breakthrough technologies
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The world faces unprecedented challenges. Whilst we know this, if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that the best-laid strategies and well-laid plans can be turned from clear direction to an ineffective muddle-up if the principles on which they’re built are suddenly changed.

For start-up companies that were mulling billion-dollar funding proposals just a few months ago, it’s a nightmare. Jane Kearns, vice president at Canadian start-up development non-profi t MaRS Discovery District, told Smart Energy International that she worries that one possible outcome of the pandemic could be the rolling back of much of the progress made in the past 10 years. “There is a real risk that when we come through the other side of this that we fall back into what we know,” she said. Should that happen, “given what cleantech startup companies are going through right now, they will die.”

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 3-2020. Read the full digimag  or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

So which then are the technologies with the backing, potential, and practical applicability to a post-pandemic world that are set to rise in the “new normal” and fuel the transition to a clean energy-fuelled, decarbonised future?

This is by no means an invitation to invest, and the below technologies are open to interpretation and discussion. Being limited to just a few means that several factors may not be considered, but in a matrix of current level of maturity, practical application and potential and cost of development, these technologies hold great promise to take a prominent place in a global economy trying to achieve two major goals simultaneously: recover from near-disaster, and save the climate in time to achieve the Paris Agreement.

Whilst lithium-ion, and even lead-acid technologies have become both more energy and cost-efficient, the deployment of grid-scale battery solutions, although attractive to developed markets, poses serious challenges to the rest of the world. The promise energy storage holds – improved demand management, an accelerated decline in fossil-fuel use, increased grid reliability – it is still an expensive one unless some costs can be offset.

One such option is to remove a large chunk of the infrastructure costs by upcycling existing structures. Better yet, why not use Newton’s first law as your generator?

Enter Gravitricity. The Edinburgh start-up’s concept sees abandoned mine shafts, and in the future, skyscrapers, turned into giant batteries, capable of being charged in seconds, with better long-term cost of energy storage than batteries or other alternatives.
Gravitricity’s technology uses weights, up to 2,000 tonnes in mass, suspended by patentpending cable technology within an unused mine shaft.

“This weight can then be released when required – in less than a second – and the winches become generators, producing either a large burst of electricity quickly, or releasing it more slowly depending on what is needed,” explains managing director Charlie Blair. “When there is excess electricity, for example on a windy day, the weight is winched to the top of the shaft ready to generate power.”

“It’s a simple case of ‘what goes up, must come down’,” he says.

Image credit: Gravitricity

According to a report by Imperial College London, the technology will be particularly well suited to provide grid balancing and rapid frequency response services to grid operators – where the requirement for multiple short cycles and high power availability play to Gravitricity’s strengths.

In a typical frequency response scenario requiring a hypothetical 700 cycles per year and a duration of 15 minutes at a power output of 4MW, the company has predicted LCOS of US$141/kW per year, outperforming all competitor-offered alternatives.

Making the most of what we’ve got Monash University researchers are on the brink of commercialising the world’s most efficient lithium-sulphur (Li-S) battery, which could outperform current market leaders by more than four times, and power Australia and other global markets well into the future.

The battery has the potential to power a phone for five continuous days, or enable an electric vehicle to drive more than 1,000km without needing to “refuel”.

Dr Mahdokht Shaibani led an international research team that developed an ultrahigh capacity Li-S battery that has better performance and less environmental impact than current lithium-ion products.

Using the same materials in standard lithiumion batteries, researchers reconfigured the design of sulphur cathodes so they could accommodate higher stress loads without a drop in overall capacity or performance.

Attractive performance, along with lower manufacturing costs, abundant supply of material, ease of processing and reduced environmental footprint make this new battery design attractive for future real-world applications.

Dr Mahdokht Shaibani and team. Image credit: Monash University

The researchers have an approved filed patent (PCT/AU 2019/051239) for their manufacturing process, and prototype cells have been successfully fabricated by German R&D partners Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology.

Some of the world’s largest manufacturers of lithium batteries in China and Europe have expressed interest in upscaling production, with further testing to take place in Australia in 2020.

Love, protein and fresh air

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air called the “Air-gen”, which they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.

Artist’s impression of the device’s nanowire film. (UMass Amherst/Yao
and Lovley labs/Ella Maru Studio)

Electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley created the device which uses electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires to generate current from the water vapour naturally present in the atmosphere.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” says Yao. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.” Lovley, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds: “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet.”

The technology is non-polluting, renewable, low-cost, and works in areas with extremely low humidity such as the Sahara Desert. It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind, Lovley says, because unlike other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors.”

The device requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick. The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top. The film adsorbs water vapour from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.

The researchers say that the current generation of Air-gen devices is able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial-scale soon.

Yao says: “The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”

Continuing to advance the practical biological capabilities of Geobacter, Lovley’s lab recently developed a new microbial strain to more rapidly and inexpensively mass-produce protein nanowires. “We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory,” he says. “With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications.”

Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago. His lab later discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires. Before coming to UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at Harvard University, where he engineered electronic devices with silicon nanowires. They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.

Xiaomeng Liu, a PhD student in Yao’s lab, was developing sensor devices when he noticed something unexpected. He recalls: “I saw that when the nanowires were contacted with electrodes in a specific way the devices generated a current. I found that that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device.”

In addition to the Air-gen, Yao’s laboratory has developed several other applications with the protein nanowires. “This is just the beginning of a new era of protein-based electronic devices” said Yao.

Saving new technologies at the risk of extinction

Globally, the public sector has been seen to offer relief to industrial sectors to fuel recovery, but according to Kearns, she’d like to see all of that stimulus money come with caveats.

“The packages need to come with requirements that those dollars be deployed helping those industries prepare themselves for a low-carbon future,” she said.

Airlines, the transportation industry, oil and gas, manufacturing – all of the industries that are “notoriously bad at adopting early-stage technologies” – could seize this opportunity to jump start their decarbonisation, said Kearns.

“If we don’t take this opportunity to enable this transition, we are missing a really critical piece of enabling a low-carbon future,” she said, adding: “Our climate doesn’t have time for us to miss this opportunity.”