Globally, data centers will become the world’s largest users of energy consumption, with the ratio rising from 3% in 2017 to 4.5% in 2025. But there's a lot happening in clean tech: from porcupines for nuclear fusion to scorching hot CO2 splitters, radically new technologies are emerging on the drawing boards of scientists and engineers that could turn our energy supply upside down.
anyone looking for proof that our energy transition - the route to a world that runs 100 percent on sustainable energy - is unruly, doesn't have to look far. Take Germany, for example, a mecca of green energy, which last year generated more than 50 percent of its electricity sustainably for the first time, but still cannot do without its coal-fired power stations. Or see how, even in the midst of a global pandemic, with all the travel risks that this entails, we are unable to stop our aviation industry guzzling fuel.
Of course: in recent decades, mankind has taken great steps in the development of sustainable forms of energy such as sun and wind. Yet companies worldwide are still picking up the last scraps of fossil fuels from an increasingly empty planet. "Converting the current proportions, about 80 percent fossil energy and 20 percent something else, to 100 percent sustainable cannot be done overnight," says energy professor Gert Jan Kramer of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. At the same time, it is clear that a return to the old normal of oil and coal is impossible, if only because the tank will soon be literally empty.
"Sun and wind are very good, recently established technologies that still have great promise," says Kramer. But are they also enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, as required by the Paris climate agreement, together with nuclear energy and biomass power stations, among other things? "It's possible, but certainly not self-evident", he admits.
Others are less optimistic. "I don't think sun and wind are enough," said physicist Tony Donné, head of the European nuclear fusion consortium Eurofusion. Rik Siebers - who with his company Redstack is building a new type of sustainable energy plant in the 32 km long 'Afsluitdijk' - agrees: "As the share of green energy continues to increase, the unpredictability of sun and wind will weigh heavier," he says. Where both forms of sustainable energy depend on the whims of the weather, fossil power plants simply have an on and off switch. This reliable delivery is the reason that many believe they are still indispensable.
Anyone who wants to be sure that the warming climate and dwindling fossil reserves will not force us to pull the plug out of the socket en masse, must change the tune as soon as possible. Planet and humanity are in urgent need of new ideas and technologies. "Scaling up new energy technologies takes decades," says Kramer. "The longer you wait, the greater the chance that you will be late".
Hence, universities, research institutions and companies all over the world are hunting for the energy technology of the future. Here are three of the hundreds of contenders: one that extracts energy on land, one that does it in the sea and one that picks fuel from the air.
nuclear fusion, but different
The design looks like a giant metal porcupine, or maybe a futuristic torture device. A hollow sphere on legs, roughly 3 meters in diameter, with elongated cylinders on the outside, like the spines of a wrapped chestnut.
With a bit of fantasy, you can put the nuclear fusion reactor of the General Fusion company in a large shed. This makes it completely different from competitor Iter, the European nuclear fusion installation that is emerging in the French Provence. That gigantic structure is the world's most complex 3D puzzle, with 'pieces' as heavy as a Boeing 747, which physicists and engineers then have to assemble to the nearest millimeter. General Fusion's design is the size of a tank from your local brewer.
Yet the ultimate goal of both the porcupine and the giant 3D puzzle is the same: generating energy (electricity) by means of nuclear fusion, compressing lighter atoms into heavier ones, following the example of the sun. And unlike traditional nuclear energy, where atoms are plucked apart for energy, fusion hardly produces any radioactive waste.
Where Iter-like installations want to fuse in a cloud of red-hot matter - so-called plasma - dangling in a net of magnetic fields, the General Fusion company takes a different approach. They shoot swirling plasma rings at each other through small openings, after which the eye-catching spines do their job. Pistons shoot in from this at a rapid rate, which give the colliding plasma an extra boost so that the temperature and density locally rise in such a way that particles fuse together. The result: nuclear fusion in a manageable format.
"I think nuclear power - fusion or fission - is badly needed to get fossil fuels off the agenda," says physicist Tony Donné. Summarizing the other advantages: unlike fossil fusion, fusion does not emit any CO2 and fusion requires much less space than wind turbines or solar collectors. And although the start-up costs for a reactor are high, the fuel is cheap. "A reactor that delivers a gigawatt of power (14% of the Swedish electricity consumption, ed.) Can be run for a year on 250 kilograms of deuterium and 250 kilograms of lithium. That's really very little, "says Donné.
But not everyone is convinced. "Fusion technology is the pinnacle of high tech and complexity, and you use that to do something really simple. Something that sun and wind can also do at an acceptable cost: generate electricity, "says Kramer.
We probably won't know who is right until around 2050. After Iter, which should mainly serve as a technology test, demonstration reactor Demo will follow, which should also run as a power plant. That is: if General Fusion doesn't outperform them with their porcupine power plant. They themselves say they will be ready at the beginning of the 2030s. They expect to have a working prototype in five years' time.
"We don't use the exotic lasers or giant magnets that you find in other fusion power plants," said Paul Sullivan, General Fusion's spokesman. "Everything in our power stations is a further development of technology that already exists. We think that is why we have the fastest path to making fusion commercially attractive. "A claim, by the way, that Donné, who works on competitor Demo, disputes. "I expect they will need decades, just like us," he says.
The company is one of a few dozen companies worldwide that are swimming against the mainstream of fusion technology. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take them seriously, Donné emphasizes. General Fusion collaborates with universities and their technology is based on proven scientific principles. "It's a bit of a cowboy-like company, with a culture of just going. Do and try. We work with government money and are therefore bound by rules, consultation and compromises. They have more clout. In another life I would have liked to work there myself."
