The Year in Energy
Liquid batteries, giant lasers, and vast new reserves of natural gas highlight the fundamental energy advances of the past 12 months.
With many renewable energy companies facing hard financial times (“Weeding Out Solar Companies”), a lot of the big energy news this year was coming out of Washington, DC, with massive federal stimulus funding for batteries and renewable energy and programs such as Energy Frontier Research Centers and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (“A Year of Stimulus for High Tech”).
But there was still plenty of action outside the beltway, both in the United States and around the world. One of the most dramatic developments (“Natural Gas Changes the Energy Map”) was the rush to exploit a vast new resource; new drilling technologies have made it possible to economically recover natural gas from shale deposits scattered throughout the country, including in Texas and parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Advances in drilling technology have increased available natural gas by 39 percent, according to an estimate released in June. The relatively clean-burning fuel could cut greenhouse gas emissions by becoming a substitute for coal. Natural gas might even provide an alternative to petroleum in transportation, especially for buses and taxis–if only policymakers could take advantage of the new opportunity.
Meanwhile a number of technologies promise to cut down on emissions from coal plants. Feeding heat from the sun into coal plants could at once increase the amount of power that can be generated from a given amount of coal and reduce the cost of solar power (“Mixing Solar with Coal to Cut Costs”). And technology for capturing carbon dioxide (“Scrubbing CO2 Cheaply”) and storing it (“An Ocean Trap for Carbon Dioxide”) is finally emerging from the lab and small-scale projects into larger demonstrations at power plants, even while researchers explore potentially cheaper carbon-capture techniques (“Using Rust to Capture CO2 from Coal Plants”).
This year was also the year of the smart grid, as numerous test projects for improving the reliability of the grid and enabling the use of large amounts of renewable energy got underway (“Technology Overview: Intelligent Electricity”). The smart grid will be enabled by key advances, such as superconductors for high-energy transmission lines (“Superconductors to Wire a Smarter Grid”) and smart networks being developed by companies such as GE (“Q&A: Mark Little, Head of GE Global Research”).
Cellulosic ethanol–made from biomass such as grass rather than corn grain–moved closer to commercialization, with announcements of demonstration plant openings (“Commercializing Garbage to Ethanol”) and scientific breakthroughs that could make the process cheaper (“Cellulosic Ethanol on the Cheap”). But at the same time, a number of companies are moving beyond cellulosic ethanol to the production of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from biomass–fuels that can be used much more readily in existing infrastructure and in existing vehicles. Exxon-Mobil announced substantial investments in algae-based fuels (“Big Oil Turns to Algae”). Remarkably, one startup declared its process–based on synthetic genomics and algae–could allow biofuels to replace all of transportation fuels without overwhelming farmland (“A Biofuel Process to Replace All Fossil Fuels”).
Still, most people think biofuels will only supply a fraction of our transportation needs (“Briefing: Transportation”). To eliminate carbon emissions and drastically curtail petroleum consumption will require plug-in hybrids (“Driving the Volt”) and other electricity-powered vehicles (“Nissan’s Leaf: Charged with Information”). Advances that could double (or more) the energy capacity of batteries and lower their costs could one day make such vehicles affordable to the masses. These include new formulations such as lithium-sulfur batteries (“Revisiting Lithium-Sulfur Batteries”), metal-air batteries (“High-Energy Batteries Coming to Market”) such as lithium-air batteries (“IBM Invests in Battery Research”), and batteries that rely on nanowires and silicon (“More Energy in Batteries”). A novel concept for super-fast charge stations at bus stops could make electric buses practical (“Next Stop: Ultracapacitor Buses”).
Getting the electricity to charge these vehicles–without releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide–could be made easier by a number of advances this year. A new liquid battery could cheaply store energy from wind turbines and solar panels for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing (“TR10: Liquid Battery”), making it practical to rely on large amounts of renewable electricity. Vast arrays of mirrors (“Solar Thermal Heats Up”) are being assembled in the desert to convert solar heat into electricity, and photovoltaic solar farms for converting light directly into electricity (“Chasing the Sun”) are getting a boost from the federal stimulus money. And researchers are finding ways to increase the efficiency of solar cells (“More Efficient, and Cheaper, Solar Cells”) and are discovering new photovoltaic materials to make solar power cheaper (“Mining Fool’s Gold for Solar”). And although progress on nuclear power is moving slowly, some advances on the horizon could help this low-carbon source replace fossil fuels (“TR10: Traveling-Wave Reactor”). Researchers even fired up the world’s largest laser system–one that’s the size of a football stadium–for experiments that could lead to a new form of fusion (“Igniting Fusion”).
Last, and almost certainly least, researchers have decided to look beyond the conventional sources of renewable energy–solar, wind, and waves–to hamsters. Researchers at Georgia Tech fitted the rodents with zinc-oxide nanowire jackets (“Harnessing Hamster Power with a Nanogenerator”), and watched as they generated an electrical current while scratching themselves and running on a wheel. See a video of the powerful hamsters here.