Advances in technology are the world’s best bet for meeting increasing energy demands while also protecting the environment. The energy industry is making great strides in how energy sources are extracted, created and used—always with the aim of using less to do more. As the world’s population grows and less developed parts of the globe become more technologically advanced, the energy industry’s commitment to new technology will make it possible for more and more people to have access to the electricity they need while keeping the environment safe and healthy.
Technology is also being used to update the world’s energy grids. According to a US Department of Energy report, the country’s energy grid loses about 10% of all electricity generated before it can get to consumers. More efficient high-temperature superconducting (HTS) cables are being developed to reduce the amount of electricity lost and expand power grids’ capabilities. According to the DOE, HTS cables may be safer and more environmentally sound than traditional cables; HTS uses liquid nitrogen as a coolant instead of the dielectric oil used in many conventional high-voltage cables. These cables are being used around the world, with success in the US, China and Korea, among other countries. The technologically advanced cables are currently more expensive than traditional copper cables, but experts say the cost will go down as more HTS projects are put into use. By improving the efficiency of moving electricity over long distances, less total energy will be needed to power everything we use. Accordingly, scientists and engineers are working to streamline the electricity grid, modernizing transmission cables with new materials that allow electrons to move more easily, producing less waste.
Nanotechnology creates and manipulates matter at the molecular level that makes it possible to create materials with improved properties, such as being both lightweight and having ultrahigh strength, and greater capabilities such as in electrical and heat conductivity. Many applications are possible for the energy industry. The oil industry already uses nanoscale catalysts for refining petroleum. Nanoparticles with unique catalytic capabilities are being researched to more effectively and efficiently refine thick, gooey oil sands into highly refined oil.
Nanotechnology may be a promising solution for the transmission and storage of energy, particularly electrical power and hydrogen. Nano-based materials may create new opportunities to transport electricity efficiently and at lower cost over very long distances.
Natural Gas Extraction
Hydraulic fracturing, a process of creating breaks in rock by pumping fluid into the rock and holding the fracture open using a solid such as sand, has the potential to boost the productivity of natural gas wells. The fluid used could be nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water or any number of other possibilities. Although it has been used since the early 1900s, new techniques have allowed the industry to reach fuel in shale reserves cost-effectively.
In hydraulic fracturing, massive trucks pump thousands of gallons of fluid into the rock at very high pressures in order to force the rock to crack. These cracks are then propped open with sand to allow a highly conductive passage through which the oil or gas can flow. In shale fields, as many as 15 major fractures are placed along the horizontal wellbore, serving to connect all those small two-lane roads to wide boulevards and even larger, faster highways. Currently, the limits of this technology are being pushed every day in order to unleash giant gas resources across North America. Tomorrow, this technology will have to go even farther to allow more fractures and longer horizontal wells. Advances in this area will undoubtedly transform our energy landscape.
For more information on shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, see Modern Shale Gas: A Primer from the U.S. Department of Energy.
‘Clean Coal’ Technology
Coal is an extremely important energy source, providing 39% of the world’s electricity. But the burning of coal also has a huge impact on the environment—it releases about 9 billion tons of harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, contributing to global warming. The coal industry is developing new “clean coal” technologies that aim to cut down on these emissions while maintaining coal’s low cost.
Today, the coal industry is moving toward coal gasification that will produce a pressurized carbon dioxide stream that can be separated and stored geologically. This gasification process uses steam and oxygen to turn coal into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Other “clean coal” technologies have been used for a number of years and have improved as the world’s environmental concerns became more pronounced. Many coal plants use electrostatic precipitators (filtration devices that remove particles from flowing gas) and fabric filters to remove ash from the gases that are released by coal plants’ flues. The industry also uses flue gas desulfurization, which reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide released into the atmosphere.
Another key to creating cleaner coal is increasing the efficiency of current coal plants and using the latest technology to make newly built plants as environmentally friendly as possible.
Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)
CCS technology aims to reduce the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel power plants. CCS works by isolating the carbon dioxide from the emissions stream created when power plants generate electricity. The CO2 is then compressed and injected deep underground, where it is permanently stored. New technology is being developed to help the energy industry use CCS more cost-effectively and better understand the long-term effects of underground storage on the surrounding ecosystems. Preventing a large amount of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere is important for the environment, as carbon dioxide contributes to global warming.
CCS is being explored around the world. In the United Kingdom, the government has promised to help fund the country’s first CCS coal-fired power plant, and CCS technology is already being used in China, the US, Australia and other countries.
New technology is also being explored to make renewable energy sources—such as solar, wind and hydropower—more effective for meeting today’s growing energy demands.
Solar power is generated using several different methods, with technology playing a big role. Solar energy doesn’t work at night and sometimes not even when the skies are clouded over, so technological advancements are needed to make it work all the time. One technique involves moveable mirrors focusing the sun’s rays onto a receiver containing molten salt; the salt is heated and flows through the receiver to power a generator. Another technology includes installing heat-absorbing materials that collect and store sunlight during the day and then release the heat at night.
Research into making wind power more cost effective and efficient is also under way. Wind turbine design has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades to reduce collision with birds. Turbine blades are now solid, so there are no lattice structures that entice birds to perch. Also, the blades’ surface area is much larger, so they don’t have to spin as fast to generate power. In the US, the Department of Energy recently granted $8 million to University of Minnesota scientists for research into wind turbines, field experiments and more. And according to a 2009 report by the European Wind Energy Association, the European Union added more capacity in wind power in 2009 than any other power technology Europe’s five-year UpWind program (ongoing from 2006-2011) is a massive research and development project aimed at developing improved wind turbines that can be used for large-scale wind power in the future. The goal is to make turbines bigger and better to generate electricity to more European homes and buildings.
Offshore oil companies use wind turbines and solar energy to provide power to their offshore platforms rather than consuming oil.
In the unrelenting search for more oil and gas, innovation plays an unquestionable role. As large oil and gas fields become increasingly difficult to find, geologists, geophysicists, and engineers employ new technologies, such as seismic, to uncover resources that just 10 years ago were unimaginable. Seismic is a technology that bounces sound waves off rock formations deep below the surface of the earth to provide explorers with a picture of the subsurface, often revealing locations where oil and gas may be trapped.
When you shout in a long hallway or a large room, the echo you hear is the sound of your voice bouncing off the walls back to your ears. The larger the room or the longer the hallway, the more time it will take for you to hear the echo. Seismic relies on a very similar process, in which sound generated at the surface travels into the earth, hits a rock formation and then bounces back to devices that record the echo. The time it takes the sound to bounce back to the receiver is related to the depth of that rock formation. When thousands of these echoes are recorded over time, they create a picture of the rocks beneath our feet.
This technology has been used for decades in the industry but is constantly changing and adapting to new challenges. Today, novel changes in the technology allow seismic to image deep rock formations that were previously invisible, shrouded by huge salt flows rising up from thousands of feet below the surface like big balloons. This method assisted the recent discovery of huge oil fields in the ultra-deep water offshore Brazil.
Alternative Transportation Fuels and Technology
Among the alternatives being considered is equipping vehicles with the ability to consume clean and affordable natural gas. This resource, combined with liquefied natural gas from places like Qatar, Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, constitutes a clean and realistic alternative to gasoline. Already a proven technology, many challenges still remain—pipelines, service stations and vehicles must all be adapted to accommodate the fuel.
It will also be important to develop cutting-edge electric cars to offset the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel. Eventually, refueling your car may be as easy as plugging it into an electrical outlet in your garage.
On the distant frontier of alternative transportation technologies are novel ideas such as hydrogen-powered cars that transform hydrogen into electricity. The major promise of this technology is that water is the only waste product released. Scientific breakthroughs in these areas are still required to make these technologies competitive with today’s fuels.