January 2019 Newsletter: Powering Our Future
“The global energy equation is one quite damaging to the atmosphere and environment. Carbon emissions are perhaps the largest problem to result from current energy systems. This category covers new technologies and innovations in energy production, storage, and delivery. It also includes technologies and initiatives focused on cleaning up current power systems.”
This is how we at Katerva set out the stall for our Energy & Power category.
The flow of electric currents is what underlies the functioning of everything. Be it the human body, plants - or the economy.
Bioelectronics - electricity on prescription next?
Scientists suggest stimulating the body's nervous system using electric currents might help with many things including arthritis and alcoholism. It has already proven successful with drug-resistant epilepsy patients and plans are under way to use electric currents to restore bladder control to patients with spinal injuries.
The Independent, 6th November 2018
In our search of energy to support our needs we seem to have come full circle: before the industrial age and the start of a dramatic increase in consumption of fossil fuels, humans have relied on what we consider renewable energy today: wind, water, geothermal energy.
While fossil fuels had been used to a very limited extent since 1,000 BC, it was the industrial revolution that made us humans realise the full potential of fossil fuels, and we have been relying on it heavily ever since. As you can see from the graph, what has taken millions of years to create, we’ll have finished off in the blink of evolution’s eye.
A quick history lesson
When we humans started off deliberately accessing energy to keep warm, process food, protect ourselves about 400,000 years ago, we used wood. It took us quite a while to figure out how to make use of another source for energy production: wind. Originally we used wind to propel ships - the oldest images of sailing boots are from 5,500BC and can be found on discs from ancient Mesopotamia. It was the Persians who around 500-900AD figured out how to use wind to power grain mills and water pumps; the Chinese got there around 1,200AD.
The first time water was used to generate power was in the Greek colony of Byzantium around 300BC where the horizontal-wheeled watermill was invented, followed by the vertical one about half a century later in Ptolemaic Alexandria.
Geothermal energy has been used by the Romans, Chinese, and Native Americans for cooking and later for heating their houses and baths for much longer than either.
Where to next
Realising not only the finality of fossil fuel - it is anticipated that we will run out in 50-100 years - but also the damage its consumption causes for the environment, the hunt for alternatives is on. The graph below from the World Economic Forum shows the anticipated shift over the next twenty odd years.
The graph also shows the extent to which renewable energy is already been used, it seems we have almost reached the point where the scales tip. According to a report published by the UN, the proportion of world electricity generated by wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-energy, geothermal, marine and small hydro rose from 11% in 2016 to 12.1% in 2017, an increase of 10%.
Looking at another graph from the World Economic Forum (see below), it is not only about replacing the sources for the energy we currently use, it is also about finding ways to generate more, much more. By the way, if you think that the digital economy means that we need less energy, think again: each individual bitcoin transaction uses almost 300KWh of electricity – enough to boil around 36,000 kettles full of water. In the 24 hours hours to 3pm UK time on the 19th January 2019, 272,428 bitcoin transactions were conducted…
While China is clearly the biggest consumer of electricity, it is also making a great effort to improve the proportion that comes from renewable energies. In 2017 alone China invested $126.6 billion - which is 45% of the total global investment in renewable energy. An interesting example how China aims to cure (rather than prevent) pollution, is a 100-metre-tall smog-sucking tower in the city of Xian. It sucks polluted air into the glasshouses that surround the tower where the is heated (by solar energy) so it rises through the tower, passing through multiple layers of cleaning filters.
What are they key sources for renewable energy
It seems that in the past we have predominantly relied on one of the four elements: fire. Now it is time to start drawing more on the other three: earth (geothermal energy), air (wind energy), and water (hydro energy). Below a little more on each, all examples are from our pool of nominees.
Solar power is probably the first that comes to mind when thinking about renewable energy. Not surprising, as the potential is huge: sun has the power to provide planet earth with 1,800 times the energy we currently need. Capturing the sun’s energy is relatively easy and there are two different types of solar panels: photovoltaic and thermal. The former capture the energy from the sun’s light and convert it into usable electricity whereas the latter use the sun’s energy to heat water which can then be used for direct use, or indirect, ie for heating. In 2016 solar capacity installed amounted to 227 GW globally.
Here some exciting developments:
- The Sungrow Huainan Solar Farm in Huainan, China, which can produce 40 megawatts, is the world's largest floating solar power plant . It produces enough power for about 15,000 homes for a year. Floating solar arrays have several advantages: they don't take up valuable space on land, and the water has a cooling effect, making the panels more efficient. The floating panels can also help to mitigate the evaporation of water for drinking or irrigation by intercepting sunlight before it hits a reservoir's surface. Supervision and monitoring happens via drones.
- Australia based CSIRO has developed new materials and processes to produce thin, flexible and semi-transparent solar cells based on printable ‘solar inks’. These inks are deposited onto flexible plastic films using a range of processes including, reverse gravure coating, slot-die coating and screen printing.
