Posted on May 29, 2019 by Spencer Nelson
At ClearPath, we spend most of our time discussing such critical clean energy technologies as advanced nuclear, carbon capture and long duration energy storage.
But in a break from our regularly scheduled programming, we wanted to highlight some hidden innovation gems being researched at the Department of Energy that may not currently get as much attention but could prove to be just as critical in expanding a reliable and clean power sector.
A lot of the research we do now will pay off in ways we never originally expected, and a lot of technologies currently considered marginal could be revolutionary. Ever use a DustBuster or memory foam? You can thank NASA. In the energy space, semiconductor research helped significantly reduce the cost of solar, while jet engines led to ultra-cheap natural gas combined cycle.
Let’s explore a couple of other examples.
Geothermal has always been a very limited resource, mainly produced out West since it needs both very hot rock and a captive reservoir.
However, there are tremendous amounts of land nationwide that have very hot rock underground but are dry. Hydraulic fracturing has given us tremendously greater control of the subsurface through seismic analysis, drilling and injection technologies.
And similar techniques can mean that what originally seemed to be far out of reach in producing zero-emission geothermal has become significant more plausible over the last 5 years. The Department of Energy is in fact preparing a new EGS pilot (FORGE) that will greatly accelerate technology.
New companies have also emerged in the EGS space, such as Fervo Energy in the San Francisco Bay Area, which seeks to use horizontal drilling to expand geothermal energy’s potential.
Geothermal Could Be Cost Effective Across the U.S.
with New Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS)
Another challenge being tackled by researchers is zero-emission hydrocarbons, essentially artificial plants that turn water, air and sunlight into useful products.
Trees and plants turn carbon dioxide from the air into useful sugars and products through photosynthesis. But it turns out that photosynthesis is actually highly inefficient, only converting 0.1-2% of total energy into useful products.
Research into artificial photosynthesis can hopefully greatly increase this efficiency, providing highly- useful AND zero-emission fuels.
DOE has a robust research program (recently authorized by Congress) that is directed at making this a reality. That work is centered at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, or JCAP, which has already greatly lowered the cost of water splitting from sunlight and is now working on new photocatalysts to combine hydrogen with CO2 and sunlight to turn into products.
When CO2 is combined with a catalyst and sunlight,
it can produce oil, or alcohol, or other liquids.
Using a whole new material to capture the sun, called perovskite, we could make printable or paintable solar, potentially thinner and more efficient than today’s solar panels.
The National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado is a world leader in this research.
The key challenge today is getting these panels to be durable so they last for decades instead of years.
The first commercial use will come in the next few years, adding perovskite solar on top of silicon solar to make it more efficient.
Later could come pure perovskite solar panels, that could be as cheaply printed as newspaper.
Companies are starting to engage, but this is a place where the U.S. can be a real leader.
At Clearpath, we support innovation because it’s the underpinning of our entire energy system. And you never know what you’ll get from R&D—the benefits manifest themselves across many different industries.
It’s prudent to always be on the lookout for those hidden gems that may represent the next big breakthrough in global clean energy.