2021 was an enormous yr for energy-related information, what with the continuing hunt for brand spanking new types of vitality storage and cleaner if not carbon-free electrical energy and occasions and analysis that spotlighted the weak hyperlinks in our energy grid. Because the pandemic continued to grind on, it was really comforting to know that good folks within the vitality sector had been working onerous to maintain the lights on, advance the expertise, and enhance folks’s lives. IEEE Spectrum did its finest to cowl these developments, and these had been the tales that our readers appreciated finest.
Why was this Spectrum‘s hottest vitality story of the yr? Properly, let’s assume. As energy grids in all places more and more depend on intermittent renewable vitality, batteries and different types of vitality storage that may even out the bumps in provide and demand are taking up a vital function. No battery is ideal, nonetheless, so engineers hold pushing for brand spanking new and improved methods to retailer these electrons. The gravity batteries described on this story carry large weights within the air or up mine shafts to retailer extra electrical energy, releasing the weights in a while to get well the saved vitality. One of many firms featured within the story, Gravitricity, accomplished its 250-kilowatt gravity battery demonstrator in Edinburgh final April and is now engaged on a full-scale deployment at a mine within the Czech Republic.
Battery makers around the globe are cranking out lithium-ion batteries of assorted flavors as quick as they will. Whereas lithium isn’t precisely briefly provide, extracting it from the bottom exacts an enormous environmental value. Thus the current increase in battery recycling—and readers’ curiosity on this story on how the trade is increasing past China and South Korea and into the USA, Canada, and Western Europe. Final Might, one of many story’s featured startups, Canada’s Li-Cycle, introduced it could start recycling the manufacturing scrap from Ultium Cell’s $2.3 billion EV battery plant—that’s GM’s and LG Chem’s new mega-gigafactory in Lordstown, Ohio.
Geoengineering—altering the planet to mitigate the worst results of local weather change—is an concept that has taken on new foreign money of late. As world temperatures rise, greenhouse gases accumulate, and all indicators level to Actually Unhealthy Issues taking place within the coming many years, Spectrum readers are clearly on the lookout for a manner out of our present local weather predicament. This text, by researchers at PARC and the College of Washington, is one attainable reply. The essential thought is so as to add particles of sea salt to the environment to brighten clouds and funky the planet. We’ll nonetheless must do the onerous work of slicing carbon emissions, however geoengineering could possibly be a manner to purchase us a while.
One other large growth within the vitality sector is the return of the hydrogen financial system. This time round, although, the emphasis is on “inexperienced hydrogen”—that’s, hydrogen produced utilizing clear vitality resembling photo voltaic or wind energy. A lot of the world’s hydrogen comes from deeply polluting strategies. And most inexperienced hydrogen manufacturing nonetheless depends on electrolyzers, which themselves eat plenty of electrical energy. This story seems to be at promising analysis out of Japan’s Shinshu College on light-absorbing supplies to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen instantly—slicing the electrolyzer out of the equation. Because the story notes, it would take fairly a bit extra R&D till this technique is “prepared for prime-time hydrogen manufacturing.”
Additionally getting a re-evaluation: nuclear energy! Whereas some current efforts name for radical new reactor designs, this report highlights an previous strategy with a contemporary spin. Molten salt nuclear reactors fueled by thorium had been first investigated at Oak Ridge Nationwide Laboratory within the Fifties. A brand new molten salt reactor reportedly being constructed by China follows the Oak Ridge design but additionally incorporates the identical type of high-temperature salt pumps utilized in concentrated solar-power vegetation.
On this clear-eyed consideration of final winter’s lethal deep-freeze in Texas, Robert Hebner, director of the Heart for Electromechanics on the College of Texas at Austin, describes the converging components and troubled historical past that contributed to the catastrophic blackout. “[It] appears fairly clear that what occurred in Texas was probably preventable with readily accessible and longstanding engineering practices,” Hebner concludes. “However a collective, and sure implicit, judgment was made that the chance to be mitigated was so small that mitigation wouldn’t be price the associated fee. And nature ‘messed’ with that judgment.”
One other standard story within the “issues which are unhealthy for the facility grid” class was this piece by nationwide safety author Natasha Bajema. She checked out a current examine out of the U.S. Geological Survey and the College of Colorado on the probably results of detonating a several-kiloton nuclear weapon within the environment and producing a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP). (To be honest, Overseas Coverage in an analogous 2020 examination rated the EMP drawback as very a lot outsized and “the very last thing you have to fear about in a nuclear explosion.”) The conductivity of the Earth, the Geological Survey scientists found, performs an vital function within the final result, with low-conductivity areas most prone to struggling a “grid-crippling energy surge,” as the electrical discipline travels out by way of high-voltage energy traces. Right here’s hoping that doesn’t occur in 2022, or some other yr.
Spectrum contributing editor Peter Fairley traveled to Kenya to report on a increase in agriculture pushed by off-grid solar energy and environment friendly solar-powered irrigation pumps. The pumps faucet into huge shops of groundwater that lie not too far underground and canopy a lot of sub-Saharan Africa. Photo voltaic-irrigation expertise, mixed with micro-lending cost plans, lets small farmers enhance crop yields, lengthen rising seasons, and neutralize the results of drought. It is a win-win-win for part of the world that would actually use a victory proper now.
Lastly however by no means leastly, Spectrum columnist and deep thinker Vaclav Smil contemplated the vitality footprint of the tomato. Subject tomatoes, unsurprisingly, are the least energy-intensive to provide, whereas elevating hydroponic tomatoes grown in greenhouses can eat 60 instances as a lot vitality. Meals for thought as we shut out 2021.
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