If we’re not spilling oil into the oceans or punching holes in the ozone with our cans of hairspray, then we’re producing radioactive waste or choking up the atmosphere with our dirty exhaust pipe emissions. We’re a bit of a pesky bunch, us humans, and we give Mother Nature a hard time of it.
Thankfully, there are some of us out there, the pioneers, the clever-clogs, the environmentally conscious, who care about her a bit more than the average joe. These guys are developing some pretty astonishing ideas that will allow us to nurture Mother Nature and show her some much needed loving.
Space-Based Solar Power
Research into the idea of collecting solar power in space began in the 1970s. While the sheer cost involved in taking on such a monumental project has been a key factor in its lack of development, an urgent need to end the impending energy crisis and solve anthropogenic climate change have sparked fresh interest in the concept.
In 2008, Japan passed its Basic Space legislation, which established Space Solar Power as a national goal. By 2015, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency had announced that they had wirelessly beamed 1.8 kilowatts of energy to a small receiver by converting electricity to microwaves.
Why is this important? Because one of the biggest challenges in space-based solar power (SBSP) has been how to transmit energy captured in space orbit to Earth.
The solution, which technology increasingly edges closer to resolving, lies in a large geostationary array collecting light from the sun and using photovoltaic cells to convert that light into electricity. This then powers a microwave laser that is beamed towards the Earth’s surface and captured by a rectenna. Easy as pie.
Realistically, the challenges of SBSP are colossal, but the advantages, even greater:
- Unlike terrestrial solar and wind power plants, space solar power is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with an increased 144% intensity over the maximum achievable on Earth. There are no interruptions from the weather in space where satellites could be illuminated 99% of the time compared with 29% per day on average that solar panels on earth collect power.
- SBSP doesn’t depend on farmland or fresh water and it doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses, hazardous waste or involve environmental problems such as fracking or oil spills. This makes SBSP a much more attractive source of power over oil, gas, coal, nuclear, ethanol and even bio-diesels. Sunlight is also unlimited meaning it could potentially replace all other forms of energy, solving the energy crisis overnight.
- SBSP can provide large quantities of energy to each and every person on Earth and it can be quickly and easily directed to almost any global location.
In January 2014, the groundbreaking book The Case for Space Solar Power by John C. Mankins, President of the Space Power Association and Artemis Innovation, was published.
It sets out a path for an affordable multi-megawatt pilot plant that would spell a huge leap forward in the quest to achieve SBSP. He argues that there is no reason why SBSP shouldn’t receive the same level of funding and research that nuclear power has enjoyed over the past five decades.
Building on this book, Justin Lewis-Weber published a paper in the journal New Space where he proposes self-replicating solar panels built autonomously on the surface of the moon that collect the sun’s energy and beam it back to Earth.
In 2015, at the International Space Development Conference, the China Academy for Space Technology showcased their roadmap for a commercial model of SBSP by the year 2050. It might not be happening soon, but it is happening.
Piezoelectricity uses crystals to trap kinetic energy, that is, energy generated as a result of movement or pressure, such as a person running on a treadmill or a train running on a railway track.
With modern advances in technology, piezoelectric energy is one of the most promising alternative fuel explorations and boasts almost endless potential. Underground stations, hotels, gyms and nightclub dance floors have already begun to utilise piezoelectric harvesting technologies.
In Israel, some railway lines have been installed with piezoelectric devices generating enough energy to power signals, lights and track mechanisms. While in Brazil, football legend Pelé launched a kinetic football field in Morro da Mineira, a favela of Rio de Janeiro.
Two hundred energy-capturing tiles, developed by British startup Pavegen Systems, were installed under astroturf spanning the width and breadth of the pitch. The activity from the players is sufficient to power six LED floodlights, giving children in the area a safe environment to play football in the evenings.
Laurence Kemball-Cook, Pavegen founder and CEO, told The Telegraph that he hoped it would change the way people viewed energy. “It’s really exciting to see it installed,” he said, “we’ve effectively turned this community into a real-life science experiment. It’s never been done before on this scale or on a football pitch”.
During the inauguration ceremony, Pelé added: “This new pitch shows the extraordinary things possible when science and sport come together”.
Since its inception in 2009, Pavegen, which pioneers clean sustainable technology through the development of paving slabs that convert energy from people’s footsteps into electrical power, has successfully delivered installations in train stations, shopping centres, airports and public spaces.
Edible Six-Pack Rings
Long since considered the bane of conservationists, plastic six-pack rings are a menace to aquatic life. As many as 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals including turtles die each year after becoming ensnared by them.
Many other oceanic animals also die after ingesting plastic. According to a journal in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 90 per cent of seabirds have ingested plastic at some stage in their lifetime.
To tackle this endemic, the Florida-based beermaker, Saltwater Brewery, in partnership with the ad agency We Believe, have developed a fully edible, compostable and biodegradable alternative to plastic six-pack rings.
They are manufactured from wheat and barley, the byproducts of the brewing process. “The creative solution we bring forward has the potential to influence how we do sustainable packaging with zero waste and no impact on wildlife,” said Marco Vega, co-founder of We Believers.
The Saltwater Brewery hopes that by setting the example, other breweries will follow their lead and put an end to aquatic life killed as a result of plastic six-pack rings.
The Crescent Dunes
Described as “the next generation in solar energy”, the Crescent Dunes is mile-and-a-half-wide solar power plant set in the barren landscape of the Nevada desert. It consists of a central receiver tower embedded within a carpet of 10,000 silvery multifaceted heliostats that look like large mirrors.
