Standing squarely in front of an archery target, when you draw an arrow back to take aim, creating a triangle of tension on the bow, there is a massive amount of potential energy building up to make the arrow fly. Similarly, right now in the international climate community, there is a growing sense of the tremendous potential at our fingertips.
For a long time, we’ve had our eye on the target—keeping global temperatures from, at worst, surpassing 2 degrees Celsius. But right now, climate policy and technology are aligning, accelerating progress. In just the past few years, we’ve seen the adoption and recent signing of The Paris Agreement, significant investments in research and development, and crucial advancements in the clean energy sector.
The potential is growing, and our bow string is getting tighter. The exciting potential of this mounting progress is how it is creating a new space ripe for energy innovation. Right now, emerging technologies in the energy sector could truly transform our future.
Out of laboratories, think tanks, scientific partnerships and—in some cases—out of the bottom of the sea, ideas for green energy are taking off, some with the power to act as disruptive innovations, changing the accessibility of and markets for the energy sector.
Across the world, scientists are looking to technology to stir breakthroughs in energy consumption. The Nature Conservancy’s NatureNet Science Fellows Program partners with leading universities to drive scientific advancements in conservation. Many of this year’s fellows are at the forefront of climate science and technology, accelerating innovations to push the boundaries of scalable climate solutions beyond what is currently possible.
At the University of Pennsylvania, new research by a NatureNet Science Fellow is focused on converting waste heat to electricity. Right now, half of all energy generated is lost through inefficiencies such as wasted heat or steam. This research into more flexible thermoelectric fibers creates opportunities to insulate heat waste hot spots—such as building pipes or manufacturing sites—and convert the lost heat into electricity, much like a solar panel converts sunlight. Waste heat recovery is a very big, very exciting opportunity with scalable potential that could significantly reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Other breakthroughs include further improvements in the biofuel field. For a long time, algae production has been studied for its potential to provide sustainable renewable energy, but current production inefficiencies—primarily the energy it takes to keep the algae moving and exposed to sunlight—have prevented its use. To address this issue, a fellow working at the University of Pennsylvania and the NASA Ames Research Center in California is looking at giant clams’ unique system for harvesting energy from algae. Living in nutrient-poor waters, the clams contain unique outer cells that not only give them beautiful coloring, but also make extremely efficient use of the available sunlight to feed the algae in their tissues. It’s a process that scientists are working to mimic with technology, and has tremendous potential to revolutionize the use of renewable energy from algal biofuels.