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:
So crazy it just might work
For this month’s issue of the EIB, we sent our interns out on a mission to find the wildest energy innovations around. While much of the technology featured in this issue may not be ready for commercialization yet, the ideas are so crazy they just might work.
In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news
01| Futuristic drilling
03| Carbon capture train
04| Methane-eating battery
05| Harnessing body movement for electricity
06| 28,000 years of battery life
Quaise Energy, a spinoff company from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is working on an idea they think could power the world for the next million years. The company plans to repurpose old coal and gas power plants by modifying the existing turbines to run on geothermal energy. Not just any geothermal though—the energy at these plants will be sourced from the deepest holes ever drilled.
MIT researcher Paul Woskov plans to drill these holes using a gyrotron—a device traditionally used in nuclear fusion research that emits millimetre microwaves to produce rapid heating. In this case, the gyrotron will be used to superheat and vaporize rock, allowing Quaise Energy to drill to depths beyond the capabilities of traditional drill equipment.
The technology still needs to be adapted to drill holes deep enough to access the magnitudes of geothermal energy needed to run the power plant (up to 20km), but Quaise expects to launch the first full-scale pilot by 2026. If the pilot is successful, many old power plants could be retrofitted to produce renewable energy. Currently, geothermal projects are extremely location dependant and are only able to operate where sufficient heat can be found at relatively shallow depths. However, if Quaise Energy is successful, they predict they could access temperatures of up to 500°C almost anywhere in the world.
While some researchers look to harvest energy from deep within the Earth, others have begun to look to space. Over 50 years after it was first proposed, NASA and governments around the world are once again investigating the feasibility of space-based solar power (SBSP). SBSP involves the collection of solar energy in space before solar rays are blocked by the atmosphere, then wirelessly transmitting the energy back to Earth.
In the past, SBSP had been ruled out primarily due to the high cost of launching and fabricating satellites and technical barriers in transmitting the energy back to Earth. However, with technical advances in microwave and laser energy transmission and the privatization of space launches by companies like SpaceX, NASA believes the time for SBSP may have finally arrived.
The initial feasibility study is well underway with plans to present the findings in September this year. Even if the technical and financial elements are resolved, SBSP will need to navigate potential public perception concerns about shooting lasers from space.
Carbon capture train
A new American start-up, CO2 Rail, is developing a railcar capable of capturing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere without major modifications to current trains. Direct air capture (DAC) of carbon dioxide, while theoretically a promising technology, has been plagued by poor efficiency and economics.
CO2 Rail’s self-powered railcar, however, is chock full of energy-saving technology. For one, the placement of the air intake on top of the car replaces the need for the high-power fans usually required in stationary systems to pull air into carbon filters—thereby reducing the overall energy used in the process. The car also uses a regenerative braking system to capture the energy normally released as heat and friction when the train stops to charge batteries used in the process of capturing and compressing CO2. And as an added bonus the railcar doesn’t occupy permanent space like traditional carbon capture facilities.
CO2 Rail believes its DAC railcar will capture CO2 at a cost of only $50 per tonne, a fraction of the cost of traditional DAC facilities. With the recent increase in DAC capture tax credits in the US to $180 per tonne and a freight train capable of removing up to 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, the technology may not only be economic but very profitable.
Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands have developed a methane-eating battery that uses bacteria to convert methane into electricity. So how does it work? Much like a typical battery, this methane battery transfers energy between two terminals.
However, that’s where the similarities end. Rather than a positive and negative terminal, this battery contains a biological terminal and a chemical terminal. At the biological terminal, researchers place Candidatus Methanoperedens—a methane-consuming bacteria found in freshwater systems—and at the chemical terminal they place a stream of nitrate. When the bacteria consume methane they produce free electrons which are then used by the bacteria to digest nitrate. The stream of nitrate is then slowly reduced over time, which forces the bacteria to deliver the free electrons to a mini reactor to generate electricity.
While the efficiency of the batteries are still relatively low, it could offer an emissions-free alternative to the combustion of methane for power.
Harnessing body movement for electricity
Researchers around the world are studying innovative ways to harness the power of human movement to generate a new type of renewable heat and electricity.
At Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, scientists have developed a fabric that can turn body movement into electricity. The fabric is made up of an electricity-generating polymer, as well as spandex and a rubber-like material to increase strength and flexibility. When the polymer is stretched or compressed it produces an electrical charge which is then transferred to electrodes within the fabric. Initial tests have shown that the force of a hand tapping on a small piece of fabric is able to generate enough electricity to power 100 LEDs. And, unlike prior attempts at power-generating fabrics, NTU’s design can withstand washing and crumpling without any loss in performance.
On the other side of the world, a Scottish nightclub is taking a different approach to human energy—the power of dance. The SWG3 arts centre has partnered with geothermal energy consultancy TownRock Energy to develop a renewable heating and cooling system that runs on the body heat produced by dancing partygoers. The system, dubbed Bodyheat, will cool the building by using a heat pump to transfer the heat from the dancefloor into twelve 500-foot-deep boreholes—turning the earth beneath the club into a giant thermal battery. This stored energy can then be pumped back into the building as needed for hot water or space heating. The club estimates the system will allow them to remove three boilers and reduce their carbon footprint by up to 70 per cent.
28,000 years of battery life
For the past six years, a team of researchers at the University of Bristol has been working on the development of a Nuclear Diamond Battery capable of holding a charge for thousands of years—making the tiny battery ideal for applications where replacing the battery is not feasible, such as remote sensing equipment on the tops of mountains, inside volcanoes, deep in the ocean or even in space.
The battery harnesses the power of nuclear decay, the process through which radioactive isotopes release energy as they stabilize. The researchers produced an artificial diamond directly from nuclear waste—specifically, carbon 14. The carbon 14 is sourced by heating graphite blocks from old nuclear reactors (something the U.K. has over 95,000 tonnes of) to vaporize the radioactive carbon off the surface. The gas is then captured and used to create a manmade diamond through a process known as chemical vapour deposition—the same process used to create artificial diamonds for jewelry. The diamond then acts both as a radioactive source of energy as well as a semiconductor for transmitting that energy. Because of the slow rate of decay, it will take 5,730 years before the battery loses half its charge and 28,000 years to lose it completely.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Brendan Cooke and Marla Orenstein. This month’s edition features contributions by Brendan Cooke, Jasleen Bahia and Connor Watrych. 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 .