Energy 2.0

Future Energy Technologies

Posted on: May 30, 2008

Currently most energy is generated using fossil fuels. Over 80% of the world’s energy supply comes from fossil sources (2005 figure, according to the International Energy Agency), meaning oil, natural gas and coal, this is inherently unsustainable, as preserving natural resources is vitally important to protect our future.

Renewable energy technologies will play a crucial role in the energy landscape of the future. Photovoltaics (solar power) uses solar cells to convert light directly into electricity. These solar cells have traditionally used silicon as the key component, but intensive research is being put into developing polymer solar cells as the solar energy source of the future.

Polymer-based photovoltaic cells offer a number of advantages. They are lighter than silicon-based devices (which is important for small autonomous sensors), less expensive to make, flexible, and offer great flexibility in terms of design. There are a wide variety of potential applications for cells of this kind, including car engines, televisions, mobile phones.

There are still some design challenges to overcome before plastics can replace silicon on a significant scale. Currently the efficiency of polymer cells is much lower than silicon cells, although this is being rapidly improved. The efficiency of polymer solar cells also degrades over time due to environmental effects, making good protective coatings essential. However it is clear that in the future, plastic solar cells will be a viable low-cost alternative electricity source, with the ability to mould themselves to any shape and size to suit a vast array of applications.

In the future, ever more advanced polymer cells will enable the production of thin polymer film that can be rolled out in sheets. This will make it possible to cut and place large sections of solar cells film on curved surfaces – something which is currently difficult to accomplish.

Similarly, wind turbines (technology that converts the kinetic energy in wind into mechanical energy) are making use of increasingly sophisticated engineering techniques (made possible by plastics) to increase the possibilities of wind energy. The blades of many modern wind turbines are made from fibre-reinforced plastics. Such composites result in blades that are rigid, highly durable and lightweight. Their characteristics – high strength, low weight – make plastics an ideal material for wind generators, enabling easier installation, improved durability and reduced maintenance.

All this goes to show that materials are critical in enabling new technologies to develop that offer enormous environmental benefits. Plastics are lightweight, durable and versatile, and will be key allies to engineers in the drive to create ever more efficient and effective energy technologies.

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