Nadine Cranenburgh investigates the next-gen of stored-energy technology.
Peak-proof renewable energy, advanced manufacturing growth and a long-lasting phone charge have one thing in common: battery innovation. The CRC for Future Battery Industries (FBICRC) and the CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries are charging up to take Australia’s homegrown industry to the next level.
Investment bank UBS predicts the worldwide market for batteries will grow to $US134-$US426 billion ($AU199-$AU636 billion) by 2030 — driven by increased demand for renewable energy storage, government-mandated uptake of electric vehicles and consumer electronics sales. Another key factor is the decreasing cost of lithium-ion batteries, which has plummeted by 85 per cent during the past decade.
Australia exports battery minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. But according to the CEO of FBICRC, Stedman Ellis, the nation has the opportunity to capitalise on our mineral wealth, homegrown research and technical expertise to establish local R&D, manufacturing and recycling facilities.
“We have the minerals the world needs to support demand over the next 10-20 years,”says Ellis. “The challenge, and opportunity, is to move downstream and become a price-maker and not a price-taker.”
The FBICRC, based at Curtin University in Western Australia, received $25 million in Federal Government funding in April 2019. Additionally, 58 partners from industry, academia and government have pledged $110 million of support during the FBICRC’s six-year lifespan.
Finding a niche
Market researcher Mordor Intelligence predicts North America and the Asia-Pacific region will be hotspots for the global battery market over the next five years, with the United States, India and China playing important roles.
Ellis says that while it will be difficult for Australia to compete in the bulk production market, local manufacturers could find a niche in specialised industries such as defence. There is also an opportunity to establish recycling and re-use facilities to meet domestic needs and those of the Asia-Pacific region.
Australia could also find a competitive edge in the safe, environmentally responsible production of high-quality materials. For example, a high proportion of the cobalt used in battery production is mined in the Congo, Africa, where workers are poorly protected from safety hazards.
FBICRC estimates battery industries will deliver a $2.5 billion benefit to the Australian economy during the next 15 years. To quantify the employment, economic and investment outcomes, FBICRC has commissioned a project led by the Perth USAsia Centre and the University of Western Australia to determine how we can best leverage the regional requirements and opportunities through international partnerships, business development and government policy design.
The CSIRO will also map the current skills and capabilities of Australia’s battery industries as a baseline to measure future growth.
Linking the value chain
The goal of the FBICRC is to tackle industry-identified gaps in the battery value chain, from mining and processing through to battery manufacturing and recycling. Progress has already been made on the next step after mining, with the first fully automated lithium hydroxide manufacturing facility outside China launching operations in Kwinana, an outer suburb of Perth. Wesfarmers-owned Kidman Resources plans to build a second plant in the same industrial area, but has delayed its final investment decision until early 2021.
Two of FBICRC’s flagship projects address gaps further down the value chain: bedding-down the precursors for local manufacture of cathodes and a national battery-testing facility to verify the operation of Australian-made and imported cells.
Professor Peter Talbot, FBICRC Program Manager, says Australia’s battery minerals could be processed locally to make the precursors for battery manufacture [cathodes, anodes and electrolytes] rather than being exported.
“Australia has had a strong cohort of battery scientists for many years, but they have had to work overseas because we didn’t have that industry [locally],” he says.
To demonstrate our domestic capability for battery manufacture, Talbot established a demonstration facility at Banyo Pilot Plant at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) — the first in Australia to take raw materials and process them into finished, commercial batteries.
“It’s not just about showing it’s possible, it’s about helping industry get up to speed,” says Talbot.
The National Battery Testing Facility will be designed to test the real-life operation of a wide range of battery cells, from familiar cylindrical lithium-ion cells through to grid-scale vanadium redox flow batteries. It will be co-located with QUT’s hydrogen pilot plant and store solar energy in a microgrid to avoid destabilising the wider electricity network. The energy stored in the batteries being tested will be used to power an electrolyser, which produces green hydrogen.
While lithium-ion batteries dominate the current market, they have limitations. The $3 million CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries is working to modify the properties of batteries to reduce cost and increase efficiency and capacity. It is led by manufacturing company Calix Global, in collaboration with Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) and BAT-TRI Hub research centre, as well as chemical manufacturer Boron Molecular.
IFM Research Fellow Dr Robert Kerr says hybrid lithium-ion batteries replace the graphite anode in conventional lithium-ion cells with higher-powered lithium titanate (LTO) with various cathode materials.
“It still operates under very similar principles, but you can achieve higher power density.”
Calix will experimentally produce nano-active cathode materials for hybrid batteries at its BATMn flash calcination reactor in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, which can produce up to 250kg per hour. The company is currently prototyping a lithium manganese oxide cathode which has potential applications in electric vehicles, energy storage and portable electronics.
Calix is also working with the FBICRC to investigate more efficient extraction of lithium from spodumene ore.
“Calix will investigate whether flash calcination technology could be exploited to improve recovery rates and economics of lithium beneficiation and processing,” says Dr Matt Boot-Handford, R&D Manager for Batteries and Catalysts at Calix.
Professor Peter Talbot, FBICRC Program Manager, says Australia has identified alternative options to lithium-ion batteries. For example, WA-based Australian Vanadium recently supplied a 320kWh vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) to store solar energy on a dairy farm in Meredith, Victoria. The battery was manufactured in the US with vanadium ore mined in Australia and locally processed into an electrolyte solution.
VRFBs, developed by chemists at the University of New South Wales, use large tanks of liquid electrolyte to store energy. They are a safer and more recyclable alternative to lithium-ion batteries for renewable energy storage, particularly in remote or regional areas where space is not an issue.
Lithium-sulfur batteries, sodium-ion and sodium-air batteries could also be future alternatives, particularly in high temperature or hazardous environments.
“Materials in sodium batteries are abundant, cheap and benign,” says IFM Research Fellow Dr Robert Kerr.
Users of the CSIRO Energise app (available onGoogle Playand on theApple App Store) share their energy costs and usage patterns through a range of ‘micro-surveys’, which will be used by the CSIRO to understand changing energy demands. The data will be shared with consumers, government and industry and could lead to improvements in the Australian energy network.
The app is a key component of CSIRO’s Energy Use Data Model project, which is collating and centralising various streams of energy data. “It’s designed to help us understand the changing world of energy”, explains Project Leader Dr Adam Berry. “Over the past years, we’ve seen huge changes in the energy sector, such as an increased uptake of renewables. This app aims to find out what this means for the average consumer.”
The micro-surveys cover topics such as household characteristics, power costs, energy-usage patterns, appliances and uptake of renewables, such as solar PV. CSIRO Energise has been designed as a two-way communication channel, so users will receive insights including tips for improving household energy efficiency and cutting-edge research updates as the energy data is analysed.
Dr Berry says that there is a current lack of data on how Australian households interact with energy. “We need to get better at forecasting energy demand if we want to create a more reliable and cheaper energy system. The app will help answer the big energy questions, such as who is paying the most for electricity and what’s driving peak demand.”
CSIRO Energise is the first of its kind. Unlike paper surveys, the app is able to follow users’ responses over time. It can ask questions in response to specific events, such as how heating is used on cold days, improving our understanding and management of peak energy consumption. “It’s the first time we’ve had the opportunity for longitudinal, long-term data collection”, says Dr Berry.
Dr Berry believes that this data collection platform will benefit researchers, government, industry and consumers. “The results of the data analysis will be shared publicly and the plan is to work with industry and other bodies. This will be really valuable for the residential sector and will go a long way to lowering energy bills. It could also help certain sectors, such as city councils, find out how effective their energy policies are.”
Dr Berry is working hard to spread the word about CSIRO Energise to maximise the number of engaged users. “I genuinely believe that this will help us build an understanding of what modern energy use looks like across Australia.”
“That understanding is critical for developing the right research to deliver the most value possible to real Australian households.”
Featured image above: the Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect
The Growth Centres launched in October 2015 with $250 million in government funding to 2019/2020. With six now up and running, new collaborations, with the CRCs and others, are beginning to bear fruit.
