Five research projects that could be part of a low-carbon future

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Five research projects that could be part of a low-carbon future

There’s no silver-bullet for reducing carbon emissions, but researchers across Canada are at the forefront of developing green technologies that could help reduce climate change
December 8, 2015

Better batteries for more reliable energy alternatives

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind would be more widespread if during peak times energy could be more efficiently stored to supply the grid even when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

That’s why Dalhousie University researchers have set out to help develop more affordable lithium-ion batteries that can last for decades.

Although lithium-ion batteries are being used for grid-scale energy storage at several sites around the world, these installations are expensive and the batteries they use are only guaranteed to last eight to 10 years.

Materials scientist, Jeff Dahn and his team are working to create lithium-ion batteries that last many decades, store more energy in less space and use less expensive materials.

Still, there’s a long way to go for intermittent energy sources like the sun and wind to replace fossil fuels. According to Dahn, all the lithium ion batteries produced in the world last year wouldn’t be enough to store the energy needed to power Nova Scotia for just one day.

“The amount of energy you need to store power for a province or a state or a country or the world is huge,” says Dahn. “If we want to go full renewable, energy storage is a critical part of the equation. We don’t yet have an [effective] storage strategy,” he says, though better batteries are likely to be part of the solution.

Converting waste to fuel in remote communities

Researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) are finding ways to convert leftovers from forestry and fish processing operations — including sawdust, tree bark, discarded fish meat and shells — into biochemicals and biofuels.

“The thing about biofuels in general is that they are a nice transition [from fossil fuels],” says Kelly Hawboldt, a chemical engineer and professor in the Department of Engineering and Applied Science at MUN. “Because it’s a liquid fuel, you can use the existing infrastructure that you have for petroleum-based fuels.”

Her research group is designing technologies particular to remote fishing and forestry communities where conventional biofuel processing systems might be too costly or logistically prohibitive. Since isolated communities also often have to pay more to truck valuable byproducts elsewhere for processing or disposal, it’s a double win to find a use for them locally. “The idea is that you extract use from all of those products and, in remote places, maybe you can create an industry around that,” says Hawboldt.

For example, oil extracted from discarded fish byproducts could be used to power the fish processing plant from which they came. To a lesser extent, the same can be done with the effluents from oil, gas and mining industries.

Scaling down power production to reduce waste

Most power plants are only about 30 to 50 percent efficient, which means up to 70 percent of electrical, thermal and fuel energy that gets generated from nuclear plants or from burning fossil fuels is wasted during production and transport. Researchers at McMaster University are developing mini, community-scale power plants that would bypass the problem of having to transport energy long distances. The idea is that the overall efficiency could be increased to as high as 90 percent if it were spread out instead of concentrated at large-scale plants long distances from where the energy is used.

Mechanical engineer James Cotton and his team are developing a small, natural-gas-powered generator that could eventually run on biomass, waste or other byproducts. Cotton says these generators would run at only two to three megawatts in comparison to large plants’ capacities of between 1,000 and 4,000 megawatts. They are also working on a geothermal energy storage system to gather heat in the summertime and store it in the ground for later use.

To test these ideas and others, the team is building a scaled-down, test version of a community energy centre on the McMaster campus that fully integrates energy sources that can be harvested locally. The prototype centre will include a small-scale wind turbine, solar panels and an electric car. When it is completed, the researchers will look at ways to implement the idea into other communities, which Cotton expects to happen within the next five years.

“Our goal is to minimize the use of fossil fuels and reduce the amount of lost energy,” he says.

Using bacteria to make methane less of a menace

When it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere, methane — or, natural gas — is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is released from things like wetlands, livestock and leaky pipes. University of Calgary researchers are finding ways to use bacteria to destroy the greenhouse gas in places where it is emitted into the atmosphere in amounts not significant enough to be captured for fuel, such as in abandoned oil wells and municipal landfills.

Peter Dunfield and his team are using methane-eating bacteria to oxidize the gas and turn it into less-powerful carbon dioxide. To do this, they are building bio-filters, which contain porous materials like compost where bacteria can grow and oxidize methane gas as it flows through the filter. Researchers then use DNA-based techniques to analyze which bacteria are present and in what numbers so they can monitor and improve the efficiency of the bio-filters.

The bio-filters can be used in places like livestock feedlots or around oil and gas field sites, where it’s difficult to capture methane emissions.

Dunfield’s team is working with oilsands companies in Alberta to figure out how microbial communities can be used to decrease the amount of methane and other chemicals released from tailings ponds.

According to Dunfield, converting low-volume methane emissions could contribute measurably towards meeting Canada’s climate-change reduction targets.

“Each one of the sources may be small,” he says. “But when you add up the huge number of these places in Western Canada and Canada in general, it’s significant.”

Alternative cooling systems to save electricity

Nearly15 percent of the electricity consumed on the planet is used by air conditioning, refrigeration and industrial heating and cooling systems, which is why researchers at Simon Fraser University are developing an alternative way to cool our homes, vehicles and even industrial refrigerators.

Majid Bahrami and his team are using a phenomenon called adsorption cooling to turn wasted heat energy from things like a car’s radiator or exhaust into cold air.

Both conventional compression and adsorption cooling systems take advantage of the cooling that happens when a refrigerant evaporates. But where conventional units use large amounts of electricity to compress the evaporated gas back to a liquid, an adsorption unit uses wasted heat energy to induce the refrigerant vapour to condense to a liquid on the surface of the many crevices of a highly porous solid material like silica gel, similar to how water vapour condenses on a glass. What’s more, most of the refrigerants needed for conventional cooling systems are harmful to the ozone layer if they are released, but adsorption units use refrigerants that are environmentally benign, including water.

For these reasons, adsorption cooling systems are becoming increasingly popular alternatives to conventional systems. Bahrami’s team is focusing on making the technology competitive with conventional air conditioning systems by designing a smaller, lighter version that is more powerful but less expensive. He hopes to have a vehicle prototype ready within a few years.

Cara McKenna is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C.