Recent innovations have brought what to many are the least “liked” energy resources – coal and nuclear energy – to the forefront. From one writer’s idea that Donald Trump may be inadvertently promoting climate change fixes to new ways that nuclear fuel can be utilized (and ultimately cleaned up) – we take a look at five recent discoveries, designs and ideas that have potential for revolutionizing the energy industry.
Proving carbon capture and storage is viable
All of the major news outlets and business journals in the US have been asking if Trump’s promise to “bring back coal” is feasible, and one writer, Chris Mooney of the Washington Post posed this rather interesting idea in his November 17 article: “There’s actually a way for Trump to help coal and still help the climate”. Mooney writes: (Trump’s) “pledge to help rescue the ailing coal industry — could, ironically, help to deliver one of the key missing pieces that researchers say is needed to fix climate change.” Mooney explains that “carbon capture and storage” or CCS could both solve environmental problems and as Jeff Erikson, general manager for the Americas of the Global CCS Institute, describes “(create) a new tech industry”. Just a few days after Mooney’s article was published, tech blog Endgadget reported that a team of researchers from Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership (BSCSP) has “made a major step towards proving carbon capture and storage is viable”. By injecting “liquified CO2 into a basalt formation” the team was able to solidify that carbon dioxide into Ankerite in two years, a process which was previously believed to take hundreds of years.
“The climate battle will be won in labs”
Environmental consultant J. Winston Porter postulates that the “climate battle will be won in labs, not coal fields” in his article bearing that title; he gives another example of advances made in CCS by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who “recently discovered a process to capture and convert waste carbon emissions into ethanol fuel”. The Oak Ridge National Lab blog reported that, in fact, the discovery of this process was a happy accident. The team at ORNL was using nanotechnology to study one step in a reaction, and were surprised when the electrochemical process brought them “straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst.”
“What we call nuclear waste isn’t waste at all”
A woman named Leslie Dewan is working on a project that may make fears about nuclear energy (and the 270,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that exists) a thing of the past. Dr. Dewan and her team at Transatomic Power are developing a nuclear reactor that promises to not only make plants safer, but will decrease the amount of waste coming out of plants and the length of time that it remains radioactive. Right now radioactive waste is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years but with her plant it would be for a much more manageably storable couple hundred. What she describes in X, the moonshot factory’s Youtube video is absolutely incredible. Dewan says: “What we call nuclear waste isn’t actually waste at all because it has a tremendous amount of energy left in it. Conventional reactors are fueled by pellets of solid uranium oxide that’s held in place by a thin metal cladding. The metal has to be thin so that it doesn’t absorb too many neutrons, but having a thin metal cladding means that it’s readily damaged by the radiation that’s within the reactor core. And the accumulating damage limits the amount of time that the fuel can spend in the core to about three or four years. But the problem with this is that it means you can only extract around four percent of the energy you could conceivably get out of the nuclear fuel. In a way that’s why the nuclear waste is so dangerous because there’s so much energy that’s left in it.”
“What we do instead (in this design) is take out the spent fuel assemblies from the conventional reactor, remove the metal cladding and dissolve the fuel pellets into a molten fluoride salt. We don’t have any cladding, any metal framework, in our reactor, nothing to get damaged so we can leave the fuel in our reactor for essentially as long as it takes to extract all of its remaining energy. If we use current construction techniques its about two thirds of the cost of conventional nuclear power right now, and even more importantly we can be cheaper than coal. And these numbers will improve.” In the video Dewan refers to the same Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that J. Winston Porter mentioned in reference to CCS; turns out their groundbreaking research from 50 years ago is the basis of the work Transatomic Power is doing now.
The Dawn of the the Diamond Age?
Just this past month a team of scientists from the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute created a man-made diamond that is capable of generating energy when it is placed in a radioactive field. The team says that this diamond “battery” holds promise for both clean energy and also the problem of disposal of nuclear waste – all radioactive material would be encapsulated in these diamonds, and no emissions are generated.
University of Bristol Professor Tom Scott explained that these batteries would be also revolutionary in their time-scale, lasting for thousands of years and perfect for applications where conventional battery use proves to be unfeasible, such as pacemakers or satellites.
Pollution Eating Devices
A company called U-Earth Biotechnologies has created cylindrical devices filled with bacteria that essentially “eat” pollution. Bloomberg News reports that this is one of of a handful of companies trying to combat smog, from a giant air purifier from Studio Roosegaarde, to building facades made by the company Elegant Embellishments which react to “harmful particles in the air and neutralize them”. Although advocates of these new technologies warn that they should not be excuses to avoid creating pollution in the first place, there is the realization – as International Energy Agency analyst Timur Guel reminds us – that you “need to push both angles” with a “pressing problem” like pollution.