The winds that cross the earth can satisfy our energy needs 200 times over, and wind farms are springing up everywhere. China is leading the pack: in 2017 alone they installed 19.7 GW of capacity and this source of energy is expected to deliver as much as 20% of global electricity production by 2030. In 2016 wind power capacity installed amounted to 432 GW globally.
- As with other renewable resources, storage can be a problem - which is a challenge tackled by Nominee Temporal Power, collaborating with Hydro One Networks. Using a novel low loss flywheel generator combination their array has the capacity to absorb real power for up to six minutes, and release it back to the Hydro One distribution network for the same duration. It may not sound much but certainly helps with the spikes and troughs of the system.
- Another exciting development is VORTEX, a blade-less wind turbine. While the argument that wind turbines kill birds is true only under certain circumstances - generally only if the turbines are on breeding grounds or in migration paths - blade-less wind turbines are more versatile, take up less space, and avoid the problem altogether.
Hydro power, harnessed from the flow and movement of water is currently the biggest contributor to renewal energy. While the flow of rivers is most commonly associated with hydro power, it is the rise and fall of the tides that has much greater potential. The World Energy Council has estimated that if the planet’s wave power were harnessed, we could generate double the amount of electricity currently produced worldwide. In 2016 hydro power capacity installed amounted to 1,210 GW globally (even excluding marine power / tidal energy).
- Aqua Power Technologies' invention sits on the surface of the water and, unlike other wave power systems, works on a multi-axis basis; it can generate power no matter what direction the waves come from.
- CETO, based off the coast of Western Australia and named after the primordial sea goddess in Greek mythology, converts ocean wave energy into zero-emission electricity and desalinated water, using fully submerged buoys . From the first concept in 1999, the CETO 1 prototype started generating around 1 kW as well as freshwater. The latest generation, CETO 6, has a diameter of 20m and is expected to exceed the capacity of 1000kW.
- A different way to use water to address the energy challenge is a technology developed by Israeli-Australian startup Electriq~Global: fuel that is to 60% made up of water. Their technology extracts hydrogen from liquid fuel which is en used to create electricity to power.
Our planet contains a lot of heat - about 1.4 x 106 terawatt-years of heat energy flows to the Earth's surface every year, which equates to roughly three times the world's annual consumption of all types of energy. Countries that can easily access geothermal energy include Iceland and Indonesia where magma conduits and hot springs are easily accessible, able to drive turbines for electricity generation or provide natural heating. Geothermal capacity currently installed amounts to 83 GW globally.
- ENERTUN is a system developed by the Italy-based Politecnico di Torino that allows transforming a tunnel lining into a low enthalpy geothermal system (enthalpy is similar to energy, but not the same. When a substance grows or shrinks, energy is used up or released). It is integrated with pipes containing a fluid that exchanges the heat with the surrounding soil and can transport it to the surface.
While the generation of fossil fuels takes millions of years, biomass draws its raw material generally from agricultural products such as corn, or other organic waste products. Problems with biomass emerge when it starts to complete with food production for arable land.
- 2018 nominee Waffco for example has developed a cooking stove that is fired with the agricultural waste generated as well as domestic and packaging waste material.
- G4 Insights have come up with a way to generate biogas. Rather than using gasification of biomass which requires temperatures of over 7000C, they use pyrolysis which occurs at 3100C to 5400C.
The graph below illustrates the potential if renewable (and traditional) sources of energy.
As already mentioned, a key challenge for many sources of renewable energy is the storage of the energy generated. Here some exciting developments our researchers have spotted:
- H2GO Power, one of this year’s discoveries, has developed an approach to storing excess power from renewables in the form of solid state hydrogen.
- Solar Reserve, our 2018 Category Winner for the Energy & Power category, has developed some patented technology to capture and store solar energy in molten salt, providing power utilities and energy intensive entities with 24/7 reliable, non-intermittent renewable energy.
Heat loss is another challenge, particularly when it comes to the already power hungry IT industry - the power consumption of bitcoin transaction has already been mentioned. Scientists at Osaka university have developer an inexpensive material that significantly improves recovery of heat waste and feed it as usable energy back into the system.
Who is leading the way
If asked which countries relied 100% on renewables for their energy in 2016, would you have named the following: Albania, Congo, Iceland, Paraguay, Uruguay; Costa Rica (which in the source we used was still at just under 98% has moved up to 100% in 2018). And would you have guessed that the following are almost there (already above 95%): Namibia, Costa Rica, Tajikistan, Norway and Zambia?
A bit embarrassing to see that the UK (where I live) was at 28% - but still better than the US with just under 15%.
A recent study by Stanford University researchers predicted that the world could be powered entirely by renewable energy in just 20 to 40 years from now, so let's get on with it!
It is not a question of what is possible, but what we decide to do. As the author of the study points out, "But it (it = a transfer to renewable energy) is possible, without even having to go to new technologies," Jacobson said. "We really need to just decide collectively that this is the direction we want to head as a society."
What exciting sustainable disruptive innovations have crossed your path? Let us know!