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Energy Transition Fast Forward: The Exergeia Manifesto
Dr. Maximilian Martin
Inventions have kept changing our lives ever since our ancestors stopped living on trees. The invention of the plow made human civilization first possible. The steam engine enabled the Industrial Revolution. As the future powers on, this century?s key challenge is mastering the energy transition. We need affordable, carbon-neutral (or carbon-negative) energy, and security of its supply. How can our inventors enable the future we want to inhabit? What can we do to support them? Here are eight viewpoints.
First, we need to be attentive to enabling technologies that have a ripple effect. Take the invention of the wheel. The wheel changed the game in 3,500 BC. When people were already building canals and sailboats or casting metal alloys in the Bronze Age, they still had no carts. 5,500 year later, we take cheap long-distance overland transport for granted. Without the wheel it would have been impossible to get where we are. Now knowledge travels even faster, since the invention first of the printing press in the 1430s, and the onset of the communication revolution?kicked off when Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph in 1837. The most exciting technologies are the ones that are pathways to new forms of existence.
Second, we need to dare. You want utility-scale cheap renewable energy, regardless of weather conditions? Take the Luna Ring concept developed by scientists at the Shimizu Corporation: a belt of solar cells around the 11,000 km lunar equator generates electric power 24/7?which it transmits to the Earth from the near side of the Moon which always faces the Earth. To achieve this, the Luna Ring uses microwaves and high-powered laser beams for energy transmission. There will be no generation inefficiencies due to bad weather or atmosphere unlike here on Earth. The Luna Ring could generate enough electricity to power the entire Earth. 20km-diameter antennas are envisioned to transmit power to the receiving rectennas and they will be supported by high-energy lasers that can be directed at smaller receiving facilities. Transmitted anywhere on the Earth, electricity can then be fed to the grid, stored or used to produce hydrogen. Too much out of the box? Well, the Japanese scientists working on this hope to start building the Luna Ring in 2035. After machines and equipment from the Earth are assembled in space and have landed on the lunar surface for installation, remotely-controlled solar robotic production plants then move along the equator while producing solar cells from lunar resources, and installing them. For our energy imagination and inventiveness, not even space is the limit.
Third, we need to make progress along all energy transition frontiers: energy generation, storage, transmission and efficiency. A lot is possible. Alcatel has already demoed a mobile phone with a transparent solar panel over the screen that would allow users to charge their phone by simply placing it in the sun. Now what if mobile phones could be charged superfast in 30 seconds, and electric cars in three minutes? Similar to proteins used by body builders to grow bigger faster, StoreDot?a start-up born from the nanotechnology department at Tel Aviv University (Israel)?used biological semiconductors made from naturally occurring organic compounds known as peptides (short chains of amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins) to accomplish this. By 2017, StoreDot plans to demonstrate an electric car battery that can be charged in just three minutes. This is the kind of thinking we need to apply to all areas of alternative energy. Take solar energy: we need to find ways to use a much wider spectrum of sunlight and dramatically raise the efficiency of solar panels. True, multi-junction cells already today allow for a 45% conversion efficiency and the fast rise of the efficiency of ?perovskites?, a newer class of materials with a particular crystal structure is promising. But we will need to double that to 90%, and fast.
In power transmission there is much work to do as well. When power stations pass the power they generate via complex networks comprising transformers, overhead lines and cables to supply the end users, they incur transmission and distribution losses. Transmission losses are in the order of 20%. Distribution losses reach 50%. In our current electricity transmission and distribution paradigm, variable losses alter as a function of the amount of electricity distributed, proportional to the square of the current. So a one percent increase in current means an additional loss of much more than one percent. Fresh ideas are needed to tackle this and other problems so as to enable broad progress on all fronts that add up to a full energy transition: generation, storage, transmission and efficiency.
