Carbon-based energy powers the world but it’s doing great damage to the environment. Fortunately, there are many start-ups working on different technologies to address different energy sectors so that one day we might be able to fully decarbonise energy. Here are some of the most exciting ones.
Form Energy is working on two new revolutionary battery technologies. Its stated quest is to make “a new class of ultra-low cost, long-duration energy storage systems to make renewable energy available even when the sun sets or the wind stops blowing”.
It’s co-founders are top-notch names in the sector: Theodore Wiley (CEO), who previously co-founded another battery company; Mateo Jaramillo, who created Tesla’s energy-storage group; Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor who has founded five battery companies; Marco Ferrara, who specialises in energy storage; and William Woodford, a former student of Chiang’s.
The company is highly secretive about its technology but it has confirmed that one of the two projects involves a sulfur-flow battery. Flow batteries are not suitable to be used in mobile phones and other hand-held devices but they could be a good solution for grid-scale storage.
Presumably the other technology Form Energy is working on is a solid-state battery suitable for hand-held devices but we can’t be sure because the company hasn’t revealed any information about it.
Regarding the company’s flow battery technology however, there are some clues. In a 2017 paper, Chiang wrote that its technology can reach “the lowest chemical cost to our knowledge of any rechargeable battery”. That is, less than US$1/kWh. If you include the costs of building pumps, pipes, and containers, the battery manufacturing cost could hit the target price of US$10/kWh (about 1/10th the cost of the most advanced lithium-ion battery).
“Thanks to lithium-ion batteries, storing energy for less than a day is a solved problem,” says Wiley. “Our goal is to find solutions to store energy for weeks, months, and maybe even across seasons at a fraction of the cost of current technology.”
While it might be speculative whether Form Energy is working on a solid state battery as well, one company that’s definitely working on one is QuantumScape, whose product can be used in hand-held devices and even electric cars.
Electric cars already exist today but they’re only suitable for relatively short-distance travel. They can’t compete with petrol in terms of range. Solid state batteries are important for decarbonising the transportation sector. Presumably one day, electric vehicles will be the norm.
QuantumScape believes its solid-state batteries will be able to power such vehicles but it expects its solid-state batteries to only be commercially available in 2025. Will this company be able to pull this off? Volkswagen obviously thinks so. The German automaker has invested US$100 million into the company.
Decarbonisation of the electricity grid is an essential component to solving climate change. Efforts are underway to bring various renewable generation of energy – such as water, wind and solar – onto the grid.
However, the unreliability of renewable generators results in power swings on the grid. Without a cost-effective electricity storage solution to mitigate these swings, renewable energy will remain a niche source of non-carbon power.
Water can be utilised to generate electricity at extremely large capacities. Pumped hydro is by far the largest and most cost-effective form of energy storage today but it has certain requirements that limit its applicability.
Pumped hydro works by using excess electricity to pump water into a reservoir and releasing the water to run turbines whenever energy is needed. But for it to work, you need to have two reservoirs at different altitudes. Not every geographical location has that.
Quidnet has a unique solution. Its technology uses water to store energy but without the need to involve any rivers or dams. Instead, it uses excess electricity to pump water into underground shale rock. Pumping in more and more water creates pressure as water fills up tiny cracks in the rock and compresses the shale like a spring.
When energy is needed, the pressure is released and the water that gushes out is used to run turbines to generate electricity. While this technology isn’t yet mature, it’s not just a theory. The company has already run successful tests in two states: Texas and Nevada.
COMMONWEALTH FUSION SYSTEMS
Fusion power is sort of the holy grail of the energy sector as it offers the potential for a limitless source of carbon-free electricity. Fusing hydrogen atoms to form helium releases massive amounts of energy, which can be harnessed to produce carbon-free power. But sustaining the extreme temperatures that are required for this process to work has been hard to achieve. A new generation of high-temperature superconductors might change all that.
Researchers from MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems plan to use such superconductors to strengthen the magnetic field that contains the hot-plasma fuel used in reactors. That could pave the way for reactors that are smaller, cheaper and easier to build than those based on previous designs.
“It’s about scale, and it’s about speed,” says its CEO Robert Mumgaard. He adds that the collaboration between academics (from MIT) and industrialists should help the team to drive fusion technology out of the lab and into the marketplace. The company’s aim is to develop a prototype reactor that can generate more energy than it consumes within a decade. The plan is to eventually develop a 200-megwatt pilot power plant that can export electricity to the grid.
Fracking has a bad reputation when it comes to energy but the technology behind fracking can be used to create new sources of geothermal energy. Current geothermal plants require a combination of naturally-occurring heat, water and permeable rock.
Fervo Energy’s idea is to pump high-pressure water into wells to widen existing fractures and thus improve the permeability of the rocks there. The concept sounds good but so far, no one has managed to make it work commercially. Fervo Energy believes drilling technology from the fracking industry, which involves modern computational models and horizontal-drilling approaches, will make it viable. It aims to cut the cost of geothermal power by 50 per cent using this technology.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach [email protected].