The latest innovations in sustainable energy are making major waves. From food-waste power to antimatter starships, these technologies can help reduce carbon emissions while enhancing the efficiency and security of our electricity supply.
Lucy Heintz, Head of Energy Infrastructure at Actis, discusses the importance of accessing cleaner, greener energy for emerging economies. This includes investing in the right energy infrastructure that can be built and scaled sustainably.
Solar Panels Made From Food Waste
While solar energy is a crucial step in the shift away from fossil fuels, critics of this renewable power source often point to its dependency on ideal sunny conditions and often ask will energy switching resume? To address this issue, a Filipino inventor has developed resinous panels that harvest solar energy from recycled vegetables to create clean, renewable electricity even when it’s rainy or cloudy.
Electrical engineering student Carvey Ehren Maigue’s new material—which recently won him the James Dyson Sustainability Award—is made from discarded fruit and vegetable waste that absorbs stray ultraviolet (UV) rays through dense cloud cover, converting them into clean, renewable energy. The resulting system—which can be affixed to walls and windows—can turn the sun’s light into electricity that can then be used to charge devices or to generate energy for buildings.
Maigue’s invention consists of a translucent resin that contains organic luminescent compounds sourced from upcycled fruit and vegetable waste. These compounds convert UV light into visible light, which is then used to activate photovoltaic cells that convert that visible light into electricity. The result is a flexible, durable panel that can be affixed to building facades and windows, and can generate up to 50 watts of electricity per square foot. When scaled up, this can enable entire skyscrapers to be powered by the sun, using nothing but renewable electricity.
Not only is Maigue’s creation an important advancement in solar energy, but it could also reduce the amount of food that’s wasted. Around 40% of the world’s crops are thrown out, creating methane emissions—a heat-trapping gas—and costing farmers lost revenue. The ability to recycle these crops as a resource would not only cut down on food waste, but also help struggling farmers earn a living.
The future of sustainable energy looks bright, with a growing number of innovations helping to drive down costs and increase availability of renewable energy. While there are still challenges to overcome, such as ensuring a steady supply of renewables and addressing environmental impacts associated with production, these innovations show how the world is shifting to a more sustainable energy consumption. Hopefully these innovations will inspire others to become more environmentally conscious.
A staple of science fiction, matter-antimatter reactors power starships through their ability to generate energy from antimatter explosions. But does it really make sense to use this type of power for interplanetary or even interstellar travel? In physics, antimatter is simply the mirror image of matter and is composed of particles with the same mass but opposite electric charge. These particles can form particle pairs like electrons and positrons, or protons and antiprotons. While antiparticles occur naturally in cosmic ray collisions and some radioactive decay, they can only be produced in very small quantities using particle accelerators. This limited artificial production has never been enough to create a substantial amount of antimatter.
But when physicists collide a single atom of matter with its antimatter counterpart, the result is an almost perfect conversion of matter and antimatter into energy. This process releases a huge amount of energy (8.99 x 1016 Joules per kilogram of matter/antimatter) and leaves behind a spray of secondary particles that decay into neutrinos and low-energy gamma rays.
This incredible energy density has fueled speculation that antimatter-powered spacecraft will soon be a reality. But before you start packing your bag for a trip to the farthest reaches of our galaxy, keep in mind that such a vehicle would require enormous amounts of specialized antimatter fuel. In fact, the same scientists who run the CERN Large Hadron Collider have recently been able to isolate hydrogen antimatter for only one-tenth of a second, so don’t expect your next interstellar journey to be powered by antimatter rockets any time soon.
Nevertheless, the idea isn’t completely crazy. A new generation of rocket engines is now able to use ions as propellant rather than conventional gases, which allows the same thrust to be achieved with much less mass. This will reduce the amount of energy required to operate an antimatter system and allow it to perform a greater range of maneuvers before needing to refuel, so it might just be possible that we’ll see ion-powered starships sooner than you think. Just don’t pack your sonic screwdriver just yet, though.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen to electricity without emitting any pollution or greenhouse gases. They’re an ideal energy source for light commercial vehicles requiring long-range driving and rapid refueling, as well as backup power for businesses and other applications such as drones.
