Monday, May 5, 2014

Five out-there energy projects that are moving closer to reality


Some newer clean energy sources, like solar panels and wind turbines, are becoming mainstream industries, with low prices and established financing models. But even in this era of emerging predictable clean energy, there are some pretty weird, experimental and ambitious energy projects under development. And they’re (sometimes surprisingly) trying to move out of the lab and off of research papers, and into actual production.

Many of these projects won’t make it to market on time and on budget, but kudos to the crazy energy entrepreneurs who are trying new things. Here are five weird and wacky energy projects that are trying to become reality:

Outta This World: Japan Firms Seek 1GW Solar Station in Space 1. Space-based solar: For decades, Japanese scientists have explored the idea of building a huge solar collector in space that can beam microwave energy down to Earth and produce “space-based solar” electricity. But the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is starting to take the idea more seriously in the wake of the country’s decision to move off nuclear power. The IEEE Spectrum reports that JAXA has now developed a technology road map, with planned demonstration projects and milestones, and a goal of building a 1 GW (the size of a large coal or nuclear plant) commercial system in the 2030′s. While that might seem far off, it leaves just a little over a decade or two to figure out all the logistics that such a far-out space-based system would need.

2). A hot air power station: Over the years, a few researchers have been looking into using the equivalent of manufactured dust devils to create power. The idea is that the sun can heat a thin layer of air that can whip up into a wind vortice, and can then potentially be tapped for energy. Solar Wind Energy TowerBut now a company called Solar Wind Energy Tower is trying to take the idea of a solar-induced column of air to a commercial level. Bloomberg reports that Solar Wind Energy Tower has gotten approval from the city of Yuma, Arizona to build a $1.5 billion, 2,250-foot-tall tower that could generate 435 megawatt-hours a year of the solar-induced air column. Of course, city approval is only the first step — the company still needs a utility to commit to buy the energy and investors to finance the tower, and then needs to build it.

3). Clean coal power plant: Capturing carbon emissions from coal plants might not be a “crazy” idea, but the technology has long been so expensive that it’s been far from commercialization. However, two carbon capture plants in North America — one in Saskatchewan and one in Mississippi — are close to actually being completed, reports MIT Tech Review. The Mississippi plant is five times bigger than the Saskatchewan one, and it’s also using more controversial technology (it gasifies the coal). Still, it’s an important breakthrough. China also has GreenGen, a massive carbon capture and storage coal plant in Tianjin, which will soon start storing its carbon emissions underground miles from the plant.

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments. Target handling systems precisely position the target and freeze it to cryogenic temperatures (18 kelvins, or -427 degrees Fahrenheit) so that a fusion reaction is more easily achieved.

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments.

4). Nuclear fusion: Scientists have spent 60 years pouring money into trying to crack open nuclear fusion tech. But earlier this year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers announced that they had reached an important milestone: the fuel used to create fusion in their reactor was capable of producing more energy than required to initiate fusion. They published their work in Nature. Startup General Fusion says its own nuclear fusion tech is on THE verge of a breakthrough, and is about two to three years from being used in a power plant. That idea is backed by venture capitalists, showing THAT some VCs are still willing to fund big energy ideas.

Fluidic Energy5). Air batteries: This one’s not in energy generation, but storage. Batteries that use air and metal have been under development for years. A metal air battery uses a metal — like lithium or zinc — for the anode, air (drawn in from the environment) as the cathode, and usually a liquid electrolyte. Using air can make these batteries ultra lightweight and inexpensive (since air, of course, is free). The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program has a whole bunch of projects working on batteries that use air as a key component (for electric cars and grid storage), including bigger companies like Fluidic Energy, which I wrote about last year, and PolyPlus, which I covered a couple years ago.

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