Some clean-energy technologies just got a billion dollar investment boost
We’re keeping a steady eye on energy breakthroughs at the moment, and for the forseeable future. Singularity Hub did this report on seven investments in “wild” energy technologies, made by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, set up by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, and Michael Bloomberg. Yes, pretty much an elite play… but it’s a rough indicator of where we, the citizenry, should look to see what our energy options are.
From the Hub report:
Fusion power is the great white whale of energy research; it promises a limitless source of pollution-free electricity, but it’s always 20 years away. But MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems says it’s for real this time. They’ve promised to have a fusion plant up and running in 15 years.
The company plans to exploit new high-temperature superconductors to create more powerful magnets that will contain the plasma at the heart of their reactor. That should make their technology smaller and cheaper than previous designs, which should allow for commercial viable fusion power.
The Conversation on nuclear fusion: “Nuclear fusion is what powers the Sun and the stars – unleashing huge amounts of energy through the binding together of light elements such as hydrogen and helium. If fusion power were harnessed directly on Earth, it could produce inexhaustible clean power, using seawater as the main fuel, with no greenhouse gas emissions, no proliferation risk, and no risk of catastrophic accidents. Radioactive waste is very low level and indirect, arising from neutron activation of the power plant core. With current technology, a fusion power plant could be completely recycled within 100 years of shutdown.”
When you think about preventing climate change, fracking probably isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind. But California startup Fervo Energy is repurposing the industry’s techniques to create new sources of geothermal energy.
Current geothermal plants require a perfect combination of naturally-occurring heat, water, and permeable rock. The latter is normally the limiting factor, so people have long proposed pumping high-pressure water into wells to widen existing fractures and improve permeability. So far no one has managed to make the idea commercially viable, but Fervo thinks drilling technology advances from the fracking industry have put that goal in sight.
Video above: The Years Project on Geothermal Energy
The Hub article reports that the Breakthrough funds is backing three:
Electric vehicles could make it possible to completely decarbonize the transport sector, but with current battery technology they simply can’t compete with petrol in terms of range. QuantumScape thinks solid-state batteries are the answer, and the company could be producing them commercially by 2025.
The technology replaces the liquid electrolyte found in standard batteries with a solid one, which could greatly increase the energy density and therefore storage capacity of the devices. Automaker Volkswagen clearly thinks they’re on the right track after investing $100 million in the company
Using cheap and abundant sulfur could make these batteries dramatically cheaper than current lithium-ion technology. In a flow battery the liquid electrolyte is pumped around the electrodes, which means pumps and other bulky components that would rule out use in things like smartphones. But the technology is a promising option for grid-scale energy storage.
WATER AS ENERGY STORAGE
Another investment is Quidnet Energy, which is pushing a more unusual form of energy storage. The idea is to use electricity to pump water into abandoned oil and gas wells when there’s a surplus of energy on the grid, before releasing it at times of high demand to drive a turbine generator above ground.
More: A deep dive into the evolution of pumped-hydro storage technology. And see “Switzerland: The Alpine Battery”, above.
An often-overlooked source of CO2 is the concrete industry, but Canadian startup CarbonCure has come up with a way to make it a sink for carbon emissions. Their technology injects CO2 collected from other industrial emitters into the concrete production process, which makes the concrete stronger and also permanently stores the greenhouse gas as a mineral.
Throwing ingenuity - and venture-capitalist expectations of returns - at climate change is one way of attacking the problem. How can it be framed as a challenge to human inventiveness and enterprise, rather than an already victorious enemy, slowly crushing us?
But it’s just to say: we know that an abundance of clean energy, which allows us to power the same range of disposable consumer products (or even more of them) doesn’t address what eco-economists call “material throughput”, IE, the mountain of stuff in our lives.
And do we think that retailers and lifestyle merchants like Bezos, Ma and Branson have in mind an equally “breakthrough” transformation - to reduce the flow of consumer goods? We wonder.