Hydrogen fuel cells are currently in use in a number of commercial applications, including forklifts and buses. Reuters reports that there are already over 23,000 fuel cell-powered forklifts in operation around the world, as well as dozens of hydrogen-fueled buses operating in cities and towns across the country, including many at Amazon and Walmart warehouses. The technology is also becoming more widely available, with consumer-level hydrogen refueling stations opening up in places like Montreal and even oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Unlike battery electric vehicles, which store their own energy in batteries, hydrogen-powered vehicles convert electricity onboard from stored hydrogen using an electrochemical process. This creates the vehicle’s traction and drive systems and produces zero-emissions throughout its operation, including during refueling. Hydrogen is produced by running an electrical current through water, which can be done with renewable or nuclear power sources so that the only byproducts are water and heat.
While hydrogen isn’t found in nature, it can be made from a wide variety of materials, including biomass (plants) and waste products, such as landfill gas. Equinor’s Mutoru discussed how her company is aiming to become the largest producer of clean hydrogen in North America, a project that involves constructing a decarbonized energy hub in the Appalachian region. The company’s goal is to produce 1.5 million tons of clean hydrogen per year in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania by 2040, while also storing 30 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Although it’s still early days for fuel cell vehicles, a growing number of manufacturers, such as Toyota and Hyundai, are offering them for sale in the U.S. The cost of these vehicles is expected to continue to decline, allowing them to compete with conventional gas-powered cars on price and range over time.
While it may take more than 40 years for solar and wind power to become cost competitive, experts believe that hydrogen could achieve a similar rate of reduction in the near term, thanks to investments by government, industry, and national labs. As these technologies become more affordable and widespread, they will play a key role in aligning diverse supply methods with complex end-user demand and providing a flexible, clean, and resilient alternative to fossil and nuclear power.
Digitally Enhanced Energy Systems
Over the coming decades, digital technologies are set to make energy systems around the world more connected, intelligent, efficient, reliable and sustainable. Massive amounts of data, ubiquitous connectivity and rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence are enabling everything from smart appliances to shared mobility and 3D printing.
As the world becomes more urban, people will consume increasing amounts of energy in buildings, factories and offices – accounting for about 50% of global energy consumption (and 71% of direct energy-related greenhouse gas emissions). Digitalisation could help to cut this energy demand by making it easier for buildings to respond to changes in demand with more efficient heating, lighting and cooling. It could also enable better integration of renewables, through smarter control systems and more efficient grid management.
Similarly, digitalisation could facilitate the development of household solar PV panels and storage, as well as facilitating peer-to-peer electricity trading within local energy communities. It would also allow industrial processes to be automated, reducing the need for manual operations and boosting efficiency. It could even open up new business models for consumers, such as self-generation and sharing of energy between households.
However, digitalisation will only deliver these benefits if the appropriate policies are in place. Issues such as data interoperability, supply security and privacy must be addressed. Furthermore, the availability of high-quality energy data is critical to drive efficiencies and to ensure that accurate, timely statistics are available.
If policy makers can find the right mix of solutions to these challenges, it is possible to achieve a low-carbon, resilient and affordable energy system that will power our future in ways we’ve never imagined. This is a complex task that requires a wide range of skills. The MSc in Digital Energy Systems is designed to offer a comprehensive understanding of the key techniques and methodologies for modelling, optimisation and control of modern industrial energy systems. You’ll learn to use a diverse toolkit of digital tools and models to solve complex problems in energy systems, whilst supporting key objectives such as achieving Net Zero emissions. You’ll benefit from the expert advice of our team of thought leaders in this field and work closely with industry to develop practical solutions to real-world energy challenges.