Fueling the Future of Energy
Fueling the Future of Energy
Future Scenario

Fueling the Future of Energy

Writer

Lidia Zuin

image

Brett Ritchie @ Unsplash

In this future scenario, we explore the opportunities and challenges posed by electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, and other energy alternatives to fossil fuels, such as algae biofuel. We also investigate the ambivalence of nuclear energy and emerging energy harvesting methods that use resources from outer space, such as asteroid mining.
In this future scenario, we explore the opportunities and challenges posed by electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, and other energy alternatives to fossil fuels, such as algae biofuel. We also investigate the ambivalence of nuclear energy and emerging energy harvesting methods that use resources from outer space, such as asteroid mining.

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A Glimpse Into 2035

Five years ago, the harvesting of oil and coal was prohibited and the Fueling the Future policy was promulgated, co-signed by the most powerful nations worldwide. In 2035, vehicles are powered by electric energy, hydrogen fuel cells, and other fossil fuel alternatives such as algae biofuel. Recently born generations will never know what a gas station was. Instead, missions are conducted to mine asteroids as an energy source, and a nuclear fusion power plant is, at a gradual pace, gaining trust globally.

Electric and Hydrogen Vehicles: Leading the Way to 2035

In 2021, electric vehicles (EVs) are being utilized globally, mostly in China, the US, and Europe — with a growth in distribution that is poised to increase exponentially. One of the positive facts about EVs is they have zero tailpipe emissions, and they can also be powered with electricity produced through renewable sources like solar, air, or hydraulic power. The same goes for hydrogen-fueled vehicles and their technology based on fuel cells.

Electric Vehicles

Darren Halstead @ Unsplash

Electric Vehicles

Darren Halstead @ Unsplash

At present, fuel cells are expensive since they require rare components such as platinum (Pt) as catalysts for the internal combustion engine (ICE). In traditional hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, 50 grams of this precious material are needed to convert hydrogen and oxygen into water —which in turn produces electricity in the process. Currently, the high costs related to the production of fuel cells lie in the demand for rare metals to work as catalysts in electrochemical reactions, but also due to fast oxidation and loss of active surface area of platinum.

As a potential solution, researchers at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Chemistry are developing a catalyst that employs a fraction of platinum in the chemical conversion process. This catalyst uses platinum nanowires to improve the electrochemical performance in the proton exchange membrane, capable of covering a bigger surface area and showing high durability compared to conventional platinum catalysts. This innovative catalyst could push forward cheaper hydrogen production as well as more environmentally friendly practices, as the extraction of platinum would exponentially decrease.

In the meantime, entrepreneurs are still betting on EVs and pumping money into the development of Hyperloop®, a passenger and freight vehicle propelled by a linear induction propulsion system. According to Bibop Gresta, chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop, not only will these levitating pods be fast and non-pollutant (as its regenerative braking system recovers much of the energy used during deceleration), but the costs of construction and maintenance will also be lower as Hyperloop is expected to function on existing public transportation architecture.

Besides, Hyperloop is powered through "a system that can use a combination of renewable energy to generate more electricity than it consumes," meaning this residual energy can be redirected to other facilities. This is a particularly exciting feature because Hyperloop could ignite another wave of urban exoduses, like the one observed during the Covid-19 pandemic, with electrical transportation empowering the development of towns.

Piezoelectric Energy and Powering Roads

In the meantime, projects like the "Symbiosis" prototype proposed by David Seesing at the 2010 edition of the Pilkington Awards point the way for the use of piezoelectric energy. After [rocking a London dancefloor] (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-nightclub-idUSL0934834320080710), the method could power next-generation vehicles by using a double gazing technique as a conduit to allow air to flow and thus generate and store energy in the vehicle.

Electric bus route

Oren Ezer

Electric bus route

Oren Ezer

As smart cities slowly become a reality, more energy solutions are entering the urban infrastructure. Currently, some Israeli roads offer a system powered by inductive charging, which could ultimately allow EV conductors to never stop at a gas station to recharge batteries. By creating an alternating electromagnetic field with an in-vehicle induction coil, the inductive transport charging works both with parked and moving vehicles running on electrified roads. It is indeed a promising option, but only if it gets cheaper and becomes more widely adopted.

The Future is Algae Green

When looking to a greener future, it is algae that may be pointing the way. Considered a third-generation biofuel, algae biofuel is a promising solution for creating a wide range of fuels, including butanol, biodiesel, jet fuel, and ethanol —all types of fuels already in use for current ICE vehicles. Algaculture also has minimal impact on freshwater resources since it is biodegradable. Moreover, according to research, "[...] microalgae have the potential to produce an oil yield that is up to 25 times higher than the yield of oil palm and 250 times the amount of soybeans."

