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New materials for smart (er) energy by Rudy de Waele

Innovative energy start-ups are experimenting with new ways of generating energy in creative ways never thought of before.

New materials for smart (er) energy by Rudy de Waele

Moving from the fossil-fuel economy, powered by coal, oil and gas to move towards a sustainable economy, powered by solar, wind and alternative energy solutions can go faster than we think, if only we want it to happen politically.


Thanks to a sunny and windy day on May 8, Germany hit a new high in renewable energy generation. At one point around 1pm the country’s solar, wind; hydro and biomass plants were supplying about 55 GW of the 63 GW being consumed, or 87%. Power prices actually went negative for several hours; meaning commercial customers were being paid to consume electricity.


Germany plans to hit 100% renewable energy by 2050, and Denmark’s wind turbines already at some points generate more electricity than the country consumes, exporting the surplus to Germany, Norway and Sweden.


These are numbers based on technologies we master, control and can forecast pretty accurate now. However, there are new materials like graphene and perovskite, for example that could put most existing forecasting models upside down.


In simple terms, graphene, is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. It is the thinnest and lightest material known, the strongest compound discovered (between 100-300 times stronger than steel), the best conductor of heat at room temperature and also the best conductor of electricity known today.


Spanish company Graphenano has introduced a graphene polymer battery that could allow electric vehicles to have a maximum range of a staggering 497 miles (800 kilometers). The battery can also be charged in just a few minutes. Without the need to be replaced, the graphene battery may signal a new era for the electric car.


In China, scientists are developing graphene-coated solar panels that could be used to generate power from an unlikely source: rain.


Perovskite is a light-sensitive crystal that has the potential to be more efficient, inexpensive, and versatile than all other existing solar solutions to date. In 2012, scientists realised that perovskite could act as a semiconductor itself and began to experiment with using it in solar cells. Since, then, perovskite’s conversion efficiency has increased dramatically — from 4 percent to nearly 20 percent, making it the fastest developing technology in the history of photovoltaics.


Innovative energy start-ups are experimenting with new ways of generating energy in creative ways never thought of before. London-based, Pavegen Systems, is a technology company that has developed paving slabs to convert energy from people’s footsteps into electrical power.


Since its inception in 2009, the company has successfully delivered over 100 installations on every continent, across various sectors including train stations, shopping centres, airports and public spaces. The company is now shifting to become a permanent and commercial smart-flooring solution and is poised to power the data-driven smart cities of tomorrow.


Spun out of MIT, Ubiquitous Energy is producing highly transparent, efficient solar cells in its Silicon Valley pilot production facility in Redwood City, CA. With a mission to eliminate the battery life limitations of mobile devices and power smart glass for buildings, Ubiquitous Energy is implementing its technology into a wide range of products as an invisible, onboard source of electricity.


Induction charging is already powering buses in various cities globally. The city of Torino, Italy has used induction since 2003. Gumi in South Korea has a 12-kilometer road that charge buses as they drive. In January 2015, eight electric buses were introduced to Milton Keynes, England, which utilises inductive charging in the road at either end of the journey to prolong overnight charges.


France is set to roll out over 621 miles (1,000km) of solar road that will deliver an eco-friendly way to produce enough energy to power millions of households.


Photovoltaic solar panels, called WattWay, developed by the Colas Group, will be laid over the top of existing roadways and harvest energy to provide electric power to households. 20 square meters of panels can supply the electricity requirements of a single home.


While a number of other countries already experimenting with solarising its roads - the UK is currently investigating dynamic battery charging systems for electric vehicles, experts believe that battery technology is growing at a pace where the need for continuous charging may become redundant.


Whatever energy solution will win, we will all win by moving towards a healthier planet with cleaner air to breathe for us, and the generations to come.

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