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Five out-there energy projects that are moving closer to reality

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Some newer clean energy sources, like solar panels and wind turbines, are becoming mainstream industries, with low prices and established financing models. But even in this era of emerging predictable clean energy, there are some pretty weird, experimental and ambitious energy projects under development. And they’re (sometimes surprisingly) trying to move out of the lab and off of research papers, and into actual production.

Many of these projects won’t make it to market on time and on budget, but kudos to the crazy energy entrepreneurs who are trying new things. Here are five weird and wacky energy projects that are trying to become reality:

Outta This World: Japan Firms Seek 1GW Solar Station in Space 1. Space-based solar: For decades, Japanese scientists have explored the idea of building a huge solar collector in space that can beam microwave energy down to Earth and produce “space-based solar” electricity. But the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is starting to take the idea more seriously in the wake of the country’s decision to move off nuclear power. The IEEE Spectrum reports that JAXA has now developed a technology road map, with planned demonstration projects and milestones, and a goal of building a 1 GW (the size of a large coal or nuclear plant) commercial system in the 2030’s. While that might seem far off, it leaves just a little over a decade or two to figure out all the logistics that such a far-out space-based system would need.

2). A hot air power station: Over the years, a few researchers have been looking into using the equivalent of manufactured dust devils to create power. The idea is that the sun can heat a thin layer of air that can whip up into a wind vortice, and can then potentially be tapped for energy. Solar Wind Energy TowerBut now a company called Solar Wind Energy Tower (s SWET) is trying to take the idea of a solar-induced column of air to a commercial level. Bloomberg reports that Solar Wind Energy Tower has gotten approval from the city of Yuma, Arizona to build a $1.5 billion, 2,250-foot-tall tower that could generate 435 megawatt-hours a year of the solar-induced air column. Of course, city approval is only the first step — the company still needs a utility to commit to buy the energy and investors to finance the tower, and then needs to build it.

3). Clean coal power plant: Capturing carbon emissions from coal plants might not be a “crazy” idea, but the technology has long been so expensive that it’s been far from commercialization. However, two carbon capture plants in North America — one in Saskatchewan and one in Mississippi — are close to actually being completed, reports MIT Tech Review. The Mississippi plant is five times bigger than the Saskatchewan one, and it’s also using more controversial technology (it gasifies the coal). Still, it’s an important breakthrough. China also has GreenGen, a massive carbon capture and storage coal plant in Tianjin, which will soon start storing its carbon emissions underground miles from the plant.

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments. Target handling systems precisely position the target and freeze it to cryogenic temperatures (18 kelvins, or -427 degrees Fahrenheit) so that a fusion reaction is more easily achieved.
A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments.

4). Nuclear fusion: Scientists have spent 60 years pouring money into trying to crack open nuclear fusion tech. But earlier this year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers announced that they had reached an important milestone: the fuel used to create fusion in their reactor was capable of producing more energy than required to initiate fusion. They published their work in Nature. Startup General Fusion says its own nuclear fusion tech is on THE verge of a breakthrough, and is about two to three years from being used in a power plant. That idea is backed by venture capitalists, showing THAT some VCs are still willing to fund big energy ideas.

Fluidic Energy5). Air batteries: This one’s not in energy generation, but storage. Batteries that use air and metal have been under development for years. A metal air battery uses a metal — like lithium or zinc — for the anode, air (drawn in from the environment) as the cathode, and usually a liquid electrolyte. Using air can make these batteries ultra lightweight and inexpensive (since air, of course, is free). The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program has a whole bunch of projects working on batteries that use air as a key component (for electric cars and grid storage), including bigger companies like Fluidic Energy, which I wrote about last year, and PolyPlus, which I covered a couple years ago.

30 Responses to “Five out-there energy projects that are moving closer to reality”

  1. ok, from one blonde to the other: what exactly do you propose doing with the nuclear waste? I don’t think I was asleep in the class where someone solved that problem and I missed the announcement.

  2. Green going bankrupt? Really? Most energy companies, clean and dirty, are connected now. My energy has always come from SDG&E here in S Cal. Now it comes from Pear Energy (clean), but SDG&E still comes when I have a problem with electricity or gas. I pay about the same, but use clean energy.

  3. Solar Tower:

    If you think the environmental impact of Bundy’s cattle was bad, wait till we cover thousands of acres of land with a plastic sheet to funnel hot air toward the tower. The Tortoises!!!!!!!

  4. Isa Job

    None of these power sources or projects are relevant, because “environmentalists” will never stop fighting them, as well as desert solar, offshore wind, offshore wave, nuclear, natural gas and every other energy project. Prove me wrong: list the proposed energy plants that environmentalists have approved. Ironically, because of environmentalists, we’ll stay on coal power much longer, much to the harm of the environment.

  5. Eugene Pharr

    Solar Power Satellites will NEVER be allowed to happen.

