Will Green Fuel Replace Fossil Fuel in Time To Save the Planet?
Even the staunchest advocates of fossil fuel concede that the world can’t continue burning it for much longer. Yet switching to alternatives poses serious challenges for the world’s economies, especially those of developing countries. The main problem is that the technologies most likely to replace fossil fuel burning are not yet financially viable or fully developed. The most promising alternatives are nuclear (fusion and new-type fission), biofuel, artificial photosynthesis, solar (photovoltaic), and wind.
An additional problem is that the last three don’t generate electricity continuously because they rely on unpredictable forces of nature, so they need some way to store it. Unfortunately, current storage systems are just not good enough. The good news is that many of those technological problems are expected to be solved within about a decade. The earliest breakthrough will likely be in batteries.
Experts believe that a significantly better type of battery than the current best (lithium ion) will almost certainly be on the market by 2025. By “better,” they mean batteries with greater storage capacity, the ability to charge rapidly, and that cost substantially less. These new batteries will transform all autonomous electrical devices, from smartphones to drones. Their biggest impact, however, will be in three specific areas:
- First, in the automotive industry the new batteries will finally make electric vehicles viable alternatives to those burning gasoline.
- Second, they will solve the storage problem currently restricting the deployment of wind and solar power systems.
- Third, they will eliminate the need for electricity utility companies to build additional, expensive, and environment-polluting power plants to handle unpredictable surges in electricity demand. Instead, huge arrays of batteries will store the electricity for such emergencies.
Many people regard nuclear power as anything but green because of the risk of radioactive pollution. Yet, in normal operation, nuclear fission reactors create virtually no environmental pollution, and the latest plants are smaller, safer, and produce much less radioactive waste. The biggest obstacle to building new nuclear fission plants is public opinion. Memories of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are still fresh in people’s minds, and despite great improvements in safety, the general public will most likely oppose new nuclear plants for years to come. Experts say that the safer and more efficient new-generation plants, which are currently being developed, will herald a golden era for nuclear fission. However, they concede that the construction of any such plants won’t start for at least 20 years.
The public may be more receptive to a different kind of nuclear power, nuclear fusion. Though no commercial plant yet exists, governments and private companies have already invested heavily in development. The reason for such enthusiasm is that a fusion reactor could produce vast amounts of energy, but no dangerous radiation. Nuclear fusion creates energy not by splitting atoms, as in the case of nuclear fission, but by fusing the nuclei of different atoms together. The sun and other stars create their energy through this process.
On Earth, nuclear fusion promises a future of virtually unlimited, clean, and cheap energy. The technology’s development is at an advanced stage in many parts of the world, but still has a long way to go. Progress is slow because the structural plants, including those required for testing, are hugely expensive to build, and the technology is still not perfected. Considering the enormity of the task, the investment required, and the likelihood of unforeseen setbacks, experts don’t expect fusion reactors to be generating grid electricity before the year 2040.
Like nuclear fusion, artificial photosynthesis stems from a natural process. Natural photosynthesis is the highly efficient method by which chlorophyll (the green, light-capturing pigment in leaves) converts sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into organic chemicals. For decades, scientists have been attempting to perfect synthetic chlorophyll that could absorb sunlight and produce hydrocarbon fuels and other compounds. In addition, they hope artificial photosynthesis will efficiently extract hydrogen from water and thus help solve the biggest problem holding back the widespread deployment of zero-emission vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Many organizations and institutions around the world are working on the technology, the largest being the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) established in 2010 by the US Department of Energy (DOE).
Experts believe that artificial photosynthesis will be commercially viable within 10 to 15 years, though nobody today can predict how efficient the technology will be. That, and the cost factor, will determine whether this innovative science fulfills its promise and produces a real alternative to fossil fuel.
Many companies and institutions around the world are working on producing fuel from plants. Technology to extract fuel from algae, for example, is at an advanced development stage, and some of the world’s largest corporations, including Exxon, BP, Monsanto, and others, have invested in the technology. In 2009, Exxon established a partnership with California specialist biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc. Since then, the oil company has increased its investment in order to fund the development of genetically modified algae capable of producing significantly more oil.
Because of carbon emission limits set by the authorities, industries that consume large amounts of fossil fuel, or manufacture products that do, are turning their attention to biofuels. This applies especially to the airline industry. Unlike vehicle manufacturers, for example, who can meet their regulatory emissions targets through various engine and fuel options, airlines have only one option: the jet engine powered by liquid fuel. That’s why many airlines are experimenting with alternatives to standard fossil-based aviation fuel.
In June 2015, United Airlines announced that some of its flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco will be fueled by biofuel derived from farm waste and animal fats. United Airlines and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific have both invested in Fulcrum BioEnergy, the company producing this unusual fuel, which is priced competitively with traditional aviation fuel. In Europe, British Airways and Velocys are building a biofuel plant near London’s Heathrow airport.
Wind is already a firmly established, though relatively expensive, alternative energy source. Current wind turbines either on land or offshore are expensive to build and maintain, and useless without strong winds. A number of innovative companies around the world are working to solve those problems by harnessing the wind at higher altitudes, where it is much stronger and almost constant. They propose doing that in a number of novel ways. One is to use kites flown a few hundred feet up. The kites generate electricity by moving back and forth in the wind, and transmit it to a ground station through their stay wires.
Altaeros Energies, a company founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has developed a revolutionary wind turbine it calls the Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT). The BAT, which looks somewhat like an enormous fat tire about the size of a three-story house, is designed to operate at very high altitudes. The helium-filled shell, which is made from high-performance industrial fabric, houses a lightweight wind turbine. The shell rises to the desired altitude, its integrated fins align the turbine with the airflow, and tethering cables hold it in position. The BAT is designed to hover at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet, where winds are constant and their power density up to eight times greater than on the ground. Like the kite system, the BAT’s tethers transmit the generated electricity to a ground station. Experts expect high-altitude wind-generating devices like these to be in widespread use in about 10 or 12 years.
Even when green technologies are able to produce energy reliably and at a competitive price, another huge problem will have to be addressed: the switch from fossil fuels to green fuels. The cost of decommissioning existing fossil fuel plants and building “green” ones in their place is a mammoth undertaking even for rich countries. Poor countries could not contemplate it without financial support from the rich ones. There’s a simple and convincing moral argument for why rich countries should provide that support. For over a century, they used relatively cheap and abundant fossil fuels to grow their economies, and in the process created the greenhouse gasses that are now affecting the entire world. It remains to be seen if rich countries’ taxpayers will feel moved to redress the damage their wealth-creating activities have caused.
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Our best wishes for a very fruitful upcoming weekend! 🍀
Thank you all,
The IBR Team: David, Jeff and Dr. Anna
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