Energy innovations that could transform the future

For most people, a solar farm or geothermal power plant is an important source of clean energy. Scientists and engineers see this and much more potential.

They envision offshore wind turbines that capture and store carbon under the sea, and geothermal power plants that produce metals essential to power electric vehicles. Electric vehicle batteries can also be converted to power homes, saving owners money and also reducing transportation emissions.

As scientists around the world sound the alarm about the dangers and rising costs of climate change, let’s explore some cutting-edge ideas that could transform the way current technologies reduce the effects of global warming, from five articles recent in The Conversation.


1. Solar channels: energy + water protection

What if solar panels do double duty, protecting the water supply while producing more energy?

California is developing the first solar canals in the United States, with solar panels being built on some of the state’s water distribution canals. These channels run thousands of miles through arid environments, where dry air increases evaporation in a condition frequently affected by water scarcity.

“In a 2021 study, we showed that covering California’s 4,000 miles of canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water per year by reducing evaporation.

That’s enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people,” writes engineering professor Roger Bales of the University of California, Merced. They would also develop renewable energy without occupying agricultural land.

Research shows that human activities, particularly the use of fossil fuels for energy and transportation, are unequivocally warming the planet and increasing extreme weather events. The rise of renewable energy, which currently accounts for about 20% of large-scale electricity generation in the United States, could reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

Putting solar panels on shaded water can also improve their power output. The cooler water lowers the temperature of the panels by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 degrees Celsius), increasing their efficiency, Bales writes.

2. Geothermal energy could increase battery power

For renewable energy to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, buildings and vehicles must be able to use it. Batteries are essential, but the industry has a supply chain problem.

Most batteries used in electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage are lithium-ion batteries, and most of the lithium used in the United States comes from Argentina, Chile, China and Russia. China is the leader in lithium processing.

Geologists and engineers are working on an innovative method that could boost US lithium supply in the country by extracting lithium from geothermal brines in California’s Salton Sea region.

Brines are the liquid leftovers from a geothermal power plant after the heat and steam have been used to generate electricity. This fluid contains lithium and other metals such as manganese, zinc and boron. It is normally pumped underground, but metals can also be filtered out.

“While ongoing test projects show that battery-grade lithium can be profitably extracted from these brines, only 11 existing geothermal power plants along the Salton Sea could have the potential to produce enough lithium metal to meet about 10 times current US demand.” write geologist Michael McKibben of the University of California, Riverside, and energy policy expert Bryant Jones of Boise State University.

President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act on March 31, 2022 to incentivize US companies to mine and process more battery-critical minerals.

3. Green hydrogen and other storage ideas

Scientists are also working on other ways to strengthen the battery mineral supply chain, including recycling lithium and cobalt from old batteries. They are also developing designs with other materials, explained Kerry Rippy, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Concentrated solar power, for example, stores energy from the sun by heating molten salt and using it to produce steam to power electric generators, much like a coal-fired power plant would produce oil. ‘electricity. However, this is expensive and the salts currently used are not stable at higher temperatures, writes Rippy. The Department of Energy is funding a similar project that is experimenting with heated sand.

Renewable fuels, such as green hydrogen and ammonia, offer a different type of storage. Since they store energy in liquid form, they can be transported and used for shipping or rocket fuel.

Hydrogen gets a lot of attention, but not all hydrogen is green. Most of the hydrogen used today is produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, could be produced using renewable energy to power electrolysis, which splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, but again, that’s expensive.

“The main challenge is to optimize the process so that it is efficient and economical,” writes Rippy. “The potential gain is enormous: an inexhaustible and entirely renewable energy.”

4. Use your EV to power your home

Batteries could also soon turn your electric vehicle into a giant mobile battery capable of powering your home.

Currently, only a few vehicles are designed for vehicle-to-home charging, or V2H, but that’s changing, writes energy economist Seth Blumsack of Pennsylvania State University. Ford, for example, says its new F-150 Lightning pickup will power an average home for three days on a single charge.

Blumsack explores the technical challenges as V2H grows and its potential to change the way people manage energy consumption and the way utilities store energy.

For example, he writes, “some owners might expect to use their vehicle for what utility planners call ‘peak shaving’: getting household power from their EV during the day at instead of relying on the grid, thereby reducing their utility purchases.

5. Capture carbon from the air and lock it in

Other emerging technologies are more controversial.

Humans have released so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past two centuries that simply stopping the use of fossil fuels will not be enough to quickly stabilize the climate. Most scenarios, including recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, show that the world will also have to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The technology to capture carbon dioxide from the air exists, it’s called direct air capture, but it’s expensive.

Engineers and geophysicists like David Goldberg at Columbia University are exploring ways to reduce these costs by combining direct air capture technology with renewable energy generation and carbon storage, such as offshore wind turbines built on underwater rock formations where the captured carbon could be locked up.

The world’s largest direct air capture plant, launched in 2021 in Iceland, uses geothermal energy to power its equipment. The captured carbon dioxide is mixed with water and pumped into underground volcanic basalt formations. Chemical reactions with basalt transform it into a hard carbonate.

Goldberg, who helped develop the mineralization process used in Iceland, sees similar potential for future offshore wind farms in the United States. Wind turbines often produce more power than their customers need at any one time. given, making excess energy available.

“Built together, these technologies could reduce the energy costs of carbon capture and minimize the need for onshore pipelines, thereby reducing environmental impacts,” writes Goldberg.

This article was written by a team of experts. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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