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Climate change and energy

Three climate technologies breaking through in 2024

From new innovations to old favorites, here’s what to watch out for.

January 11, 2024
a trophy with a golden globe as the top
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Envato

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

Awards season is upon us, and I can’t get enough. Red-carpet fashion, host drama, heartwarming speeches—I love it all.

I caught the Golden Globes last weekend, and the Grammys and Oscars aren’t far off. But the best awards, in my humble opinion, are the 10 Breakthrough Technologies, MIT Technology Review’s list of the tech that’s changing our world. 

This year’s list dropped on Monday, and I’m delighted to share that not one, not two, but three climate tech items are featured. So for the newsletter this week, let’s take a look at a few of these award-winning technologies you need to know about. (And to honor awards season, I’ll also be assigning them to bonus—and completely unofficial—categories.)

Super-efficient solar cells

Winner: Best Supporting Actor

Solar panels are among the most important, and perhaps the most recognizable, tools to address climate change. But one next-generation solar technology could help solar power get even more efficient, and cheaper: perovskite tandem solar cells. 

Most solar cells use silicon to soak up sunlight and transform it into electricity. But other materials can do this job too, including perovskites, a class of crystalline materials. And because perovskites and silicon absorb different wavelengths of light, the two materials can be stacked like a sandwich to make one super-efficient cell. 

Because of their outstanding support for traditional silicon solar materials, super-efficient perovskite tandem cells are my winner for this year’s Best Supporting Actor award. 

There are definitely barriers to commercializing this technology: perovskites are tricky to manufacture and have historically degraded quickly outside in the elements. But some companies say they’re closer than ever to using the materials to transform commercial solar. Read more about the technology here

Enhanced geothermal systems

Winner: Best New Artist

Sucking heat out from the earth is one of the oldest tricks in the book—there’s evidence that humans were using hot springs for heat more than 10,000 years ago. 

We’ve since leveled up, using geothermal energy to produce electricity. But a specific set of factors is needed to harness the energy radiating out of the planet’s core: heat close to the surface, permeable rock, and underground fluid. 

This narrows the potential sites for usable geothermal energy significantly, so a growing number of projects are working to widen access with so-called enhanced geothermal systems. 

An enhanced geothermal system is essentially a human-created geothermal energy source. This often involves drilling down into rock and pumping fluid into it to open up fractures. We’ve seen some recent progress in this field from a handful of companies, including Fervo Energy, which started up a massive pilot facility in 2023 (and made our list of 15 Climate Tech Companies to Watch). 

Because of its spirit of reinvention and innovation, enhanced geothermal systems are my pick for this year’s Best New Artist Award. 

Some of the biggest projects coming are still a few years from coming online, and it could be tough to scale construction on these plants in some places. But enhanced geothermal is definitely a field to keep an eye on. Read more in my colleague June Kim’s write-up here

Heat pumps

Winner: Lifetime Achievement

Last, but certainly not least, we have the venerable heat pump. These devices, which can cool and heat using electricity, are a personal favorite climate technology of mine. 

Heat pumps are super efficient, sometimes almost seeming to defy the laws of physics. They don’t really break any laws, physical or otherwise, as I outlined in a deep dive into how the technology works last year.

While they’re not exactly new, heat pumps are definitely breaking through in a new way. The technology outsold gas furnaces for the first time in the US last year, and sales have been climbing around the world. Globally, heat pumps have the potential to cut emissions by 500 million metric tons in 2030—as much as pulling all the cars in Europe today off the roads. 

For their long-standing and ongoing contributions to decarbonization, heat pumps are my choice for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 

It’s going to be tough to get heat pumps into all the places they need to go to meet climate goals. For more on all things heat pumps, check out my write-up here. 

Congratulations to all our winners! Be sure to check out the rest of the list. It includes everything from wearable headsets to innovative new CRISPR treatments. 

And if you’d like to weigh in on one more award, you can vote for our reader-chosen 11th breakthrough technology here. The candidates are some of the other items we considered for the list. I don’t want to unfairly influence you, but you know my heart always goes with batteries, so feel free to vote accordingly …  

Related reading

Technology is always changing. Don’t miss our list of the technologies breaking through in 2024.

Perovskites were supposed to change the solar world. What’s the holdup?

This startup showed that its underground wells can be used as a massive battery.

Everything you need to know about the wild world of heat pumps.

Another thing

an Orsted wind turbine off the coast of Block Island
AP PHOTO/JULIA NIKHINSON

It’s been a turbulent time for offshore wind power. Projects are getting delayed and canceled left and right, it seems. 

In 2024, some big moments could determine whether these troubles are more of a bump in the road or a sign of more serious issues. For everything you should watch out for in offshore wind, check out my latest story here.

Keeping up with climate  

It’s officially official—2023 was the hottest year on record, according to the EU’s climate service. Check out the details and some stunning graphics on the record-breaking year. (BBC)

A national lab in California made waves in late 2022 when it achieved a huge milestone for fusion research. You may not know that the facility actually had a massive fusion reactor in the 1980s that never got switched on. (MIT Technology Review)

→ Here’s what’s coming next for fusion research, according to the lab’s current director. (MIT Technology Review)

India is rushing to meet growing demand for electricity, and the country is turning to coal to do it. The government plans to roughly double coal production by 2030. (Bloomberg)

One person’s wastewater is another one’s … heat? New systems can harness the heat in wastewater to heat whole neighborhoods. (BBC)

Norway will open up parts of the Norwegian Sea for seabed mining exploration. The country joins nations including Japan, New Zealand, and Namibia that are considering allowing this new industry to operate in their waters. (New York Times)

→ Seabed mining could be a new source of materials for batteries. But environmentalists are worried about the potential harm. (MIT Technology Review)

Lack of charging infrastructure is a huge barrier to EV adoption. Here are three ways to encourage new chargers in charging deserts. (Canary Media)

Rising temperatures means beavers are moving north—and they’re causing trouble. Specifically, the rodents are creating a feedback loop that’s thawing the ground and disrupting ecosystems. (The Guardian)

Chinese automaker BYD is set to take the world by storm. The company sold more plug-in hybrids and EVs than Tesla did in 2023, and is set to continue its rapid growth this year. (Bloomberg)→ BYD was one of our climate tech companies to watch in 2023. (MIT Technology Review)

Deep Dive

Climate change and energy

Super-efficient solar cells: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Solar cells that combine traditional silicon with cutting-edge perovskites could push the efficiency of solar panels to new heights.

The race to get next-generation solar technology on the market

Companies say perovskite tandem solar cells are only a few years from bringing record efficiencies to a solar project near you.

How one mine could unlock billions in EV subsidies

The Inflation Reduction Act is starting to transform the US economy. To understand how, we tallied up the potential tax credits available as the nickel from a single mine flows through the supply chain.

Heat pumps: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Heat pumps are a well-established technology. Now they’re starting to make real progress on decarbonizing homes, buildings, and even manufacturing.

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