Three Promising Trends in Renewable Thermal Energy
For over a century, non-renewable thermal energy sources including oil, coal, and natural gas have been used to generate electricity. As the focus of energy generation moves away from fossil fuels to renewable resources, thermal energy is increasingly turning green – thanks to innovations that can convert heat into electricity from unusual resources.
Geothermal heat re-powers old oil and gas power plant
Geothermal energy, the heat within the earth, is a reliable source of clean energy because the planet continuously radiates heat from its core. However, currently, only volcanic regions or regions near the edges of tectonic plates can access this deep underground energy source.
Quaise Energy, a spin-off startup of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a novel technology called millimeter-wave drilling, which makes geothermal energy accessible anywhere . Powered by a type of microwave source, the drilling system can reach between 10 to 20 km into the earth.
Quaise is set to start producing electricity from its geothermal system in 2026. The company plans to commercialize its technology through existing fossil energy power plants, re-powering them with geothermal energy.
The dance club that takes advantage of human energy
“That wastes heat, why not capture it and use it? Otherwise, the heating is done by gas boilers.” – David Townsend, founder of TownRock Energy
Using humans as organic generators may sound like a radical idea, but an energy tech startup – TownRock Energy – is developing systems that do just that. The BODYHEAT system developed by TownRock Energy uses air collectors in the ceiling of a dance club to suck up the hot air produced by crowds, then put the energy into boreholes that are drilled into the earth. The thermal energy generated from body heat warms surrounding rocks that act like heat batteries, which are used to cool the club or warm the building when needed.
The low-carbon technology can be used in places with crowds like dance clubs, venues, gyms, and offices to heat the building. It can also switch between heating and cooling swiftly. The BODYHEAT system is set to be installed at Glasgow nightclub SWG3 this year and is expected to save 70 tons of CO2 per year.
Everything that glows can generate energy
Infrared light is a type of radiant energy that is invisible to human eyes but glows on a thermal camera. Every project that has a temperature emits infrared. For example, the Earth absorbs solar radiation and releases the energy as infrared light into the cool environment during the night.
Inspired by infrared night-vision goggles, researchers developed a semiconductor device called a thermoradiative diode. The device works like a reverse solar cell, receiving thermal energy radiated from the Earth, or any other heat source, and turning the energy flow into electrical potential.
“By leveraging our knowledge of how to design and optimize solar cells and borrowing materials from the existing mid-infrared photodetector community, we hope for rapid progress towards delivering the dream of solar power at night.” – Dr. Michael Nielsen, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, University of New South Wales
Although the device currently can only produce a very small amount of energy, researchers believe that the innovation marks an early step towards generating power from almost any energy source that glows on a thermal camera, including industrial waste and the human body.
Implementing renewable thermal energy technology can impact our environment positively by reducing green gas emissions and pollution. The applications can also improve energy efficiency by capturing energy from resources that would otherwise be wasted. We expect to see many renewable thermal energy technology applications ready to be deployed in the next five years.
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