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TechNewsWorld.com

Alternative-Alternative Energies: What's Next?

By Jim Offner
Jan 28, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Gone are the days when "fringe technologies" meant things like solar energy and wind power.

Alternative-Alternative Energies: What's Next?

Those and other alternative energy approaches have all gone mainstream, to one degree or another, and they're gaining more steam each year.

However, the fringe is still out there, and so-called alternative-alternative energy technologies are in development.

Some are closer to application than others; some depend on geographical factors for practical use.

"We start paying attention once they reach the point of showing some promise," Gartner analyst Zarko Sumic told TechNewsWorld. "

Emerging energy technology is now known as "operational technology," said Sumic, who works with Gartner's energy and technology advisory services, a group that explores the potential effects of emerging energy technologies on the IT sector.

"All the renewables, and climate and energy independence, have received significant attention," Sumic said.

Thermal solar energy is getting a lot of research time, he noted. "There are different formats of it. It uses concentrated solar energy in order to create steam and ultimately generate electricity through traditional movement of the steam and heat medium."

Thermal solar energy is probably generating enough attention to be moving away from the category of "fringe" technology, said Sumic. "It's kind of coming," he said.

So-called fringe technologies have taken hold in bastions of early technology adoption like California, said Charles King, principal with Pund-IT.

"Energy on the fringe is a fairly common topic here in California," he told TechNewsWorld. "I'd include everything from do-it-yourself projects [such as] home solar and wind turbine energy production [and] electrical car kits to cutting-edge research in areas such as thin-film solar, next-gen batteries, cellulosic ethanol, algal fuel, ocean/tidal energy and natural gas conversion.

Thin film solar has gotten quite a bit of attention -- and research dollars, King said, "but is still some ways out. On the plus side, it's far cheaper and, literally, more flexible than traditional silicon-based solar power technologies. On the down side, it currently costs way more and is significantly less efficient. Lots of work being done here."

Tidal Power

There's also a set of tidal-power technologies, Gartner's Sumic said.

"They have been used for a number of years in river estuaries and capturing the water in high tide and releasing it through hydro turbines," he noted.

"Now, there are some different metals being explored to use some of the latest research in looking at using slow-moving water," Sumic continued. "There is some research that is looking at using the different levels of waters -- peaks and lows -- and using that to push the water through the turbines."

Indirectly, it can be categorized as an extension of wind power, through intermediaries, he added.

A third category of ocean energy involves trying to take advantage of the turbine energy in deep water, Sumic said.

"It's a whole class of oceanic, or water-related, technology: the tidal, veil and the thermal," he said.

Tidal energy, derived from turbines driven by the motion of the tides or river or ocean currents, shows "incredible" potential, commented Pund-IT's King.

"A company called Verdant Power has been running a research project on the East River since 2006," he said, "and SeaGen, in Northern Ireland -- the first commercial unit installed anywhere -- began generating at full power last month."

Water power presents a number of options, noted Gartner's Sumic. "We have that reversible hydro power plant: You can pump water back in the reservoir and reverse the flow during the peak."

However, hydro power is limited by geography, observed Rob Enderle, principal with the Enderle Group.

"You've got to have a stream in close proximity to make that work," he said.

Hydrogen power also belongs more in the realm of potential than practical energy sources, said Gartner's Sumic, noting that the category has received attention primarily due to its possible use as an automotive fuel.

"To have an infrastructure -- to find a way to store and produce it effectively -- is where a lot of research is," he said.

Down Side of Geothermal?

Geothermal energy isn't practical, at least at the moment, said Enderle.

"Doing an earth-core tap will cost a million bucks," he told TechNewsWorld.

Gas sources are also questionable and limited to certain areas, Enderle pointed out, although "the methane stuff is being considered for farms because you've got a lot of it."

Natural gas conversion uses catalytic processes to convert carbon-based materials -- including coal and feed stocks -- into pipeline-quality natural gas, noted Pund-IT's King.

"T. Boone Pickens is pressing hard in this area," he said, "and bankrolled an initiative in California last November to promote the use of natural gas in automobiles. Converting cars to use natural gas is fairly simple and the technologies are readily available, but many consumers are reluctant to drive the Detroit equivalent of the Hindenburg."

Technologies that help to use energy more efficiently, rather than power generation, are the focus of Sumic's group at Gartner.

"The one that is definitely critical or has a huge promise is super conductivity -- high temperature," he said. "It's not used as a means to generate; it's a technology that can reduce losses. So, indirectly, it increases the availability of the energy."

There also are storage technologies that aren't used directly to generate power but can be used predictably with wind and solar and renewables, Sumic said.

"Some technologies are lithium batteries, where there's a lot of research because of electric vehicles," he said. "There's a whole set of other storage technologies -- some of them using magnetic fields. Some are using traditional capacitors. Some flywheels and things like that."

Some of those fringe technologies have made more progress toward practical use than others, noted Sumic.

"High-temperature superconductivity has been around for a number of years but hasn't moved from the very early stage," he said. "[Regarding hydrogen], there's a lot of technology there, but it faces challenges in how to produce economically efficient hydrogen. At this point, you spend more energy than you get."

Storage also represents a significant hurdle that "research hasn't passed," he said.

Still, next-generation batteries are showing promise, maintained Pund-IT's King.

"It's another area of great focus -- especially in Asia -- that will eventually provide power storage for everything from fuel cells for mobile computers and cell phones to next-generation lithium ion batteries for electric autos," King said. "There's some interesting stuff being done, but viable commercial products are some years away."

Even with renewable energy sources, storage remains an issue, Sumic emphasized, and it has attracted a "significant amount of investment. ... "The reason for that in the utility industry is because of the increased percentage of renewables. You need to find a way to couple them with storage technology. You store it and release it when it's needed."

Biofuels Progress

On the biofuels front, there is plenty of research into cellulosic ethanol as a less labor- or chemically intensive energy source than corn- and grain-based ethanol, King said.

"Switch grass is one of the sources most people are discussing here, but ethanol can also be brewed with everything from wood chips to corn stalks and leaves," he explained. "It's interesting technology that is more environmentally friendly than corn ethanol, but volume production is a long way down the road."

Algal fuel or algae-based biofuel holds "great promise," due to its energy potential," King said, adding that algae contains up to 30 times more fuel than equivalent amounts of other biofuel sources and can be grown almost anywhere.

Still, he acknowledged, "for now, it's far too expensive to produce commercially."

Where all the research goes depends largely on funding. The U.S. government spends less in inflation-adjusted dollars on alternative-energy research than it did in the 1970s, particularly in the area of geothermal technology.

"While it is true that we have structural -- tax and regulatory -- benefits for renewal and nonpolluting energy sources, that is not the same as research dollars," Jonah Stein, founder of ItsTheROI.com, told TechNewsWorld.

There is more to discover on the edges, he noted.

"I suppose the fringe elements are things like high altitude wind generation, tide- and wave-based ocean generation, and biological solar capture," said Stein.

"Really fringe? How about passive nuclear energy -- [a] technology that converts radiation from nuclear waste into electricity from micro-generation, instead of building highly complex and potentially disastrous reactors that require the nuclear chain reaction to be on the borderline of going critical? Given the half-life of some of these radiation sources," he speculated, "we could build 10,000-year generators."


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