Thursday, 15 November 2007

The top 8 fuels of the future

Renewable energy is still just a small part of the of our overall energy use.

While it’s growing steadily, we’re going to need alternatives if we hope to reduce our dependency on oil, and the carbon-dioxide it chugs into the atmosphere when we burn it. Luckily, brainiacs in labs around the world are finding even more efficient ways to produce energy from what’s readily available and not buried beneath megatons of earthly crust. Look at eight different ways you may be tanking up at home and on the road in the near and distant future.

1. Hydrogen
Like the new BMW TV ads say, their still-unavailable Hydrogen 7 is “ready for the world… when the world is ready.” But progress on California’s “hydrogen highway” hasn’t quite hit the numbers supporters hoped it would. Fuel-cell technology has alternately been a darling of Wall Street and Detroit for almost a decade now, but we’ve yet to see many hydrogen-powered vehicles in the wild.

The technology seems like an environmentalist’s wet dream (literally), with hydrogen bonding with oxygen to produce power and water — and no greenhouse-gas emissions to speak of. But building a new series of hydrogen power stations hasn’t been as easy as once thought, and people still think “Hindenburg” when they think “hydrogen,” although it seems to be a safe enough technology that transit authorities uses hundreds of hydrogen-powered buses to move us around urban centers. Still, hydrogen’s ultimate downfall may be battery technologies and other clean fuels that could overtake it before it has the chance to get wide adoption.

2. Biofuels
This is a fractious bunch of youngsters, with fraternal twins biodiesel and corn-based ethanol trying to keep its younger sibling — cellulosic ethanol — from hogging the family photos. Enormous amounts of capital have flowed into developing both biodiesel (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is funding the biggest biodiesel refinery in the country in Washington State) and corn-based ethanol (Sun Microsystems founder and venture capital Vinod Khosla has made big bets in this space). Converting vehicles and power plants to these renewable fuels that act and burn like fossil fuels has certainly made much headway. Heck, you could be burning an ethanol blend in your car right now and not even know it, and installing conversion kits for biodiesel makes putting on new spinning rims look tough.

3. Solar
Solar is probably the sexiest of the renewables, what with its black shiny arrays, tilting half-interested at Old Sol. Between tax breaks to install solar panels and new sleeker technology that makes your neighbors want to say “cool roof, man,” solar is beginning to take off. Thin-film technology — allowing you to bend the silicon components into more flexible shapes — and increases in solar-cell efficiency mean you can install solar in the Northeast more viably. And momentum is there among legislators as well. In Colorado, the state has passed a “renewable portfolio standard,” meaning that not only do utilities need to produce a great deal of renewable energy in the coming decades or face penalties, but they also have to buy a portion of that renewable energy from its customers with solar roofs.

4. Wind
Windmills have come a long way from Kansas farm country and being Don Quixote’s nemesis. Wind power first took off — as did many renewable energy sources — in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with the last spike in the price of oil. But after that it stalled until fairly recently. With many states forcing utilities into renewable energy production, this has spurred great technological advances in wind power, and now wind projects are installed or planned in almost every state. The era of having your own windmill, and going “off the grid,” is also back, with personal household models costing under $20,000, assuming you have forgiving neighbors. And efficiencies in technology mean you don’t need a hurricane to generate a lot of power. But wind’s popularity has also created a bottleneck — estimates are that you’ll be waiting longer for a wind turbine (about 18 months) than you will for a black Prius.

5. Batteries
They’re not really a fuel, but they’re the “universal solvent” to our current rate of use of fossil fuels. Technically, we still burn more dinosaur soup making electricity for buildings than on the road, but all those cars and trucks we sit in use energy in other ways, too. They require gas stations everywhere, and that means yet more trucks to haul three grades of gas and Cinnabons to highway rest stops across the country. But new battery technology will last longer and charge more quickly, making it possible to burn the right fuel in the right place, rather than transporting the wrong fuel all over the place. So maybe as you drive from Seattle to Boston, you’ll top up your electric or hybrid car with tidal power in Seattle, wind power in Colorado, cellulosic ethanol in Nebraska, biogasoline in Illinois and biomass to carry you into Boston.

6. Tides
Think about how it feels to have someone chucking a bucket of water in your face, then multiply that by several hundred million, and you get an idea of the energy going untapped around our coastlines every day. Test facilities for harnessing tidal power in Canada’s Bay of Fundy have been around since the ‘70s, and San Francisco will be putting in a high-tech tidal plant at the Golden Gate soon.

There are certainly environmental concerns around tidal power, since these projects usually involve some kind of plant at the narrow mouth of a bay or inlet, where the water is moving fastest and most violently, meaning it’s not so great for the fish or birds nearby. But the future of ocean power is wave technology, where floating platforms and buoys, dozens of miles offshore, harvest the energy of wave motion. Think of an upside-down yo-yo, except your finger is an anchor at the bottom of the ocean, and the spinning spool floats on the surface. As each wave passes, the yo-yo gets pulled up, and pulls your finger… or a turbine.

7. Garbage
Meet the newest member of the energy family: last year’s trash. While incinerators haven’t really been widespread since the ‘60s because of pollution concerns, companies like American Combustion are working on the next generation of burning, like their PyreJet. It combines a long-range supersonic oxygen jet and focused carbon injection — essentially a jet engine — to reduce last night’s Dominos, a year’s worth of Sports Illustrateds you didn’t get a chance to read and that old blow-up doll into valuable energy for everyone. Now there’s always an answer to, “Who would want that?” when you’re at someone else’s house.

8. Nuclear Fusion
Like that kid in eighth grade who tried to be really cool but annoyed everyone, the nuclear industry has been talking a lot lately, telling everyone at recess about how their emissions “carbon-free.” True, but wind power doesn’t need to go around the lunchroom calling itself “plutonium-239-free,” so quit being a punk or I’ll be seeing you after school by the monkey bars at Three Mile Island, and don’t tell your homeroom teacher. But if the opposite of hate is love, then the opposite of fission is fusion, and while it’s not exactly around the corner, it holds out a lot of promise.

Yes, it’s the energy choice of the Sun itself, but simply put, in fusion, two lighter atomic nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nucleus. In doing so, it releases a few megatons of energy, ideally producing a waste product more benign, though not harmless, compared to its fissile brother. A European test plant managed to produce an output of 16 megawatts of electricity using fusion (about as much as a coal plant), but only for a few seconds. New test facilities are planned, so who knows? The atom may be our pal after all. (petrolplaza)

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