Energy Innovation Brief
Issue 34 | October 2023
In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
The Halloween EIB! 👻
The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder and Halloween is just around the corner. This October we’re sharing some of the strange, and sometimes even creepy, energy innovations we’ve found. If these stories give you the heebie-jeebies, don’t worry—we will be back next month to focus on important Canadian innovations.
01| Ghost power: Capturing energy released by crematoriums
02| It was a dark and stormy night: Harvesting energy from raindrops
03| The phantom-grid zone: Wireless energy transfer
04| Mad science: A nuclear fusion gun
05| Rust and Resurrection: De-oxidizing iron for emission-free energy storage
06| Floating leviathans: Airborne wind turbines
07| Dawn of the dead: Installing solar panels in cemeteries
Ghost power: Capturing energy released by crematoriums
Some people donate their bodies to science when they die. Others ask to be made into diamonds. Now we may have the opportunity to be turned into electricity. Heat energy released by crematoriums is usually considered a waste product, but the U.K. county of Durham investigated whether this excess energy could be used to generate electricity. The county installed a turbine generator driven by the hot steam released by the cremation chamber. Other crematoriums use the heat directly, warming up pools and nearby buildings.
Using the byproducts of cremation for commercial purposes can be controversial. For example, some have questioned whether the practice would contravene ethical codes drawn up by the International Cremation Federation, particularly the directive that “the products or residue of a cremation shall not be used for any commercial purposes.” Jurisdictions will need to grapple with these moral questions on their own.
It was a dark and stormy night: Harvesting energy from raindrops
We all know that wind and solar only work if the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. So where can we get our power if it’s a dark and stormy night? Well, possibly from the rain itself. Falling rain contains both kinetic and electrostatic energy, both of which can be turned into short bursts of power using triboelectric and piezoelectric techniques (which harvest the energy from electric charge transfer and from mechanical pressure, respectively). Researchers from across the globe, including from Tsinghua University in China, City University in Hong Kong and IIT Delhi in India, have been studying how to effectively capture and use this energy.
Part of the challenge is technical, but another challenge is scale. Even cumulatively, raindrops don’t contain a large amount of energy. A rainstorm is unlikely to be able to power your house. But it may be useful for low-powered, remote devices connected to the Internet of Things.
The phantom grid zone: Wireless energy transfer
What if we could deliver power without needing a physical connection? Step this way into….the phantom grid zone!
Wireless energy transmission is not a new idea. Nikola Tesla filed a patent for a wireless energy transmission device in 1907 and was able to power light bulbs from an energy source over two miles away. Over a century later the technology may finally be mature enough to support real-world application. Researchers have found ways to beam electricity directly between specific points, with no radiation around the beam, and a “safety curtain” that immediately shuts down power before other objects (like birds, aircraft or people) can touch the main power beam. It even works when there is fog, dust or rain.
While some companies are exploring short-range charging for personal devices like toothbrushes and medical devices, other companies are focusing on providing power at a distance for commercial and industrial applications. The most ambitious project may be the U.S. Power Optical Wireless Energy Relay (POWER) program, the goal of which is to distribute wireless power through a system of airborne relay stations. Though this project is focused on military applications, the technologies developed could have significant civil society implications.
Mad science: A nuclear fusion gun
Like wireless energy, nuclear fusion has been in the works for over a century. The idea of nuclear fusion is exciting, promising a clean and limitless form of energy. While a useful and sustained fusion reaction hasn’t been achieved yet, we do seem to be getting close. One of the problems is that the technologies used tend to be very, very large and very, very expensive.
First Light Fusion has developed a simpler approach with what they call their “Big Friendly Gun” or BFG. The BFG was commissioned, designed, and built for £1.1 million over the course of 10 months. The technology works as follows. A piston speeds down the 70-foot-barrel of the BFG, compressing hydrogen gas into a tiny point that bursts through a metal seal. This shoots a projectile at seven km/sec into a vacuum chamber to strike a target, temporarily generating fusion. This system is cheaper and simpler than the lasers used in other fusion systems and is easier to contain than an ongoing fusion reaction.
The BFG is only the first step. First Light Fusion is currently working on a more advanced system that will use an electrical current to launch projectiles at 20 kilometers per second. Now that’s mad science!
Rust and resurrection: De-oxidizing iron for emission-free energy storage
We usually think of rusted iron as a product that is well and truly dead—something to be consigned to the midden heap of no-longer-useful items. As it turns out, rusted iron can be un-rusted and brought back to life! What’s more, the rusting and unrusting cycle turns out to be a useful way to store and release energy.
Several companies, such as Form Energy, have sprung up to use the rusting-unrusting principle for grid-scale iron-air batteries. But a novel approach has been pioneered at McGill’s Alternative Fuels Laboratory, led by Dr. Jeffrey Bergthorson. The lab has found a way to use iron powder, similar in consistency to fine flour or icing sugar, as fuel for high-heat energy production. After the iron has been burned, the oxygen can be stripped away, returning the powder to its un-rusted state. Although the process has numerous challenges, it also has two big advantages: iron has an energy density better than gasoline, and both the rusting and un-rusting process do not emit carbon dioxide. Three of Dr. Bergthorson’s students have created a spin-off company, Altiro Energy, that has developed a prototype 10-kW iron fuel plant.
Floating leviathans: Airborne wind turbines
When it comes to wind energy, you want to get your turbines as high in the air as possible to maximize stronger winds at high altitudes. Enter Altaeros Energies, who have developed enormous helium-filled turbines that resemble some kind of buoyant sky-whale (or for those enjoying the Halloween theme, Harry Potter-like flying Dementors). Not only do these industrial cousins of blimps benefit from high-altitude winds, they can also be deployed in locations where it is challenging to install permanent infrastructure such as traditional wind turbines. Altaeros is deploying a commercial-scale pilot in Alaska, where at a height of 1,000 feet, the turbine will be over 275 feet taller than the current highest wind turbine (which is in Denmark).
Dawn of the dead: Installing solar panels in cemeteries
We started this issue with power from beyond the grave, and we’ll finish there too. Cemeteries are both final resting places and grounds for quiet visitation. They are also often wide open spaces with good sun exposure, and some jurisdictions are starting to use them as sites to generate power via solar panels. Examples include the Santa Coloma de Gramenet cemetery in Spain, Ballarat General Cemeteries in Australia, and the Mount Oliver Cemetery in Connecticut. In these cases, the graveyard additions were met with little resistance, as they help offset electricity demand and were installed in ways that were respectful to the deceased.
This Energy Innovation Brief was compiled by Ryan Workman and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .
Images: UnSplash and iStock