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The future of energy will shape society as we know it

In the last 40 years we have more than doubled the amount of energy we use. And in the last 95 years petrol consumption in the US has risen by more than 1200%.

We have long since lived in an age of energy dependency. We humans power very few things on our own. Almost everything we do: work, travel, build and entertain ourselves requires an outside power supply. Even the simple act of writing is now largely computer based and reliant on electricity.

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The future of energy generation is one of those fundamental forces that will shape our societies.

With that in mind, I began on the South Bank of the Thames in London at the headquarters of one of the largest energy companies in the world, the oil and gas giant, Shell, where I met the chief executive, Ben van Beurden.

In a very open and honest conversation he talked about what he sees as the industry’s failure to engage with the energy debate. He expects demand to double over the first half of this century and believes that the world hasn’t yet grasped the scale of the challenge needed to ensure we can meet future energy needs, without damaging the environment.

He estimates the global industry will have to invest US$2-trillion a year, or £150m every two hours, to try and create an energy system that can fuel the 21st century.

“It’s going to be ever more complex to supply the demand and at the same time we have to seriously reduce C02 emissions from the energy system as well. There is no easy solution for that. “

Well, imagining the future is what Horizons is all about, so we took that challenge and went in search of answers. This took us to a professor in China, who thinks part of the answer may lie in a widely available but so far unexploited source of energy – friction.

Professor Zhong Lin Wang, of the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, and his team are working on a form of electricity generation called Tribo Electricity. The word comes from the Greek word ‘tribein’ meaning ‘to rub’.

Sitting in his laboratory he wanted to show me how he could create electricity. He took a piece of copper and a piece of plastic and rubbed them together. No sparks flew. In the grand scheme of scientific demonstrations it didn’t rank very highly – or so I thought. Although I wasn’t able to see anything, something dramatic had happened. At a microscopic level, the pure action of rubbing these two materials together had caused electrons to pass from one to the other. It also caused a positive and a negative charge. The action of rubbing them together and pulling them apart had created the tiniest electric current.

This nano-electricity generation wasn’t, in itself, going to change the world. But what if we all wore generating materials in our clothes? Or if our shoes hitting the streets or shopping mall walkways, could create a small charge? The millions of feet that pound city streets or shopping centres would suddenly create quite a significant amount of electricity. One square metre of his material, he said, would be enough to power an oven to cook my dinner.

His team of students showed me how you could generate electricity by imbedding the materials in a computer mouse; so every time I clicked I created electricity. They also put them in doormats and, perhaps more significantly, showed me how you could create huge amounts of energy by putting floating balls in the sea which generate power every time the waves bounced the balls off each other.

Professor Wang claimed that a 200km by 100km stretch of sea would be enough to generate the same electricity as created by the controversial Three Gorges Dam in China.

The professor believes that this is exactly the sort of innovation that could change the world. You haven’t heard of it yet, he said, but he’s only been working on the project for four years and is still trying to persuade the government and investors that this has potential. This energy revolution, he says, is only just beginning.

Back at Shell, Ben Van Beurden also believes our energy systems will change beyond recognition, but he says it won’t happen in a few years. “It will be a very, very deliberate a sustained effort over many, many decades to get there. We have to in the end get to a system that has zero net emissions.”

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