THE FUTURE ALWAYS HAPPENS FASTER THAN YOU EXPECT IT TO:

Can the dream of fusion power be realized? (M. Mitchell Waldrop, 15 January 2024, Canary Media)

“There is a coming of age of technological capability that now matches up with the challenge of this quest,” says Michl Binderbauer, CEO of the fusion firm TAE Technologies in Southern California.

Indeed, more than 40 commercial fusion firms have been launched since TAE became the first in 1998 — most of them in the past five years, and many with a power-reactor design that they hope to have operating in the next decade or so. ​“I keep thinking, oh sure, we’ve reached our peak,” says Andrew Holland, who maintains a running count as CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, an advocacy group he founded in 2018 in Washington, D.C. ​“But no, we keep seeing more and more companies come in with different ideas.”

None of this has gone unnoticed by private investment firms, which have backed the fusion startups with some $6 billion and counting. This combination of new technology and private money creates a happy synergy, says Jonathan Menard, head of research at the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey, and not a participant in any of the fusion firms.

Compared with the public sector, companies generally have more resources for trying new things, says Menard. ​“Some will work, some won’t. Some might be somewhere in between,” he says. ​“But we’re going to find out, and that’s good.”

Granted, there’s ample reason for caution — starting with the fact that none of these firms has so far shown that it can generate net fusion energy even briefly, much less ramp up to a commercial-scale machine within a decade. ​“Many of the companies are promising things on timescales that generally we view as unlikely,” Menard says.

But then, he adds, ​“we’d be happy to be proven wrong.”

With more than 40 companies trying to do just that, we’ll know soon enough if one or more of them succeeds. In the meantime, to give a sense of the possibilities, here is an overview of the challenges that every fusion reactor has to overcome, and a look at some of the best-funded and best-developed designs for meeting those challenges.

ALL COMMODITIES ARE FUNGIBLE:

China’s Solar Dominance Faces New Rival: An Ultrathin Film: As renewable energy becomes a geopolitical tool, Japan looks to recover its technological edge (George Nishiyama, Jan. 11, 2024, WSJ)


In the U.S., the Biden administration is seeking to build a domestic supply chain for solar panels. Japan, also looking for a homegrown solar solution, is focusing on what are called perovskite solar cells that don’t use any silicon.

Invented by Japanese scientist Tsutomu Miyasaka, the cells use minerals forming a crystal structure called perovskite, which can be used in a device to turn the sun’s rays into electricity.

A key element in manufacturing perovskite is iodine. While hardly a resources powerhouse, Japan happens to be the world’s second-largest producer of iodine after Chile, accounting for around a third of global production.

“Look at what China is doing with semiconductors. That’s bullying,” said Miyasaka, referring to Beijing’s export restrictions on the rare elements gallium and germanium used in chips. “With perovskite cells, the components can be made domestically.”

IT’LL NEVER FLY, ORVILLE:

90-seat Elysian airliner: 800-1,000-km range on batteries alone (Loz Blain, January 11, 2024, New Atlas)


A Dutch startup says everyone’s hugely underestimating the potential of battery-electric aircraft – that it’s possible to build large battery-electric airliners covering distances most assume we’ll need hydrogen for. Elysian plans to prove it.

The company doesn’t believe it’ll need some giant leap in batteries to do it, either; it says it can take 90 passengers some 800 km (497 miles) using a pack with 360 Wh/kg. Amprius, meanwhile, was shipping 450-Wh/kg cells back in 2022, and Chinese giant CATL launched a 500-Wh/kg “condensed” battery last year. Assuming some improvements, Elysian says it’ll hit 1,000-km (621-mile) range figures, at which point the E9X aircraft could feasibly cover around 50% of all scheduled commercial flights.

GEOMETRIC GROWTH GENERALLY ADDS UP FAST:

Chart: The US grid battery fleet is about to double — again: America’s energy storage industry is on a tear, installing batteries to store clean wind and solar and make the grid more reliable. (Julian Spector, Maria Virginia Olano, 12 January 2024, Canary Media)

The U.S. energy storage industry has its New Year’s resolution ready to go: double the capacity of batteries connected to the American grid.

And it looks achievable for the youngest sector of the power industry. The analysts at the federal Energy Information Agency predict that the total battery capacity installed on the U.S. grid will rise from 17.3 gigawatts at the end of 2023 to 31.1 gigawatts by the close of 2024. That scenario represents 80% year-over-year growth.

MAGA HARDEST HIT:

Clean electricity is driving down US emissions (Maria Gallucci, 10 January 2024, Canary Media)

A record-shattering number of solar power projects and utility-scale battery installations contributed to the drop in U.S. power-sector emissions, which fell by 8 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year, analysts said in a preliminary report released on Wednesday. Renewables helped accelerate the long-term decline of coal-fired electricity generation, which hit a record low last year. Electricity from fossil gas — which emits relatively less CO2 than coal but is high in methane — also increased substantially.

PAGING TOM SAWYER:

‘SOLAR PAINT’ TECHNOLOGY COULD BE CHEAPER ALTERNATIVE TO PANELS: ‘BILLIONS OF LIGHT-SENSITIVE PARTICLES [ARE] MIXED IN’ (Laurelle Stelle, January 10, 2024, The Cool Down)

The idea behind solar paint (aka photovoltaic paint) is simple: It’d be like ordinary paint but with billions of light-sensitive particles mixed in, as Understand Solar notes.