Fourth, we need to take our cues from science ? and be ambitious. Amazing breakthroughs are in the wings, waiting to be taken from the lab to becoming commercial products. Take silicene, also dubbed ?graphene?s cousin,? and made of one-atom thick sheets of silicon atoms. In the mid-2000s, scientists theorized that silicon atoms could form sheets similar to graphene?or pure carbon, in the form of a one atom thick very thin, nearly transparent sheet that is at least 100 times stronger than steel, and that in spite of its low weight, conducts heat and electricity with high efficiency. But even if graphene is the world?s most conductive substance, it is missing a crucial characteristic: unlike the semiconductors which are used in computer chips, graphene misses a band gap. This is the energy hurdle that electrons must overleap before they can carry a current, thereby enabling semiconductor devices to switch on and off, performing logic operations on bits. Now given its properties, if silicene could be used to build electronic devices, it could enable the semiconductor industry to achieve the Holy Grail in miniaturization. Is this a theorist?s fantasy? Yes, until three years ago, when Guy Le Lay, a French materials scientist at Aix-Marseille University managed to create silicene in the lab. There are many developments in chemistry, nanotechnology, and materials science that allow ideas from theoretical physics to be translated into practice.
Fifth, whatever is rolled out needs to work and be cheap?otherwise large-scale adoption will remain a fantasy. For example, if a recent discovery makes it to production, organic batteries could be key to getting to the storage solutions we need. The price signal is good: MIT scientists have created an organic flow battery that costs only USD 27 per kilowatt-hour, compared to metal batteries at USD 700 per kilowatt-hour. This is nearly a 97 percent saving. Even more disruptive, if it can be made to work, cold fusion?a theorized type of nuclear reaction occurring at room temperature providing an almost limitless source of energy?would completely upset the apple cart by avoiding perilous toxic waste and offering a pretty much unlimited supply of fuel that is constant and reliable. But it still does not exist, and time will tell if it will. Whatever one invents, it is wise not to lose sight of the underlying economics possible given efficiency and cost of inputs. To be deployed at scale, renewable energy needs to be able to easily compete with fossil fuels in terms of price and availability?this also at times such as today, when the price of a barrel of Brent Spar trades at its lowest in real terms since the 1980s. In calculating your long-term economics, you are moreover wise to consider that once renewables seriously disrupt demand for fossil fuels, the latters? price will drop further.
Sixth, let?s keep things simple and practical whenever possible. We do not know if and when cold fusion will see the daylight, but in the meantime a lot of new technologies are viable today and need to graduate from their existence in the lab. For example, the paper-like battery JENAX can fold and is waterproof?this means that it can be integrated into clothing or wearables. The battery has already been created and even safety tested, including being folded over 200,000 times without losing performance. If such a battery is built into the strap of a smartwatch, battery life of wearables will become manageable, and the size of the devices can be shrunk down. There is practical demand for such a solution out there.
Seventh, we need everyone. To solve the energy problem at the scale required, we will need all the talent we can get. We will need to find new ways of working together: scientists, investors, and business developers. Now if you are an adept of conspiracy theories assuming that all the solutions needed already exist but have been suppressed, you are of course free to believe what you want. But let?s not forget: you live in the age of the citizen. As the communication revolution advances, it will shine the light of transparency into every corner of our existence. So why not join the quest and contribute your insights and inventions now, rather than standing on the sidelines, too scared to play?
Finally?and this is pretty obvious?if we want the energy transition to succeed, we need to start raising our game today. If you think I?m crazy or over ambitious, that?s great, because it means you have read the Exergeia Manifesto until here. With the Exergeia project, we want to identify, back and fast-track the inventions needed to get us to the clean energy future we need. If it works, we are agnostic if you have a working prototype of a Space Energy Converter, putting out more power than goes in from any previously recognized source. Or if you are working on nano-batteries that are 80,000 times smaller than a human hair and can offer three times the capacity of current efforts while charging in just 12 minutes, working for thousands of cycles. If you are working on a breakthrough and have results to show, come and join the quest. Contact us.
Maximilian Martin, Ph.D. is the founder and global managing director of Impact Economy, an impact investment and strategy firm based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and leads the Exergeia Project. Join their quest for a full energy transition in our lifetime, and circulate the Exergeia Manifesto to every inventor you know. To succeed, we need all the talent we can get!