Take the pioneering idea of using a 3D printer to build joints and limbs damaged through cancer or trauma. The Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals (MTP) Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect, extended BioFab3D@ACMD a grant to set up Australia’s first robotics and biomedical engineering centre within a hospital.
A group of researchers, clinicians, engineers and industry partners will work together to build organs, bones, brain, muscle, nerves and glands – almost anything that requires repair – for patients based at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. One of the big benefits is that the 3D printing will be more cost-effective for patients.
The path for BioFab3D from clever research to commercial success is still a long, complicated one. Collaboration is key and BioFab3D is working with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, University of Melbourne, University of Wollongong, RMIT University and Swinburne University of Technology.
According to Sue MacLeman, CEO of MTPConnect, Australia has many strong and innovative medical and health groups that are on the cusp of realising their full commercial potential.
This is where CRCs come in. “CRCs already have research before it is picked up by the multinationals,” she explains. MacLeman says MTPConnect works with 12 CRCs and aims to help drive their commercial success.
“The MTP sector is hindered by constraints including a lack of collaboration between business and research, skills shortages, the need for more focused investment, and the need for more streamlined and harmonised regulatory and market access frameworks,” says MacLeman.
To meet these challenges the Australian government has provided six Growth Centres (see “Six of the best” below) with funding to help smart projects realise their full potential.
“Growth Centres have an enormous range of things to do. Everyone wants them to do everything. They work in tight timeframes,” explains Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of The HEARing CRC, which has been meeting with MTPConnect.
“We have 48,000 people in our sector, but we can’t speak to all of those people,” explains MacLeman. The MTP is well served by membership organisations such as Medicines Australia, the Medical Technology Association of Australia, and ARCS Australia (previously the Association of Regulatory and Clinical Scientists), adds MacLeman. It has signed a number of memorandums of understandings (MOUs) with membership associations to appreciate what is important in the sectors, particularly global best practice.
But Growth Centres need to remain independent, not heavily skewed to certain groups, says MacLeman.
“What is important is that we don’t take paid membership. You can sign up and showcase your work, but we want to keep it independent and not to be seen as a lobby group.
“That is very powerful for us. To have a strategic voice and a lot of alignment.”
Collaboration was essential for The HEARing CRC when it recently trialled an electrode that released an anti-inflammatory drug into the cochlear post-implantation. The trial brought together devices, drugs, analysts and the ethical and regulatory approvals.
“This new electrode array helps reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response,” says Cowan.
Unlike a drug trial that involves hundreds and thousands of patients, the trial could be tested on a small number of people undergoing surgery. The world-first study was only possible through an interdisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and clinicians from Cochlear, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children’s Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre, The University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.
Cowan says he expects MTPConnect will provide assistance to med-tech companies and research institutes in finding and developing new markets, collaborators and investors for Australian medical technologies.
Growth centres for the future of mining
The mining industry is also tapping into groundbreaking research coming out of universities through CRCs and engaging with the new mining equipment, technology and services (METS) growth centre, METS Ignited.
Extracting minerals from the Earth has become much more challenging. Mineral grades are dropping as reserves are being used up and environmental issues are impacting on mining operations. As a result, mining companies are looking at new ways to extract minerals, using technology as cost-effectively as possible.
“The downturn in the mining market is really focusing the mind,” explains Clytie Dangar, general manager, stakeholder engagement at the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE). “We can’t afford to stand still.”
CRC ORE has around 20 active research programs that span robotics, mathematics, data science, predictive modelling as well as broad engineering that focuses on blasting techniques and efficiently extracting minerals from waste. Dangar says the CRC has total funding of $110 million up until mid-2020. This is made up of $37 million from the government and the balance from industry.
CRC ORE and METS Ignited signed a MOU in January to work together to improve commercialisation and collaboration outcomes for Australian METS companies.
Australia has the world’s largest reserves of diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, zinc and rutile (a major mineral source of titanium), according to METS Ignited. “Australia is at the forefront of mining innovation over the years. A lot of countries have looked at Australia, certainly over the boom years. The challenge is to stay there when the money isn’t there and the nature of the reserves has changed. One way is to utilise the skill set,” says Dangar.
With sharp falls in commodity prices, mining companies are keen to participate in game-changing technology, she says. CRC ORE is engaging with big miners, such as Newcrest and BHP Billiton. It’s also tapped into the $90 billion mining sector, together with universities and PhD students who are carrying out innovative research.
The role of the Growth Centre is to link up all the stakeholders and capture the research, says Dangar.
“It is important to be well engaged. Our job as a CRC is to translate the needs of the miners to the researchers and make sure the researchers are addressing those issues.
“It is very applied because we have a short timeline. We must meet our guidelines and we provide small buckets of funds in grants,” says Dangar.
The key is being nimble as well as courageous in supporting research, even though it may not always work, says Dangar. CRC ORE is not in the business of funding long-term research with a horizon of seven to 10 years, but prefers a two- to three-year timeframe.
“In the past, there was a natural tension between METS and miners, but now they can’t wait until it is up and running,” explains Dangar. “Miners need to support METS earlier.”
Some of Australia’s step-change advances in mining include flotation to separate materials, bulk explosives, mechanised mining and large mills. One of the biggest issues for miners is how to separate metal from rock more efficiently. Dangar says CRC ORE is working on solving this problem to lower unit costs, and reduce energy and water consumption. Some of these approaches helped Newcrest Mining get better mineral grades at a cheaper cost at its Telfer mine in Western Australia.
“A lot of mining companies had their own research departments, but some of the issues are industry-wide issues, and it is better to be collaborative than go it alone,” says Dangar.
Six of the best
1. The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre Ltd (AMGC) is working with the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, which kicked off in the 2015 CRC funding round. In February, the AMGC funded Geelong’s Quickstep Holdings, a manufacturer of advanced carbon fibre composites, to the tune of $500,000. The AMGC believes the project has the potential to generate export revenue in excess of $25 million.
2. The Australian Cyber Security Growth Network is an industry-led organisation that will develop the next-generation products and services required to live and work securely in our increasingly connected world.
3. Food Innovation Australia Ltd (FIAL), based at the CSIRO in Victoria, works closely with the relevant CRCs. CRCs have a long history of work in food and agriculture and have included the Seafood CRC, Future Farm CRC, CRC for Innovative Food products and many more.
4. MTPConnect covers the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals sector and includes the Wound Management Innovation CRC, Cancer Therapeutics CRC and HEARing CRC as members, among others.
5. National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) is the Oil, Gas and Energy Resources Growth Centre, and will work with the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) to “encourage industry-focused research and unlock commercial opportunities”.
6. NERA also has links with the mining equipment, technology and services growth centre, METS Ignited, which works closely with the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE).
The CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) has announced $500,000 in funding for a new national zero-energy homes project. The project will research consumer attitudes and aim to influence the building industry to construct new dwellings to zero-energy standards.
At present the energy efficiency of a home is measured according to the Nationwide House Energy Rating System (NatHERS). This star rating system measures the energy required to heat and cool a home, with new buildings being required to meet a minimum six-star rating.
Zero-energy homes, on the other hand, are homes that are carbon neutral across the year – they produceas much (or more) energy than they consume. All aspects of energy consumption are accounted for – not just heating and cooling, but also lighting, appliances and so on.
Project lead Dr Josh Byrne, senior research fellow with Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, believes that the current six-star requirement is merely “eliminating worst practice”. He has built two 10-star rated homes as part of his project, Josh’s House, which was part of the CRCLCL’s Living Labs project near Fremantle in Western Australia. Now he’s keen to bring zero-energy homes into the mainstream.
“It’s not just about bunging on more solar panels to offset the power usage, it’s about how the houses can be designed to perform better thermally,” Byrne says. “We know that simple things like orientation, cross-ventilation, and building air tightness can all dramatically reduce the build performance.”
The project team will be working with developers and builders from three different climate areas – WA, the ACT and Queensland – to design and build zero-energy display homes and present them alongside conventional homes to gauge the response from consumers. Instead of focusing on the sustainability benefits, they want to see how the public thinks zero-energy homes stack up on liveability. “We’re really interested in seeing how people respond to the look, feel and comfort of the zero-energy homes,” Byrne says.
