When thinking about how to tackle the current climate crisis, there are few questions as crucial as how we generate our energy. As the world attempts to transition towards Net Carbon Zero, scientists are working on a number of innovative technologies to find new ways of generating the power we need to live our lives in the modern world, as Howard Kerr writes.
When I worked in the energy industry 20-30 years ago there were four primary energy sources – oil & gas, nuclear, hydroelectricity and geothermal, plus wood and dung in developing economies. Today, our energy menu is supplemented by more widely accessible renewable technologies such as wind, solar, tidal and biomass. By 2020, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that nearly 28% of global electricity production came from renewables; however, transport continues to mainly use fossil fuels. In 2020 the EU reported that only 8% of energy for transport in Europe came from renewable sources. Why the shift to renewables and their differential uptake in varying sectors?
The transformation of our energy diet to more sustainable renewable sources is driven by the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource which will run out one day. Also, that their emissions place an unsustainable burden on our planet’s environment and society, as a significant contributor to climate change and reduced air quality. If the world is to achieve the goal of Net Carbon Zero by 2050 academics, businesses, governments and citizens have to act fast. Whilst economics and politics are important factors, it is technology which can facilitate a step-change in the way we produce, store, transport and consume energy.
Using the fundamental principles and science of physics, chemistry and biology, with a healthy overlay of maths and materials sciences, innovative solutions are being developed to avert our looming energy crisis. Here are some examples of current innovations being worked on:
Airborne Wind Turbines
Suspended 1000 ft above the earth from helium shells, these turbines can access stronger and more consistent winds than land-based turbines, with a potential to relocate turbines to areas of high windflow and potentially reduce electricity costs by 65%.
Lithium Sulphur Batteries
These batteries use very light active materials which makes their theoretical energy density extraordinarily high – four times greater than that of today’s more common Lithium-ion batteries. High potential for aviation, for example, where weight is critical.
Microalgae can grow ten times faster than land plants and do not require such intensive use of water, energy and fertilisers. Often referred to as “green sludge” it has already been able to make high-protein food from this source, and is potentially also a rich source of biofuel.
There is a lively debate now about the merits and demerits of “Blue” hydrogen (from fossil fuels, incorporating carbon capture), and “Green” hydrogen (converted from water using low-energy sources). Hydrogen gas or liquid does though need to be stored at high pressures or very low temperatures, meaning that it is currently more suitable for larger vehicles rather than cars, or commercial rather than domestic heating. It offers the possibility of emissions-free energy.
As an alternative to the nuclear fission used in power stations over the past 65 plus years, fusion offers a clean energy based on virtually limitless fuel available, primarily hydrogen. Easier to control or stop than fission, it produces little or no nuclear waste and the core remains radioactive for only 100 years, resulting in potentially very low energy costs and greater safety. International collaboration is underway between countries such as the UK, France, USA, Russia and Japan to develop a proven technology that is scalable. All of these technologies, and many more that are currently being explored, have the potential to fundamentally change the way we create and use energy for our daily needs. No single solution will solve our energy dilemma. What is required is imagination and robust science to translate these possibilities into practical, real-world solutions. Scientists working together with engineers, governments, businesses and energy-users have the ability to create the sustainable and affordable energy footprint that will serve all peoples of the world for future generations.
Howard Kerr is Executive Director & Chief Executive of BSI, and read Geography at St John’ s College as an undergraduate
Can you imagine the adoption of an existing technology or development of a yet-to-be-developed technology, which can replace the use of fossil fuels and still provide the energy we need?
What might the opportunities and challenges be to developing this into a practical solution to be used in our daily lives? Rather than simply producing and using more and more energy, what solutions might there be to actually reduce our overall energy consumption yet still allow the quality of life people expect?
Growth of renewable energy (Earth.org)
Top technologies transforming energy in 2021 (Forbes)
David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet (Netflix)
Al Gore: An Inconvenient Truth
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