In the early 1980s R. Buckminster Fuller proposed the construction of a global electricity grid as a means of transporting energy from solar and wind generators long distances over the surface of the earth. Fossil hydrocarbons such as coal, oil, and natural gas can relatively easily be transported in pipelines, train cars, and on ocean going vessels, but electricity generated from wind and sunlight cannot be transported by these methods. Such long distance electricity grids represent a very large infrastructure investment which would require unprecedented levels of international economic and political cooperation to bring to fruition.
Renewable Energy World recent published an article about representatives from Japan, China, Korea, and Russia signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to conduct technical and economic feasibility studies about creating an electrical grid which would allow large amounts of wind and solar energy to be transmitted between countries in the region of northeast Asia. This MOU arose out of the efforts of Masayoshi Son, a founder, chairman, and chief executive officer (CEO) of Softbank Group, a Japanese multinational telecommunications and internet corporation, who was energized by the Fukushima disaster in Japan to seek for carbon free energy alternatives to nuclear fission.
Whether or not the idea of distributing renewable energy over large geographical areas can be economically effective is not clear. High voltage DC transmission lines can transmit power of long distances with losses of 5% per 2000km and so is a feasible technology for Mongolia to southern China power transmission (The distance from Ulaan Baatar to Hong Kong is 2900km). However, a lot of physical and economic modeling will be required before anyone can be convinced to invest in such a huge transnational infrastructure project. The recent MOU is the first step down the road towards such modeling.
The idea of a radical new aircraft design called the blended wing body (BWB) which could greatly improve the fuel efficiency of air transport has been around for several decades. This type of aircraft completely abandons the tube and wing design which dominates commercial aviation today. Boeing and NASA have been conducting wind tunnel tests of a 13 foot wing span 6% scale model of a BWB aircraft which looks something like a manta ray. They feel that the modeling, design, and testing of this aircraft design have advanced to the stage that they can seriously propose the construction of a manned demonstrator model. Unsurprisingly the initial application intended for this aircraft design is military transport. I would not hold my breath waiting to take a ride on one of these planes, however. Even the most optimistic development scenarios would probably require several decades before this design could make a significant impact of commercial aviation.
Personally I am skeptical that a combination of highly efficient aircraft and bio jet fuel are going to make widespread jet airplane tourism a sustainable activity in the long term. However, certain high marginal return uses for air transport may continue to exist, and obviously high fuel efficiency is desirable for any such remaining applications.
Green Car Congress recently posted a story about a DOE program to fund the development of a demonstration plant for supercritical CO2 (sCO2) Brayton cycle electrical generator at the 10MW scale. Supercritical CO2 is carbon dioxide held above the critical temperature and pressure at which there is no phase transition between the liquid and gaseous states. The sCO2 Brayton cycle is an external combustion engine like the Rankine cycle steam engines that are currently used in a variety of electrical generation system (e.g. nuclear power plants, coal fired power plants, geothermal power plants, concentrating solar thermal power plants, and the secondary power cycle in a combined cycle natural gas fired power plant.). The energy community has long been interested in sCO2 power generators because they are potentially much more efficient at converting thermal energy to electrical energy than Rankine cycle generators, and because they should be inherently much more compact (The turbine for an sCO2 generator can be 30 times smaller than the turbine for a Rankine cycle plant of the same power rating.) thus leading to lower capital costs. Another advantage sCO2 Brayton cycle is that the possibility of maintaining a reasonably high thermal to electrical conversion efficiency using air cooling rather than water cooling. This feature is regarded as of special importance for solar thermal plants in desert regions where water supply issues may limit the use of water cooled generators. However, air cooling in other contexts would also help to reduce the environmental impact of thermal pollution of natural water sources by all types of generators which currently rely on water cooled cycles.
Sandia National Laboratory has already developed laboratory scale (125Kw) Brayton cycle sCO2 generators. It is hoped that the recent DOE proposal will be an intermediate step on the road to commercialization of the sCO2 Brayton cycle technology.
Science Daily recently posted an article about some Spanish scientists who have modeled a thermal energy storage system based on molten silicon at a temperature of 1410C. They refer to this system as a phase change energy storage system, implying that in the discharged state the silicon will a solid at close to the melting temperature and most of the stored energy will be used to convert the silicon the the liquid phase rather than to raise the temperature of the storage mass. Presumably the best use of such an energy storage system would be in a high concentration dual axis solar field. The thermal energy storage density would be 5 to 10 times higher than the molten salt systems currently used for energy storage in concentrated solar power (CSP) applications.
The scientists specifically model the use of thermo photovoltaic cells (TPV) as the thermal to electric power conversion technology. It is not clear to me that TPV would outperform a steam engine or a closed cycle gas turbine running off the same heat source in cost and/or conversion efficiency. It is far from clear that his idea is anything other a calculational curiosity, but at least it is a new idea in energy storage. One good thing about using silicon as an energy storage medium is that it is extremely cheap and abundant in the earth’s crust.