Energy 2.0: What Comes From After Oil
What happens after the world hits peak oil and prices skyrocket? Or when coal pushes the carbon count in the atmosphere into the danger zone? Soylent Green might turn out to be more prophetic than you thought. But, luckily, entrepreneurs are devising new ways to produce energy even beyond solar and wind. Here are some of the more intriguing and far out ones.
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
1.Nuclear Goes Mod(ular):
NuScale Power, Sandia National Labs, TerraPower and Babcock & Wilcox all want to build and/or license small reactors that could produce 45 to 125 megawatts of power. Some of the smallest modular reactors will be about the size of a hot tub and sit in sealed chambers filled with water to keep them cool. These reactors could provide power to equipment at isolated oil fields or to allow mid-sized communities to get off the grid. Some utility associations in the Seattle area have begun to study the viability of the concept.
Modular nukes, potentially, could be installed in far less time and with far less real estate than conventional reactors. By connecting 12 or 24 of its reactors in an array, NuScale hopes to build power plants that will produce power for 6 to 9 cents a kilowatt hour.
"Our principal market is the conventional market for providing power to the grid," said Bruce Landrey, who runs marketing at NuScale. "We anticipate that the costs will be competitive, perhaps slightly less than the larger [nuclear] plants."
TerraPower, which comes out of a think tank started by former Microsoft chief scientist Nathan Myhrvold, says its reactor could run on spent nuclear waste and won't have to be refueled for 30 to 60 years. These sorts of nukes may not be ready for several years, but expect to hear more about nuclear. Energy Secretary Steve Chu, MIT's Ernie Moniz and UC Berkeley's Dan Kammen have also said nuclear in some form will needed to move away from coal.
"Not in our lifetime," Moniz said, after eyeballing me. (I'm a young 48.) Others disagree. Livermore National Labs showed off a system in which 192 high powered lasers focused on tiny capsule of hydrogen could generate fusion power. Scientists hope to show it can work in 2010 or 2011.
Added bonus: Neutrons from the fusion reaction could be targeted at blankets of waste from nuclear fission plants, producing even more power and getting rid of nuclear waste at the same time. This so-called hybrid fusion power is in the works at Sandia as well.
Among startups, rumors percolated that secretive Tri-Alpha Energy might describe its technology next year and General Fusion received more VC funds in 2009. Fusion is a heady task for start-ups, so you might want to really bet on the national labs first. If fusion works, it could solve a lot of problems.
3. Osmotic Pressure Gradients:
You know how you get really thirsty after eating salty food? The same principle serves as the foundation of osmotic pressure gradients or OPGs. Fresh water is drawn through a membrane under its own power to mix with salty water on the other side, just like how your cells scream for water once they become saturated with salt.
In OPGs, though, there is no pause that refreshes. The volume of water continually increases on the salty side and that pressure is then used to crank a turbine. Yes, it sounds crazy—in theory it means that power can be produced just from putting a membrane in places where water runs into the sea. But Statkraft, a utility in Norway, with some help from the U.S.'s Energy Recovery, built a 2 kilowatt prototype plant earlier this year. Statkraft estimates OPGs could produce 1600 terawatt hours of power globally every year, or about half the power consumed in Europe in a year. IBM and a Danish start-up Aquaporin are looking into it as well.
4. Instant Oil:
Think microwave petroleum: no more slaving over the Permian basin for millions of years waiting for those hydrocarbons to be done.
ARPA-E, the advanced projects group inside of the Department of Energy, gave a significant chunk of its first grants to companies working on direct solar fuel, or liquid fuels where sunlight and typically carbon dioxide serve as ingredients in the chemical reactions to produce fuel. BioCee and the University of Minnesota wants to take sunlight, carbon dioxide and two organisms (cyanobacteria for sunlight capture and shewanella for metabolic transformation) to produce a liquid hydrocarbon.
Coal and oil are indirect forms of solar energy: sunlight and carbon dioxide create plant matter, and then geological forces turn dead trees into a fuel. Here the plant middleman is eliminated. An added plus: It creates demand for carbon dioxide and carbon capture.
5. Gravity Power:
Like the brakes on a Prius, but supersized. Vycon Energy's flywheel captures energy released when large cargo cranes drop those 30 ton storage containers in the holds of ships. The energy is converted to electric power for the crane for the next hoist. Now, cranes rely on dirty, smelly diesel. Various others are working on technologies to clean ports. It's one of the first practical applications for turning kinetic energy into electricity. Several researchers have shown off oscillating floorboards that harvest the power from dancers in nightclub, but those barely generate enough power to run Lady Gaga's keytar.
Nuclear batteries could boost performance by 100x, but practical problems—nuclear flashlight, anyone?-- may keep them grounded.
6. Hot Air.
A personal favorite, because it's simple and there's a lot of it. Thermoelectric devices are semiconductors that convert heat into electricity and vice versa. Chips made from bismuth telluride can do this now, but they aren't particularly efficient. A host of companies—ranging from science experiment-like start-ups like Alphabet Energy to Silicon Valley royalty like Cypress Semiconductor—have proposed making thermoelectrics out of silicon nanowires and other materials. Wrap these chips around a hot steam pipe in a factory, or line the walls of a bakery with them, and you have electricity generated locally.
It's a double whammy. The heat inside factories or bakeries is waste heat, or energy you bought but don't really use for a productive purpose. To add insult to injury, not only do you pay for this unproductive power, companies also have to put power into air conditioners to get rid of it. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Lab estimate that the U.S. consumes 100 quads (100 quadrillion BTUs) of energy a year and 55 to 60 quads get burned as waste heat.
While advanced thermoelectric are still in the experimental stage, other companies are looking at ways to capture heat and reuse it without converting it to electricity.
Chromasun takes solar thermal collectors and other technologies to gather solar heat to run a double effect chiller, an ornate heat exchanging device that in the end produces cold air. Fifty percent of the demand for power during peak periods in California and 70 percent of the power in Dubai can be attributed to air conditioners, Peter Le Lievre, founder of Chromasun, told me. Put enough of these on roofs and you eliminate the need for those multimillion dollar "peaker" plants that are really only needed about 15 days a year.
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