23 April 2008|
The Prometheus Guide to Green Energy
By Jason Treece
Here’s a news flash for you: Oil prices are skyrocketing, fossil fuel energy is choking the planet, and Al Gore says that Mother Earth is weeping. As global consumption of oil continues to grow, we’re warned, your frustration at having to spend $250 to fill your Escalade with gas could ultimately undermine the very fabric of our society. The apocalyptic pressure from environmental groups has meant that all forms of energy have come under tighter regulation, forcing a shift towards green(er) energy.
But at the same time, the market is also responding with advancements of its own. Here are five of the most relevant areas of technological development that look to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and the clean energy of the future.
1. Synthetic Fuel
The Shell Oil Company originally industrialized synthetic fuel technology for use in diesel racecars through a process that dates back to WWII. Synthetic fuel is made mostly from natural gas, which is both abundant and fairly clean. Recent developments have also shown that this fuel can be made from certain biomasses (not to be confused with bio-diesel, which is basically refined vegetable oil), which would further reduce carbon emissions during manufacture. The result is extremely low sulfur content (0-5 ppm) which means a much cleaner burning fuel without the need to refine petroleum-based diesel at an increased cost.
Strides have also been made by several major automakers to offer cars that utilize synthetic fuel to the utmost, resulting in drastically improved fuel efficiency, emission reduction, and increased performance when compared to gasoline engines. This is a very real technology; it is already being blended with existing high-sulfur diesel fuel to help comply with ever-stricter emissions laws in several states, and it could even find its way into the aviation industry.
2. Better Batteries
Battery technology advancements have been slow in coming for several reasons, not the least of which being the laws of physics. As one can only cram so much electricity into a material, scientists are limited in their ability to increase the power of batteries safely. But now we can rejoice, because the technology is finally starting to catch up. Lithium batteries have been around for a long time and are basically universal, powering cell-phones, laptops, iPods, and basically every rechargeable consumer product today.
Lithium-polymer is a fairly new breed of battery, though, capable of delivering extremely high currents and voltages while at the same time being able to store a lot of energy. It also charges fairly quickly, meaning your battery-powered car can get back on the road fully charged after a lunch break, for example.
Enter A123 battery technology, a very recent and rather important evolution in the world of batteries. Basically, it offers everything a LiPo battery does, except it charges even faster, discharges at even higher amperages, and doesn’t explode should it become damaged. This technology is still fairly new (read: expensive) but has already been heavily sought after by several automobile companies looking to use it in conjunction with efficient gas or diesel engines. The result? Super efficient, 100mpg battery powered cars that can toast a Ferrari.
3. Engines that do more with less
Electric cars are fine and dandy, but the internal combustion engine may still have a bright future ahead. Imagine a big luxury SUV that gets 20+mpg while towing a boat and that can go over 600 miles on a single tank. Well, Audi is making one, by adapting technology from their amazing TDI diesel race engine and putting it in their Q7 SUV. Mercedes Benz has also developed a very impressive diesel found in their E320 BlueTec that destroys full-size hybrids in efficiency and range.
Aircraft engine technology has also blossomed, resulting in larger aircraft that carry more passengers while burning less fuel. Today, cutting edge passenger aircraft, such as the Boeing 777, Airbus A380, and the yetunreleased Boeing 787 Dreamliner use superefficient engines that generate gobs of thrust while being able to operate at higher altitudes where thinner air means less fuel is required for cruise. This all adds up to more passenger miles per gallon of fuel, and for an industry as fossil-dependent as commercial aviation, each new engine advancement means more affordable airline tickets and reduced environmental impact.
4. Power generation that even cute-and-cuddly animals will like
Huge power stations belching black soot into the air…acid rain looting the forest of its foliage…these are the images associated with power generation. Coal power is still how half of U.S. power is produced and it is expected to remain the Big Dog through 2025. It’s the cheapest and most plentiful of all our energy sources, but it’s also pretty dirty. However, the industry isn’t standing still. The next generation of coal plants will reduce nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, and mercury emissions by turning coal into a gas, rather than a dust, before burning it in an effort to make this energy source more environmentally appealing.
In addition to coal power, the usual suspects for clean energy are experiencing rapid advancement as the push for “zero carbon” gets stronger. Wind generators have gotten larger and more efficient, with new materials and designs allowing impressive service life with very little maintenance. One wind farm project currently underway actually recycles derelict oilrigs, refurbishes them, and then plants a bunch of windmills on top. Several of these rigs are then towed into the Gulf of Mexico where the turbines spin happily away, generating clean, green energy. The project is modest but could pave the way for much larger and effective farms.
Thus far, solar energy has been a relatively insignificant player in the quest for clean energy, because photovoltaic cells are absurdly expensive and only convert a small fraction of the suns rays into usable energy. However, a new type of solar farm that utilizes massive mirrors to focus the suns rays onto a Stirling engine (essentially an external combustion engine) is making some progress. The technology heats the hydrogen inside the engine, causing it to turn a piston, which in turn spins a generator. These new plants could eventually produce up to 500 megawatts each, which would put the otherwise worthless desert to good use.
Power generation is such a lucrative industry that there are several other new ideas in the developmental stages. Wave generators could be placed in turbulent ocean waters, ocean current generators could be placed in areas with powerful currents, and an experimental Fusion reactor is under construction to further explore this energy option. Additionally, the market for consumer-oriented green energy generators has skyrocketed, with personal windmills and solar systems available to help individuals offset rising energy costs.
5. Production, Packaging, and recycling advancements
Cleaner cars, planes, and power are all wonderful but these advancements do little to reduce unnecessary pollution generated by industry. Not to worry, though. The use of toxic chemicals and postconsumer waste impact to landfills have been reduced, while recycling programs have become a staple of almost any company.
Consumer electronics are arguably one of the largest industries to see drastic change. Computers, stereos, T.V.’s, and appliances have all been redesigned to reduce or eliminate the use of toxins such as arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium, among others. Additionally, more and more companies are using recycled plastics during manufacture, along with recycled paper, cardboard, etc. in the packaging and distribution materials.
Almost all industrialized processes have been altered in some way to reduce environmental impact. Paper and lumber mills now burn the unused portions of trees to generate carbon-neutral power. Automobile manufacturers are using nearly four times as much aluminum in their cars as was found just 30 years ago in an effort to reduce weight and increase fuel economy. Not only that, but much of this aluminum is recycled, requiring only 5% of the energy to remanufacture than extract from raw ore. Roads, bridges, and buildings even use recycled aggregate and steel to reduce cost while providing identical performance.
It all comes down to this: rather than complain or worry about doomsday predictions of a polluted wasteland, one need only look at the progress that has been made in just the past 20 years. Competition begets better technology, and as manufacturing processes become more streamlined and clean, green, replacement materials become cheaper, the future looks bright indeed.