IRA FLATOW, host:
It's the Talk of the Nation's Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. A little bit later, your thoughts on the biggest science issues facing President-elect Obama. But first, one of the top science issues to the next president is without doubt, clean energy and sustainability. And a new open access online journal published by the American Institute of Physics covers it all from wind turbines to tidal power, hydrogen technology to geothermal heat pumps. The first issue of the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy came out this week. One of the papers in the debut issue describes that tiny solar array smaller than a fingernail. Wow. That's made from carbon-based polymers and these aren't your father's solar cells - you know, you don't put these on your house or your car. They're actually serving as a power supply for tiny micro censors like nanoscale devices used to detect more dangerous chemicals, so to speak.
Joining me now to talk more about the new energy journal and the miniature solar technology is my guest Craig Taylor. He's one of the editors of the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy. He's also a professor of Physics at Colorado School of Mines and Associate Director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado. He joins us from Golden. Welcome to Science Friday.
Professor CRAIG TAYLOR (Editor, Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy): Thank you very much.
FLATOW: It's interesting that - I imagine there'll going to be a lot of sort of new kinds of alternative energy devices showing up.
Prof. TAYLOR: We certainly hope so. We're looking forward to publishing a lot of papers like the one you just mentioned.
FLATOW: Where can we find your paper online now?
Prof. TAYLOR: If you go to jrse - jrse.ait.org.
FLATOW: Give us an idea of the range and the kinds of stuff you're going to be covering in the journal.
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, as you mentioned in your introduction, we're covering bio energy, bio-reactions and bio-engineering. We're covering geothermal energy, marine energy - that is waves and things like that and hydroelectric power from dams. We're actually covering nuclear energy which is not strictly renewable but certainly can be sustainable for a very long time. Solar energy you mentioned, solar cells and solar thermal devices, energy from wind - wind turbines, the conversion of energy by using, for example, fuel cells to produce hydrogen.
Energy efficiency is really important so energy-efficient buildings we will cover. We cover storage that's incredibly important for those forms of energy that vary with time like solar energy and wind energy. They may cover power distribution. And resource assessment is also important. Where does the sun shine the best and so on. And the transportation - that is clean ways of improving transportation. So a very, very wide range of topics.
FLATOW: Our number 1-800-989-8255. The phones are wide open. We're also frittering, you can get us at scifritter if you want to Twitter with us. You can go write the @ sign followed by scifritter and we can come a fritter for you and we can tweet, as they say. Do you know what's that about, Craig?
Prof. TAYLOR: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: It's a new way of communicating. People telling each other about stuff that is going on and it's the hottest rage, supposedly taking over blogging these days.
Prof. TAYLOR: Wow. Well, I guess it shows you how old I am.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: You better get it to your new journal. I mean, is this a journal that lay people can read or is it aimed at science - real science geeks?
Prof. TAYLOR: It's definitely aimed at real scientists and engineers. But we hope to publish some review articles that might be understandable reasonably well by the general public.
FLATOW: And this is a good for this type of journalism now isn't it?
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, we hope so. We're certainly counting on it. The difficulty with anything to do with renewable energy is that the - all of the problems are so interdisciplinary that you need to cover a wide range of topics in order to make progress.
FLATOW: And how many entries - are they coming in or you're just starting out, you don't have a whole lot to choose from?
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, right as of now, we have over 50 in the pipeline. There only a couple up on the public website right now. But they'll be coming up very quickly in the future.
FLATOW: Let's talk about one of those and that is those miniature organic solar cells in the first issue. What - tell us what they are and how small they are? On your web page, you say that they're size of a circle. The O in the paper.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. TAYLOR: That's right. Well, this is a very interesting application, affordable to access (ph) that I frankly would have never thought of. It's, as you said, the use of solar cells to power very small micro-mechanical devices - and probably the most used devices, this type is the accelerometer that's in your car to drive the air bags. So it senses very rapid deceleration. And that's a micro electro-mechanical machine. But of course, it's run off the electrical power of your car. And this would be a way of actually powering such devices in maybe a hostile environment where you're looking for chemicals in a smokestack or something like that.
FLATOW: So go ahead. Describe the cell to us.
Prof. TAYLOR: OK. Well. It's a cell that uses organics so it uses polymers mixed with a very small atom - group of atoms of carbon known as carbon-60. It's sometimes called a...
FLATOW: A buckyball.
Prof. TAYLOR: Buckyball, that's right because it has the Buckminsterfullerene geodesic dome structure.
FLATOW: So you have the polymers mixed in with buckyballs.
Prof. TAYLOR: Right. And then you can - the light gets absorbed in this material, and it generates electrons and also generates absence of electrons which is holes. And then these are collected at the opposite electrodes and create and create a current.
FLATOW: And how much current and how much voltage, wattage?
