Technology Frontiers

by | March 10, 2009

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People in the energy sector are passionate about the high-tech nature of their industry. Although the basic process of gathering fuels and burning them to produce electricity, light, heat and work is fairly set, how efficient that process is and how much pollution it generates are the subjects of some pretty hard-core science and revolutionary changes.

The energy industry is known for its fluctuations -- as prices skyrocket, companies invest in new technologies and expand their explorations, while lower prices have the opposite effect. Still, new technologies for exploration, including 3-D and 4-D seismic exploration methods, new drilling techniques, and technologies for exploring deep under the sea, will continue to produce a demand for skilled workers.

In order to be a compelling job candidate, it helps to be knowledgeable and passionate about new technologies appearing on the horizon. Below are just a handful of examples of the cutting-edge research and development happening in different parts of the energy world in recent years:

  • One company has developed a very low-tech alchemy to turn pollution into fuel: letting algae "eat" NOx (nitrogen oxide) and CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions from fossil plants. Algae thrive on these abundant feedstocks in power plant exhaust streams -- pollution is reduced, the algae grows and can later be dried and burned as fuel.
  • An important emerging power plant pollution-control technology involves burning fuel without using a flame. The recently commercialized Xonon combustor turns natural gas into energy by bringing it into contact with a catalyst. In flameless combustion, no NOx is formed at all, thus preventing smog and acid rain.
  • High-temperature superconducting transmission lines are currently in testing. Traditional copper wires cause enough resistance to lose some 10 percent of the electricity they carry. Superconducting niobium-titanium alloy wires cooled by a tiny liquid nitrogen core eliminate line losses and thus effectively increase our electricity supply.
  • We have used the principle of piezoelectricity for decades to generate electricity from motion. Certain types of miniature crystals spontaneously generate a high-voltage current when moved -- portable gas grill lighters that don't use a flint work in this way. Nowadays, companies are looking into more advanced applications, like using piezoelectric generators embedded in the sole of a soldier's boot to power battlefield equipment.
  • Did you know there's a petrol-powered car with a fuel efficiency of .0235 litres per 100 kilometres? Such impressive efficiency comes from using a tiny, one-cylinder engine with little internal resistance, thin hard tires and a super-light car body to reduce road friction, a bubble-shaped aerodynamic design and a lightweight child driver on a smooth and level indoor track. While these extreme design elements may not be practical for commercial vehicles, fuel efficiency R&D (research and development) is an active and promising space.
  • Data transmission over electrical wires is a little-known, older technology that is finding exciting new applications. The current in an electrical wire can also carry data -- street lights have been remotely controlled this way for decades, and in the past few years home automation via the wires in the wall has proliferated. (Did you know that you can turn your dishwasher on from your computer at work?) Companies have recently started marketing modems that send and receive more complex data over power lines: Internet access, voice and video.
  • Battery technology is one of the real stumbling blocks of technological innovation these days -- how much does it help you to have a supercomputer the size of a pad of paper if it dies after being unplugged for two hours? Companies are bringing better rechargeable lithium ion batteries to market, and actively developing laptops and cell phones powered by fuel cells with mini onboard tanks of hydrogen or methanol fuel.
  • If you think wireless electricity is impossible, think again! We will soon be seeing desk surfaces and other furniture manufactured with embedded electrical chips -- when you put a portable device down on the surface, the chip activates and recharges your laptop, phone, television, blender, razor, vacuum cleaner or whatever. Less realistically, people have also thought about wireless electricity in the form of "space solar power," in which huge solar-panelled satellites would collect energy from the sun and beam it to earth in the form of radio frequencies, which would then be converted into electricity.
  • Bringing the fabled hydrogen economy to reality requires an inexpensive source of free hydrogen. Development-stage hydrogen production techniques include harnessing the sun to release hydrogen from pure sugar, and using high-temperature catalysis (rather than energy-intensive electrolysis) to split water into H2 and O2.

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