Published 5 July 2024 by Andrei Mihai

From Fossil Fuels to Future Fuels: The Great Energy Challenge That Concerns Us All

Georg Bednorz and Eric Betzig during their Agora Talk on energy transition

The availability of energy is arguably the most impactful change in human society. It’s what has allowed us to thrive as a species and build everything we see around it. Global energy consumption has grown from around 7000 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 1850 to over 28,000 TWh in 1950 to a stunning 183,000 TWh today.

However, this energy largely comes from fossil fuels, which is posing unprecedented challenges for our society. Everything from pollution to climate change can be linked to our energy production and usage. If we want to truly achieve a sustainable future, an energy transition is essential.

Physics is closely related to this energy transition, and at #LINO24, this was also addressed, both by Nobel laureates and Young Scientists.

A Crucial Challenge for Humankind

In an Agora session taking place Tuesday, Eric Betzig, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 for his work on super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, considered it more important to talk about this challenge than anything else.

Eric Betzig during the Agora Talk

Betzig began by highlighting the dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past century and a half. In 1850, life expectancy was less than 40 years, but today, it exceeds 50 years in every country on Earth. This significant improvement is largely attributed to the Industrial Revolution, powered by fossil fuels – the same fossil fuels causing the ongoing climate crisis.

The harnessing of energy enabled unprecedented advancements in healthcare, sanitation, and overall quality of life. All of this requires various forms of energy.

“Much attention has been paid to the environmental damage caused by human development, but in my opinion, insignificant attention has been paid to the deep and persistent misery caused by energy poverty.”

Betzig mentioned four pillars of modern civilization – steel, concrete, plastics, and ammonia – each with substantial carbon footprints. These materials are integral to our current way of life, and their production processes are deeply intertwined with fossil fuel use. Decarbonizing these sectors is no easy challenge.

Fossil fuel energy has dominated the past century, largely because it was cheaper and easier to use than other forms of energy. Renewable energy that is available today is already competitive with fossil fuels and is becoming more and more available year after year. However, the Laureate argued that no change can happen overnight, and renewable energy comes with its own challenges.

Betzig emphasized the role of human ingenuity and knowledge in overcoming these energy challenges. Some of the solutions will be societal – implementing technologies like renewable energy and sustainable fuel that have already been developed. Other solutions, however, may require new technologies.

Nobel Laureate J. Georg Bednorz, for instance, emphasized the role that superconductors can play in this transition.

Superconductivity, discovered in the late 1980s, refers to the phenomenon where certain materials can conduct electricity without resistance at critical temperatures. Very low temperatures, just a few degrees above absolute zero, were thought to be necessary for this phenomenon to occur. Bednorz’s work, however, showed that some materials can become superconductors at significantly higher temperatures. This development made superconducting technology more practical and accessible.

One of the primary advantages of superconductors is their ability to carry extremely high current densities – up to 500 times higher than copper. This characteristic allows for more power to be transmitted through smaller and more compact designs, reducing the need for materials and thus the overall environmental footprint. Superconducting components can be remarkably efficient, making them ideal for various applications in the energy sector.

For instance, superconducting generators for renewable energy sources, such as wind and hydroelectric power, can be significantly more efficient. In grid technology, superconductors can revolutionize the transmission and distribution of electricity. Traditional overhead power lines require wide corridors and generate electromagnetic radiation, which can also lead to public opposition and difficulties in routing. In contrast, superconducting cables, with their high current density and low electromagnetic radiation, can be routed more flexibly.

Next Gen Science

Next Gen Science on Energy
Next Gen Science: Cross Disciplinary Research in Physics

Several researchers at #LINO24 are also working on the next generation of technologies for the energy transition. Some of this work was presented at the Next Gen Science session Physics-based Solutions to the Energy Challenge.

Joao Cunha, at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory, Portugal, discussed a novel approach to convert light into electricity. This differents from traditional solar cells, which are limited in efficiency at around 30%. The approach uses a rectifying antenna (or rectenna) to capture light and convert it into almost stable electrical currents.

This approach achieved high efficiencies in the microwave domain, but translating it into the visible domain has proven to be extremely challenging. Cunha’s team uses nanometric precision to fabricate miniature gold antennas. They achieved substantial improvements over existing technology – and while this is still not enough to compete with existing solar technologies, it’s a promising avenue worth investigating.

Meanwhile, Hariom Jani is looking at ways to make computing more efficiency. Computing is already producing around 2% of the world’s  CO2 emissions, comparable to the airline industry – and shows no sign of slowing down. Jani is working on a system that would make computing more efficient by “marrying” memory and logic, achieving computation logic inside the memory and reducing the energy required for common computational processes.

Jani uses antiferromagnets, which are more robust and stable that ferromagnets, to design magnetic nano-whirls that enable efficient computing. He also highlighted the potential for these materials to significantly reduce energy consumption in computing by mimicking neural network dynamics and improving data processing speeds.

Giulia Lo Gerfo Morganti, from the The Institute of Photonic Sciences, Spain, discussed how nature-inspired materials can enhance energy transport in photovoltaic systems. She likened transporting energy transport to passing a water bottle to someone who’s thirsty – but the bottle is leaking, and the more you wait, the more you waste.

By studying the efficient energy transfer mechanisms in photosynthetic organisms like purple bacteria, Morganti’s team developed artificial materials that mimic these natural processes. Morganti and colleagues found that optimal distances between molecules are crucial for efficient energy transport. Their work suggests that bio-inspired designs can lead to more efficient renewable energy technologies.

Perhaps the clearest example of how important this energy transition is for many young researchers is an impromptu presentation that happened at the end of the session. Introduced by the moderator, the presentation was put together by several young researchers who wanted to address the transition more directly. They referenced not only technological fixes, but also more direct approaches that all researchers can do. For instance, one such approach would be incorporating it into grant or research applications.

The future of energy is both a daunting challenge and a remarkable opportunity for human ingenuity – but it is an urgent challenge for the present, not something coming down the line. As we face the urgent task of mitigating climate change, the collective efforts of the scientific community will be pivotal. By fostering innovation and embracing cutting-edge technologies, we can build a more sustainable and equitable world, ensuring that the benefits of energy are accessible to all while safeguarding our planet for future generations.

Andrei Mihai

Andrei Mihai ist Wissenschaftskommunikator und Doktorand für Geophysik. Er ist Mitbegründer der Plattform ZME Science, mit der er das Ziel verfolgt, Wissenschaft für Jedermann interessant und zugänglich zu machen. Er hat bereits über 2000 Artikel zu verschiedenen Themen verfasst, auch wenn er es im Allgemeinen bevorzugt, über Physik und die Umwelt zu schreiben. Andrei versucht Wissenschaft und gute Geschichten miteinander zu verbinden, um die Welt zu einem besseren Ort zu machen – Artikel für Artikel kommt er diesem Vorhaben näher.