Eos Bioreactor

Hypergiant

Eos Bioreactor

Hypergiant

The artificial intelligence (AI) firm, Hypergiant exhibited its Eos Bioreactor project at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in December 2020. The size of a kitchen fridge, the device is partially automated with AI and uses algae to capture CO2, especially in industrial heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) units. It is estimated that this machine could be "400 times more effective than trees" when it comes to carbon capture, which means not only can the Eos Bioreactor sequester carbon from the atmosphere, but it can also produce biomass that can be turned into fuel, fertilizers, plastics, and cosmetics.

Built in Hamburg, Germany, the Bio Intelligent Quotient (B.I.Q.) building is the first algae-powered building. It is a 15-story concrete apartment wrapped in algae biomass produced by a photobioreactor. Filled with water and pumped with liquid nutrients and carbon dioxide, this bioreactor promotes algae growth and prevents it from rotting. It is through these panels that energy is generated and used to power the structure.

Or Is Nuclear Greener?

For environmentalists such as James Lovelock, "nuclear power is already a green solution" for generating energy. Lovelock believes we will ultimately find our way to nuclear despite the traumatic experiences of Chernobyl or Fukushima as the mortality rate has become much smaller.

Some innovations such as small modular reactors (SMR) are already offering cheaper, faster, and less complex ways to deal with nuclear power in comparison to traditional nuclear plants. These reactors are miniaturized and self-contained, meaning they have a much lower risk of leaks. Further, the emission of atomic fuel and energy during emergency shutdowns is decreased, due to containment units that can shut down autonomously, thus remaining cold indefinitely.

This cooling feature is particularly interesting for EVs. EVs have low charging rates because their battery packs become very hot when handling incoming electricity. Consequently, as a way to cool down, the charging time is prolonged. For many buyers, this is the major reason for not opting for EVs, as fossil-fuel vehicles require less time to fill in the gas tank.

Currently, Qdot, a British engineering group, in collaboration with the Faraday Institution, is investigating an alternative to EVs charging obstacle by employing nuclear fusion technology to cool down batteries. Their proposed system proposes to place the cooling plates used on EVs on the inside of the motor, which is currently installed on the outside. This infrastructure change is only feasible by coupling nuclear fusion reactors with EVs engine, which will be responsible for regulating temperatures and cooling EVs' batteries.

Though nuclear energy is low on carbon emissions (no greenhouse gases are emitted on a nuclear power plant), the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear accidents still generate fear over nuclear energy. However, this has not stopped companies from betting on the electricity generation potential of nuclear power for meeting energy and environmental goals. In fact, both the US Nuclear Corp and Magneto-Inertial Fusion Technologies (MIFTI) believe it will only take a few years for the world's first fusion power plant to be created. Which will release up to four times as much energy as fission, while using fuel that is lightweight, safe, low-cost, and sustainable. Also, as of 2019, the United States is the country generating the most nuclear power, followed by France and China. These are a few of the countries closer to meeting the projections made by the OECD International Energy Agency, which in 2020 postulated that to fulfill the promise of decarbonization, electricity generation from nuclear power must be increased by almost 55% by 2040.

At present, long development times, high costs on production and research, questionable regulatory schemes, natural resources management, and lack of a skilled workforce, are the main impediments to nuclear energy reaching the market widely. Governments and policymakers will need to bring about regulatory frameworks to regulate the market, evaluate nuclear waste management, design a nuclear power plant construction standard, and finally, define a criterion of the suitable places for the installation of new nuclear power plants.

Buffering a New Space Race for Energy

Blue Origin, a private US-based spaceflight company founded by Jeff Bezos, has for twenty years been working on a mission to "preserve Earth" by going "to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy." After sending its CEO on a 10-minute ride to space, the company now has the potential to fulfill the future envisioned by the Singularity University co-founder Peter Diamandis in his book Abundance. He suggests that asteroid mining could be the way to not only spare Earth from more natural resources extraction but also generate infinite wealth.

In May 2020, NASA announced the Artemis Accords, a proposed legal framework for moon mining, named after NASA's Artemis program to take Americans back to the moon in 2024. This means the US will be the first to dictate the terms of lunar mining before any other country.

While asteroid mining is still too expensive to be a viable solution right now, there are plenty of studies considering how space resources could, not only tackle Earth's energy needs, but also support space travel, spaceports, and even colonies. Hypothetically, the harvesting of resources in space would help decrease the extraction of natural resources on Earth.

