Innovation is the key to the future and central to the expansion of renewable sources of energy. There are a number of innovations that could radically transform the clean energy equation. Although renewable energy is growing exponentially around the world these sources of power have a number of shortcoming that make it difficult to scale-up so that they can replace dirty energy sources like fossil fuels. However, those who doubt that renewable energy will be able to replace fossil fuels lack imagination. We need to get outside the box to envision a future powered entirely by clean energy.
Renewable sources of power are our only hope for the future as we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels. Professor Lesley Hughes explains, “In order to achieve that goal of stabilizing the climate at two degrees or less, we simply have to leave about 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground, We cannot afford to burn them and still have a stable and safe climate.”
Here are a number of examples of recent innovations in renewable energy. While these examples only scratch the surface of creative approaches to clean energy, they give us an idea of some of the ways in which we may be able to provide for all of our power needs while minimizing our impact on the planet.
These innovations are broken down into the following five areas: Wind, solar, nano-technologies, small scale renewables, and hydrogen.
Concrete spheres: Offshore wind holds tremendous promise, however the intermittent and unpredictable presence of wind imposes limits on this technology. Researchers at MIT have developed a way of storing wind energy to be used when there is no wind. This concept employs huge concrete spheres which anchor wind turbines to the sea floor. When a wind turbine produces more energy than is needed, power is diverted to drive a pump attached to the underwater structure, pumping seawater out of a 30-meter-diameter hollow sphere. Then when there is no wind the water would flow back into the sphere through a turbine attached to a generator, producing energy. Initial tests suggest that this is a viable cost effective technology.
Bladeless turbines: Conventional wind turbines are a large and growing source of energy but the turning blades have led to concerns about noise pollution and impacts on bird and bat populations. People have also complained that such wind turbines are an eyesore. The new concept developed by Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science faculty at Delft, converts wind to energy without any moving parts by using the movement of electrically charged water droplets to generate power.
Paper-printed solar cells: A printing process has been developed that harnesses the power of the sun. These simple solar cells can even be folded and unfolded. The robust new technology was developed by a team of researchers at MIT. The vapor-deposition process is inexpensive and scalable for commercial applications. It uses significantly less energy intensive materials (i.e. glass).
Optical battery: A dramatic and surprising magnetic effect of light discovered by University of Michigan researchers could lead to solar power without traditional semiconductor-based solar cells. The so called "optical battery," has overturned a century-old tenet of physics. The researchers found that a light field can generate magnetic effects that are 100 million times stronger than previously expected. Under these circumstances, the magnetic effects develop strength equivalent to a strong electric effect. This could lead to a new kind of solar cell without semiconductors and without absorption to produce charge separation. This new technique could make solar power much cheaper. Researchers predict that with improved materials they could convert solar power to useable energy equivalent to today's commercial-grade solar cells.
Space Based Panels: Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and its partner Solaren are trying to get approval from US regulators to purchase 200 megawatts worth of solar energy delivered from solar panels located in space. Unlike the 2007 Pentagon study which concluded that space based solar panels are not economical, Solaren claims it has developed a technology that would make it commercially viable in the coming years.
Ceria Panels: Researchers are looking into the rare earth metal ceria, (also known as cerium oxide) to be incorporated into solar panels. What makes this metal so interesting is its ability to alternatively exhale and inhale oxygen as it heats up or cools down.
High efficiency thin-film: Scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have managed to increase the efficiency of thin-film solar cells. They are employing computer simulations to probe deeper into the indium/gallium combination to increase the efficiency of Copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cells.
Thermo-chemical panels: MIT researchers are investigating ways of capturing and releasing solar energy with the help of thermo-chemical technology. Although initially investigated in the seventies, it was found to be too expensive. MIT researchers are working to make this thermo-chemical technology more cost effective.
Carbon nanotubes: The researchers of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that carbon nanotubes discharge powerful waves of electricity under certain circumstances. The MIT team calls it thermopower waves.
Nano-photosynthesis: Nanoscience is working on duplicating the process known as photosynthesis where plants convert sunlight into chemical energy. A team of the University of Florida chemists is trying a new mechanism to transform light straight into motion.
Virus-built battery: Angela Belcher and her team of bioengineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a virus-built battery.
Superconducting nano-scale wires: Scientists from Bar-Ilan University, Israel, supported by U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) at Brookhaven National Laboratory are producing superconducting nano-scale wires to facilitate faster and more powerful electronic devices.
Window mounted solar panels: Designers, Kyuho Song & Boa Oh have developed a small window mounted solar panel. Its called the Window Socket and it pulls solar power to an internal battery, which can be either used immediately or saved for use during night time or when there is no sun. After 8 hours of charging, the socket provides the user with 10 hours of electricity.
Portable Wind Power: There are several “back-pack” style devices that are on the market including the Rose Wind Turbine. This turbine is a small portable device that fits neatly into the trunk of a car.
Electrocatalysts that can be used in electrolyzers: Researchers at the University of Calgary are using electrocatalysts that can be used in electrolyzers, which can generate hydrogen. This relatively less expensive approach can create hydrogen energy generated from solar panels or wind turbines. It can then be used when there is no sun or no wind. The Calgary Researchers have already formed a company, named FireWater Fuel, to commercialize the new catalysts. They hope to have a prototype soon.
No Catalyst: A new process is being tested by chemical engineers at Purdue University to get cost effective hydrogen production at fuel-cell temperature-level without the need for a catalyst.
Most of these technologies will never get off the ground to become commercially viable. However, renewable energy innovation is ongoing and we are finding ways of improving existing technologies or developing entirely new sources of clean power. It takes some imagination, but it is important to allow ourselves to see beyond the technological limitations we face today. The key is to think outside the box and not envision a future limited by the technologies of today.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Sandia Labs, courtesy flickr