The latest research into more sustainable energy solutions has been advancing how we power our transport networks, cutting the carbon emissions associated with heating our homes, businesses and public buildings, as well as boosting the battery performance and recyclability for electric vehicles (EV).
New EV batteries
While the environmental benefits of transferring from diesel- and petrol-powered vehicles include a huge reduction in carbon emissions from the transport sector, the technology powering EVs is still relatively new that it is constantly being refined to make the elements within the batteries more sustainable as well.
Currently, EV batteries last up to 15 years, with Tesla's caveat that theirs are guaranteed only for eight. One of the biggest issues is that the manufacturing process requires a multitude of resources. EV batteries are actually made up of many small packs of lithium ion batteries, all of which contain lithium, graphite, aluminum, cobalt, manganese and nickel. These elements are quite rare on the earth’s surface, and the batteries containing them are difficult to recycle.
A study by researchers at the UK's University of Birmingham revealed that "the one million EVs sold in the UK in 2017 alone will generate 250,000 tonnes of battery waste when they reach the end of their lives—likely in the early-to-mid-2030s." When you consider that the number of EVs on our roads is growing rapidly—global EV sales of approximately 2.1 million in 2018 was an increase of 64% from 2017—that's a lot of battery waste coming up over the next couple of decades.
It's predicted that the EV revolution could also create a worldwide cobalt shortage unless more is done to extend the life of the batteries and to improve recycling at the end of their lives. With all these sustainability issues in mind, projects are underway in research and development departments worldwide to find solutions.
Automobile manufacturer, Nissan, has been re-using batteries deemed end-of-life in electric vehicles to provide off-grid power for trailer tents. Similarly, the UK utility company, Northumberland Water, has been using them to store solar energy generated at its water treatment sites and power desalination units. In addition, the battery manufacturer, Aceleron, has created what it claims is the most sustainable lithium-ion battery yet, because it's not glued or welded together, individual elements can be replaced as needed, rather than having to get rid of the entire battery. The small packs are held together by compression instead, meaning the batteries are both repairable and upgradeable.
The Nissan Leaf, the 100% electric sedan of the Japanese company
Late last year, at Gloucestershire Airport in the UK, Rolls Royce unveiled what it claims is the world's fastest fully electric aircraft. It's part of an initiative the company refers to as ACCEL, an acronym for “Accelerating the Electrification of Flight." The electric plane is destined to take to the skies in spring of 2020; the goal is to have it fly at a record-breaking 300mph.
ACCEL will be powered by the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft, containing 6,000 cells that have been packaged to minimize weight and maximize thermal protection. From a single charge, the battery will provide enough energy to fly 200 miles, the equivalent of a flight from London to Paris.
Many of these are in Europe and include the four-passenger CityAirbus electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which made its first tethered flight in May 2019 in Donauworth, Germany.
The majority of the electric aircraft currently in development are urban air taxis, as the technology is not advanced nor financially competitive enough to provide the power needed to fly larger commercial passenger flights. But just like Rolls Royce, industry analysts believe we'll get there in the next decade.
CityAirbus, the air taxi
Hydrogen for heating
The end of the last decade saw the trials of a more ecological approach to heating systems begin at Keele University in the UK. This is the country's first attempt at injecting zero carbon hydrogen into a gas network to heat homes and buildings. Called HyDeploy, the program is part of the UK Government's goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
During the pilot phase, Keele University is injecting up to 20% (by volume) of hydrogen into its existing natural gas network, which supplies heating for 100 homes and 30 faculty buildings. If this 10-month program proves successful, the plan is to run two larger projects in the UK over the next few years in order to test it out across different energy networks and systems.
If these trials deliver the results researchers are expecting, they envision hydrogen serving as an important element in the future of the UK's low-carbon energy mix. Currently one-third of the country's carbon emissions and half of its energy consumption come from heating homes and commercial buildings. Needless to say, this trial is one that industry, academia and government are all very excited about.
These three innovations are just a tiny snapshot of the myriad of research projects in development all around the world that are aiming to deliver a more sustainable future.
The author: Amanda Saint
Journalist specialising in stories about renewable energy, climate change, smart cities, sustainability, and urbanization.
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