Top 5 Disruptive Technologies that could Accelerate the Energy Transition
Apr 1, 2023
9 min readAdd to Favourite
Apr 1, 2023
9 min readAdd to Favourite
The energy landscape is undergoing a transformative shift, driven by the pressing need for climate urgency and increasing demand for clean energy solutions. The clean energy sector has seen significant investment and innovation in recent years, leading to a proliferation of emerging technologies. However, only a limited number of these innovations are poised to significantly impact the industry.
FutureBridge has identified five disruptive technologies that are poised to drive the energy transition. Our shortlist is based on early signals, such as increasing technical maturity, falling costs, and an ability to make an observable shift in the energy sector. In this article, we examine each technology in detail, exploring its current techno-economic status, and near-future potential. We also delve into the limitations of these technologies and offer insights into possible solutions to overcome them.
Perovskite solar cells
Solar photovoltaic (PV) is arguably the face of this energy transition, playing a primary role since its inception. Today, solar PV is the fastest-growing renewable power source and is expected to continue to grow till 2050, propelled by the rising need for cheap renewable electricity and green hydrogen. Solar PV has witnessed a sharp decline in costs in the last decade, with up to 82% cost reduction in utility-scale PV, primarily due to falling PV module prices. However, the module prices have now stabilized and are expected to remain so, threatening to slow solar PV’s rapid and necessary deployment. The industry will need to look beyond the current crystalline silicon or thin-film technology, and perovskite solar cells are a promising substitute.
Perovskite solar cells are composed of a cheap-to-produce inorganic or hybrid halide-based compound that has a particular crystalline structure (called ABX3) that was first discovered in the mineral perovskite, which now lends its name to both, the structure, and the solar cell. Perovskite solar cells saw rapid development, increasing their lab efficiency from 3% in 2009 to 27.1% today, much higher than the best crystalline solar cell at 22.6% efficiency. A hybrid perovskite-Si tandem cell was even able to achieve 32.5% efficiency. However, their high efficiency and low cost are overshadowed by their instability. Perovskites are susceptible to degradation due to moisture, oxygen, and heat. Researchers today are engaged in increasing perovskite’s lifetime from the present scale of a few weeks to at least a decade, to be used in large-scale power applications.
Cooling systems such as air conditioners and refrigerators are responsible for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of worldwide electricity consumption. Cooling demand is expected to skyrocket, with global air conditioner units tripling from 2019 to 2050, which will severely constrain power grids. A possible solution could be passive cooling that requires only sunlight.
Unlike conventional cooling systems, passive radiative cooling doesn’t require electricity or fuel but only sunlight. It uses specially engineered materials that absorb sunlight and re-emit heat in a particular infrared spectrum (8-14 microns) that has high transmissive power, escaping directly to outer space, hence cooling itself. This engineered material can then be developed in the form of paints or panels.
In its present state, the technology can provide cooling of up to 10°C from the ambient temperature, which can be used to preserve food or lower the air-conditioning load. Start-ups like SkyCool Systems, SolCold, and PARC are working to realize the adoption of this technology. The high cost of nano-engineered material is the primary barrier to its commercialization. However, advancement in nanoscale manufacturing is expected to reduce the cost of passive cooling technology soon.
The solid-state battery is a type of battery that employs a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid or polymer gel electrolyte found in the present lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries. It is one of the most anticipated technologies as EV makers look to overcome the limitations of conventional lithium-ion batteries such as short range, slow charging, battery safety, and weight issues.
Solid-state batteries’ superior properties come from their ability to use energy-dense lithium as an anode, which is too dangerous for liquid electrolytes as the dendrites can easily pass through liquids to short-circuit the battery. Lithium anode makes a solid-state battery much more compact and faster to charge, with energy densities twice as high as the present EV battery. These possibilities will enable it to be deployed for grid energy storage and on small aircraft and marine vessels, in addition to road EVs. Currently, the technology is in the demonstration stage, with many battery startups and auto OEMs racing to develop a viable solid-state battery. However, QuantumScape and Samsung expect to commercialize their battery by 2024.
Methane pyrolysis is a hydrogen production technology that decomposes natural gas (methane) into solid carbon and hydrogen, which is labeled as turquoise hydrogen. Methane pyrolysis’ promise is in its ability to be an important bridging technology to feed the hydrogen economy until the cost of green hydrogen is low enough for mass deployment.
Compared to blue hydrogen (steam methane reforming with carbon capture and storage), methane pyrolysis has lower specific energy requirement and separates carbon into a solid form, which is much easier to transport, use and store. Although research literature has shown it to be slightly more expensive than blue hydrogen, the technology’s proponents argue that these studies ignore the high-value solid carbon material that can be sold to industry (like rubber and carbon black) to further lower the production cost.
Methane requires high temperatures to decompose into its constituent elements and the process is categorized into plasma, thermal, or catalytic decomposition based on the type of heating used. Plasma decomposition is the most mature of all methane pyrolysis technology, but it is also the most energy-intensive due to the high-temperature requirement. Many players, including established companies, start-ups, and academic groups are developing the technology which has seen limited commercialization, mainly for solid carbon production.
With increasing support from governments and policymakers, electric vehicles (EVs) are likely to be the future of transport. However, plug-in EVs cause inconvenience to users due to the long and frequent charging stops and charger-EV incompatibility, which is threatening to slow their uptake. Wireless charging technology can overcome these barriers by reducing charging time and increasing the range. It will also resolve compatibility issues by bypassing the complex web of different connectors, standards, and protocols.
Wireless charging, as the name suggests, charges EVs wirelessly based on the principle of electromagnetic energy transfer, which uses an alternating magnetic field and is commonly used in transformers and consumer electronics. However, the challenge with EVs is that they require high power transfer rates, which increases energy losses that transform into induced heat in the vehicle’s receiver. Hence wireless systems would need to minimize transfer losses and require an active cooling system.
Wireless EV charging can either be static or dynamic. In static charging, the vehicle is stationary and is charged using a transmission pad beneath the EV. Static charging is in the early commercialization stage with limited adoption in South Korea and China. While dynamic charging uses road-embedded transmitters to charge the vehicle while in motion and is currently in the pilot stage with start-ups like Electreon demonstrating a kilometer-long track in Sweden, Italy, and Germany. Static charging is more realizable and cheaper, as it can be deployed with existing EV charging infrastructure.
To realize the 1.5°C climate target, the world must move faster toward cleaner energy technology. FutureBridge has presented the five most promising technologies for energy generation, conversion, and use; that will enable this transition.
FutureBridge believes solid-state batteries and wireless charging are the closest to commercialization and early mass adoption. Presently, passive cooling and perovskite solar cells face cost and durability limitations, respectively, but active research will soon enable them to overcome these obstacles. Methane pyrolysis can produce clean hydrogen on a utility scale but would need policy support to compete with blue hydrogen.
Although we have presented 5 distinct technologies, the energy systems of the future are interconnected, and the energy transition would depend on the combination of these technologies instead of a single technology.
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