The researchers will then present this data to the regulatory bodies, in the hope that an evidence-based approach will help shift the common perceptions that sustainable building practices are too costly and that there is no market demand for these homes.
With 100,000 new homes being built in Australia each year, moving to zero-energy homes would reduce carbon emissions by 700,000 tonnes. California has committed to achieving this by 2020, and members of the European Union are doing the same. Byrne thinks it’s more than possible here. “I would like to see us setting a realistic goal of achieving that within 10 years,” he says.
Featured image above: Associate Professor Ian O’Hara at the Mackay Biocommodities Pilot Plant. He is pictured inside the plant with the giant vats used for fermentation. Credit: QUT Marketing and Communication/Erika Fish
At the same time, says O’Hara, there are opportunities to add value to existing agricultural products. “Waste products from agriculture, for example, can contribute to biofuel production.”
QUT funded a study in 2014 examining the potential value of a tropical biorefinery in Queensland. It assessed seven biorefinery opportunities across northeast Queensland, including in the sorghum-growing areas around the Darling Downs and the sugarcane-growing areas around Mackay and Cairns.
O’Hara says they mainly focused on existing agricultural areas, taking the residues from these to create new high-value products.
But he sees more opportunity as infrastructure across north Queensland continues to develop.
The study found the establishment of a biorefinery industry in Queensland would increase gross state product by $1.8 million per year and contribute up to 6500 new jobs.
“It’s an industry that contributes future jobs in regional Queensland – and by extension, opportunities for Australia,” O’Hara says.
The biorefineries can produce a range of products in addition to biofuels. These include bio-based chemicals such as ethanol, butanol and succinic acid, and bio-plastics and bio-composites – materials made from renewable components like fibreboard.
O’Hara says policy settings are required to put Queensland and Australia on the investment map as good destinations.
“We need strong collaboration between research, industry and government to ensure we’re working together to create opportunities.”
The CTCB has a number of international and Australian partners. The most recent of these is Japanese brewer Asahi Group Holdings, who CTCB are partnering with to develop a new fermentation technology that will allow greater volumes of sugar and ethanol to be produced from sugarcane.
“The biofuels industry is developing rapidly, and we need to ensure that Queensland and Australia have the opportunity to participate in this growing industry,” says O’Hara.
ANSTO’s Synroc technology locks up radioactive elements in ‘synthetic rock’ allowing waste, like naturally occurring minerals, to be kept safely in the environment for millions of years.
Synroc technology offers excellent chemical durability and minimises waste and disposal volumes, decreasing environmental risks and lowering emissions and secondary wastes.
ANSTO’s Synroc team is developing a waste treatment processing plant using Synroc technology for Australia’s molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) waste; Mo-99 is the parent nuclide for technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. The plant will be the first of its kind, and will lead the world in managing nuclear wastes from Mo-99 production.
Dr Daniel Gregg, leader of the Synroc waste form engineering team at ANSTO, says the plant will demonstrate Australia’s commitment to providing technology solutions to the global nuclear community.
“We hope to partner with others and build several more plants around the world using Synroc technology,” he says.
Gregg says several countries are looking to build new Mo-99 production facilities, and regulators want assurances that facilities will be able to treat the resulting waste streams.
“With national regulators around the world putting more and more pressure on waste producers to deal with nuclear wastes, opportunities exist for Synroc as a leading option for nuclear waste treatment.” This places Synroc and Australia in an enviable position, adds Gregg.
“Synroc is a cost-effective, environmentally responsible option to treat and appropriately dispose of nuclear wastes without leaving a burden to future generations.”
In developing the plant, the Synroc team has designed process engineering technology and a fully integrated pilot plant that can treat large volumes of waste under a continuous process mode.
The team is also collaborating with national laboratories around the world to demonstrate strategies to treat radioactive waste for commercial benefit.
The focus is on waste streams – such as the growing stockpiles of long-lived nuclear waste – that are problematic for existing treatment methods. The real advantage, says Gregg, is Synroc’s ability to immobilise these problematic waste forms.
“Waste producers are required to immobilise nuclear wastes, and Synroc and Australia will be at the forefront of waste management technology.”
Gaining industry experience and seeing how their research can have practical applications is important to early career researchers. Universities and industry are now working together to help provide graduates with the opportunity to work on commercial solutions for real-life problems.
“The partnership allowed me to do things that haven’t been done before, like use optical fibres as sensors instead of electrical sensors,” says Allwood, who will work with Bombora Wave Power to test the sensors.
There are other, similar Australian programs. CRCs offer a number of scholarships across 14 different fields of research, giving PhD students a chance to gain industry experience.
The Chemicals and Plastics GRIP has 20 industry partners offering training and funding, including Dulux and 3M. One student is treating coffee grounds to create a fertiliser to improve the soil quality of agricultural land.
The complex engineering that drives renewable energy innovation, global satellite navigation, and the emerging science of industrial ecology is among Curtin University’s acknowledged strengths. Advanced engineering is crucial to meeting the challenges of climate change and sustainability. Curtin is addressing these issues in several key research centres.
Bioenergy, fuel cells and large energy storage systems are a focus for the university’s Fuels and Energy Technology Institute (FETI), launched in February 2012. The institute brings together a network of more than 50 researchers across Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Denmark and the USA, and has an array of advanced engineering facilities and analytic instruments. It also hosts the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Energy, established in 2013 to address energy security and emissions reduction targets for both countries.
Curtin’s Sustainable Engineering Group (SEG) has been a global pioneer in industrial ecology, an emerging science which tracks the flow of resources and energy in industrial areas, measures their impact on the environment and works out ways to create a “circular economy” to reduce carbon emissions and toxic waste.
And in renewable energy research, Curtin is developing new materials for high temperature fuel cell membranes, and is working with an award-winning bioenergy technology that will use agricultural crop waste to produce biofuels and generate electricity.
Solar’s big shot
Curtin’s hydrogen storage scientists are involved in one of the world’s biggest research programs to drive down the cost of solar power and make it competitive with other forms of electricity generation such as coal and gas. They are contributing to the United States SunShot Initiative – a US$2 billion R&D effort jointly funded by the US Department of Energy and private industry partners to fast track technologies that will cut the cost of solar power, including manufacturing for solar infrastructure and components.
SunShot was launched in 2011 as a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to double the amount of renewable energy available through the grid and reduce the cost of large-scale solar electricity by 75%.
CSP systems store energy in a material called molten salts – a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which are common ingredients in plant fertilisers. These salts are heated to 565°C, pumped into an insulated storage tank and used to produce steam to power a turbine to generate electricity. But it’s an expensive process. The 195 m tall Crescent Dunes solar power tower in Nevada – one of the world’s largest and most advanced solar thermal plants – uses 32,000 tonnes of molten salt to extend operating hours by storing thermal energy for 10 hours after sunset.
Metal hydrides – compounds formed by bonding hydrogen with a material such as calcium, magnesium or sodium – could replace molten salts and greatly reduce the costs of building and operating solar thermal power plants. Certain hydrides operate at higher temperatures and require smaller storage tanks than molten salts. They can also be reused for up to 25 years.
At the Nevada plant, molten salt storage costs an estimated $150 million, – around 10–15% of operation costs, says Buckley. “With metal hydrides replacing molten salts, we think we can reduce that to around $50–$60 million, resulting in significantly lower operation costs for solar thermal plants,” he says. “We already have a patent on one process, so we’re in the final stages of testing the properties of the process for future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
From biomass to fuel
John Curtin Distinguished Professor Chun-Zhu Li is lead researcher on a FETI project that was awarded a grant of $5.2 million by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in 2015 to build a pilot plant to test and commercialise a new biofuel technology. The plant will produce energy from agricultural waste such as wheat straw and mallee eucalypts from wheatbelt farm forestry plantations in Western Australia.
“These bioenergy technologies will have great social, economic and environmental benefits,” says Li. “It will contribute to the electricity supply mix and also realise the commercial value of mallee plantations for wheatbelt farmers. It will make those plantations an economically viable way of combating the huge environmental problem of dryland salinity in WA.”
Li estimates that WA’s farms produce several million tonnes of wheat straw per year, which is discarded as agricultural waste. Biomass gasification is a thermochemical process converting biomass feedstock into synthesis gas (syngas) to generate electricity using gas engines or other devices.
One of the innovations of the biomass gasification technology developed at FETI is the destruction of tar by char or char-supported catalysts produced from the biomass itself. Other biomass gasification systems need water-scrubbing to remove tar, which also generates a liquid waste stream requiring expensive treatment, but the technology developed by Li’s team removes the tar without the generation of any wastes requiring disposal. This reduces construction and operation costs and makes it an ideal system for small-scale power generation plants in rural and remote areas.
Li’s team is also developing a novel technology to convert the same type of biomass into liquid fuels and biochar. The combined benefits of these bioenergy/biofuel technologies could double the current economic GDP of WA’s agricultural regions, Li adds. future scale-up. We are confident that metal hydrides will replace molten salts as the next generation thermal storage system for CSP.”
Keeping renewables on grid
Professor Syed Islam is a John Curtin Distinguished Professor with Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computing. It’s the highest honour awarded by the university to its academic staff and recognises outstanding contributions to research and the wider community. Islam has published widely on grid integration of renewable energy sources and grid connection challenges. In 2011, he was awarded the John Madsen Medal by Engineers Australia for his research to improve the prospect of wind energy generation developing grid code enabled power conditioning techniques.
Islam explains that all power generators connected to an electricity network must comply with strict grid codes for the network to operate safely and efficiently. “The Australian Grid Code specifically states that wind turbines must be capable of uninterrupted operation, and if electrical faults are not immediately overridden, the turbines will be disconnected from the grid,” he says.
“Wind energy is a very cost effective renewable technology. But disturbances and interruptions to power generation mean that often wind farms fall below grid code requirements, even when the best wind energy conversion technology is being used.”
Islam has led research to develop a system that allows a faster response by wind farm voltage control technologies to electrical faults and voltage surges. It has helped wind turbine manufacturers meet grid regulations, and will also help Australia meet its target to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
Islam says micro-grid technology will also provide next-generation manufacturing opportunities for businesses in Australia. “There will be new jobs in battery technology, in building and operating micro-grids and in engineering generally,” he says.
“By replacing the need for platinum catalysts, we can make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
Cutting fuel cell costs
Professor San Ping Jiang from FETI and his co-researcher Professor Roland De Marco at University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland recently received an Australian Research Council grant of $375,000 to develop a new proton exchange membrane that can operate in high-temperature fuel cells. It’s a materials engineering breakthrough that will cut the production costs of fuel cells, and allow more sustainable and less polluting fuels such as ethanol to be used in fuel cells.
Jiang, who is based at Curtin’s School of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, has developed a silica membrane that can potentially operate at temperatures of up to 500°C. Fuel cells directly convert chemical energy of fuels suchas hydrogen, methanol and ethanol into electricity and provide a lightweight alternative to batteries, but they are currently limited in their application because conventional polymer-based proton exchange membranes perform most efficiently at temperatures below 80°C. Jiang has developed a membrane that can operate at 500°C using heteropoly acid functionalised mesoporous silica – a composite that combines high proton conductivity and high structural stability to conduct protons in fuel cells. His innovation also minimises the use of precious metal catalysts such as platinum in fuel cells, reducing the cost.
“The cost of platinum is a major barrier to the wider application of fuel cell technologies,” Jiang says. “We think we can reduce the cost significantly, possibly by up to 90%, by replacing the need for platinum catalysts. It will make fuel cells much cheaper and more efficient, and reduce dependence on environmentally damaging fossil fuels.”
He says the high temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cells can be used in devices such as smartphones and computers, and in cars, mining equipment and communications in remote areas.
Doing more with less
The SEG at Curtin University has been involved in energy efficiency and industrial analysis for just over 15 years. It’s been a global leader in an emerging area of sustainability assessment known as industrial ecology, which looks at industrial areas as ‘ecosystems’ that can develop productive exchanges of resources.
Associate Professor Michele Rosano is SEG’s Director and a resource economist who has written extensively on sustainability metrics, charting the life cycles of industrial components, carbon emission reduction and industrial waste management. They’re part of a process known as industrial symbiosis – the development of a system for neighbouring industries to share resources, energies and by-products. “It’s all about designing better industrial systems, and doing more with less,” Rosano says.
Curtin and SEG have been involved in research supported by the Australian’s Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program to develop sustainable technologies and systems for the mineral processing industry at the Kwinana Industrial Area, an 8 km coastal industrial strip about 40 km south of Perth. The biggest concentration of heavy industries in Western Australia, Kwinana includes oil, alumina and nickel refineries, cement manufacturing, chemical and fertiliser plants, water treatment utilities and a power station that uses coal, oil and natural gas.
Rosano says two decades of research undertaken by Curtin at Kwinana is now recognised as one of the world’s largest and most successful industrial ecology projects. It has created 49 industrial symbiosis projects, ranging from shared use of energy and water to recovery and reuse of previously discarded by-products.
“These are huge and complex projects which have produced substantial environmental and economic benefits,” she says. “Kwinana is now seen as a global benchmark for the way in which industries can work together to reduce their footprint.”
An example of industrial synergies is waste hydrochloric acid from minerals processing being reprocessed by a neighbouring chemical plant for reuse in rutile quartz processing. The industrial ecology researchers looked at ways to reuse a stockpile of more than 1.3 million tonnes of gypsum, which is a waste product from the manufacture of phosphate fertiliser and livestock feeds. The gypsum waste is used by Alcoa’s alumina refinery at Kwinana to improve soil stability and plant growth in its residue areas.
The BP oil refinery at Kwinana also provides hydrogen to fuel Perth’s hydrogen fuel-cell buses. The hydrogen is produced by BP as a by-product from its oil refinery and is piped to an industrial gas facility that separates, cleans and pressurises it. The hydrogen is then trucked to the bus depot’s refuelling station in Perth.
Rosano says 21st century industries “are serious about sustainability” because of looming future shortages of many raw materials, and also because research has demonstrated there are social, economic and environmental benefits to reducing greenhouse emissions.
“There is a critical need for industrial ecology, and that’s why we choose to focus on it,” she says. “It’s critical research that will be needed to save and protect many areas of the global economy in future decades.”
Planning for the future
Research by Professor Peter Teunissen and Dr Dennis Odijk at Curtin’s Department of Spatial Sciences was the first study in Australia to integrate next generation satellite navigation systems with the commonly used and well-established Global Positioning System (GPS) launched by the United States in the 1990s.
Odijk says a number of new systems are being developed in China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and India, and it’s essential they can interact successfully. These new Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) will improve the accuracy and availability of location data, which will in turn improve land surveying for locating mining operations and renewable energy plants.
“The new systems have an extended operational range, higher power and better modulation. They are more robust and better able to deal with challenging situations like providing real-time data to respond to bushfires and other emergencies,” says Odijk.
“When these GNSS systems begin operating over the next couple of years, they will use a more diverse system of satellites than the traditional GPS system. The challenge will be to ensure all these systems can link together.”
Integrating these systems will increase the availability of data, “particularly when the signals from one system might be blocked in places like open-pit mines or urban canyons – narrow city streets with high buildings on both sides.”
Teunissen and Odijk’s research on integrating the GNSS involves dealing with the complex challenges of comparing estimated positions from various satellites, as well as inter-system biases, and developing algorithms. The project is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, and includes China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which is now operating across the Asia-Pacific region.
The study found that the global deforestation rate since 2010 – 3.3 million hectares per year – is less than half that during the 1990s (7.2 million hectares per year).
This global slowdown is due to better management of tropical forests. Since 2010 the tropics lost 5.5 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 9.5 million hectares per year during the 1990s.
Sub-tropical, temperate, and boreal climatic regions had relatively stable forest areas.
