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Driving toward a cleaner energy future

At the MIT Energy Conference this year, entrepreneurs and researchers showed off developments in everything from transportation to home energy efficiency.

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Martin LaMonica
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Warwick's clean racer

BOSTON--The MIT Energy Conference, now in its fifth year, is the place to show off energy inventions and discuss how to tackle big-picture energy challenges.

Among those presenting over the weekend was the University of Warwick in the U.K., which showed off this WorldFirst Racing car which runs on biodiesel from waste oils. The body itself is built from light-weight carbon composite materials but other portions of the car are made from renewable materials, including hemp, flax, carrots, and other agricultural products. Although it is a demonstration machine, the car is no slouch on the track either, able to hit 147 miles per hour.

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Heliostats in the desert

The Masdar Institute, based in Abu Dhabi, is doing research on a concentrating solar power generation system that it hopes will use less water and be more efficient than existing designs. In this research project, a field of heliostats, or mirrors that track the sun, reflect light onto a tower to heat air (most existing designs heat water or another liquid). That hot pressurized air will be run through a turbine to make electricity. Hot air will also be used for energy storage by heating water and then running steam through a Rankine steam engine to make power at night, researchers say.

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Fast juicing electric cars

This Porsche 914 has been converted to run entirely on batteries as part of a research project at MIT, giving it an equivalent mileage of about 160 miles per gallon. Now, mechanical engineers have started working on a second project, using a Mercury Milan donated by Ford, to build fast-charging stations for electric vehicles. The goal is to design a high-voltage charging station that can charge a car's batteries in 10 minutes.

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Sun Point tracker

SunPoint is a recently formed company seeking to make a rooftop solar tracking system designed to boost the output of solar photovoltaic panels. Engineers are working on a thermomechanical tracking system which is powered by the heat from the sun, using differences in metal temperatures in the tracker (seen under the panel). The company plans to design the system for commercial rooftop solar systems, according to a representative.

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FloDesign Wind Turbine

FloDesign Wind Turbines is a Massachusetts-area company which is designing a wind turbine using principles of jet engines. The company has gathered a lot of attention, including venture capital funding and an ARPA-E research award. The company is now testing a prototype and trying to develop a plan to commercialize its product.

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EnergyHub's in-home display

Another young company seeking to commercialize its products is New York-based EnergyHub, which has developed an in-home display and energy monitor. Working with utilities, the company is now testing its system, which can control home heating and cooling with wireless thermostats.

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Lightweight and fuel efficient

Edison2 is a company that is trying to design a very efficient car by building a light-weight body with minimal drag. Electric cars may improve mileage over gasoline, but batteries are heavy and they use precious materials, says the company which is competing for the 100 mile-per-gallon Automotive Xprize. Seen here is a rear axle design and aerodynamic body design.

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Sorghum in your gas tank?

Another route to decreasing reliance on oil is biofuels. Agrivida, which is based in Massachusetts, is a biotechnology company trying to develop "energy crops" specifically for making fuels. Its goal is to engineer a plant that containa an enzyme that will aid in the process of breaking down cellulose into sugar. Pictured here is sorghum, one of the grassy plants such as switchgrass, being tinkered with to make fuels.

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Cables for a super grid

Another company still early in product development is Electric Pipeline, which is developing conductors for high-voltage direct current transmission lines, one of the technologies proposed for carrying solar and wind power over long distances. Company engineers are working on solid aluminum conductors for use in underground cables which would lose less energy than existing lines during transmission.

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Infrared camera

One of the tools used by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute is an infrared camera. The institute has established a joint research facility with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue solar and building efficiency technology development. The infrared cameras are used to locate spots in buildings where heat leaks and to find faults on solar panels, according to a representative.

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Salt storage

One of the most promising methods for storage of solar power at large scale is molten salt, which can allow a solar power plant to produce electricity into the evening. Pictured here are some of the salts that MIT researchers are looking at for storage.

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