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Can the world run on renewables? Yes, Stanford researchers say.

It just might be a possibility.

Can the world run on renewables? Yes, Stanford researchers say.
Photo credit: Anna Jiménez Calaf on Unsplash
  • Study presents roadmaps for 139 countries to go 100 percent renewable.
  • Authors suggested it was a much more aggressive strategy than the Paris agreement.
  • Researchers found that it's possible with current technology and capabilites to go full renewable by 2050.

The fossil fuels that we're currently dependent on for much of our energy consumption — among them, coal, natural gas, and oil — are not renewable resources. It's been a common fact for quite some time that when we exhaust these resources, we won't be able to produce any more. Still, with that being said, many regard renewable energy as a subpar and less dependable energy source than our go-to fossil fuels.

Yet, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), renewable energies already account for 15 percent of our total electricity generation. Investments in renewable energy is occurring rapidly and places once seen as petroleum producing havens (such as Texas) now account for 12 percent of their energy production from renewables.

This said, as the world marches steadily on toward a future of renewable energy, one 2017 study, published in the journal Joule, indicates that a total overhaul may happen sooner than we think.

One hundred percent renewable energy

The extensive study analyzed the 139 countries that are responsible for 99 percent of global carbon emissions. Overall, the researchers found that the planet should be ready to go 100 percent renewable by 2050.

In the completed report, the authors lay out renewable energy roadmaps — overviews of how each country can transition completely away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Their work doesn't just provide blueprints, though. The researchers also explain how in transitioning we can avoid 1.5°C global warming, create 24.3 million long-term jobs, reduce the social cost of energy, and increase worldwide access to energy.

Mark Z. Jacobson, lead researcher of the study stated, "I was surprised by how many countries we found had sufficient resources to power themselves with 100 percent wind, water, and solar power."

All of these countries would be able to use renewable energy contained within their own borders and could most likely rely on technologies they currently possess. Researchers also talked about how the shift to 100 percent renewables would decrease the amount of land dedicated to energy production. Jacobson writes:

"The entire renewable energy footprint [. . .] is on order of 1.15 to 1.2 percent of the world's land. But keep in mind that 20 percent of the world's land is used for agriculture. In the United States, if you just look at oil and gas, there are 1.7 million active oil and gas wells and 2.3 million inactive wells. Collectively they take up somewhere between one to two percent of the U.S. land area. And that's not counting the refineries, the pipelines, or coal and nuclear infrastructure."

Each day we're beginning to see an increased amount of effort and investment being funneled into purely renewable energy resources. Indeed, the trend is spreading far and wide throughout the world.

Wind energy projects

A surprising study back in 2009 — it was conducted by the European Environment Agency — made an almost unbelievable claim: If Europe built all of its onshore and offshore wind farms, it'd be able to power the continent 20 times over.

As it turns out, though, the actual wind potential in Europe could be even greater. A new study found that maximizing onshore wind potential could enable the wind farms to power the continent to 100 times the over. That would be enough energy to power the entire world — from now until 2050. Europe's untapped wind energy amounts to around 52.5 terrawatts, or about 1 million watts for every 16 European citizens.

It's not just Europe that is getting in on the action. Kenya recently launched one of Africa's largest wind power farms. They're on course to meet the country's goal of 100 percent green energy by 2020. The farm, known as Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) can generate around 310 megawatts to the national grid and increase the country's electricity supply by 13 percent.

Kenya has launched Africa's largest wind power farm in a bid to boost electricity generating capacity and to meet the country's ambitious goal of 100% green energy by 2020. President Uhuru Kenyatta stated during the time of launch, "Today, we again raised the bar for the continent as we unveil Africa's single largest wind farm. Kenya is without doubt on course to be a global leader in renewable energy."

Solar power around the world 

The United Arab Emirates is winding up the sun power as it just opened up one of the world's largest solar farms. They've opened up a couple of solar plants in a row, as they start the long transition from oil to solar.

Noor Abu Dhabi is one of the world's largest individual solar power plants. The plant contains 3.2 million solar panels. It can produce up to 1.17 gigawatts of power, which is enough to supply the electricity needs of 90,000 people, while reducing carbon emissions by 1 million metric tons.

Not to be outdone, Saudia Arabia is working on a solar farm outside of Mecca, they think will be able to produce 2.6 gigawatts of power once finished.

Back in the states, Disney has led an initiative to build a giant solar panel installation to power its Florida resort. This is part of Disney's plans to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2020. The 50-megawatt solar facility was ready for action in 2019 to provide renewable energy to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The New York Times reported that it'll reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 57,000 tons per year.

Time and time again, these pockets of renewables sprout up and showcase the success that this type of energy can have on the surrounding areas around it. A concentrated effort throughout the globe could turn this into the new fabric of our energy needs.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
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