When you paint it onto a surface, such as the wall of a house, it would turn that surface into a stealthy solar panel, generating electricity when the sun hits a surface with circuitry attached, per Treehugger.

Just like ordinary solar panels, that would be a great way to save money, since you could lower your electrical bill. It would be good for the environment, as users won’t need as much power generated from burning coal or oil.

According to the Solar Action Alliance, this isn’t just theory. The University of Buffalo has developed a light-sensitive material for use in solar paint, and the University of Toronto has developed a spray-on substance to make what is essentially solar wallpaper — which could lead to a direct spray-paint application.

…AND CHEAPER…:


Sub-zero heat pump challenge delivers new tech – and a fresh blow to gas (Rachel Williamson 10 January 2024, Renew Economy)


Four more prototypes are now out of the lab and onto the US Department of Energy’s list of heat pumps that can operate in sub-zero conditions without resorting to gas backup. […]

Bosch, Daikin, Midea, and Johnson Controls join Lennox International, Carrier, Trane Technologies, and Rheem in the next phase of the challenge, where their prototypes will be installed at some 23 locations in the US and Canada and monitored over the next year.

The program has pushed companies into markets they may not have originally designed for.

For example, Bosch’s new IDS Ultra heat pump is the company’s first air-to-air heat pump designed specifically for colder climates.

Bosch says it can keep operating in temperatures down to -15°C and still function at -25°C.

YOUR NEXT CAR WILL BE A VOLT:

ELECTRIC CARS ARE ALREADY UPENDING AMERICA; After years of promise, a massive shift is under way. (Saahil Desai, DECEMBER 29, 2023, The Atlantic)

In 2023, our battery-powered future became so much more real—a boom in sales and new models is finally starting to push us into the post-gas age. Americans are on track to buy a record 1.44 million of them in 2023, according to a forecast by BloombergNEF, about the same number sold from 2016 to 2021 total. “This was the year that EVs went from experiments, or technological demonstrations, and became mature vehicles,” Gil Tal, the director of the Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis, told me. They are beginning to transform not just the automotive industry, but also the very meaning of a car itself.

If the story of American EVs has long hinged on one company—Tesla—then this was the year that these cars became untethered from Elon Musk’s brand. “We’re at a point where EVs aren’t necessarily exclusively for the upper, upper, upper class,” Robby DeGraff, an analyst at the market-research firm AutoPacific, told me. If you wanted an electric car five years ago, you could choose from among various Tesla models, the Chevy Bolt, the Nissan Leaf—and that was really it. Now EVs come in more makes and models than Baskin-Robbins ice-cream flavors. We have more luxury sedans to vie with Tesla, but also cheaper five-seaters, SUVs, Hummers, pickup trucks, and … however you might categorize the Cybertruck. Nearly 40 new EVs have debuted since the start of 2022, and they are far more advanced than their ancestors. For $40,000, the Hyundai Ioniq 6, released this year, can get you 360 miles on a single charge; in 2018, for only a slightly lower cost, a Nissan Leaf couldn’t go half that distance.

All of these EVs are genuinely great for the planet, spewing zero carbon from their tailpipes, but that’s only a small part of what makes them different. In the EV age, cars are no longer just cars. They are computers. Stripping out a gas engine, transmission, and 100-plus moving parts turns a vehicle into something more digital than analog—sort of like how typing on an iPhone keyboard is different than on my clackety old Samsung flip phone. “It’s the software that is really the heart of an EV,” DeGraff said—it runs the motors, calculates how many miles are left on a charge, optimizes the brakes, and much more.

ALWAYS BET AGAINST INFLATION:

Meet America’s Newest Oil Trader Extraordinaire: Joe Biden (David Uberti, Dec. 31, 2023, WSJ

President Biden’s unprecedented release of oil from America’s petroleum reserves in 2022 turned the White House into an unusually active player in the volatile crude market. The flood of emergency supplies helped arrest surging oil prices after Russia invaded Ukraine, and pulled billions of dollars into the Energy Department’s coffers in the process.

Oil prices have sputtered since and allowed officials who sold high to start replenishing U.S. stockpiles on the cheap.

EASY SQUEEZY:

40% of US electricity is now emissions-free (JOHN TIMMER – 12/28/2023, Ars Technica)

If we combine nuclear and renewables under the umbrella of carbon-free generation, then that’s up by nearly 1 percent since 2022 and is likely to surpass 40 percent for the first time.

The only thing that’s keeping carbon-free power from growing faster is natural gas, which is the fastest-growing source of generation at the moment, going from 40 percent of the year-to-date total in 2022 to 43.3 percent this year. (It’s actually slightly below that level in the October data.) The explosive growth of natural gas in the US has been a big environmental win, since it creates the least particulate pollution of all the fossil fuels, as well as the lowest carbon emissions per unit of electricity. But its use is going to need to start dropping soon if the US is to meet its climate goals, so it will be critical to see whether its growth flat lines over the next few years.

Outside of natural gas, however, all the trends in US generation are good, especially considering that the rise of renewable production would have seemed like an impossibility a decade ago.