Satellite data showed tropical forests degraded (damaged but not cleared) since 2000 are six times as extensive as all tropical deforestation since 1990, far more than in other climatic regions.
“While some of this tropical degradation reflects the temporary impacts of logging, the real fear is that much is the leading edge of gradual forest conversion,” Sloan says.
High rates of tropical deforestation and degradation mean that tropical forests were a net emitter of carbon to the atmosphere, unlike forests of other climatic regions.
“But tropical forests are emitting only slightly more carbon than they are absorbing from the atmosphere due to regrowth, so with slightly better management they could become a net carbon sink and contribute to fighting climate change,” Sloan says.
Despite growing demand for forest products, rates of plantation afforestation have fallen since the 2000s and are less than required to stop natural forest exploitation. Demand for industrial wood and wood fuel increased 35% in the tropics since 1990.
“The planting of forests for harvest is not increasing as rapidly as demand, so natural forests have to take the burden,” Sloan says.
Northern, richer countries had steady or increasing forest areas since 1990. Their forests are increasingly characterised by plantations meant for harvest.
While natural forests expanded in some high-income countries, collectively they declined by 13.5 million hectares since 1990, compared to a gain of 40 million hectares for planted forests.
Sloan says that investment in forest management in poorer tropical countries where management and deforestation were worst may herald significant environmental gains.
“But attention must extend beyond the forest sector to agricultural and economic growth, which is rapid in many low-income and tropical countries and which effect forests greatly,” Sayer says.
Background to Study
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA 2015) on September 7 2015. The FAO began publishing FRA reports in 1948 to assess the global state of forest resources, given concerns over shortages of forest products. The FAO has published FRA reports at regular intervals since on the basis of individual reports from countries, numbering 234 for the FRA 2015. FRA reports now survey a wide array of forest ecological functions, designations, and conditions in addition to forest areas for each country.
For the first time, the FRA 2015 report was realised by dozens of international experts who undertook independent analyses of FRA data, resulting in 13 scholarly articles published in a special issue of the journal Forest Ecology and Management (2015 volume 352).
The data and trends highlighted in these articles are a significant advance for the global scientific and conservation communities. This article constitutes one of 13 published in Forest Ecology and Management and integrates their major findings.
This article was first published by James Cook University on 8 September 2015. Read the original article here.
South Australian company HeliostatSA has partnered with Indian company Global Wind Power Limited to develop a portfolio of projects in India and Australia over the next four years. It will begin with an initial 150 megawatts in Concentrated Solar Powered (CSP) electricity in Rajashtan, Indian using a solar array.
The projects are valued at $2.5 billion and will further cement HeliostatSA as a leader in the global renewable energy sector.
Heliostat CEO Jason May says India had made a commitment to reaching an investment target of USD $100 billion of renewable energy by 2019 and has already secured $20 billion.
“India is looking for credible, renewable energy partners for utility scale projects,’’ says May.
“We bring everything to the table that they require such as size, project development experience, capital funding, field design capability, the latest technology, precision manufacturing and expertise.’’
Each solar array is made of thousands of heliostats, which are mirrors that track and reflect the suns thermal energy on to a central receiver. The energy is then converted into electricity. Each HeliostatSA mirror is 3.21 x 2.22 metres with optical efficiency believed to be the most accurate in the world. This reduces the number of mirrors required, reducing the overall cost of CSP while still delivering the same 24-hour electricity outputs.
The heliostats and their high tech components are fabricated using laser mapping and steel cutting technology.
The mirrors are slightly parabolic and components need to be cut and measured to exact requirements to achieve the strict operational performance.
“There is strong global interest in CSP with thermal storage for 24-hour power. At the moment large-scale batteries which also store electricity are very expensive. Constant advances in CSP storage technology over the next 10 years will only add to the competitive advantage,’’ says May.
– John Merriman
This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 25 August 2015. Read the original article here.
RMIT researchers are using state-of-the-art modelling techniques to study the effects of wind on cities, paving the way for design innovations in building, energy harvesting and drone technology.
The turbulence modelling studies will allow engineers to optimise the shape of buildings, as well as identify areas of rapid airflow within cities that could be used to harvest energy.
Researchers also hope to use the airflow studies to develop more energy efficient drones that use the power of updrafts during flight.
Dr Abdulghani Mohamed, from RMIT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems research group, said simulations developed by the research team can visualise the shape of updrafts as they developed over buildings and show their variation over time.
“By analysing the interaction of wind with buildings, our research opens new possibilities for improving designs to take better advantage of nature,” he says.
“Buildings can be built to enhance airflow at street level and ventilation, while wind turbines can be precisely positioned in high-speed airflow areas for urban energy harvesting – providing free power for low-energy electronics.
“The airflow simulations will also help us further our work on energy harvesting for micro-sized drones, developing technology that can help them use updrafts to gain height quicker and fly for longer, without using extra energy.”
Scientists and engineers have traditionally relied on building small-scale city replicas and testing them in wind tunnels to make detailed airflow predictions.
This time-consuming and expensive process is being gradually replaced with numerical flow simulations, also known as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD).
The researchers – Mohamed, Professor Simon Watkins (RMIT), Dr Robert Carrese (LEAP Australia) and Professor David Fletcher (University of Sydney) – created a CFD model to accurately predict the highly complex and dynamic airflow field around buildings at RMIT’s Bundoora campus west, in Melbourne’s north.
The next stage in the research will involve an extensive flight test campaign to further prove the feasibility of the concept of long endurance micro-sized drones, for use in a number of industries including structural monitoring, land surveying, mobile temporary networks and pollution tracking.
This article was first published by RMIT University on 9 August 2015. Read the original article here.
The widespread introduction of driverless cars could play a significant role in reducing car ownership and oil consumption by as much as 90%, according to an Australian researcher.
Driverless cars, in combination with a rail transport network for high-density and longer trips, would achieve resource savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Dr Gary Ellem from the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment at the University of Newcastle.
His claim is backed up by research published in July 2015 by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Nature Climate Change showing that per-mile greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 90% for driverless, electric cars when compared with petrol-powered private cars.
According to Ellem, Australia’s dependence on the private car is proving to be a major economic, energy and climate security issue, and is estimated to cost the Australian economy around $1 trillion in car and oil imports over the next decade.
Ellem says there are two distinct paths being taken in developing a commercial driverless car.
“One group of companies is looking to build an autonomous car for personal use that they will sell you, and the other is trying to build a car that could be shared. The second approach is predicated on offering a service,” he says.
Driverless cars employed as shared car service could reduce the total number of cars on the road, reducing embodied greenhouse gas emissions from car manufacturing. And because they will likely be electric-powered cars, there will be savings in imported liquid fuels, and will help in the shift to alternative energy.
Driverless vehicles are already operating in many parts of the world, such as Heathrow Airport in London, where autonomous vehicles are used to transport passengers. Similar systems are in use at Morgantown in the United States, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and in Suncheon, South Korea.
Considerable progress, however, still needs to be made until we see completely driverless cars travelling our city streets and freeways.
“The timeline we’re talking about is possibly full autonomy by about 2025 or 2030, with increasing levels of autonomy in between,” says Ellem.
Ellem believes there are significant economic opportunities for Australia to contribute to the sector, as the driverless cars bring together the digital economy, smart manufacturing, transport, planning, and the energy and research sectors.
There have already been significant breakthroughs across a range of driverless car technologies.
Sensors, such as radars, digital cameras, and remote sensing systems like Google’s LIDAR are reducing in size and cost, and are increasingly being integrated in to mass production cars.
Graphics processors are also becoming smaller, cheaper and faster, and are increasingly being targeted at driverless car applications.
“Pretty much every auto manufacture on the planet has a driverless vehicle program,” says Ellem.
“I spend part of my time being a futurist. So when a new technology appears, I try to work out whether it’s incremental or transformational. The driverless car looks to be far more transformational than incremental and can offer a transport service that improves on the private passenger car.”
ARRB Managing Director Gerard Walton said that automated vehicles are a short-term reality that Australia needs to be prepared for.
“The South Australian Government has been quick to recognise this,” he said.
