Thursday, January 7, 2010

Post # 9: Disruptive Technologies and Our Energy Future

I have long been intrigued by the phenomenon of "disruptive technology" (DT). The term was originated by Clayton Christensen in the mid-1990s. Put simply, disruptive technology (also referred to as "disruptive innovation") is a technical innovation that profoundly changes society by providing either a paradigm shift in functionality, delivering existing functionalities at dramatically lower cost than current options, or extending functionalities in to new markets and cultures.

DTs are usually unexpected by the market, and often (but not always) accompanied by rapid rates of societal adoption and market penetration. Recent examples of DT include digital photography, iPods, and cell phones (now merged in many platforms). Other examples might include LEDs, transistors, internal combustion engines, the telephone, the telegraph, and (no doubt) the wheel.

I've given some thought to a "wish list" of disruptive energy technology innovations that would fundamentally change our world and our energy/society/environment dialog. Some of these DTs are in the energy supply sector, some in energy distribution, and some in energy use.

So here goes, "Greene's Wish List of Disruptive Energy Innovations"

1. Carbon capture and storage: Effective, economic carbon capture and storage technologies. This innovation opens the door to continued use of fossil fuels. ScottishPower recently announced a "breakthrough" in carbon capture - 90% carbon capture with a 1/3 reduction in energy consumption relative to current best practice. (See: However, the cost of this technology is still undesirably-high, and then there's the possibly more difficult issue of what to do with all that carbon once you've captured it. (There's got to be a Nobel prize in this for someone.)

2. Energy Storage: Deep-cycle battery or other electrical energy storage technologies with 10 times the current energy storage densities of consumer batteries. Today's lithium-ion batteries are at ~ 0.5 MJ/kg. So we're going for ~ 5 MJ/kg. (Recall crude oil is about 50 MJ/kg energy content. So even such a revolutionary change as I'm describing here would still only move "man-made" energy storage to 10% of that found in nature.) Such technology would open the door to greater production and use of wind and solar electricity, and major reductions in petroleum consumption in the transportation sector by enabling wide-scale adoption of electric vehicles. Without this, it's difficult to see how wind and solar can ever provide more than 25-30% of our electricity because of their destabilizing impact (time and frequency domains) on the grid. An interesting recent (brief) overview by House and Johnson can be found at: A second Nobel for someone.

3. Energy Conservation: Heating and cooling of buildings accounts for almost 40% of total U.S. primary energy consumption. I'm thinking user-installed, mass-market (think Home Depot and Lowes), low-cost, technologies to reduce residential and commercial energy consumption. How about attractive insulating panels that could be backfit to the interiors of homes and office buildings to cut through-wall energy-loss by 50%?

4. Energy Production: Flexible, low-cost, super-efficient solar-PV panes for roof-top (and other surface) mounting. I'm talking efficiencies > 40% at mass-market (think Home Depot and Lowes) prices. Today's best multi-junction concentrating solar cells have run at ~ 40% efficiency in idealized laboratory tests. Moving this efficiency into affordable mass-market products would be revolutionary. There is hope. Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory have recently developed a "nanoantenna" technology that might someday achieve efficiencies as high as 80% according to their reports. See:

5. Energy Production: Small (say 100 - 300 MWe), high-temperature (800-900 C) nuclear process heat and electricity systems. I'm talking factory-fabricated power and process heat systems for less than $2B/kWe. These affordable high-temperature systems will enable 50% efficient electric power conversion systems and high-temp process heat for a wide variety of industrial uses.

These five Disruptive Innovations would fundamentally change the nature of our energy/environment challenge, reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the energy security of the U.S. It is an interesting reality that most of these "wish list" items will require solution to long-standing challenges in the materials engineering and science arena.

Let's get cracking ....


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