Engineering a Solution: Maximizing Efficiency in the Energy Sector

The solutions to energy use in the future beckon to be discovered by current researchers. Richard van de Sanden from the Dutch Institute of Fundamental Energy research spoke about the latest developments in utilizing chemical processes to convert raw power to usable, storable energy that can revolutionize the way human society consumes this valuable resource.

Sanden’s main method includes analyzing carbon dioxide conversions from a plasma perspective. In an exothermic reaction, one product is CO2 gas. However, if these CO2 molecules can somehow be split, they will produce a significant amount of energy that could be consumed. The appeal of this process is that it would take outbound greenhouse gas emissions and, through the use of renewable energy, could be converted back into something usable. As of right now, only 3% of the total supply of the world’s energy comes from sustainable or renewable sources such as wind or solar power. Sanden pointed out that, “there is an obvious mismatch between the supply and demand.” Surprisingly, Germany is the leading nation in both use and research in renewable energy.

Sanden predominantly works on finding ways to make better storage systems for energy. Having access to wind and solar energy is one thing, but being able to disperse that through the grid with good efficiency is completely different and much more complex.

Sanden tests plasma forms of carbon dioxide gas and looks for being able to convert energized gas into a chemical fuel. Plasma itself is the fourth state of matter. It is a hot ionized gas with reactive particles such as electrons, ions, and radicals and makes up 99% of the matter in the universe. Plasma is useful because it is a high energy density medium. The challenges this energy research hopes to meet is to find replacements for fossil fuel in power plants and to find storage of sustainable energy through various hydrocarbons.

Stations where CO2 gas is split in an exothermic reaction already exist in power plants in Europe. However, the usefulness of these prototypes is fairly small in comparison to what scientists want them to be. At a power plant that produces 20 gigawatts of power, a CO2 emission machine at this plant can only currently yield 50 kilowatts of power.

Sanden and his team of researchers were able to get 80% conversion of the plasma gas back into energy. Sanden added, “with that high energy conversion with a hot ionized gas, I’m surprised that we did not have an explosion. In retrospect, that should have caused more concern.” Now equipped with these chemical tools, Sanden believes a more clever way to get energy is to make gasses from offshore windmills instead of directly making electricity.

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