With climate change on everyone’s minds, millions of dollars are being funneled into research looking at ways to minimize mankind’s impact on the planet. One focal point of these efforts has, been discovering ways to harness renewable energy sources. It’s a tall order. Many hurdles currently exist that prevent widespread adoption, namely the fact that present technologies are too expensive.
Enter Bill Gates. He’s already invested one billion dollars in renewable energy technologies and is planning to invest another billion more. Considering how deep his pockets are, that’s not a difficult promise to make, but it does show the level of his commitment.
The former Microsoft CEO believes the only way to address climate change at reasonable economic costs is through investment. In fact, he challenges governments to do the same.1 It worked for the Apollo and Manhattan projects, after all. Why not renewable energy?
In addition to economic feasibility, research must also focus on reliability. Any renewable alternatives need to be stable and dependable. There’d be no need to switch from current energy sources otherwise. With these concerns in mind, companies have to tackle quite a few things to take advantage of Gates’s investment efforts. But the use of digital tools like electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) should help encourage innovative research.
Combining Chemistry with a Familiar Renewable Energy Source
Solar energy is hardly a new concept. It’s been a go-to for people desiring independent sources of energy and for communities without access to the power grid. Unfortunately, this energy source has been plagued by one major flaw. It’s good for creating power suitable for immediate use but for not storing it on a long-term basis.
MIT researchers, however, may have found an answer to that conundrum. They’ve been looking at thermochemical storage, which can store solar energy for long periods of time without experiencing energy loss. While previous attempts were successful, they required a rare and expensive element. Now, scientists have been able to create a chemical that is both cheaper and able to store more energy in less space.2
ELNs can easily assist in this type of research. With tagging and indexing capabilities, scientists can search through experimental data to pursue opportunities revealed by previous efforts. If a compound proves promising, they can then see if there are other chemicals with similar properties and other advantages, such as lower costs.
Harnessing the Wind
Experts say the jetstream has more than enough energy to power the entire world. But like other sources of renewable energy, the problem has been finding ways to extract it for a reasonable cost.3 Companies working on this technology aren’t looking to replace traditional wind turbines, however. Their ultimate goal is expanding wind energy into regions that haven’t been able to use it. For example, Arctic regions aren’t capable of harnessing solar power for months out of the year nor can they use regular wind turbines due to the climate. Instead, they must rely on diesel power, which is very inefficient. This kind of technology can change that.
Gauging success and feasibility requires extensive collaboration. ELNs offer sharing tools, which enable users to notify colleagues when new data and information have been uploaded. Since the tool is cloud-based, it also lets researchers access the digital notebook from anywhere at any time, provided they have the proper credentials.
Developing a New Nuclear Reactor
One of the renewable energy technologies Gates is most excited about is the traveling wave nuclear reactor. The reactor consists of a cylinder that sets off a wave of nuclear fission reactions at one end. As the reactions travel through the cylinder, it continually creates neutrons in a self-sustaining process. Scientists say the reactions can continue for as long as 100 years!4
While a serious game-changer, don’t hold your breath just yet. It could take at least 15 years to develop and implement this technology. Speed of R&D and implementation is certainly a concern for many companies, and ELNs address that by aiding automation. Hooking up instruments to ELNs allows experiments to run overnight and during other non-productive hours. It frees up scientists’ time for analysis and brainstorming new avenues of research.
ELNs Can Boost Innovation in Energy
If we are to minimize the effects of climate change, it’s time to follow Bill Gates’s lead and make serious efforts to develop renewable energy sources. With digital tools like ELNs, it’s surely possible.
- “Bill Gates is doubling his billion-dollar bet on renewable,” June 26, 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/06/26/bill-gates-renewables-investment-solar-depleted-uranium-battery-storage/ ↩
- “New process discovered for chemically storing solar energy,” July 14, 2011, http://www.gizmag.com/chemical-nanotube-solar-energy-storage/19228/ ↩
- “The Quest to Harness Wind Energy at 2,000 Feet,” October 6, 2014, http://www.popsci.com/article/science/quest-harness-wind-energy-2000-feet ↩
- “A Reactor That Burns Depleted Fuel Emerges as a Potential ‘Game Changer’,” February 23, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2010/02/23/23climatewire-a-reactor-that-burns-depleted-fuel-emerges-a-72189.html ↩