10 Emerging Technologies in the Energy Industry

What's new in the energy industry?
What's new in the energy industry?
Sami Sarkis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The energy industry is a vast and magical world. It involves old-school fuel like coal and diesel and new-school sources like solar and wind power. Energy sources like natural gas straddle the line, like Madonna. It's been around forever, and we think we know everything about it, but then it reinvents itself and we're intrigued once more. Natural gas, you crafty substance, you.

But the old-school technologies just aren't going to cut it anymore, cost-wise or environment-wise. And the new-school technologies aren't quite ready to power everything from our smartphones to our cars.

That's where these 10 ideas come in. This list has it all: Farting microbes, pollution-reducing oxides that sound like terrible hairdos and even molten glass as a fuel storage medium. Molten glass! How cool is that, right? (Not at all cool. Just wait until you read how hot this stuff can get.)

So the old stuff gets a makeover, and the new stuff gets ready for prime time. And all of it is either here already, or on its way -- shortly.

Cleaning Up Coal
Coal band conveyers at the Moorburg coal-fired power plant in Hamburg, Germany.
Coal band conveyers at the Moorburg coal-fired power plant in Hamburg, Germany.
Krafft Angerer/Getty Images

We know coal. It's black and nasty and sooty and makes British moths evolve from white to black in order to hide from predators. It's been around forever and has been powering electric plants for about as long as there have been electric plants to power.

The thing is, coal is cheap, easy to find and we've mastered mining it. It's also the go-to fuel for emerging countries that are maybe less hip to the whole pollution and climate change thing.

The silver lining to this black cloud may be FutureGen 2.0. Is it an app? A Web site built in 2002? A low-budget, late-night, time-slot-filler on SyFy? No. It is a near-zero-emissions power plant being built in Illinois. More than 90-percent of its carbon emissions will be capture and stored (carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is a big thing for energy nerds). The process, known as oxy-combustion, burns the coal with oxygen and carbon dioxide rather than regular old air. This process also does away with mercury, sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Cram Energy into an Electric Car

You're smart, maybe even a bit geeky. You keep up with the latest technology; maybe even consider yourself an early adopter. You're sold on electric cars, and maybe you even have one already. Those little tires, those rounded bodies, those silent approaches that allow you to sneak around town.

Your mom, though, she is none of these things. She uses the browser that came with her computer, for Turing's sake. An electric car is beyond her. She'll get stranded. She wouldn't be able to visit your sister in the next state. What if she wanted to take off for an afternoon at the beach with her friends from church? So what if she's never done it before.

Your mom's dreams can come true without emitting a single molecule of carbon dioxide, thanks to Envia System's most energy-dense battery ever. It's a lithium-ion battery that packs twice as much energy per gram as the batteries in cars today. To get all techy for the geeks, the battery uses an anode made of silicon wrapped in little graphite jackets to boost performance without causing battery meltdown after one charge cycle, which is what usually happens with silicon in batteries.

They've also made the battery cooler (no more bursting into flames, a la MacBooks circa 2007) and cheaper, and they'll fit into the slots automakers are already building for the current crop of batteries. Not that your mom will believe you.

Streamline the Turbine

Some people look at a field of twirling white wind turbines and see a cleaner, brighter future. Birds with wildflowers held in their cute little beaks chirp around their heads like Cinderella getting her dress sewn. Sparkles are optional, but recommended.

Some people look at those turbines and see whirling blades of death. Sorry, birdies.

Enter the Saphonian, which is not the bad guy in a new Star Trek movie, though it should be. It is a bladeless wind turbine. It looks a bit like a satellite dish on a stalk rather than like a windmill designed by Ikea. Besides not killing Cinderella's friends, the Saphonian is easier on the ears of humans and animals alike and converts wind power to energy more efficiently. It's a win-win. Or a wind-wind, if you like puns.

Harnessing the Motion of the Ocean

You know what they say: It's not the size of the wave, it's the motion of the ocean. Turns out that's pretty much true. And now Maine is putting it to the test with the first tidal generator to go online and actually power things.

Almost every state with a coastline has dabbled in capturing the energy of water waves, but the Bay of Fundy (why does that sound funny when you say it out loud?) is making it a reality with the Maine Tidal Energy Project.

The first turbine will operate solo for a year, generating 150-kilowatts for the grid as water runs through the turbine at about 7 miles per hour (11.3 kilometers per hour). Once all the bugs are worked out of the first turbine, about 20 more will set sail and deliver about 3-megawatts of power when they're all hooked together. That's enough to power 1,200 homes. Not much, but it's a start.

Get Your Own Grid
Power grid? We don't need no stinkin' power grid.
Power grid? We don't need no stinkin' power grid.
Comstock Images/Getty Images

There are some people, often in hemp pants and vegan shoes, who want to get off the grid and live on the land in harmony with nature. Or maybe they want to stick it to the man. Or maybe they're in a maximum-security jail.

Santa Rita Jail in Alameda, California (it's near San Francisco, no surprise) uses an array of fuel cells, solar panels, wind turbines and diesel generators to power its very own micro grid. All the jail's power is generated on-site, which means it doesn't have to connect to a central power plant or be on the grid at all. When a storm knocks out power in Alameda, the electricity at the jail is still on. That's a relief, eh?

In addition to safety, the microgrid delivers cleaner power for less money. The jail actually saves $100,000 a year and sells some of its excess power back to the grid. And because the solar panels and wind turbines are hooked up to batteries and diesel generators, the fickle nature of sun and wind don't cause dips in power. They've got backup.