Want to generate sustainable electricity on the Dutch Afsluitdijk (32 km) all day long, even when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing? That is possible, the company Redstack claims. All you need: their "blue power plant". It is not surprising that the technology is emerging in the Netherlands. What you need for a blue power plant, we have in abundance in the Netherlands: a place where fresh and salt water come together.
The scientific basis for "reverse electrodialysis", the technology used by Redstack, can be traced back to an article that was published as early as 1954 in the journal Nature. The crux lies in the fact that sodium chloride - salt - dissolved in water disintegrates into a positively charged sodium ion and a negatively charged chloride ion. Let salt water flow along two membranes with fresh water behind them, and the salt wants to go to the fresh, like heat flows from a room when you open the door. Make sure that salt water moves between two membranes - one that lets positive ions through, but stops negative ions, and vice versa - and you get a collection of positively charged ions on one side and negatively charged ions on the other. You have then made a kind of battery and can run an electric current.
What sounded relatively simple on paper turned out to be difficult in practice. Making membranes that are thin enough requires advanced technology, and if that succeeds, they often turn out to be fragile, or quickly fill up with rubbish. "When we stepped out of the laboratory in 2012 and went for the real thing in the Afsluitdijk, the first versions of our pilot plant were already clogged within fifteen minutes," Siebers recalls.
However, the start-up problems were overcome, so that the pilot plant now delivers up to a modest 50 kilowatts of power, enough to supply about 160 households with energy. And so Siebers and colleagues now want to increase the power tenfold with a half megawatt demonstration plant, the definitive proof that the technology is viable. "But that is very costly," he says. Including development costs, this amounts to tens of millions.
And after that? For the time being, Siebers sees enough potential in the Netherlands for new power stations. "There are good locations in Zeeland and Rotterdam, for example. And in Houtrust, The Hague, where sewage water runs into the sea. But also in IJmuiden, at the new sea lock. We will soon be working with the local government to see whether we can also build a blue power plant there."
Worldwide, Siebers expects to be able to deliver about 60 gigawatts with blue power plants. A lot, certainly - comparable to sixty large coal-fired power stations - but at the same time also modest on the scale of the total energy transition. Siebers thinks that this is possible in many places in the world. He sees the blue power plants, just like the people from the fusion corner, above all a more stable supplement to the sun and wind. "Water always flows. In a mix with sun and wind, our power stations can therefore ensure an independent, sustainable energy supply. "
jet fuel from the cloud
It has a certain childlike simplicity: if too much CO2 is released during the combustion of kerosene in aircraft engines, can't you simply suck it out of the air and turn it into new kerosene? This technology made headlines this week when it became known that KLM had secretly operated a scheduled flight with - in part - such sustainable kerosene, manufactured at Shell's research center in Amsterdam.
And a little further on, at research institute Differ in Eindhoven, Adelbert Goede and Michail Tsampas are making progress with their similar Kerogreen project. "We want to make the use of kerosene a circular process," says Tsampas. They do this by connecting many existing technologies in a new way: from CO2 pistons to the chemical processes that produce synthetic kerosene, kerosene that does not arise from processed oil, but that is clicked together from separate elements as a chemical Lego construction.
They then add one radical new ingredient to all those trusted technologies. "We use a plasma reactor to separate CO2 into oxygen and carbon," says Goede. Where plasma is mainly known for its role in nuclear fusion, it also appears to be very useful here. For example, the enormous energy of the plasma more or less vibrates a CO2 molecule apart, after which chemists capture the individual parts and use them to continue building. "Both the plasma reactor and the way we capture the oxygen are really new."
View kerogreen through the eyes of the energy transition and the technology fits into the "green fuels" category. Where solar and wind energy, as well as nuclear fusion and the blue energy of Redstack all belong to the 'primary energy flow' - technologies that provide power - fuels in our energy future are mainly needed when a plug is plugged in the socket, or a rechargeable battery is no longer useful. This is probably the case with some air traffic. In the future, if you could do a flight to London with a battery-powered electric plane, such a battery will probably fall short for a trip to Australia. The consequence: those who want to keep flying cannot avoid some form of combustion, simply because fuels generate a relatively large amount of energy for relatively few extra kilograms.
Since we live in a world that is designed for the use of hydrocarbons such as oil and petrol, synthetic kerosene is a logical option. Nevertheless, says Goede, we should not count ourselves rich with that option. "Even with synthetic kerosene, we cannot continue as we currently do," he says. "We will have to fly less anyway."
Anyone who wants to make the consumption of aircraft sustainable, faces quite a challenge. "We consume about five million barrels of oil per day in aviation. We expect to be able to produce 100 grams of kerosene per hour with our test setup, "says Goede. An amount that a Boeing 737 can fly on for roughly one tenth of a second. The yield at Shell was also still modest: after a year they had 500 liters, roughly enough for taxiing and the first seconds of the start. "So we still have to take a step," says Goede.
The main challenge, he emphasizes, is therefore to investigate how you can optimize energy efficiency and yield after the first test setup has been successful. "This not only translates directly into a lower price for our synthetic kerosene, but also in the amount of electricity you will need to produce it."
Make no mistake: kerogreen does not just conjure up fuel from the thin air. Physical logic teaches that you also have to put in the energy in that fuel somewhere during the production process, for example in the form of solar energy or wind energy. "We are therefore looking at small-scale installations, close to wind farms and solar power plants," says Tsampas. The most important thing, says Goede, is how many of these types of wind farms you will need in the future. "Look at the commotion around the Wieringermeer," he says, where a large part of the energy production goes to a Microsoft data center. "Imagine that you soon have to fill the entire North Sea with windmills to produce enough synthetic kerosene for our aviation. I don't think our fuel would be very popular then. "