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Innovation: helping to sustain green growth

By Dave Elliott

Total global investment in clean energy fell 9% in 2013 to $254bn, following a 9% drop in 2012, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Some of this was due to the reduced costs of PV solar, and some to erratic government support. However, in the wake of the global recession, the growth of renewables does seem under some stress, with the EU’s proposal to abandon mandatory national renewable energy targets (see my last post) being another recent unwelcome development. Can the emergence of new technologies and techniques help rebuild momentum?

Two new technologies with multiple energy applications

Much touted as an all pervading wonder of science, graphene, the new one atom thick carbon-based material, looks like having many potential energy-related applications, including in the solar cell field,  for example as a replacement for silicon and maybe other semiconductor cell materials.

MIT researchers say that “semiconducting nano structures on graphene would open up opportunities for the development of flexible optoelectronic devices”, and they have developed nanowire arrays on graphene by modifying the graphene surface with conductive polymer interlayers.

In parallel, researchers at Stanford University are working on a totally carbon-based thin film cell, with nanotube cathode and graphene anode sandwiching an active layer made of nanotubes and buckyballs, all made by printing or evaporating from inks. When fully developed it’s claimed it could provide a tough spray-on PV surface.

Graphene does seem to have characteristics that make it very suited to solar-cell applications. Not only does it have very high conductivity and relatively low cost, when it absorbs a single photon it seems it can create multiple electrons, rather than just one.  and

It is also being tested for use in the photo-electrolysis field. Researchers at the University of Rochester are trying to develop solar driven systems for generating hydrogen using complex light sensitive natural molecules called chromophores and membranes infused with carbon nanotubes/graphene to ensure that the freed electrons are not reabsorbed by the chromophore.

In addition to solar-cell applications, graphene can also be used as a membrane in direct methane fed fuel cells, with high efficiency.

And also as an efficient filter membrane for the desalination of water.

And finally (although I am sure there are many others), it can also be used as a new hydrogen storage material and in advanced supercapacitor electricity storage systems.

There are nearly as many potential energy applications for another new technology – 3D printing. 3D printers use laser technology to build up precise solid shapes in layers from a range of powdered metals, plastics and resins. It is claimed that it may make the fabrication of more efficient solar cells easier. Some even say 3D printing could revolutionise the solar energy industry by cutting costs dramatically.

That may take time, but some other interesting applications and low-cost novel developments have already emerged, including a solar-powered 3D printer that uses desert sand to produce glass objects. This “solar sinter” device, originally conceived at the Royal College of Art in London, uses focused solar heat rather than a laser to melt layers of sand, which are then built up under computer control into the desired shape.

Innovation limits

Materials science breakthroughs like graphene and new fabrication technologies like 3D printing may not on their own make for an energy revolution, but they may well help speed it up, by lowering costs and upgrading efficiency. There may be other ideas lurking in research labs still. If so, hopefully, they will see the light of day. One new material type that already seems to be on the way to wider use is perovskites, a new class of PV material that could well have significant impact. See

DECC says that perovskite thin-film solar cells can be printed directly onto architectural glass to produce transparent or opaque coatings. This glass can be integrated into unitised facades for the construction of tall glass buildings. In lab conditions solar-cell efficiency of 17% has been reported for opaque cells. For 50% transparent glass IGU, a module efficiency of 5% is assumed.

Further ahead, there is some fascinating work going on in relation to quantum waves in organic solar-cell material, which if fully developed, could reduce solar-cell costs significantly.

Clearly there are plenty of new ideas. However, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report “Bridging the valley of death: improving the commercialisation of research”, makes for gloomy reading with regard to the UK’s record in exploiting new technology. The UK isn’t doing very well with innovation; too many good ideas don’t make it from the inventor to the market, too many small companies struggle with the risks and then, if they get a good idea, are bought up by predatory often overseas companies.

Some ideas about how to improve are included. While the Technology Strategy Board is trying hard, the Committee felt that there was “an evident need for an innovation agency in the UK” and it made more sense for “the TSB and its schemes evolve to meet this need than create a new organisation”. It also made sense “to concentrate the innovation function within a single agency to ensure there is coherence and consistency within the system”. One wonders then about the role of the Energy Technology Institute, which, as one witness at the Committees hearings noted, seem to cover similar ground in its field. The Committee felt that the TSB “Catapults” initiatives (formerly “Technology Innovation Centres”) were vital (even if they didn’t like the new name!) and asked the Government to confirm “that they will not seek to push the Catapults to generate revenue but instead allow them to grow slowly and organically with a focus on developing the necessary capabilities to support innovation”. Similarly they felt that “driving an innovation agenda too aggressively through universities may have diminishing returns with regard to commercialisation and risk damaging the academic research that is working well.”

Although they were clearly aware of the need to engage with markets, they seemed to think that too much commercial pressure early on could damage prospects for innovation: not every stage in risk taking can be instantly profitable.

There are of course also other perspectives, concerning, for example, the overall direction of technological innovation. Much of it is purely for commercial gain. That can lead to beneficial spin off. But can social and environmental concerns play a more central role? Isn’t an ethic stance important?  See this critique of the recent ‘Big Bang’ national science fair from Scientists for Global Responsibility.

* Some of the material above comes from the PV solar chapter in my recent e-book. Renewables: a review of sustainable energy supply options, published by IOP. In essence it’s a heavily edited, updated and reworked compilation of the best of the last couple of years of this Blog, plus a lot of new analysis. This Blog of course continues in effect providing updates. In my next few posts I will look at some more “blue skies” energy technologies.

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