These heliostats track the course of the sun and bounce its rays back towards the top of the tower heating the molten salt that circulates in a storage tank within. It is then used to produce steam which generates a sufficient amount of electricity to power 75,000 Nevada households.
The project, developed by SolarReserve, is the world’s first utility-scale concentrating solar power plant. The CEO of SolarReserve, Kevin Smith, argues that the molten salt storage model is “the world’s most advanced energy-storage technology”. Smith also believes that Crescent Dunes has the potential to be a competitor to conventional fuels.
The plant emits zero pollutants and uses only a fraction of the water required to generate coal or nuclear power. It also occupies a smaller land area than a coal-fired power station.
SolarReserve is developing advanced blueprints of its Nevada prototype with a view to building solar plants in South Africa, Chile and China.
The world holds 40 million miles of roads. Imagine if they all acted as solar panels. This is the vision of Sten de Wit whose concept is being explored in the SolaRoad project.
With a future that looks increasingly set to be dominated by self-driving automobiles, SolaRoad could create a fully energy sustainable network for automated vehicles that would completely transform travel and cargo transportation around the world.
SolaRoad’s prototype was to create the world’s first bike path made from solar panel’s to test the feasibility for solar panelled highways. The 72-metre path was built in Krommenie, Netherlands and was formerly opened at the tail end of 2014 by the Dutch Minister of Energy, Henk Kamp.
The path’s surface consisted of prefabricated panels with a surface of thick, hardened glass with solar cells installed underneath. The three-year piloting phase yielded “better than expected” results after the first six months. In late 2016, a new stretch of improved panels will be added, extending the path to 92 metres.
A similar initiative is being run by Solar Roadways, a startup based in Sandpoint, Idaho founded by electrical engineer Scott Brunsaw and his wife Julie Brunsaw. Together they are working to produce commercial solar road panels made from recycled materials.
In April 2014, Solar Roadways started a crowdfunding drive at Indiegogo hoping to raise $1 million to put their product into production. Instead, it raised $2.2 million and became Indiegogo’s most popular campaign ever by volume of support, in part attributed to a Tweet made by actor George Takei that reached his 8 million followers.
In the summer of 2016, Solar Roadways announced that they would be trialling its technology at Conway’s Route 66 Welcome Center and Museum. If successful, this could signal the end of tarmac roads and the birth of futuristic solar panelled smart super highways.
Biofuel from Algae
Biofuels are essential to greener global energy. One of the best biofuels is harvested from the energy-rich oils secreted by algae. Algaculture, the process of farming algae biofuel, does not need farmland to grow. This makes it ideal for land unsuitable for agriculture.
Furthermore, it grows at a much more rapid pace than traditional crops, it has minimal impact on fresh water (it can be produced using saline or waste water), it is biodegradable and harmless to the environment if spilled.
Algae presents researchers with “an incredible number of unique properties that can be harnessed to develop promising algal biofuel technologies”, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
It is claimed that algae biofuel could yield anywhere between 10 and 100 times more fuel than other second-generation biofuel crops such as corn ethanol. While it still has some way to go before it hits price parity with oil, the startup Sapphire Energy already began commercial sales in 2013.
Staying on the subject of biofuels, the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) has announced that it is on the verge of the world’s most significant biofuel breakthrough that could potentially transform the oil market.
Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, and its partners Honeywell UOP and Etihad Airways founded SBRC in Masdar City, Dubai. Their goal was to cultivate plants for the purpose of converting them into renewable biofuels.
By studying halophytes, plants that have evolved naturally to live in high salinity waters, they found that the “super plant”, salicornia, contained seeds with oils that can be turned into jet fuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks.
Darrin Morgan, the Director of Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at Boeing, believes this discovery will make it possible for countries all over the world to turn their deserts into biofuel-producing agricultural lands.
“It is a huge discovery, a game-changer for the biofuels market”, he says, “20 percent of the world’s land is either desert or becoming desert through overuse or mal-use and 97% of the world’s water is saltwater. So if you can use those two factors that turns the scarcity problem that plagues all biofuels on its head”.
On the back of this news, Boeing is also planning to power all flights at Sea-Tac airport with sustainable aviation biofuel.
Biofuel from Waste
“What are you doing Doc?” asks a bewildered Marty McFly as he watches Emmett Brown fish through a rubbish bin.
“I need fuel!” Emmett retorts, inspecting an empty beer can. The Doc has returned from the distant future of 2015 (doesn’t that make you feel old) where advanced technology has enabled him to replace the plutonium-powered flux capacitor for his time-travelling DeLoren machine with a trash-eating Mr. Fusion.
Technology tends to develop faster in the movies than it does in reality (where are the hoverboards?), but it’s getting there slowly.
The good news is that waste, can indeed, now be used to create biomass for conversion into a biofuel. This decreases waste management problems, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the speed of global warming and the use of fossil fuels.
Anaerobic digestion is the process by which organic waste matter from farms, forests, households, and industry is broken down to produce biogas, nutrient-rich biofertilizers, and even transport fuel. This reduces the need for landfills and the CO2 that is released into the atmosphere by them.
According to a joint report by NGOs whose backers include BA, WWF, and Virgin Airways, fuel made from waste could replace 16 percent of all the fuel used on European roads by 2030, cut spending on oil imports, boost the rural economy by up to €15 billion and support up to 300,000 jobs.
So there you have it, while the world often appears like its going to hell in a horse cart, there are some exciting green and renewable energy initiatives on the horizon that we can all get behind for a cleaner, more sustainable and brighter future.