    No nation on Earth will tolerate an orbiting “Microwave Death Ray Platform” above their heads. (In order to be useful, the power density of the downlink beam of microwaves has to be as dense as possible… And if it misses it’s target on the ground due to malfunction or deliberate mal-operation… it’s a death ray from space.)

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  7. Henry Crum

    Wind power and solar are not cheap, which is why they have not replaced fossil fuels. They exist on the margins by government support or specialty uses. The hot air power station is cool, but it will only be usable were water is cheap and plentiful. What we really should be talking about is the traveling wave nuclear reactor.

    • rajadaja

      I can put solar panels directly on my home. They are getting cheaper by the year. Would rather not live near a nuclear reactor. Pretty sure that for the price of a nuclear reactor you could put solar panels on millions of homes

    • Isaac Rabinovitch

      fossil fuels are cheap only because we don’t have to bid against our descendants for the limited supply, and because users don’t have to pay for their environmental impact.

  8. Adam Ricards

    If you’d like to see another great idea who’s time may have come, check out ARES North America, Rail Energy Storage Initiative. Using gravity to store “Grid Scale” energy for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. It’s an interesting spin on an old idea. Hard to argue with the concept…it’s been done for years with hydro power.

  9. The article misleads the public. This list of “pie in the sky” proposals ignore the real direction we should be following. The best option are the new generation nuclear power plants. TMI, Fukushima, and Chernobyl were early generation water reactors. Such plants are prone to accidents as we have seen. Unlike these old designs, the IFRs (Integrated Fast Reactors) can not melt down, and they recycle almost all of their waste as fuel. This isn’t theory. IFRs have been already built. We know how to do these. The public must put aside its old fear of nuclear. These fears do not apply to the new reactor designs.

    • Steve

      Chernobyl, wasn’t water moderated, but graphite. Totally different design from TMI and Fukushima.
      TMI was caused via human error, too much maintenance going on for the operators to keep track of everything, and a faulty assumption when adding makeup water.
      Fukushima was caused by total loss of all backup power supplies from the tsunami, to remove heat.
      Otherwise, you comments regarding new reactor designs are good.

  10. jaime54

    the most promising technology being teted in japan is cold gasifieing of coal and removing of sulfur, mercury and use the gas (methane)in same kind of latest tech combined cycle plants(25years old tech) used for natural gas to generate electricity

  11. Chester Chanin

    How about using liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) as a non-polluting energy source? No water is required, and virtually no by-products are created. In fact, in addition to Thorium, hazardous nuclear plant waste can be used the fuel for these plants, thereby decontaminating them! The by-products that are formed become as safe as background radiation levels more than 100 times faster than traditional nuclear plants. Perhaps most importantly they cannot melt down in a dangerous way. If there’s a loss of power, the ingredients simply solidify safely, thereby preventing the China Syndrome/Fukushima issue.
    See: for further information.

  12. John B

    You shouldn’t be a reporter reporting on the solar wind tower. You don’t know how it works. It creates a 55mph downdraft from injected artificial precipitation. And your burying it with other various and sundry new technologies to obscure it and overload the public to gloss over it. Oil bribe propaganda piece YUP.

    • Wrongo John, there are such towers including a very large one in Spain that are “updrafts” not downdrafts. The heat from Solar gain is created by a Greenhouse type structure at the base of the tower. In addition an Eighth grade girl from the East as a part of her Science class built one in her front yard that worked very well and propelled her to the National Science contest.

    • tom in boyd, TX

      There was just an article recently on that… As an engineer, I’m not very sure that that will do what they think it will. It is an interesting concept to be sure. Just looks unfeasible. From an engineering standpoint i think they will end up costing more to produce the power than alot of other methods. Its going to use a ton of water, and they want to put it in the desert? Where does the water come from? Ok pipe it in from the ocean, now we have built a salt accumulator.

      • Jared Lee

        I believe they have a way of reusing the water after the misting by collecting it some way or another. I do know they have a few patented systems to regulate the mist n hydraulics depending on temp n other variables. But other than that how as a engineer do u see this as a huge problem, assuming they already have a program/system for the water control,misting,collection and the use of the hydraulics depending on the wind speeds from the turbines.

        As far as the tower and the misting the air watch this: The only difference here is that, unlike the water used in this experiment which constitutes a dense molecular environment, the parcels of air molecules don’t experience resistance that liquid water experiences. By adding a watered mist, (***COOLER*** than the ambient air temperature***) you’re actually accelerating air molecules into following basic molecular physics and initiating a wind tunnel at all times. If the top is cooler than the air at ANY GIVEN TIME airflow is generated. So to break it down in simplistic layman’s terms…. If the top is cold, a sink is made and air will always flow. Doesn’t matter if the day is blistering hot or has a chilly day in mind. Water molecules will cool the vertical tunnel making it much colder and thermodynamics apply. This is the basic law of convection