How concentrated solar power could fuel the future

This company uses thousands of mirrors, AI, and machine learning to unlock the power of the sun.

  • What if we could not only harness the power of the sun, but actually use it to run the entire planet?
  • Concentrated solar power (CSP) has the potential to do just that — using arrays of revolving mirrors called heliostats, light is reflected into a massive receiver. Thanks to recent advancements in technology, the cost to replicate these Sunlight Refineries™ is dropping. Soon solar energy will be cleaner and cheaper than using fossil fuels, which could mean adoption on a global scale.
  • Heliogen, a company founded by Bill Gross and backed by Bill Gates, wants to eliminate all uses of fossil fuels. Using cameras, AI, and machine learning, they are working to make these CSP systems smarter and much more efficient.

This episode is from Hard Reset, a Freethink original series about rebuilding the world from scratch and reimagining everything from first principles.

Catch more Hard Reset episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/hard-reset

Heliogen: concentrated solar power plant produces temperatures of 2700° F

How one startup plans to use "death rays" for good instead of evil.

Freethink
  • A new advance in concentrated solar power makes temperatures of 2700° F possible from nothing but sunlight.
  • The heat produced can be used to produce electricity, make clean fuels, or power industrial processes.
  • Founder Bill Gross sees these plants as part of a grand design to wean the world off oil.
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Electricity and fear: The trouble with nuclear energy

Although everyone knows that coal-based energy is a thing of the past, declarations about nuclear power plants somehow do not want to enter into force.

Photo by Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash

No other power-generating device raises as much concern as the nuclear reactor. Because of this, until recently the future of the entire energy sector has been determined by its past.

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Nano diamond batteries could last thousands of years

Utilizing nuclear waste converted to diamonds, this company's batteries will reportedly last thousands of years in some cases.

Image source: Oleksii Biriukov/Shutterstock
  • Nuclear reactor parts converted to radioactive carbon-14 diamonds produce energy.
  • To keep them safe, the carbon-14 diamonds are encased in a second protective diamond layer.
  • The company predicts batteries for personal devices could last about nine years.
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A new device generates energy from shadows

By leveraging the difference between lit and shadowed areas, a new energy source perfect for wearables is invented.

Image source: Mark Adriane/Unsplash
  • Mobile devices used both indoors and out may benefit from a new energy collection system that thrives on mixed and changing lighting conditions.
  • Inexpensive new collection cells are said to be twice as efficient as commercial solar cells.
  • The system's "shadow effect" would also maker it useful as a sensor for tracking traffic.

For all of its promise, solar energy depends on the capture of light, and the more the better. For residents of sunny climes, that's great, with rooftop collection panels, and solar farms built by utilities in wide open, sunny spaces that can provide power to the rest of us. Now, though, a team of scientists at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has announced success at deriving energy from…shadows.

We've got plenty of them everywhere. "Shadows are omnipresent, and we often take them for granted," says research team leader Tan Swee Ching, who notes how shadows are usually anathema for energy collection. "In conventional photovoltaic or optoelectronic applications where a steady source of light is used to power devices, the presence of shadows is undesirable, since it degrades the performance of devices." His team has come up with something quite different, and Tan claims of their shadow-effect energy generator (SEG) that, "This novel concept of harvesting energy in the presence of shadows is unprecedented."

The research is published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

How it works

Image source: Royal Society of Chemistry/NUS

The energy produced by the SEG is generated from the differential between shadowed and lit areas. "In this work," says Tan. "We capitalized on the illumination contrast caused by shadows as an indirect source of power. The contrast in illumination induces a voltage difference between the shadow and illuminated sections, resulting in an electric current."

SEG cells are less expensive to produce than solar cells. Each SEG cell is a thin film of gold on a silicon wafer, and an entire system is a set of four of these cells arrayed on a flexible, transparent plastic film. Experiments suggest the system, in use, is twice as efficient as commercial solar cells.

An SEG cell's shadow effect works best when it is half in light and half in shadow, "as this gives enough area for charge generation and collection respectively," says co-team leader Andrew Wee. When the SEG is entirely in shadow or in light, it doesn't produce a charge.

Gold in them that shadows

Image source: stockfour/Dayna More/Dmitry Naumov/Shutterstock/Big Think

To be sure, the amount of energy that NUS researchers have thus far extracted is small, but it's enough to power a digital watch. The researchers envision the SEG system harvesting ambient light to power smart phones and AR glasses that are used both outdoors and indoors. While such devices can run on solar batteries, solar is only replenished outdoors, and the SEG could "scavenge energy from both illumination and shadows associated with low light intensities to maximize the efficiency of energy harvesting," says Tan. It seems clear that we're on the cusp of the era of wearables — AR visionwear, smart fabrics, smart watches, and so on — and so Tan considers the arrival of the SEG "exciting and timely."

The researchers also note an additional application for which the SEG seems a natural: It can function as a self-powered sensor for monitoring moving objects. The shadow caused by a passing object would trigger the SEG sensor, which can then record the event.

Next up for the team is investigating constructing cells using other, less costly materials than gold to make them even less expensive to produce.

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