5 breakthroughs that would transform clean energy

These technologies could change the world. 

Amir Cohen/Reuters/File
Heliostat mirrors reflect the sky in a field at the construction site of a 240 meter (787 feet) solar-power tower in Israel's southern Negev Desert, February 8, 2016.

Can today’s energy technology alone carry us into a zero-carbon future?

For some, the answer is “yes”: Current solar- and wind-power technology give governments and businesses everything they need to spur a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels. But a growing chorus of scientists and thinkers argue that the world needs a major energy “breakthrough” that would rapidly tip the scales in favor of cleaner, more efficient energy.

Chief among them is billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.

In an open letter from his foundation released on Tuesday, Mr. Gates argued that huge investments are needed if the world is to bring power to its soon-to-be 8 billion inhabitants without destroying the planet. The statement came just months after Mr. Gates announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a private investment initiative that will fund research into technologies in the clean energy sector. It also came in the wake of Mission Innovation, a commitment by President Obama and 19 other world leaders to double their governments’ investments in clean energy technology.

In his budget request for 2017, the president earmarked $7.7 billion for clean-energy research and development. Meanwhile, private scientists, engineers, and technologists are working steadily to develop new technologies that will spur economic development, power homes, and facilitate global transportation without releasing planet-warming greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

So, what exactly would a major clean-energy breakthrough look like? Here are five technology advances that would  change how we power our everyday lives:

1. Grid-scale battery storage:

The country’s energy needs were very different when the electrical grid was designed and built in the early 1900s. In recent years, the use of smart grids and the integration of renewable energy sources created a need to modernize traditional infrastructure quickly. Industry experts have long maintained that big, industrial-sized batteries for energy storage would make the grid safer and more reliable, and would facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. In fact, many say it will be impossible to transition to renewables without employing large-scale energy storage technology.

Still, the price of grid-scale batteries remained prohibitively high. Now, new, low-cost battery materials are bringing grid-scale batteries to the marketplace. According to Moody’s Investors Service, the price of large-scale batteries dropped more than 50 percent over the past 5 years.  Experts say at least 3 private companies are now providing large-scale batteries to utilities.  

“When ARPA-E started looking at grid storage issues, we realized that costs needed to come down nearly 10 times for this to work,” says Dr. Ellen Williams, Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the government’s energy research agency. “Since then we’ve invested in a whole portfolio of innovative ways of doing battery storage, and we really see a pathway forward toward the cost reduction we were targeting initially.”

2.     Fuel-cell cars: Fuel cells have the ability to transform the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity. They can also power a car for a 300-mile drive. But fuel-cell vehicles face some of the same hurdles as grid-scale batteries. Namely, they are expensive. In January, however, a paper in the journal Nature Communications detailed how researchers at the University of Delaware found ways to replace the expensive platinum catalysts used in fuel cell vehicles with less expensive metals.

“Our real hope is that we can put hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cells into cars and make them truly affordable — maybe $23,000 for a Toyota Mirai,” Yushan Yan, one of the lead researchers, said at the time.

Meanwhile, a team of scientists in Germany took a different approach. In December 2015 they announced they’d successfully invented a reactor that could convert methane into hydrogen. Further experiments will reveal whether the reactor works consistently. But if it’s successful, this new technology could produce low-cost, zero-carbon hydrogen fuel for our transportation needs.


3. High-altitude wind power:

In his 2016 annual letter, Bill Gates said he believes the world will discover an energy breakthrough in the next 15 years. One of those potential breakthroughs, he continued, would be to harness the power of wind whistling miles above our heads. Research has suggested that wind energy from high altitude jet streams could produce over 100 times the amount of energy needed to power the globe.

High-altitude wind technology has been attracting a substantial amount of investment recently. Start-ups working to develop high-altitude wind power have received investment from major companies like Google and Mitsubishi, and from governments like Switzerland and Germany.

Most recently, a report from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan suggested that high-altitude wind energy could hit the commercial marketplace by as early as 2017.

4.     Sustainable biofuel:

Biofuels have long been seen as potential substitute to replace traditional fossil fuels in vehicles and aircrafts. But questions remain about how sustainable the energy source really is. Some researchers point out that biofuel production can lead to deforestation, contributing to global warming, and that many plants require substantial amounts of water and energy to be transformed into fuel. But now ARPA-E is experimenting with new technologies that could make the biofuel production process carbon-neutral and environmentally sustainable.

“We’re looking at how robotics, big data analytics, and advances in understanding genetics can transform the efficacy through which we grow better plants,” says Dr. Williams.

In these experiments, robots are used to collect crop data. The data are then used to identify how to grow plants for making biofuel that require less fertilizer and less water.

“Imagine these robots going out into the fields and touching the leaves, and overhead there would be drones flying around measuring how much water is in the soil,” Williams explains.

With the right amount of research, sustainable biofuel could be made available for widespread consumption, experts say.

5. Nuclear fusion:

Nuclear fusion is often considered the holy grail of clean energy. For decades, scientists have struggled in labs to fuse atoms, mimicking the way the sun produces energy. While advances have been made, harnessing the energy from nuclear fusion has proven more difficult than many would hope. Still, if scientists are eventually successful, nuclear fusion could hold the key to virtually limitless amounts of clean energy. Unlike nuclear fission, the waste produced by fusion isn’t radioactive.

Over the past several months, a handful of advances have been made. In November 2015 a new machine in Germany succeeded in sustaining a hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second. Then, just a few months later, physicists in China announced they’d done the same for 102 seconds.

Experts admit that nuclear fusion technology is probably still decades away. But that hasn’t stopped the scientists and engineers from rolling out new technology.

With all of the resources and brainpower invested in finding the “energy miracle” Gates is calling for, many experts agree that it’s just a matter of time before a big breakthrough is made.

“We’re in such an exciting time for technology and seeing so many different areas move forward that will have a big impact on our energy systems,” Williams says.  

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