There is always a way to make small improvements in every process, but the true innovations come from nearly always come from unexpected sources. We must end the thoughts that small innovations will solve our energy needs in the future and begin to invest in the future of energy, no matter the technology. As the energy needs of the world continue to increase (1), micro and macro innovations must continue to lead the way
One new micro innovation involves walking to make energy. Several companies are developing or have developed means for converting the act of walking to electricity (2), )(3), and (4). These types of innovations, while certainly not extreme, are one way that innovators are trying to solve the energy needs of the future. Most of these micro innovations rely of motion or vibrations that people are normally doing every day. By tapping into these motions and converting it to electricity, a new energy source is tapped without using a new carbon-intensive fuel.
Another micro innovation involves a new way to generate solar electricity. Researchers have discovered a method that uses the magnetic component of light to generate electricity without using semiconductors orphotovoltaic (PV) panels. When the electromagnetic waves in light passes through certain transparent materials, the magnetic waves are amplified, causing electrons to move away from their nuclei, and creating a static electric field. Conductive materials can be placed on either end of the transparent material to collect the voltage generated across the field, a method that could potentially achieve close to 100% conversion efficiency, because it does not rely on the heat-creating light absorption that limits efficiency of PV panels. (5)
One more innovation converts the difficult-to-recycle discarded plastics into synthetic crude oil. The system vaporizes the plastics and then condenses the vapor into oil. The modular system is capable of converting 10,000 pounds of plastic into 60 barrels of synthetic crude oil a day. (5)
While not directly increasing the size of production, there are turbines being developed that are designed to maximize the use of hydroelectric resources without further jeopardizing migrating fish populations. By allowing the fish to pass through the turbines, instead of around a dame, all of the water stored in a resovior can be used to generate electricity. These turbines have three blades instead of the six or more blades common in older turbine designs. This reduces the chance that fish will be struck by a blade. The blades also have a semi-round edge, which pushes enough water in front of the spinning blades to move the fish out of their path. Estimates place the domestic hydropower capacity lost to fish protection measures to be as much as 25,000 megawatts. This energy can be recovered if the new blades are used. (5)
A large portion of the energy produced in the world is heat, and most of it is lost to the environment as waste. Capturing that waste heat and using it for electricity, hot water, steam, or other production could easily save billions of dollars a year. While not easy, most power plants have some form of waste heat capture. These systems are inefficient, only recover a small amount of useful, heat, and seldom provide enough financial incentive for the operators of electricity plants to install them (6). A real breakthrough in this area will save on fuel, carbon emissions, and electricity needed to cool the areas heating up from the waste heat.
These innovations are the start, but only the start of something bigger. We must put aside our current mentality of small, incremental improvements and focus on the research and development of better means and ways to make energy.
Innovations in the energy industry have been going strong, but the real innovations, the breakthroughs, have been stalling out. Incremental improvements, while helpful for increasing the production of electricity while using our current capacity, will not solve the long-term issues of energy and electricity production. We must make an effort to make this the end of the beginning in energy improvement and provide of the necessary resources to innovate our way to a stable and energy efficient future.