Technologies to Save the World

Butyfix, developed by ITRI, is the world's first carbon-negative biofuel. (Photo: ITRI)
Butyfix, developed by ITRI, is the world's first carbon-negative biofuel. (Photo: ITRI)

Leading climatologists have issued a dire warning: runaway global warming could occur if the world doesn’t rein in its carbon dioxide emissions. Yet there is reason for optimism – despite the tremendous difficulties entailed in reducing emissions – that humanity will come up with new technologies that will eventually save the day.  

“We are now in a revolutionary age,” says Academia Sinica scientist Hsu Huang-hsiung, one of Taiwan’s foremost experts on climate change. “New concepts, new ways of living, and new materials are emerging all the time.”

Beyond such standard clean-energy systems as solar and wind power, here are some of the innovative energy technologies that might come to the rescue:

Butyfix bio-butanol.

Diverting food crops to generate fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol for engines has been likened to a crime against humanity by the United Nations, and so the search for energy-efficient biofuel derived from plant waste has long been the Holy Grail for researchers. Now Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) has developed a process to obtain the world’s first carbon-negative biofuel that uses cellulosic – plant waste – as its feedstock. ITRI has spun off the technology to form its own enterprise, Green Cellulosity Corporation., which is seeking investors.

Molten salt reactors.

Nuclear power suffers from a major image problem in Taiwan, due to the danger of meltdown and radiation emissions, not to mention the problem of disposing of waste. Yet other forms of nuclear technology have already been developed that solve many of the problems of conventional nuclear power. Of particular note are Molten Salt Reactors (MSN), developed in the United States in the 1960s but then abandoned in favor of the current technology. MSN reactors rely on molten salts – salts that liquefy under high temperature, rather than high pressure – as their coolants, thereby eliminating the need for a high pressure vessel that brings the risk of explosion. MSN reactors can also be powered by safer thorium and operated at much higher temperatures, increasing their efficiency. So far the country in the lead for this technology is China, with the help of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Aluminum-ion batteries.

Perhaps the single biggest drawback with current renewable energies is that they are only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, regardless of need. Cheap, safe, fast energy storage has long been a goal of researchers. ITRI, in collaboration with Stanford University, has a potential solution: safe, fast-charging, cheap-to-manufacture aluminum-ion batteries that can be charged within one minute and withstand more than 10,000 cycles without degradation (compared to 4,000-5,000 cycles for lithium-ion batteries). A shortcoming is that the energy density is only about half that of lithium-ion batteries, but researchers express confidence about coming up with improvements.

Compressed-air energy storage.

Scientists are increasingly looking beyond batteries for ways to store energy. Pumped hydro is one example: excess energy produced in the grid is used to pump water up an incline where it is stored and then released through turbines to generate power when needed. A process devised by Lightsail Energy applies the same principle to air, but without the geographic limitations. Invested in by Bill Gates and Peter Theil, among others, the process draws energy off the grid – hopefully generated by renewables – and uses it to compress air, causing much of the potential energy to be transformed into heat. By reinfusing the air with that same heat when the system is run in reverse, the system can re-generate a large proportion of the energy that it draws off the grid.

Nuclear fusion.

No other technology so entices scientists as the prospect of energy generated by cheap, infinitely abundant nuclear fusion. Dense plasma focus technologies, in which electrical currents are beamed through hydrogen and boron gas, generating an intense magnetic field and a charged plasma that can be used to generate electricity, have existed since the 1960s. But so far they have proven too unwieldy to exploit, as they generate temperatures billions of degree Celsius. Recently, a number of companies, including LPP Technologies of New Jersey, have been re-exploring the process and predicts that it will ultimately enable the generation of commercially usable fusion energy.