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Energy Analyst, Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Dec 9, 2021
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December 10th is the ceremonial awarding of the Nobel Prize for those who were back in October announced as this year's winners. The world of energy has seen its fair share of Nobel Laureates, including 118 Nobel Prize winners that have been associated with the U.S. Department of Energy across the National Labs and as far back as DOE's predecessor U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. 

With so many of the 21st century's greatest challenges being in the realm of the energy and utilities sector-- from addressing climate change to the electrification of transportation to eradicating energy poverty and more-- it stands to reason that we can expect peers working in the energy sector will be among future Nobel Prize winners. 

So I'm asking the Energy Central Community to look into their crystal ball: what breakthrough technology will be worthy of a Nobel Prize? Who are the scientific/industrial leaders who are most likely to get that prestigious call from the award committee? Share your predictions below!

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Despite the emphasis on ‘Carbon neutral’ at the recent COP-26 convention, many countries seem to be primarily concentrating on the Electrical emissions as they perhaps seem to be prominently forgetting that there are other sources as well.  It has been estimated that while electricity’s contribution is just 25% Transportation (29%), Industry (23%), Agriculture 10% and commercial & residential contributes 13% to the overall emissions.

As can be seen above, transportation contributes 29% of GHG with almost 90% accounted by petroleum based (Gasoline and diesel) products.  Industry accounts for 23% due to fossil fuel for energy and chemical reactions.  Livestock, agricultural soils and rice production have been identified as responsible for emissions in the agriculture sector. Wastes and fossil fuels account for emissions in the commercial and residential sector. 

When you hear renewables as an alternate to coal, one would probably feel relieved as coal would be replaced.  Solar and Wind are the major players in the renewables that the world is banking on mostly.  Unfortunately, their implications are still not clear at this stage especially on environment and the land requirement.  It is indeed encouraging that both solar and wind technology seem to be improving day by day.  We need to look at other options as well if we wish to reduce emissions from this sector in terms of Efficiency, end use energy efficiency, carbon capture & storage and even nuclear as an alternate.

 

Although these are a few broad categories of GHG emissions, there are several other activities under each of them that are responsible for carbon emissions which seem go out of record.  It is therefore absolutely necessary for any attempt on strategies be carefully planned towards ‘Carbon Neutral’ goal so that nothing is left out- simple example here would be Solid waste generation of the residential sector which is assuming a greater threat to many of the cities at least in India.

 

The current options in each of these contributors may look attractive now but, we need to accept them with reservation as we are ignorant of the consequences in the long run.  The option of electric vehicles in the transportation sector to reduce emissions for example, seems to appear great superficially but, if one gets into the details of life cycle of the batteries and their replacement over a longer phase in itself would present serious problem of handling the battery waste that are likely to be generated not only in one city but the entire country.

 

Considering the agriculture sector and particularly, rice production is restricted to only a few places not only in India but, also in other countries as well.  It is the other agricultural aspects that deserve attention in combating the GHG emissions.

 

It is therefore clear that the solutions towards carbon reduction need to be holistic rather than confinement to a specific sector.  We have in fact learnt considerably in our handling coal for our primary energy requirement and this with combined wisdom on the other sectors would certainly provide more or less a foolproof option towards carbon emission reduction

I see three areas of research / innovation that are just around the corner, and will make a tremendous difference in how we think about energy, and offer a direct opportunity to address climate change.

1. Fusion / Scalable Fusion - We are getting closer and closer to having an effective commercial fusion solution.  Talk about cheap / unlimited energy with few if any environmental consequences.  As much as I like solar panels of any kind, and batteries, they have negative environmental aspects that will have future consequences.  And negative social issues that have to be addressed.  A unlimited source of cheap, baseline energy will reshape mankind and our ability to shape our societies and cities in a new and supportive way.

 

2. Waste to Energy - There are number of waste to energy technologies now coming into the market place that will give us the ability to actually create the circular economy that many seek. These technologies have a minimal to none environmental impact, and in fact are restorative in nature. Plastics become oil become plastics, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals all in a non-polluting manner, and when they are no longer needed become oil again and the cycle continues.   Landfills are mined for the treasure that they hold, and restored to eliminate their negative environmental impact and awful social impacts. People are incentivized to collect waste of all kinds because it starts to have real value and will serve as feed stock fot the next round of products that we have come to expect and desire. Sustainable forests are managed as they should be with undergrowth and undesirable new growth becoming a source material for organic conversion, giving us forests that resist fires.

3. Hydrogen - Work is underway to create very cheap, pure hydrogen gas, the most abundant element on the planet earth. This highly innovative technology is coming into the marketplace now, and will make electrolyzers and steam reform hydrogen a thing of the past.  Power plants of the future run on water that can be turned into electricity with fusion and/or fuel cells. Hydrocarbons will still be needed but they will not be burned.

 

Technological success in each of these three areas will change the Earth forever, and will certainly be worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Martin Green recently won the Japan Prize, adding to his many other awards and honours. Whether is record is good enough for a Nobel Prize I don't know. https://research.unsw.edu.au/people/scientia-professor-martin-green

Martin was my PhD supervisor, and I worked with him for a decade. We are co-inventors of the PERC solar cell. PERC modules constitute 90% of global solar sales and about 50% of global annual generation capacity additions, have cumulative sales of about $100 billion, and are mitigating about 1% of global emissions by pushing out coal.

Two technologies come to mind immediately.

1. Fusion reactors

2. Solar energy from space

 

The recent headlines on progress related to fusion are promising. Fusion energy is non-polluting. And work being done on a variety of pilot technologies is getting to the point where energy output is matching and even exceeding input. Once that threshold is passed, fusion reactors begin to become not a 20-years-out project, but a technology we will be able to plug into the grid.

 

The second technology is building solar power generation from space. Today the satellites that orbit our planet, and even some that voyage to neighbouring planets are powered by solar arrays. Only journeys to the Gas Giants require non-solar power solutions (they use nuclear energy from radioactive decay). Solar power arrays on Earth have one drawback. They are physically limited by the day-night cycle of the planet. An array in space isn't limited. Power generated from large solar arrays in space offers a continuous energy source. The technology for delivery of space-based solar to Earth and its distribution remain the missing pieces in the puzzle. Would the energy be converted to radio or microwaves for transportation to receivers on the surface? What would be the structure of ground stations receiving the power? Would we use solar energy from space for remote off-grid requirements or plug it into the grid to meet baseload power requirements continuously? We have most of the technological pieces to build a solar-power-from-space solution. Is there an environmental downside? If we build an experimental pilot we can answer the questions related to environmental impacts and commercial viability. A successful demonstration project would be worthy of a Nobel Prize.