“ARRB will establish how driverless technology needs to be manufactured and introduced for uniquely Australian driving behaviour, our climate and road conditions, including what this means for Australia’s national road infrastructure, markings, surfaces and roadside signage,” said Waldon.
The Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill said the technology promises to not only improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, but also to provide a real opportunity for South Australia to become a key player in the emerging driverless vehicle industry.
“This trial presents a fantastic opportunity for South Australia to take a lead nationally and internationally in the development of this new technology and open up new opportunities for our economy,” he said.
The driverless car trials will take place on an expressway south of the capital city of Adelaide on 7–8 November 2015.
Multiple vehicles will conduct manoeuvres such as overtaking, lane changing, emergency braking and the use of on and off ramps.
The International Driverless Cars Conference will be hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre and Tonsley precinct on 5–6 November 2015.
This article was first published by The Lead on 21 July 2015. Read the original article here.
Australia’s renewable resources include wind, solar, wave and geothermal energy, and there’s significant research happening to improve generation and storage technologies to overcome the inherent disadvantage of intermittent flow.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has completed 32 projects and is managing more than 200 others, including several large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants and wind farms, which are considered the most advanced technologies in terms of making a short-term impact on our renewable electricity generation.
Australia’s CRC for Renewable Energy (ACRE), which operated 1996–2004, developed a state-of-the-art facility for testing grid-connected renewable energy systems, as well as small-capacity wind turbines for remote generation.
Australian scientists at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) have made big strides in the development of flexible, lightweight solar cells, which CEO Dr Ian Dagley describes as the “antithesis” of rigid rooftop solar cells. These lightweight cells offer intriguing possibilities: their flexibility means they can be placed on a variety of surfaces, from walls to windows, and they can operate indoors to help charge electrical devices.
They’re also attractive because they’re considerably cheaper to manufacture than silicon solar cells. Dagley says his CRC-P team has been working on refining the manufacturing technique, which uses low-cost components and reel-to-reel printers. One of the goals is to increase the lifespan of the cells, which is about five years, whereas rigid cells last roughly 30 years.
Meanwhile, the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) is looking at ways to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing smarter, more energy efficient buildings and cities. CEO Dr Deo Prasad says lower carbon buildings can be realised by optimising design to ensure maximum energy efficiency, through integration of next-generation technologies, such as solar PV cladding and heat and electricity capture systems for on-site energy offsets, and by using more sustainable building materials that need less energy to extract, process and manufacture. At the suburb and city scale, Prasad says decentralised renewable energy generation, reliable storage and smart grids, linked with information and communications technology-based intelligence, will lower carbon impacts.
“We recognise there is not going to be a silver bullet solution to carbon reductions,” says Prasad. “The approach needs to be holistic and driven by industry and governments.”
There are challenges associated with increased renewable energy levels, but Australia’s National Electricity Market seems to be handling integration well so far, says Dr Iain MacGill, joint director of the UNSW Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets. Studies by the Australian Energy Market Operator show it’s possible to operate the national grid with 100% renewables. “It won’t be cheap – just a lot cheaper than unchecked climate change,” MacGill says.
Russell Marsh, director of policy for the Clean Energy Council, emphasises the importance of commitment. “Investors need long-term certainty to ensure a rate of return,” says Marsh. “The Federal Government needs to lock in a firm, long-term target.”
MacGill agrees that the right policies can incentivise investment, but adds that it requires leadership and social consensus. “Australia is contradictory on clean energy. We have an early history and remarkable success in renewable energy deployment, and fantastic renewable resources. But we are also among the world’s largest coal and gas exporters,” he says.
“Will we take a leadership role, or do all we can to keep our international coal and gas customers buying from us?”
While coal and gas continue to be our dominant energy sources, the once-burgeoning renewables industry has been hindered by the Federal Government’s recent review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET). The review recommended scrapping the 20% target for renewable electricity generation by 2020, resulting in political deadlock and investor uncertainty across the renewable energy sector.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Australian head, Kobad Bhavnagri, says the review was especially damaging because it came “very close to making retroactive changes to a policy”.
“Whenever retroactive changes are made to policy it becomes, essentially, Ebola for investors,” he says. “When governments act unpredictably and destroy the value of existing assets, it scares people – for a long time.”
Australia generates more carbon emissions per person than any other OECD country. One-third are generated by the electricity sector, in which coal and natural gas account for roughly 85% of generating capacity. Renewables, mostly from hydropower, account for about 15%.
Reaching the 20% target during the next five years will not be cheap. At the time of the review it was estimated that another $18 billion of investment would be required to reach the target.
But the costs associated with increased generating capacity are yet to be weighed against the costs of potentially catastrophic climate change. Scientists have warned a 2°C increase in overall average temperatures from pre-industrial levels is the limit our planet can withstand before the effects of climate change become irreversible.
In December 2014, following the release by the International Energy Agency (IEA) of its report World Energy Outlook 2015, the agency’s chief economist and director of global energy economics, Dr Fatih Birol, told Bloomberg’s Business Week that global investment in renewable energy needs to quadruple to a yearly average of $1.6 trillion until at least 2040, to stay below that warming threshold.
Some of the world’s biggest economies have taken note. Estimates by the Climate Interactive indicate the US-China emissions deal, if implemented in full, could keep some 580 billion tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere between now and 2030 – more than all global fossil fuel emissions from 1990 to 2013.
In 2014 – while China spent US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects, increasing its 2013 total by about US$10 billion – the USA spent nearly US$13 billion on utility-scale renewables and continued to expand production of its almost carbon-neutral shale gas reserves (see here for Australia’s progress).
Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance found Australian investment in large-scale renewable energy in 2014 was US$223 million – the lowest in more than a decade. 2014 saw Australia nose-dive from 11th largest investor in commercial clean energy projects to 39th, behind developing nations such as Honduras and Myanmar.
The 2040 outlook
If Australia is serious about boosting its capacity for renewable energy, 2040 is a good deadline, says Iain MacGill, joint director (engineering) for the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at UNSW Australia – by then we’ll need “a major infrastructure transition”.
Russell Marsh is Director of Policy for the Clean Energy Council, the peak body representing Australia’s clean energy sector. “With the right level of support we could see the deployment of renewable energy at least double between 2020–2040,” he says. “But if the target is not extended beyond 2020, it is unlikely that we will see further growth.”
This view is backed by the Australian government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE). In a November 2014 report looking towards mid-century electricity production, it reported “In the absence of potential new policy initiatives, the relative shares of fossil fuels and renewables in electricity generation are not likely to change significantly”.
In fact, BREE’s projections show renewable generating capacity remaining stable, meeting 20% of Australia’s total demand from 2020–2050. In this scenario, coal-fired power would still account for 65% of electricity by mid-century.
There are concerns that the current policy uncertainty is reaching a tipping point, which could see companies exiting Australia or going into distress.
In July 2014, RenewEconomy reported that Recurrent Energy, a US solar power plant developer being acquired by Canadian Solar, was planning to cease its Australian operations, citing concerns over policy uncertainty. Several other large international renewable energy companies, including Spain’s Acciona and US-based First Solar, have warned of possible exits, should the Renewable Energy Target be amended.
MacGill says exits are inevitable. “Why would an internationally focused renewable energy company stay if there is no prospect for their projects to go forward?
“They can, should and will depart at some point,” he says. “And with their departure, we will lose institutional capacity – such as people, money and industrial knowhow – which will inevitably
slow our ability to deploy clean energy, and increase its costs.”
Marsh agrees the risk to the industry is significant. “Every day, week and month that goes by with a cloud hanging over support for the renewable energy industry are days, weeks and months when our international competitors are racing ahead of us – and reaping billions of dollars in investment in this global growth market.”
Dr Deo Prasad, CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living, says that while the effects aren’t as dramatic, policy uncertainty also impacts the research community, especially “end-user driven projects where collaboration is essential”.
“Many a research direction and focus has had to change over the years, for the worse, due to policy uncertainty,” he adds.
