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:
In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news:
1. A tale of two toilets
2. Green hydrogen from salty water
3. UCalgary tackles the energy transition
4. Return of the blimp
5. It’s a window… it’s a shingle… it’s a solar panel!!!
6. A circular economy solution for wind turbine blades
A tale of two toilets
Have you ever thought your toilet could produce renewable power? How about generate currency? If you answered “no” to either question, these next innovations might surprise you.
A professor at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea has developed a toilet that turns human waste into energy by using microorganisms to produce biogas. The gas is then used to power a boiler, a stove and a fuel cell. But it doesn’t stop there: the professor has also developed a crypto currency—Ggool—that is linked to use of the toilet. Users of the toilet earn 10 Ggool per day, and can use the currency for purchases on campus.
While using toilets and waste to produce biogas is one route to energy production, another opportunity exists to use our plumbing infrastructure in the same way we use large-scale hydro dams. The concept—known as energy recovery hydropower—takes advantage of the gravitational potential and excess water pressure in pipes and water treatment plants. Currently, waste water—some from your toilet—enters the treatment plant at high pressure and must flow through pressure reduction devices before it can be treated. By moving the water through small turbines instead, the pressure can be reduced, and the additional energy harnessed as electricity.
We shouldn’t expect toilets to be powering the world anytime soon, but applications such as these offer great opportunities for on-site power generation at treatment plants or along water pipelines. And anytime we can turn waste into clean energy, it’s a major win.
Green hydrogen from salty water
With the hype around green hydrogen growing by the day, one major barrier has yet to be resolved: how to produce hydrogen from saltwater. Currently the electrolysers used for hydrogen production—PEM and Alkaline electrolysers—rely on pure distilled water as an input. This is because when saltwater is electrolysed the salts (sodium chloride) break down, forming toxic chlorine gas and clogging the system. In addition to the potential for toxic by-products, the use of pure water makes green hydrogen production problematic for many parts of the world due to water scarcity concerns.
Enter sHYp B.V., a Baltimore-based company that has developed a new hydrogen electrolysis technology that can produce H2 directly from seawater. The company’s 3D printed membrane-less electrolysers can separate saltwater into pure hydrogen gas as well as several valuable by-products such as silica (which is required for the manufacturing of solar panels and electrical technology) and magnesium hydroxide—all without the need for desalinization and without the production of toxic by-products. The modular unit’s ability to produce hydrogen directly from seawater makes it a good fit for co-location at offshore wind farms, or alongside shipping ports where the hydrogen could be used as fuel. The first pilots of the technology are planned to be in operation by the end of 2021.
While no pilots have been announced in Canada yet, saltwater electrolysers such as these paired with the ample supply of clean hydropower in provinces such as B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador could give those provinces a significant advantage in green hydrogen production.
UCalgary tackles the energy transition
With a global energy transition underway, the skillset that will be required by the next generation of energy industry workers is changing. And with it, the number of students interested in traditional oil and gas post-secondary programs. This change was made evident at the University of Calgary earlier this year, when declining demand for the once-popular oil and gas engineering degree resulted in a decision to suspend the program.
However, the university is by no means leaving the energy industry behind. Prospective engineers can still enrol in a petroleum engineering minor, or take part in the school’s new Energy Engineering program—a transfer program launched in 2015 in partnership with SAIT. And the school has begun discussions on a new Energy Science minor as well. This summer the university also announced the opening of a new Geothermal Energy Lab. The lab—a collaboration between the engineering, geoscience, law, and science faculties—hopes to work with stakeholders from academia, government, and industry to break down barriers to geothermal development.
Program changes like these will be important if Alberta is to be successful in navigating the changing energy landscapes. As the energy industry begins to turn from the primacy of petroleum towards new technologies such as hydrogen, CCUS, and renewables, the pressure is on for universities to ensure the workforce of tomorrow is up for the challenge.
Return of the blimp
OceanSky, a Swedish luxury aviation company, has reimagined the century-old model of airships to fill the current demand for sustainable travel. The company has introduced a hybrid airship, Airlander 10, intended to take commercial passengers from Norway to the Arctic with considerably less carbon emissions than a traditional aircraft. The new and improved hybrid airship model employs lighter than air technology (LTA) which combines buoyancy from non-combustible helium and an aerodynamic shape to generate lift—both of which require less thrust and consequently less fuel to take flight.
Although the talk of the town is the luxurious expedition to the North Pole, there are other benefits to airship transportation. In addition to lower emissions, airships do not require major infrastructure to land on (unlike airplanes) and can also obviate the need for roads to be built to connect end locations. This makes it an excellent form of transportation to remote regions that lack both connectivity and transportation infrastructure—including across Canada’s North. In fact, the Government of Quebec has invested $30 million in Flying Whales, a French airship company, as part of its northern economic development – but nothing is off the ground just yet.
It’s a window… it’s a shingle… It’s a solar panel!!!
The skylights of the Edmonton Convention Centre don’t just provide a breathtaking view; they also represent the largest Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) installation in Canada. BIPVs are solar power generating systems that are integrated into the building itself—as windows, shingles, skylights or balcony railings (just as some examples)—rather than being fastened to the outside of the building like traditional solar panels. BIPVs can be located just about anywhere in the building that is exposed to sunlight, and can be incorporated during construction or added during a retrofit. Like solar panels, BIPV systems generate clean energy that can be used for backup power or sold to the grid.
The wide variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and transparencies available give BIPV certain advantages over traditional solar panels. In cities where space for solar panels is limited but unused glass surface is abundant, BIPV increases the area available to generate solar power. While asphalt shingles have a life expectancy of around 15 years, solar panels can last for 30 years, and this longevity advantage can be an incentive to use BIPV over some traditional building materials. As of now, BIPV panels are 50-75% less efficient than traditional solar panels with a higher upfront cost. Despite this, the Canadian company Mitrex believes that BIP’s will take off as people realize it is a viable technology. The company has a future goal to offer BIPV products at no up-front cost to customers, who will instead pay for the electricity generated over the BIPV’s lifespan.
A circular economy solution for wind turbine blades
The irony behind many renewable energy options is that while they help to reduce our emissions problem, they contribute to our waste problem. For example, 85 to 90 per cent of the mass of wind turbines can be recycled, but the blades—made with a mix of glass or carbon fibres and sticky epoxy resin—mostly just find their way into landfills.
However, some recent breakthroughs may be hot on the heels of solving this problem. In early September, Siemens Gamesa claimed it had developed “the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blades ready for commercial use offshore.” The company’s RecyclableBlades use a new resin whose chemical structure allows it to be efficiently separated from other base materials. The company also uses a mild process that protects the properties of the materials so that they can later be re-used for new applications, such as in the automotive industry or in the production of consumer goods like flat screen cases. Siemens Gamesa isn’t the only one working on this problem: both Vestas and General Electric have launched programs to develop full recyclability for turbine blades, with Vestas establishing an academic research coalition and GE signing an agreement with a company that can shred the blades and repurpose the material for use in cement manufacturing.
In this way, the major wind players have reimagined the status quo from single use to circular business models at an industrial level. The uptake of circular business models provides opportunities to create synergies between sectors and increase resource efficiency throughout the value chain, bringing us one step closer to a viable circular economy.