Clean the Fracking Water
Engineers on the drilling platform of the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility on Oct. 7, 2012 in Preston, Lancashire.
Engineers on the drilling platform of the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility on Oct. 7, 2012 in Preston, Lancashire.
Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing, for those of you who don't like to even sound like you might be swearing a little bit) for natural gas is a controversial practice. On the up-side, it's giving us access to more natural gas in our very own country, which makes it cheaper. On the down-side, huge amounts of water are necessary to get the gas out of the ground, and there are lots of chemicals involved that end up being stored...or not.

But wait! A company called Ecosphere has a solution that eases some of the fracking nastiness. It has developed a way to use ozone to replace some of the fracking chemicals. The process involves creating free radicals in the used fracking water, which help disinfect it. Then an electric current is run through the water, which makes any salts in the water drop to the bottom where they can be removed.

Once the water is disinfected and desalinated, it can be used again in the fracking well. Since one well can use up to 4 million gallons of water, any reuse that can be squeezed out of that water, however fracking imperfect, is still a fracking improvement.

Soak Up the Sun

Quick! Think of solar power! The image you probably came up in your mind is a roof covered in shiny black panels. Right? Those are photovoltaic cells. They make power when the sun shines. When it's cloudy or the sun is inconveniently on the other side of the planet, though, they don't.

Enter concentrating solar power, or CSP -- if you want to sound all cool about alternative energy. These things concentrate the sun's energy like a sophisticated magnifying glass hovering over a poor, defenseless ant on the sidewalk. But instead of burning innocent ants, the energy is so intense it becomes hot enough to heat a fluid, often molten salts, to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537.8 degrees Celsius). This fluid can be stored, with energy inside it, until it's needed. Then it can power a turbine or engine to create electricity.

This already sounds fancy, and it is, but it's going to get fancier. And hotter. If researchers have their way, the energy from the sun will heat the fluid, which will be something like molten glass (which sounds super cool), to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093.3 degrees Celsius). This will, in theory, be far more efficient and far cheaper than the CSP systems in use already. And MOLTEN GLASS!

Bug Fart Power!

Is there anything bacteria can't do? It seems like every time we turn around, they're causing epidemics and doing good in our guts and solving quantum equations. Sure, maybe they don't do higher mathematics, but they do fart methane. And we like that. Really.

These little guys, who live at Stanford and Penn State with their scientist friends, are called methanogens. It only sounds like they should have a cameo on "Breaking Bad".They do not make drugs. In the wild, if you can imagine free-range methanogens, they would eat carbon dioxide from the air and electrons from hydrogen gas and excrete (the scientists' word; we know they mean fart) pure methane.

The scientists have figured out that if the methanogens are fed a stream of electrons from emissions-free power sources, like solar cells and wind farms, to go with their main dish of CO2, the methane farts that result can be turned into fuel for airplanes, ships and cars.

Air-Breathing Battery

In case you weren't impressed with the fire-breathing CSP, which will someday use molten glass as a storage fluid (still cool), how about an air-breathing battery?

The thing with solar is that when the sun is shining full-blast, solar power plants go like gangbusters. They can put out so much energy the grid doesn't even know what to do with it. Then a big cloud comes by, and it's game over. So everyone is looking for a way to hold on to the energy created in the good times to release during the dark times. Literal dark times, not metaphorical.

So now there's an iron-air battery that can use the rusting process to store energy. No, you may not bring your crappy old Pontiac Grand Am to the local solar facility and park it in their front lawn as a favor. Iron-air batteries have been around for decades, but they were crazy inefficient. However, by adding a wee-bit of bismuth (the pink part of Pepto-Bismol), these new iron-air batteries are ten times more efficient. And cheaper. And safer. And environmentally friendlier.

Depollute Diesel
Audi celebrates the arrival of TDI clean diesel technology on June 23, 2009 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Audi celebrates the arrival of TDI clean diesel technology on June 23, 2009 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Alexandra Wyman/WireImage/Getty Images

For a long time, diesel has had a terrible reputation. And it deserved it. It was stinky, and filthy, and sent of noxious black clouds from the tailpipes of nasty little cars. Sure, it got more miles to the gallon than gasoline, but is it worth it when you can see and smell the pollution?

Over the years, engineers and chemists have worked to clean up diesel's reputation, and the latest in clean diesels are a vast improvement over the old stuff. But scientists at the University of Texas in Dallas think they've found a way to reduce the pollution and the cost of cleaning up diesel.

Since diesel fuel currently uses platinum -- that's right, the stuff that hip-hop stars' dreams are made of -- to reduce pollution, using just about anything else would make it cheaper. The new material is a business-up-front, party-in-the-back man-made material called mullite. Not only is it cheaper, as you'd expect from an oxide called mullite, but it reduces pollution from diesel fuel by 45-percent.

Author's Note

Author's Note: 10 Emerging Technologies in the Energy Industry

Almost every time I write an article for HowStuffWorks, I learn something new, and I pass the learning on to you. That really goes without saying.

But I love science. I love rovers on Mars and mice with ears on their backs. I love farting microbes and molten glass. Writing an article like this means I have to (get to) read a bunch of scientific articles and search the intertubes for cool new stuff that's being reported right this very minute.

I took this opportunity to sign up for the RSS feed or newsletter of every one of my sources, and to get a copy of a 300-page government report on energy sent to me as a PDF. I didn't even get to use it as a source for this article! Gah! Maybe next time...

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