Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The US Government is concerned that huge taxpayer underwritten loan guarantees for renewable energy projects aren’t producing the results they want, so they have decided to step up the effort to give away money, by offering free cash and work space to projects which are too “high risk” to attract investment from venture capitalists, or qualify for other green funding schemes.
For America’s next generation of clean energy innovators, getting started can be the hardest part.
That’s why the Department of Energy is testing a new model for clean energy research and development (R&D) through a program called Cyclotron Road. The goal is to support scientific R&D that is still too risky for private‐sector investment, and too applied for academia.
Participants receive the time, space and capital to pursue their research and the support to find viable pathways to the market. The projects have enormous potential to create economic and social impacts. The program also aims to grow something bigger:
“We’re trying to build a community of the best innovators from across the country who are all working on the hardest problems in energy and climate.” – Sebastien Lounis, Co-founder, Cyclotron Road
Cyclotron Road is sponsored by our Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Berkeley Lab, one of our 17 National Laboratories. Watch the video to see how we’re supporting these entrepreneurs today and how their technologies might change the world tomorrow.
The government website links to the Cyclotron Road website, which provides more information about some of the projects being funded.
For example, take Mosaic Materials:
Critical need: 10% of global energy consumption is used for separations. The majority of chemical separations are carried out via energy-intensive distillations. New materials are needed to switch to low-energy adsorption-based processes, enabling up to an 80% reduction in energy use.
Mosaic Materials wants to create high tech materials which selectively absorb important industrial gasses, to facilitate separation of gasses from byproducts with less work than existing processes.
The only kick is to a large extent, the “competing technology” has already been created.
Competing technology: Zeolite, carbon, and other MOF-based sorbents and membranes are under development to address the same separation challenges.
Zeolites are already extensively used in home oxygen concentrators, for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other chronic conditions which require ready access to oxygen. The zeolite material selectively absorbs oxygen from normal air, allowing it to be concentrated and pumped to an oxygen mask.
Zeolites are also used in industry for water purification, and for separating other gasses, such as sulphur dioxide.
If there are potential uses for such materials which have not yet been realised, surely it is up to the companies which stand to profit from new innovations to fund the research, rather than the taxpayer picking up the tab.
Another Cyclotron Road project, Spark Thermionics, plans to improve combined heat and power electricity production, to replace solid state systems with a form of vacuum valve technology.
Competing technology: Current practice for directly converting heat to electricity relies on thermoelectric devices, which use thermal gradients within solid-state materials to drive electric current. However, thermoelectrics are limited by parasitic heat losses intrinsic to the solid-state technology itself. The fundamental advantage of thermionic conversion lies in the vacuum gap architecture, a nearly perfect thermal insulator that allows enormous temperature differences between the hot and cool electrodes.
Sounds like a great innovation. But there is already a high efficiency heat engine, developed in 1816, which is used extensively in combined heat and power systems, and which somehow didn’t make it to the list of “competing technology”.
Stirling engines have a high efficiency compared to steam engines, being able to reach 50% efficiency. They are also capable of quiet operation and can use almost any heat source. The heat energy source is generated external to the Stirling engine rather than by internal combustion as with the Otto cycle or Diesel cycle engines. Because the Stirling engine is compatible with alternative and renewable energy sources it could become increasingly significant as the price of conventional fuels rises, and also in light of concerns such as depletion of oil supplies and climate change. This type of engine is currently generating interest as the core component of micro combined heat and power (CHP) units, in which it is more efficient and safer than a comparable steam engine. However, it has a low power-to-weight ratio rendering it more suitable for use in static installations where space and weight are not at a premium.
Perhaps I am being unfair, and missing the point of some of these projects. But rather than spending yet more of our grandchildren’s income on long shots, surely it would make a lot more sense, to let America’s world leading venture capital system do what it does best – allocate R&D resources efficiently, to projects which produce the maximum possible return on investment.
The video which introduces Cyclotron Road: