On the Friday boat trip to the Isle of Mainau Andreas Gundelwein, Executive Secretary of Council for The Nobel Laureate Meetings, gave us an introduction to the exhibition Discoveries 2010: Energy that opened there in May. The exhibition is part of a broader education initiative by the council that also includes the website and the house for little researchers. 18 research partners have exhibits about the sustainability of energy. Because of the limited time available, I focussed on three pavilions, covering fuel cells, nuclear fusion and the use of communication technology to save energy.
In pavillon 10 by the Max Planck Society I learned about the role fuel cells will have as energy storage in hydrogen-powered cars. Fuel cells have a much higher energy density than batteries, and the only waste product is water. The technology faces two problems, typical for many new technologies: it increases the cost of a car by several thousand euros, and it requires a network of fueling stations just like gasoline-powered cars. The Mercedes Benz B Class F-Cell car is one of first commercially available hydrogen-powered cars.
In pavillon 12 from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, I learned more about nuclear fusion. This technology is still 40 years away from being used commercially. Nuclear fusion derives energy from the fusion of light atomic nuclei. Fusion requires ignition temperatures of over a hundred million degrees. We talked about the environmental risks of the technology. Fusion reactors, in contrast to nuclear power plants, can’t get out of control with potentially catastrophic consequences. They produce radioactive isotopes, but those decay almost completely within 100 years, i.e. no permanent radioactive waste is produced. The planned ITER experimental reactor will be the first fusion reactor that actually produces energy, and the first plasma is expected for 2019.
Pavillon 16 by Telekom Laboratories, the research laboratories from Deutsche Telekom looks at how communication technologies can help us save energy. I was shown around by Hermann Hartenthaler, who had come from Berlin just for the occasion. We talked about virtual conferencing, which has become realistic enough that long and energy-intensive business trips can be reduced. Electronic ink only requires energy when changing what is seen on the display. The pavillon has a Kindle ebook reader that is still showing the text several weeks after the batteries were taken out. Another interesting use of communications technology is Smart Home Energy Assistant, which allows home appliances such as washing machines to automatically run when energy costs are lowest.