The Great Ocean Road, about 200 km southwest of Melbourne, draws millions of tourists to view the spectacular cliffs and limestone stacks known as the Twelve Apostles, carved by relentless Bass Strait waves and winds. But this region is as rich in fossil fuels as it is in scenic beauty, and several commercial gas fields have been opened in the Otway Basin along the continent’s southern margin.
There is also the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies’ (CO2CRC) flagship carbon capture and storage (CCS) trial: the CO2CRC Otway Project – the world’s largest demonstration of its kind.
Since the project started in 2008, the Australian government, US Department of Energy and CRC partners have funded the injection of more than 65,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Otway Basin’s depleted gas fields, without leakage or measurable effect on soil, groundwater or atmosphere.
The project was further boosted by $25 million in Australian government funding in February this year. “The wide-scale deployment of CCS is critical to reduce carbon emissions as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” says CO2CRC chief executive Tania Constable. “This funding will enable CO2CRC to embark on a new program of research to improve CCS technologies.”
Australia is well-endowed with natural resources. Its known uranium reserves are the world’s largest, and it is rich in natural gas. Traditionally, the most important resource has been coal: Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves globally and is the world’s second biggest coal exporter behind Indonesia. Coal exports – which have grown 5% annually over the past decade – will earn $36 billion in 2014–2015.
Figures like these have led Prime Minister Tony Abbott to declare coal “an essential part of our economic future”. Professor Chris Greig, Director of the University of Queensland’s Energy Initiative, a cohort of research expertise across all energy platforms, anticipates the country will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, until at least mid-century. But just how far beyond that depends on how the world – particularly China, one of Australia’s biggest coal customers – addresses future climate change.
In 2014, the US-China emissions deal set China a goal to source 20% of its energy from zero-emissions sources and peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. In August 2014, amid worsening public sentiment over air pollution, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced that it would be phasing out coal-fired power in the capital’s six main districts by 2020.
China has been pouring money into the development of renewable energy technologies, spending an estimated US$64 billion on large-scale clean energy projects in 2014 alone. This was five times more than the next biggest spender, according to market analyst Bloomberg New Energy Finance. China is also investing heavily in CCS technologies, with at least 12 projects currently underway.
There are several pathways toward reducing emissions from the electricity sector – from the adoption of nuclear energy and greater uptake of renewable sources and natural gas, to more efficient power plants and modified diesel engines that can burn liquefied coal. CCS, however, is one of the most promising methods for reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations. Capture technologies isolate and pump CO2 underground to be stored in the pores of rocks (see graphic page 29).
Rajendra Pachauri, who until early 2015 was Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the UN 2014 Climate Summit in New York, in September 2014: “With CCS it is entirely possible for fossil fuels to continue to be used on a large scale”.
Dianne Wiley, CO2CRC’s program manager for CCS, says CO2 capture technologies are already available to install. Their deployment is limited by high costs, but there have been strong successes. Wiley points to the commercial scale Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Saskatchewan, Canada – the world’s first large-scale power plant to capture and store its carbon emissions – as a good example of what’s possible with CCS technology. It became operational in October 2014 and, its operators say, is already “exceeding performance expectations”. The CAN$1.3 billion cost of the system should drop by around 30% in subsequent commercial plants, says Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute.
Greig says that investment decisions in favour of CCS in Australia won’t happen until more work is done to find high-capacity storage basins around the continent that can safely and reliably store CO2 emissions for several decades.
Constable says the recent injection of capital from the Federal Government to the Otway Project will help the CRC take the necessary steps to meet this challenge. She says it will “lower the costs of developing and monitoring CO2 storage sites, enhance regulatory capability and build community confidence in geological storage of CO2 as a safe, permanent option for cutting emissions from fossil fuels”.
Retrofitting CCS technology to existing plants isn’t an option: Greig likens that to “building a brand new garage onto the side of a house that’s falling down – you just don’t do it”. CCS would therefore require investment in new coal-fired power stations.
“A well-conceived energy policy for the electricity generation sector would see ageing, low-efficient plants replaced with high-efficiency ultra-supercritical [coal] plants,” says Greig, adding that these plants have lower emissions simply by virtue of their efficiency and could achieve emissions reductions of 25% compared to existing plants.
How CCS works
The first step of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is capture. It involves separating CO2 from other gases in the exhaust stream from a fossil fuel power plant or some other industrial facility. This can be done with solvents that absorb CO2 or with ceramic and polymer membranes that act as filters. Once isolated, CO2 is compressed into a state in which the difference between liquid and gas can no longer be distinguished. It is then transported via pipeline to a prospective storage site. Here, the CO2 is injected into an underground reservoir, such as a geologic formation or depleted oil field. The CO2 has to enter the rocks without fracturing them, and can then be stored underground for thousands of years.
NOT ENOUGH, AND TOO much: that’s the core problem we face globally when it comes to energy and climate change. Demand for energy is booming: it’s forecast to rise 56% by 2040 from 2010 levels. More than 85% of this increase will come from countries outside the club of rich nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Energy prices are rising, and there’s a race on to drill oil and gas fields, dig coal mines and build power plants. It’ll get even more frenzied beyond 2040 as India, Brazil and China ride the wealth curve higher.
But today, too much energy – 87% – comes from fossil fuels, energy sources that exacerbate climate change. Despite notable efforts to reduce emissions, fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source: by 2040 renewables – like hydro, wind, solar and biomass – are forecast to contribute 15% to our coming needs, just four points up from 2010.
What to do? Ignoring the human contribution to climate change is one way to react, but reality has a habit of catching up with you: if 97% of peer-reviewed science says industrial activity is the cause, and that economically catastrophic changes will result, it’s a brave soul who bets otherwise. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently quipped, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.
The problem with greenhouse gases is that they stay in the atmosphere for decades, even centuries, with new tonnage piling up on previous years’. And with demand booming, global policymakers are worried enough to consider the seemingly unthinkable: a shift away from fossil fuels entirely.
“To combat climate change, reducing emissions will simply not be enough – we need to eliminate them altogether,” said Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, when handing down a new report in October 2013. “We need to achieve zero emissions from fossil fuel sources by the second half of the century.”
That’s a hell of a challenge.
In innovation terms, there are two ways forward: to boost efficiency and extract more energy from fossil fuels, thereby getting more bang per tonne of greenhouse gas emitted; or to commercialise zero-emission technologies.
It’s the latter where innovation is stuck in the narrow band of wind and solar, and advocates of these technologies do everyone a disservice by pretending they can meet all demand. In energy, there are no silver bullets.
In Canada recently, a brave band of scientists, engineers and policy specialists tackled this head-on. Could the world really move away from fossil fuels this century; would such a shift be possible, much less achievable? The answer entails planning technology pathways over a 60-year time-scale, and developing promising technologies.
“We hoped we would emerge with pragmatic next steps for a global energy transition,” says Jatin Nathwani, an engineering professor and energy specialist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, one of the scientific advisors.
The resulting report, Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030, does just that.
It proposes five technological pathways: develop large-scale electricity storage for wind and solar plants, removing the problem of intermittent supply; explore enhanced geothermal deep drilling by creating 10 commercial-scale, 50 megawatt demonstration projects worldwide, run as public-private partnerships, which freely share knowledge (reducing the technical and financial risks for commercial players); accelerate and deploy organic photovoltaic technologies for the 1.5 billion people who live in off-grid communities; and pursue sustained research of advanced nuclear reactor designs – such as the Integral Fast Reactor – which offer inherent safety and allow most high-level radioactive waste to be ‘burned’ as energy is generated.
And finally, ‘smart urbanisation’: roll out 2000 new and existing ICT technologies – plus the larger-scale use of smart grids and superconductors for transmission and distribution in dense urban settings – to make cities more efficient and reduce emissions.
Where would the money come from? One source is suggested by the same OECD report: abandon the tax breaks OECD countries give to oil and gas producers, which are worth between US$55 billion and US$90 billion a year.
Wilson da Silva is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of COSMOS science magazine, and he chaired the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030 meeting in Canada.
