric currents, but these currents heat up materials and a large amount of energy is spent cooling them. Practically 40% of the electrical energy going into computers (or “Big Data” servers) dissipates as heat.

In 2007, French scientists observed that when the magnetic materials are put into ultra-thin layers and voltage is applied, the amount of current and energy needed to point the magnetic domains was reduced by 4%. However, this slight reduction was not significant enough to be applied to devices.

A research team directed by Jordi Sort, ICREA researcher and lecturer of the Department of Physics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, with the collaboration of the Catalan Institute for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), has searched for a solution based on the magnetic properties of a new nanoporous material which could increase this surface. The new material, which is featured this week in the Advanced Functional Materials journal, consists in nanoporous copper and nickel alloy films, organised in a way that the interior forms surfaces and holes similar to that of the inside of a sponge, but with a separation between pores of only 5 or 10 nanometres. In other words, the walls of the pores contain enough room for only a few dozen atoms.

“There are many researchers applying nanoporous materials to improve physical-chemical processes, such as in the development of new sensors, but we studied what these materials could provide to electromagnetism”, Jordi Sort explains. “The nanopores found on the inside of nanoporous materials offer a great amount of surface. With this vast surface concentrated in a very small space we can apply the voltage of a battery and enormously reduce the energy needed to orientate the magnetic domains and record data. This represents a new paradigm in the energy saving of computers and in computing and handling magnetic data in general”, says Jordi Sort.

UAB researchers have built the first prototypes of nanoporous magnetic memories based on copper and nickel alloys (CuNi) and have reached very satisfactory results, with a reduction of 35% in magnetic coercivity, a magnitude related to the energy consumption needed to reorientate the magnetic domains and record data.

In these first prototypes, researchers applied the voltage using liquid electrolytes, but are now working on solid materials which could help implement the devices in the market. According to Jordi Sort, “Implementing this material into the memories of computers and mobile devices can offer many advantages, mainly in direct energy saving for computers and considerable increase in the autonomy of mobile devices”.

The development of new nanoelectronic devices with improved energy efficiency is one of the strategic lines included in the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme. According to some estimations, if electric current is completely substituted by voltage in data processing systems, energy costs can be reduced by a factor of 1/500. In fact, computer servers of large companies such as Google and Facebook are located underwater, or in Nordic countries in which temperatures are very low, with the aim of reducing heating and energy consumption.

Participating in the research, which corresponds to the first results obtained thanks to the ERC-Consolidator Grant received by Professor Jordi Sort for his project SPIN-PORICS (Merging nanoporous materials with energy-efficient spintronics), with a total funding of €1.8M, were: Alberto Quintana, Dr Jin Zhang, Dr Eloy Isarain-Chávez, Dr Enric Menéndez, Prof Maria Dolors Baró, Dr Miguel Guerrero and Dr Eva Pellicer from the UAB Department of Physics, who together with Prof Josep Nogués from the Catalan Institute for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (Severo Ochoa Excellence Center), developed the nanoporous material and conducted the magnetic measures. Other authors of the study are: Dr Ramón Cuadrado, Dr Roberto Robles and Prof Pablo Ordejón from the ICN2, who developed the theoretical calculations needed to understand what happens inside the material; Dr Bradley Nelson from ETH Zurich, with whom the work on the CuNi alloy began; and Professor C. M. Müller from the University of Barcelona, who provided the electrochemical measures of the laboratory material of the Department of Materials Science and Physical Chemistry.

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