As aforementioned, ICE requires rare elements to function, such as platinum. Platinum is a scarce and expensive metal, which scientists believe to be found in vast quantities in space. As the production of platinum increased in many industries as a catalytic converter for chemical processing and hydrogen fuel cells, according to research, Earth's platinum ore reserves are expected to deplete in a relatively short time. This means modern industry will need to look to other resources besides Earth, as the mining industry, by its nature, is unsustainable; it extracts non-renewable and finite resources. Space, therefore, appears as a valuable alternative.

We could foresee by 2035, for instance, a future scenario where you will not find only celestial bodies and satellites shining in the night sky, but also space stations bridging space explorations and asteroid mining. While the early missions would be focused on adaptation, future generations could reproduce some aspects of the Gold Rush in the United States.

In a more Darwinian aspect, though, the families of space miners could also adapt their biology to the requirements of a space station. Possibly, we would see Kline and Clynes' concept of the cyborg being employed through gene therapy and exoskeletons to accelerate natural processes that would be longer and more imprecise. What is more, these space stations could also extend contemporary astronomers' reach to deep space through the inclusion of space telescopes, an achievement that would contribute to scientific discovery and flag new mining opportunities. But until humanity reaches distances beyond the moon, the natural satellite remains the most probable mining destination.

In the meantime though, as the first generations of EVs near their retirement, we will need to deal with the disposal of their batteries in the following years. While there are ways to recover cobalt, nickel, lithium, and other raw ingredients from batteries, the process is still too expensive. Shortly, however, this could grow cheaper and more advantageous since these components can be recycled almost indeterminately. This could be a great opportunity to make waste recovery a more profitable market. Visible signs of this future possibility begin to appear with the recent EU bill to give consumers the right to repair the products they buy, an initiative that intends to extend shelf-life to all products and decrease extensive consumerism. Accordingly, in 2021, it was suggested that EV suppliers should be responsible for the lifespan of their products, so they are not simply dumped. In the case of Nissan, for instance, the company is reusing old batteries from their Leaf car series in automated guided vehicles that are responsible for delivering parts.

Parts of the Whole: Compartmentation and Functionality in Design

According to Martin Berger, head of corporate research and advanced engineering at Tier 1 MAHLE, we will need more than one clean combustion engine alternative in the future. In his words:

There won't be a single powertrain of the future. Market environments, vehicle sizes, use cases, and driving profiles are too diverse for this to be the outcome. We have to have more than just one path, be it better electric propulsion, fuel cell or hydrogen, and alternative fuels in the combustion engine.

There won't be a single powertrain of the future. Market environments, vehicle sizes, use cases, and driving profiles are too diverse for this to be the outcome. We have to have more than just one path, be it better electric propulsion, fuel cell or hydrogen, and alternative fuels in the combustion engine.

With the development and discovery of new energy sources, a much broader energy harvesting ecosystem will emerge. What we know at this point is that no individual source of energy will be able to substitute fossil fuels entirely, nor alleviate the negative impacts on sustainability produced by the production of fuel cells.

In the future, instead of stopping at a gas station and refueling with ethanol or gas, in the city, drivers (or even autonomous cars) will find multiple power plants harvesting different types of energy situated on the same site or closely neighboring localities. Also, with the advantage of nuclear energy, we could foresee vehicles with enough power to never stop charging batteries —the energy source will be unlimited.

Ultimately, robust international standards for energy harvesting will be needed. Regulatory frameworks will be central to defining energy harvesting criteria, both in terms of sustainable practices and energy efficiency. Nations worldwide would have to constantly report their energy-harvesting processes, which, in turn, would generate great benefits such as shared experience and knowledge, best practice assessment, and internal benchmarking of their energy sources. In the case of countries still shifting from fossil fuel-based industries, this international cooperation could greatly facilitate the development of more sustainable practices in places lacking investments in energy harvesting methods that comply with the environment.

If thermodynamics has taught us that no energy is ever lost, but transformed, the future of energy prompts the challenge of extreme efficiency. There might not be a future for technologies that perform one single task and are not integrated into a broader viewpoint of sustainability and connectivity.

8 topics
Adapting to Climate Change
Basic Energy Services
Energy Efficiency
Investments
Mitigation of Green House Gas Emissions
Natural Resources
Private Sector Cooperation
Renewable Energy
8 SDGs
03 Good Health and Well-Being
06 Clean water and Sanitation
07 Affordable and Clean Energy
09 Industry, innovation and infrastructure
11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
12 Responsible Consumption and Production
13 Climate Action
15 Life On Land

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  • Adapting to Climate Change
  • Basic Energy Services
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Investments
  • Mitigation of Green House Gas Emissions
  • Natural Resources
  • Private Sector Cooperation
  • Renewable Energy
8 SDGs
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