A car that drives itself. An energy plant with unlimited storage. A watch that remotely turns lights on or off. A home that produces power for neighbours during a blackout.
These don’t belong to a Jetsons-like future. They’ve already arrived. They're part of a new tech era in which scientists and entrepreneurs are rapidly trying bold ideas to save energy or provide cleaner alternatives.
1. Revolutionary Energy Storage
In a move that could transform the renewable energy sector, Ireland is building a flywheel plant with potentially unlimited storage capacity.
The plant, expected to launch in 2017, will use a motor-generated flywheel to harness kinetic energy during over-supply. This energy can then be released during times of insufficient sun and wind.
“The hybrid flywheel is a disruptive innovation with the potential to revolutionise the system services market, decoupling its provision from electricity generation by delivering energy-less system services,” Jake Bracken, a research manager for the Schwungrad Energie project, told The Guardian.
“In Ireland we have a 50% maximum limit on the amount of intermittent renewable energy that we can take on at any one point. But Eirgrid [the Irish transmissions systems operator] is looking at increasing it to 75% over the next decades and our system has the potential to facilitate that,” he said.
2. Tall Wind
Wind, another renewable with declining costs, is also seeing tech advances that are allowing it to soar, literally.
Despite two major windfarms going offline, Denmark set a world record for wind energy production in 2015. The Danes produced 42 percent of their electricity from wind.
High-altitude wind technology got a boost in August when Altaeros Energies announced financial backing from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Altaeros has developed a Buoyant Airborne Turbine that looks like a huge balloon and uses a helium-filled shell to lift turbines 2,000 feet off the ground.
Why go so high? Since wind gains strength at higher heights and blows faster across the blades, high-altitude wind turbines or kites can generate much more electricity than even the tallest tower-mounted ones. In fact, a 2012 study estimates they could produce at least four times as much power and potentially enough to meet 100 times the world’s current electricity demand.
3. Wave/Tidal Power
2015 marked the launch of the world’s first multi-machine, grid-connected wave energy project, by Carnegie Wave Energy off the coast of Australia. Its technology, under development for a decade, is unique because it operates underwater where it’s safe from large storms. Buoys, tethered to seabed pumps, move with the motion of the waves and drive turbines that produce power for up to 2,000 homes.
This month, another wave power project completed its deployment off the coast of Australia. The $21 million bioWAVE pilot unit, developed by BioPower Systems, has a 26-meter tall oscillating structure that sways back and forth beneath the ocean swell, capturing and converting the wave’s energy into electricity that‘s fed into the grid via an undersea cable.
4. Self-Driving Vehicles
Some of the world’s biggest companies are investing big bucks to build electric vehicles that partly or entirely drive themselves. Why the push? Proponents say these cars could reduce traffic accidents and save energy via more efficient routing and ride-sharing.
Alphabet Inc, the parent company of Google, has grabbed much of the public’s fascination so far. It’s cute fully self-driving prototype, which looks like the police cruisers in Disney's Cars movies, has been trolling the roads of Mountain View, Calif., and - since July - Austin, Texas.
Not to be outdone, Apple is reportedly working on its own car, and ride-sharing giant Uber has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop its prototype, which appeared on the streets of Pittsburgh in May.
Tesla, Elon Musk’s luxury EV maker, went a step further. In October, it unveiled its Autopilot mode, which allows Model S sedans to automatically adjust speed, change lanes and park, but a month later, a Hong Kong lawmaker warned Tesla owners that some of the functions were illegal.
5. Fuel Cell Cars
Toyota, maker of the Prius—the best-selling hybrid car—is also moving ahead with a mass-production fuel cell sedan. The Mirai, which converts hydrogen into electricity and emits nothing but drops of water, made its debut in California this month and will be rolled out next year in several European countries.
The Mirai—a Japanese word that means “future”—can go 310 miles on a single tank. That range is greater than any electric car on the market (even Teslas) or the current hydrogen-powered competitors—the Honda FCX Clarity and the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.
Yet the car is pricey, costing at least $57,500 before subsidies. It has another serious obstacle: lack of stations to dispense compressed hydrogen gas. California has only about a dozen filling locations statewide, creating a chicken-and-egg problem in which customers don’t want the car unless stations are available but stations aren’t opening without the cars.
6. Advanced Nuclear Reactors
Though controversial with environmentalists, nuclear power has caught the eye of tech titans, dazzled by its potential to provide abundant energy with little or no planet-warming emissions.
Some are pursuing the Holy Grail: fusion, the power source of the sun and other stars that scientists have sought for decades to harness for use in large reactors. Companies such as Lockheed Martin and General Atomics are funding small-scale projects they expect will be cheaper and simpler.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for example, is backing General Fusion, a Vancouver company that’s using high-tech hammers to trigger fusion. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has invested in Washington-based Helium Energy, which is building a truck-size reactor. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is betting on TriAlpha, a well-financed company that reported a milestone this year: It held a ball of superheated gas steady for 5 milliseconds, far longer than that of other efforts.
Researchers at MIT say the design of this smaller reactor could make the long-sought nuclear holy grail of fusion a plausible reality [Image: MIT]
Bill Gates has funded TerraPower, a U.S.-based start-up that inked a deal with China in September to co-develop its advanced reactor. The “traveling wave” reactor runs on depleted uranium and produces very little nuclear waste. China is planning a rapid expansion of nuclear power, with six to eight new reactors a year, to provide energy that won’t exacerbate the air pollution now choking its cities.
7. Efficient Solar
Solar is taking off as its prices have plummeted, an estimated 70 percent since 2009, according to a September report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This plunge occurs as researchers find new ways to make solar not only smaller, see-through, or sticky so it can be used almost anywhere—whether roads, golf courses, or landfills—but also more efficient.
Panasonic and SolarCity, the largest residential solar installer in the U.S., debuted new rooftop panels this year that they say are the world’s most efficient.
Panels will likely continue to improve. In March, researchers from MIT and Stanford said they developed a new kind of “tandem” solar cell that could boost efficiency and lower cost. They connected two different layers of photovoltaic material: one with silicon—the basis for most of today’s panels—and the other with perovskite, which can absorb higher-energy particles of light.
MIT researchers also unveiled a system this year to help India’s villages create solar-powered microgrids. They built a device, smaller than a shoebox, that regulates how much power from solar panels goes to immediate uses—such as phone charging—or to batteries for later use.
8. Better Batteries
Solar and wind power have seemingly limitless potential, but since they're intermittent sources of energy, they need to be stored. That’s why there’s a race to build a better battery.
Harvard researchers unveiled a flow battery made with cheap, non-toxic, high-performance materials that they say won’t catch fire. “It is a huge step forward. It opens this up for anyone to use,” says Michael Aziz, Harvard University engineering professor and co-author of a study in the journal Science. Also this year, MIT and DOE announced promising advances that could make batteries better and cheaper.
The battery push has gone beyond the lab. In May, Tesla’s Musk unveiled battery products that he plans to mass-produce in his $5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada. The products include the sleek, mountable Powerwall unit that SolarCity, a company he chairs, is putting in homes. This month, in the first such offering from a U.S. utility, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power began selling or leasing the Powerwall to customers.