Prof. TAYLOR: The current is very, very minimal. A few micro amps is all that's necessary because these devices are very, very small. The difficulty - and I thought it was very interesting that these people were able to make some progress on it, the difficulty is in voltage. These devices typically need a very large voltage so order of 10 volts for example. So - and of course, most of electronic devices work in lower voltages.
FLATOW: Just like four batteries.
Prof. TAYLOR: Yes, that's right. But you don't need much current so this initial device, I think, produced around eight volts. And the way they do that is they string the cells in series to increase the voltage.
FLATOW: And so this might be used - I understand that the Department of Defense is invested heavily in this project and see it as - there's a lot of sunlight over there where we have the military. And why not take advantage of it?
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, that's right, and they're interested in larger areas, but they're interested in flexible substances so you can wear it on your clothes and things of that sort.
FLATOW: So you can go out in the field and powering, you know, I guess will be the uniform of tomorrow or actually of today because we know batteries are great premium over where we were five...
Prof. TAYLOR: That's right, and they're not very environmentally friendly, either. Most of them.
FLATOW: And how close is something like this to actually being made and to reality or was just sort of an idea?
Prof. TAYLOR: I would have to say it's quite a few years away from any useful production there. The reason is that they produce the cell that is about two square centimeters. So maybe a thumbnail or two. They hope to produce cells as small as a hundredth of a millimeter.
Prof. TAYLOR: So, they - that they have a long way to go when it comes to the area.
FLATOW: So you're thinking that journal then will become like an incubator for ideas like this.
Prof. TAYLOR: That's what we hope. And we also hope that people who need to know something about solar cells, but they are experts in - for example fluctuating power or inverters or something very different while wind turbines can give - go to our journal and read the - what they need to know from other fields.
FLATOW: And you decided to make it open access.
Prof. TAYLOR: That's correct. At least for the first year. In fact we are hoping to keep it open access forever. That depends on whether or not we can get enough under writers on our site, people who care about renewable energy, companies that care about renewable energy.
FLATOW: And that means if that I like an idea that I see there, I cannot take a patent out on it or call it my own intellectual property.
Prof. TAYLOR: That's correct.
FLATOW: And anybody can - you go into this if you have published in your magazine knowing that this is going to be freely available for other people to use.
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, that's right. But of course, you can patent an idea from any open-access journal if you file patent ahead of time.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. And how many subscribe - do you have to subscribe to this or do you...
Prof. TAYLOR: No, we don't have a subscription base, and we hope not to have to have a subscription base, so you can go to this website and look at the articles. Go to the website and submit a paper.
FLATOW: Mm hmm. And who referees this paper?
Prof. TAYLOR: Well, that's been a tough a task for us because it's such an interdisciplinary journal that we're working very, very hard at getting a referee base. In fact if there are any listeners out there who'd like to help us, we'd love to put them on our list.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. TAYLOR: These would be scientists who were our peers in the particular field.
FLATOW: Well, you know, it looks there - it reminds me about place, you know, in the old days - they used to have the water cooler or the coffee pot where people of different interests and disciplines could come together in schmooze and trade ideas, and where they might not have come before and actually - somebody else might come away with hey I heard Joe say something - you know, and that gives me an idea how to work on something.
Prof. TAYLOR: That's right. That's right. It's kind of an electronic coffee room.
FLATOW: Because everybody is sitting by their desks these days and no one's - you know, we used to have people get up and leave and do stuff, but now everybody is at their desk, so they're on a virtual water cooler.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. TAYLOR: Right.
FLATOW: Which is the internet.
Prof. TAYLOR: That's right. That's right. And it is a new venture even for the American Institute of Physics. So I think we are only the third entirely online journal that they've established, but we're really hoping that it will work.
FLATOW: And how often will - if the publications come out during the week, a month or...
Prof. TAYLOR: For the first year, it will come out every two months. We are really focusing on quality. The American Institute of Physics is a world-class publisher and the quality is just very, very important for all of their journals.
FLATOW: Mm hmm.
Prof. TAYLOR: So, we'll start small every two months, and we hope after the first year to have an issue come out every month.
FLATOW: And so we - you're inviting people to come to your website and have a read.
Prof. TAYLOR: Absolutely. Send us a paper.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: OK. And you've got us going with the paper already. Thank you, Craig.
Prof. TAYLOR: You're welcome.
FLATOW: Craig Taylor is one of the editors of the new Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy and of course he must have a daytime job. He's also professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines and Associate Director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado. We're going to take a break. Switch gears. When we come back we're going to talk about, oh, a new kind of, you know, MIT kids? These whiz kids are MITs they - they always have kinds of new projects. We have new project going on up there. A new Jamboree that you maybe interested in that has to do with all kinds of genetic engineering sort of things. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.