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Emerging Technologies Work to Conquer the Grand Challenge of Energy

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that global energy consumption will increase by 56 percent by 2040 compared to 2010 levels. This growth in energy demand is occurring alongside the global agreements to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Researchers at Yale University’s Energy Sciences Institute are responding and combining previously unrelated disciplines to tackle what they describe as the “grand challenge of energy.” Almost 100 Yale scientists and scholars gathered recently for a symposium examining the options available to address it.

Some of the key topics discussed at the event were efficient energy storage and conversion of renewable energy, as well as emerging transformative technologies. Research shows some of these technologies could change the energy landscape over the coming years.

Emerging Transformative Technologies

One of the transformative technologies discussed was the use of emerging photovoltaics such as carbon films, membranes and nanowires to scale-up solar hybrid cells. These same technologies can also improve storage solutions. One Yale research team is designing new catalysts that can increase the active surface area and endurance of electrodes in fuel cells, which makes them smaller and more efficient. The team has used bulk metallic glass nanowires as the fuel catalyst and has created fuel cells that are expected to soon become commercially viable power sources for portable electronic devices.

Frank Jakob, Renewables and Energy Storage Project Manager for Black & Veatch, said these are exciting developments in nanotech for energy applications. "This technology would be an ideal solution for powering mobile devices, and when used many times over in much larger systems could have tremendous impact on reducing peak load and managing energy consumption on the power grid."

He believes that one of the key aspects about these fuel cells is their scalability. If one fuel cell can power a mobile device, then 10 could light a room, and maybe 100 could power refrigerators and other household appliances.

Tapping into Hydrogen

One of the biggest discussions in the energy world right now is about the best way to store and transport energy. One alternative being investigated by Yale is how to efficiently transport hydrogen in large quantities, as a potential means of substitution for gasoline. While challenges are plentiful, the team is currently focused on developing a catalyst that will enable the process to become more efficient.

Rick Gasaway, Electrical Engineer at Black & Veatch who specializes in hydrogen energy, said it is one of the fuels, or more accurately, “energy carrier,” of the future.

"Hydrogen is the most abundant element in our universe. It's just a matter of us learning how to harness it, and research like this is driving that forward. These technologies are going to play a very important part in the future of global energy as the population grows and emerging economies continue to develop."

Black & Veatch is partnering with FirstElement Fuel Inc. to bring hydrogen fueling stations to consumers in California who want a cleaner option for their fuel cell cars. FirstElement Fuel selected Black & Veatch to engineer, permit and construct 19 hydrogen refueling stations.

Lithium Battery Storage

Another project underway at Yale is focused on developing better catalysts for lithium oxygen batteries for storing energy. Using a membrane made of anodic aluminum oxide (AAO) to extend the battery's longevity, the Yale team believes it is close to a marketable solution.

Jakob said that lithium-ion batteries are already a proven solution, but the economics have been a sticking point for widespread market penetration.

"Just five years ago, the costs to end-users were five times more than they are now,” Jakob said. “As the prices come down even further over the next five to 10 years, that's when we'll see battery storage becoming an even more attractive and economically viable solution. New chemistries like lithium oxygen may be the pathway to lower cost."

In the 2016 Black & Veatch Strategic Directions: Electric Utility Industry report, about half of survey respondents said they were either planning, developing, piloting or already deploying energy storage programs at their utility. This is a very solid number for early-stage adopters of a still-emerging technology.

In 2015, Black & Veatch built a microgrid at its World Headquarters that includes battery energy storage as one of its key components. The 100 kW lithium-ion battery system works in conjunction with renewable energy to promote resilience and sustainability. This gives company professionals practical experience with advanced technology applications that allow them to help their clients better. In additional, Black & Veatch has installed more than 40 MWh of battery energy storage projects utilizing lithium-ion technology in California.

The Yale experts at the symposium acknowledged there are many large challenges ahead in the global energy sector, but they expressed optimism that continued research and collaboration of the issues will lead to innovative and viable solutions that can be commercially deployed at scale.

Subject Matter Experts
Frank Jakob: JakobFE@bv.com 
Rick Gasaway: GasawayRA@bv.com

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