We can expect to be manufacturing and exporting cheap, lightweight solar cells (electrical devices that convert light energy into electricity) to the rest of the world by 2019, taking renewable energy to remote and off-grid communities such as emergency refugee camps.
This prediction came from Professor David Officer, head of the polymer solar cell program at the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P), which is developing design and manufacturing processes for commercially viable polymer solar cells based on a light-sensitive dye.
Officer described the cells as a “people’s technology” for the future. His optimism is based on patents recently secured by the CRC-P for components that will provide a competitive edge over other consortia developing similar cells. CEO Dr Ian Dagley said CRC-P researchers have also pioneered new cost-effective manufacturing techniques that, for commercial reasons, currently remain secret.
Polymer cells exploit the same photovoltaic principle as silicon- and glass-based rooftop solar panels. Unlike those bulky panels, however, polymer cells are flexible and lightweight and, as a result, can be incorporated onto a wide range of surfaces – from walls to sunshades. Transparent versions can even be used in windows. They can also operate indoors, enabling electricity recycling.
Crucially, however, polymer cells are considerably cheaper to manufacture. Silicon cells, for example, require expensive equipment and carefully controlled conditions, while the polymer product can be produced in minutes with minimal labour using reel-to-reel printers, presenting new opportunities for Australian manufacturing. Officer estimated that, using methods developed by the CRC-P, polymer cells can be produced that cost no more than 50 cents per watt – that’s less than half the price to which the silicon solar cell industry aspires.
Dye-sensitised solar cells first created much excitement when they were invented 23 years ago, but have failed to deliver commercially on their early promise. So far, only one company – Wales-based G24 Power – is manufacturing the cells, and only on a small scale.
A key obstacle has been the cost of materials. “We’ve been trying to develop a cost-effective solution to producing the solar cells using inexpensive materials, some of which we’ve made ourselves and can scale up quite easily,” explained Dagley.
The CRC has achieved its materials and fabrication advances through a collaboration of expertise across five partner institutions: the University of Wollongong – where Officer developed new techniques that synthesise cheap organic dyes – the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Universities of Newcastle, Queensland and NSW.
The CRC-P is investigating opportunities with sufficiently large markets to make manufacturing the cells cost-effective, which Officer said has been another obstacle to commercialisation. One contender is in horticulture, where transparent cells incorporated into greenhouses could power cooling and water pumps. The cells may even be able to promote plant growth by transmitting only beneficial wavelengths of light.
JUST AFTER 6pm on 9 September 2010, a massive explosion rocked the Californian suburb of San Bruno. Within seconds, a house was engulfed in flames. More homes were soon burning ferociously. The cause was unknown for almost an hour. Some residents thought a plane had crashed at nearby San Francisco Airport. Others believed there had been an earthquake, as San Bruno lies close to the San Andreas Fault.
In fact, a 76 cm gas transmission pipeline had ruptured, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
Professor Valerie Linton, CEO of the Energy Pipelines CRC (EPCRC), has a mission to make sure such a pipeline disaster never happens in Australia.
“We’ve got a safety record at least an order of magnitude better than any other country in terms of our operation of energy pipelines. And we want to make sure it stays that way,” she says. “There’s always a risk that somebody gets overly enthusiastic with a digger and makes a hole or fracture in a pipeline. In the worst case, the fracture ‘unzips’ along the pipe. Our researchers have been working to ‘design out’ the possibility of fractures occurring, and that work has been exceptional.”
The EPCRC is a collaboration between four universities, the Australian Government and members of the Australian Pipeline Industry Association. One particularly significant product of its research is the recently released computer software called EPDECOM, which Linton describes as a leader in its field. Pipeline designers can use the software to determine the steel properties needed to enable the pipeline to withstand damage.
“North American fracture control experts have independently assessed EPDECOM, and it performs better than any other software available,” says Linton.
The CRC is also helping to improve Australian Standard AS2885 that applies to the pipeline industry. This relates to the design, construction, testing, operations and maintenance of gas and petroleum pipelines that operate at pressures above 1050 kPa.
“One of the most direct ways we can influence pipeline safety is to make sure our research findings get incorporated into upgrades of AS2885,” explains Linton.
An independent testing and research laboratory specialising in pipeline coatings opened in March 2104 at Deakin University – a CRC partner. Testing the integrity of pipeline coatings is vital if pipes are to be protected from corrosion.
While much of the EPCRC’s work is in engineering, social science also plays a central role. Dr Jan Hayes, Program Leader for Public Safety and Security of Supply, says inquiries into most accidents do not reveal new types of equipment failure. Usually the technological issues are already understood, but the knowledge isn’t applied because of social issues within organisations.
One of Hayes’ key goals is to harness the learning from pipeline incidents around the world. Hayes has co-authored a book: Nightmare Pipeline Failures: Fantasy Planning, Black Swans And Integrity Management. Its intended audience is senior executives in energy and chemical companies, but it will be publicly available and Linton describes it as “very readable”. The CRC funded Hayes’ research on the San Bruno disaster, which is included in the book. It’s another step towards keeping Australian energy pipelines safe
THE WAY WE DESIGN BUILD AND MANAGE our urban spaces is undergoing a transformation that’s almost unprecedented in scope. We’re reimagining our cities and urban precincts in the face of changing climate, energy and security issues and a growing appreciation for sustainability principles. Individuals and organisations from a broad range of disciplines will need to play a role.
Dr Deo Prasad, the CEO of the CRC for Low Carbon Living (CRCLCL) and a Professor of Sustainable Development at the UNSW Faculty of Built Environment, personifies this multidisciplinary approach. Originally trained as an architect, Prasad obtained a master’s degree in science and program management and completed a PhD in thermal heat transfer in buildings.
The CRCLCL is a $48 million centre, announced in November 2011, of which the Commonwealth contribution is $28 million over seven years. The centre brings together property developers, planners, engineers and policy organisations with Australian researchers with an overarching aim of reducing carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes in the next five years – the equivalent of taking 2.3 million cars off the road each year. The CRCLCL research will bring about $680 million worth of benefits to the Australian economy over 15 years.
“Our focus is on enabling Australian industries and particularly small to medium enterprises to benefit from the new products, technologies, tools and systems. We’re trying to ensure the built environment sector can capture the benefits from going low carbon,” says Prasad.
Malay Dave, a PhD candidate at the CRCLCL and UNSW Australia Built Environment, is researching sustainable prefabricated or modular housing, with an end goal of developing a framework for “whole-systems design”. This approach considers the house as an energy system with interdependent parts, each of which affects the performance of the entire system.
“The need for housing that is both sustainable and affordable is a major issue globally,” he says. “Prefabrication, or off-site construction, offers huge opportunities in delivering environmental sustainability and economic affordability in buildings.”
Dave has a $95,000 scholarship funded by the CRC, which offers $30,000 per year stipends with a total of 88 scholarships available for the current funding period of seven years.
The CRCLCL is also working in parallel with the CRC for Polymers (CRC-P) to coat building cladding materials such as steel or glass with the next generation of solar cells – enabling light energy capture and distribution throughout a building.
Researchers at the CRC-P are in the process of developing these advanced materials for the next generation of solar cells for which the CRCLCL is investigating large-scale commercial applications (see page 7).
CEO Dr Ian Dagley says the CRC-P has a philosophy of putting postgraduate students on the most groundbreaking projects. “We want them to be doing work of high academic interest using state-of-the-art materials and techniques so they can publish in high-profile international journals,” he says. With two-and-a-half years of funding remaining, the CRC-P has filled all its 11 postgrad scholarships to the value of $1,060,000.
Other projects at the CRCLCL include researching innovative building materials such as concrete with reduced embodied carbon. They are also developing tools and collating data to measure the impact of urban developments in terms of water, waste, energy and materials.
The CRCLCL also collaborates with the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities for this, “developing design ‘charrettes’ [intense design workshops] to ensure development goals for water and carbon aspirations are well-established,” explains Prasad.
The third main CRCLCL research program involves community engagement. “Technology or design in itself won’t fix the problem,” says Prasad. “We need to look at what resonates with communities – why they take up certain initiatives and not others.”