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Tina Casey headshot

People Used to Laugh at These Three Clean Technologies

By Tina Casey
Clean Technologies

Photo: this bottle of vodka derived from carbon dioxide, distilled and sold by Air Company, is one example of emerging clean technologies that could scale up over the next few years.

Not too long ago, household solar panels were the provenance of scruffy off-gridders. Wind turbines were similarly laughed out of the mainstream. Now wind and solar power are playing a crucial role in global decarbonization. With that in mind, here are three additional clean technologies that will help prevent catastrophic climate change.

New membranes for green hydrogen and fuel cells

Not too long ago, many people laughed at hydrogen fuel call cars. Some are still laughing, but in the meantime hydrogen fuel cells are gaining a serious foothold in practically every other form of transportation. That includes long-haul trucks, aircraft, locomotives and ships.

The passenger car problem is twofold, and it is very similar to the issues once faced by all-electric vehicles. One is the high cost of the fuel cell, and the other is the availability of fueling stations.

However, the picture is beginning to look a little brighter for fans of fuel cell cars. Somewhat ironically, that is partly thanks to Royal Dutch Shell.

Shell has been collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory on a clean technologies accelerator called GCxN, and together they recently announced a new cohort of three startups.

One of those startups is the firm Versogen (formerly W7 Energy). Versogen specializes in membranes, which are a pivotal element in both fuel cells and electrolyzers.

Versogen has come up with a new membrane formula that will help reduce production costs for fuel cells. It will also lead to lower costs for electrolysis devices, which deploy electricity to “split” hydrogen gas - aka green hydrogen - from water.

Another member of the new cohort also aims at reducing the cost of membranes. The Canadian firm Ionomr Innovations has come up with a membrane formula that lowers costs while avoiding toxic materials. As with the Brooklyn-based firm Air Company, the Ionomr membranes could be used for electrolysis and applications such as hydrogen fuel cells.

Theres also a brighter future ahead for fuel cell passenger cars.

As for the prospects for growth in the fuel cell passenger car market, the electrolysis angle circles back around to the issue of fuel station availability. Here in the U.S., hydrogen fuel stations for individual passenger cars are practically nonexistent. The picture is flipping, though, with the advent of low-cost renewable energy along with lower costs for fuel cell technology.

Wind and solar power dovetail with the trend toward grid decentralization and distributed energy resources. That opens the door to establishing more hydrogen fuel stations, including in remote, off-grid locations.

As green hydrogen becomes less expensive, and more available, it could become the rising tide that lifts all fuel cells, including fuel cell passenger cars.

Capturing carbon from the air, one of the newer clean technologies

Capturing carbon from ambient air is another one of those clean technologies that used to elicit smirks. However, the field is beginning to accelerate as new developments lead to additional pathways for monetization.

Shell also has a hand in the carbon capture field, through the GCxN accelerator. A second member of the newly announced GCxN cohort is Air Company.

Air Company’s business model is based on using captured carbon to produce alcohols for use in high value products including fragrances, sanitizers and even spirits. The firm is also looking into producing fuels from captured carbon.

Renewable energy is a key factor in the process, as it is with electrolysis.

“Our technology uses only air, water, and sunlight as inputs. It starts by using captured carbon dioxide from absorption-based air capture technology and generating electricity from sunlight using solar energy to power our conversion system,” Air Company explains.

In support of the pollution-to-product field, the Energy Department has also just released a new $24 million round of funding for what it calls “transformational air pollution capture.”

The funds are aimed at clean technologies that replicate the natural process of carbon absorption by plants and trees.

“While progress has been made in this field, direct air capture methods are not currently efficient enough to be cost-effective and economically viable. This funding will support the breakthroughs needed to address the limitations of currently available technologies, and develop entirely new and more effective approaches for direct removal of CO2 from ambient air,” the Energy Department says.

To be clear, ambient air carbon capture and sequestration is not a substitute for meaningful action on climate change. While Shell and some other fossil stakeholders seem serious about transitioning their business out of fossil extraction, ExxonMobil and other producers appear more interested in deploying carbon capture and sequestration as an offset that enables them to continue along an unsustainable pathway.

Beaming solar energy from space

Beaming solar energy from space is another technology that appeared confined to science fiction, until recently.

Commercial application may still be off in the future, but in the meantime the U.S. Department of Defense is pushing the technology as a means of providing a reliable, 24/7 supply of clean energy to practically any location on Earth.

The basic idea is to deploy solar panels in space to capture solar energy and beam it down to Earth in the form of radio frequency microwaves.

The Naval Research Laboratory already has a solar panel satellite in test mode, through its PRAM (Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module) program.

The Air Force is also on the case, through its SSPIDER (Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research) project in partnership with Northrup Grumman.

“Space solar power beaming is not a new concept; yet until recently, the technology did not have a clear path forward,” the lab explains. “In conjunction with primary industry partner Northrop Grumman, AFRL established the SSPIDR project to mature technology critical to building an operational solar power transmission system for providing reliable and logistically agile power to expeditionary forces.”

Energy is a strategic enabler and potential vulnerability for our nation and our Department of Defense,” adds U.S. Air Force Col. Eric Felt, who leads the lab’s Space Vehicles Directorate.

Defense and space technology have been the proving grounds for the Internet and solar panels, two technological developments now in widespread use today. If and when space beam systems become commonplace, add it to the list of clean technologies that will become powerful new elements in the emerging green hydrogen economy.

Image credit: Air Company

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey