By Alex Kimani
With the clean energy shift beginning to gain serious momentum, the prime candidates for a sustainable future have been solar, wind, and–to a lesser extent–geothermal energy and nuclear fission.
But with the window for the world to act to avert catastrophic and irreversible climate change rapidly closing down, we are beginning to realize that every bit counts. That has led to a pondering of a litany of other technologies. Many of these technologies go way beyond the fringe, but the “fringe” itself has been relocated much further from reality.
After all, what we have long considered fringy–such as ocean power and hydrogen–now appear set to go mainstream sooner rather than later.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) has warned that we may never reach our climate goals in time unless we invest more aggressively in fringe technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS). The recent spate of extreme weather events drives this point further home.
Here are five of the newest and wildest ways to generate energy.
#1 Hemp-Fueled Power Plant
Hemp, a type of cannabis plant that looks identical to marijuana, is already widely used to make various commercial and industrial products, including textiles, clothing, rope, paper, and bioplastics.
However, the weed plant could soon play a vital role in alternative energy development as well.
French fuel cell startup Qairos Energies plans to invest ~$23 million into a gasification facility that will convert hemp biomass into hydrogen and methane. The two natural gas constituents are to be sold to regional transit agencies for the purpose of electricity generation.
The Qairos facility will run on gasification technology whereby heat and oxygen will be applied to hemp biomass resulting in gaseous substances. Qairos has a target to generate two tons of hydrogen and 200 cubic meters of methane per day.
#2 Solar power from the moon
Scientists have mooted the idea of beaming solar power from nearby celestial bodies such as the moon–where the sun always shines–to our planet. Although this sounds quixotic, scientists have actually established that it’s not only feasible but also economically viable.
Lunar Solar Power (LSP) arrays on the moon would receive uninterrupted, high energy density from the sun and beam all the energy via microwaves to any part of the globe facing the moon. Tens of thousands of receivers on our planet would capture this energy and use rectennae to convert it to electricity.
The good part: Microwaves have little trouble cutting through the atmosphere while rectennae have the ability to rectify microwaves into electric power very efficiently.
The main kicker: The technology could supply 18 TW of power today and possibly 24 TW by 2050; more than enough not only for the world’s electricity needs but also for its entire primary power consumption of ~15,000 Mtoe or 170,000TWh per year.
The harsh reality: Pulling this off on the moon would not be a walk in the park.
Major challenges here include the question of how to set up a manned lunar station for the purpose of supervision and maintenance, not to mention that the idea of constantly bathing the masses in microwaves is bound to offend some sensibilities.
#3 Artificial Blowholes
In this new age of renewable energy, tidal and wave energy have largely failed to live up to their enormous potential despite being a more reliable energy source than either solar and wind power. But a Blue Energy revolution especially is now looking to change that with the EU targeting 1-3 GW for ocean energy by 2030 and 60 GW by 2050.
Luckily, the pace of innovation has been accelerating to make blue energy an everyday reality.
Australia-based Wave Swell Energy has been exploring technology that will generate renewable power by harvesting wave energy pushed through an oscillating water column (OWC), also known as an “artificial blowhole”.
In such a device, the movement of air created during normal wave oscillations spins a turbine that produces electricity. OWC really is a form of an artificial blowhole whereby an underwater chamber opens to the waves with an air cavern above the water in the chamber. The WSE OWC is unique in that it functions unidirectionally rather than bidirectionally like all previous OWCs by incorporating simple flap valves into the OWC. The WSE setup is currently able to generate up to 200 kilowatts of power with plans for larger 1,000kW models.
Waves are naturally more consistent and predictable than other renewable sources of energy, allowing them to more easily complement existing fossil fuel baseload during the transition to a fully renewable grid.
#4 Commonwealth Fusion Systems Scientists and energy experts everywhere consider nuclear fusion the Holy Grail for clean, abundant, and sustainable power. Unfortunately, a host of technical issues have so far prevented the technology from becoming a reality, though France’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is working hard to change that, as we explained here. The $22 billion ITER is a collaborative effort by 35 countries and expects to begin testing in five years.
But now, another fusion startup is trying to succeed where others have failed.
Bloomberg has reported that Commonwealth Fusion Systems has raised $84 million from Singapore’s Temasek Holding, Norway’s Equinor, and other investors in its latest round. Founded by MIT researchers in 2018, Commonwealth Fusion Systems has now raised more than $200 million.
More than $1.2 billion has poured into private fusion startups such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Canada’s General Fusion Inc., U.S.’ TAE Technologies Inc. and U.K.’s Tokamak Energy Ltd.
#5 Algae Biofuels
This idea is not exactly new, but holds the biggest potential to quickly become mainstream if Big Oil can figure out the economics.
Back In 2009, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) entered the algae biofuels race with a bang, teaming up with unicorn biotech startup Synthetic Genomics Inc., and outlining plans to invest more than $600M in the clean energy project. Exxon had lofty ambitions to produce algae biofuel within a decade but later pushed back the ETA in 2018 by saying it planned to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuels per day by 2025.
Exxon now stands as the only oil and gas supermajor that is still pursuing algae biofuels in a big way, with the company claiming on its website to have invested ~$250M in biofuels research over the past decade.
However, it’s going to take some serious feats of financial engineering for Exxon’s algae biofuels to compete in this era of $60-$70/bbl oil or for the company to convince its critics that this is not just another attempt at greenwashing.
To be fair, algae biofuels are not such a terrible idea.
Algae does have some clear advantages over other biofuel candidates, mainly because these photosynthetic microorganisms are super-efficient at converting sunlight into biomass; have high lipid content of up to 80% for some varieties and are more versatile than, say, corn, a common biofuel crop. Indeed its ancient algae lipids–not fossilized dinosaurs–that are responsible for the crude oil that has made companies like Exxon the energy supergiants they are today.
From a technical standpoint, Exxon’s efforts to turn algae into fuel have been largely successful.
Unfortunately, so far, making the economics of algae biofuels competitive with those of crude has proven to be a formidable challenge.
Oil was at ~$100/barrel at the height of the algae biofuel craze about a decade ago, with even government agencies ponying up funds for algae research. But now, there’s a fair chance that we could have entered a new era of “Low Forever” with oil prices set to remain depressed with no real chance of a strong comeback.
Indeed, crude would have to be around $500/bbl for algae biofuels to make sense economically.
Clearly, that’s not happening, and Exxon has its work cut out.
Government support remains critical.
Although the majority of innovation in the algae biofuel space has been funded by private companies including Big Oil companies as well as startups such as Synthetic Genomics in Southern California and Algenol in Florida, the U.S. government has also played a major part in funding projects in the quest to find the ultimate algae strain that can compete successfully on a cost-effective level with fossil fuels.
After a number of costly failed attempts and the pullout of many private companies, it has become a lot harder to create lasting partnerships or to acquire federal funds. Nevertheless, the U.S. administration has been turning again to biofuels to help answer some of the nation’s more head-scratching energy problems.
“We are really excited about the decarbonization products coming into the economy and are driving our efforts,” Dan Fishman, the technology manager at the DOE’s Bioenergy Technology Office (BETO) has said, referring to U.S. President Joe Biden’s goal to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.