Plugging in to future energy sources at the Bradfield Centre
If you worry about what sort of energy supply future generations will have, then The Energy of the Future event at the Bradfield Centre last week would have illuminating. There’s a huge push for post-oil energy solutions and, even if the advances currently – sorry – seem incremental, a tipping point is on its way as we swing into fully sustainable, self-renewing power systems.
The talks and panel session nimbly chaired by Dr Andrea Lorenz at the Cambridge Science Park venue focused on the detail of engineering solutions: how to plug gas pipes, how to solve the problem of outage when a million electric cars are plugged into the grid at 6pm, whether hydrogen or nuclear is preferable to electricity, and how to respond when one player – China – wants to control the market for rare metals.
First up was Dr Dilek Ozgit, co-founder of Zinergy and a big fan of flexible battery technology. Dilek said that “electronic intelligence in physical objects is now a $100billion market – that means IoT, RFID, solar power”. One application of flexible batteries is in asset tracking, and Dilek looked at the savings that could be made for food transportation.
“One market for Zinergy is providing smart packaging for the food, where 30 per cent of food is wasted going through the supply chain, that’s 10 million tonnes of food lost every year even before it gets to the shop,” she said, adding that another fast-growing sector is for cosmetic patches. “These patches increase absorption when the battery pulses,” she said of the micro-electronic enhancers of cosmetic creams and gels which are on sale.
Next up was Dr Lata Sahonta, programme manager for materials at the University of Cambridge, based in the Department of Chemistry.
She said: “Autonomous departments don’t always know what is being done in other parts of the university, so now we’re trying to solve energy problems in a more comprehensive way. What’s needed is to reach the Paris agreement targets in a safe and steady way – for instance, when LED lighting was introduced by the industry, it helped reduce kerosene use.
“Ten years ago people imagined that wind energy would never be viable but now it’s on a par with nuclear. This is a complicated landscape and researchers need to be talking together.
“In 2016 the university launched a ‘material for energy efficiency’ grand challenge with workshops, lab visits and other activities, looking at three categories of energy use: energy generation, energy storage and energy usage. Production costs are an issue so for instance the way that silicon is produced requires a lot of fossil fuel, which has a big effect on carbon production. Lots of different types of material are capable of energy harvesting.”
Researchers in the city are now looking at spintronic energy, said Lata – devices which use the properties of electrons to transmit, process and store information. “It’s all happening in the Maxwell Centre!” she added.
Finally Chris Hole, a senior consultant at TTP (previously The Technology Partnership), considered how significant it would be for energy savings just to be able to get gas from one place to another without losing a chunk from leaky pipes.
“There’s huge leakage on the gas grid. The pipes are sealed and if they leak they’re basically repaired with string and lead is banged on top.”
TTP has developed a spray which will seal the pipe “using drug inhaler technology, just three to five microns, there’s a sweet spot where it goes round corners”.
Chris then talked through how to avoid the 6pm meltdown for electric vehicle (EV) owners.
“Is it all about charging at 6pm?” he asked. “Most EV owners don’t mind when their vehicle is charged as long as it’s ready by 7 in the morning...”
One of the technologies TTP is working on is “how to spot the signature of an EV being charged in the supply of electricity”.
He added: “Before the networks couldn’t pick it out, but we pick it out with 95 per cent confidence.” From this data, better decisions flow.
The Q&A began with concerns about China’s activity in the rare metal space.
“It is very difficult if you have one country trying to control the market,” said Lata.
Technical questions on hydrogen embrittlement, electrolysis, and using flywheel technology to store energy followed. The engineering focus isn’t surprising at a CETC (Cambridge Enterprise & Technology Club) event. The club, a not-for-profit chaired by Hugh Parnell, has been providing a networking forum for business people, academics, technologists and service providers since being founded in 1992. And sometimes, through the fug of detail, clarity emerges.
“Are we going to experience blackouts as demand for energy is increased with EVs?” asked one punter.
“To some extent we’ve already got it, it’s just called demand response,” replied Chris. “They’re moving towards getting home users to switch on and off at certain times but yes, you are quite right, the electricity platform won’t be as stable as it once was.”
Soon, electricity supplies may not be fully reliable. That’s a huge story there isn’t time to unpick here, but the point is, it’s more urgent to be ingenious. At 6pm when everyone wants to charge their gadget, if your electric car has three-quarters power, you’d be able to provide power from the car to the grid, be paid at a premium rate and then recharge your EV at 2am when the power will be supplied at a reduced rate. That’s capitalism folks.
So yes, there will be problems with energy supplies in the future. And there will be solutions.
The next CETC event is at MetroBank on May 23, with speakers from the Bank of England and the Centre for Alternative Technology talking about financing the future.