The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) Eleventh Assembly started today (Monday) and takes place virtually setting the course for a critical year of global commitments to low-carbon development. With the postponed COP26 set to take place later this year, 2021 is seen as an important moment for countries to raise climate mitigation ambition including renewable energy deployment, to align economic recovery efforts with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
“The COVID-19 pandemic defined 2020,” said Francesco La Camera, IRENA Director-General. “However, as countries look to recover from the devastating impacts of the pandemic and build back in a way that is more resilient, just and sustainable, we can define this year as the moment we placed the energy transition at the heart of global policy and investment decision making.”
The opening day of the Assembly, marked as World Energy Transition Day, sets the direction for four days of high-level discussions on net-zero policies, national energy planning, renewable energy investment and the energy-healthcare nexus, from January 18-21. Close to 2000 high level attendees including Heads of State, Ministers, energy decision makers, multilateral organisations, international stakeholders, and private sector actors will engage in Assembly meetings under the overarching theme of ‘COVID19 – Energy Transition’.
United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, told Ministers and global leaders at the Assembly: “The trillions of dollars needed for recovery from the pandemic must be simultaneously used to move our economies towards net-zero emissions. We must build a global coalition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Renewable technologies are the first choice for decarbonization strategies.”
Teresa Ribera, Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of Spain and Minister of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge, is the President of the Assembly.
“We are all well aware of the pressing need to change gears towards a sustainable energy future: with over 70% of GHG emissions coming from this sector, the energy transition plays a key role in managing the global climate emergency,” said H.E. Teresa Ribera. “Developing countries, economies in transition and highly industrialised countries all have huge opportunities in the decarbonisation of their development pathways: energy access and security, sound economic growth, industry modernisation, job creation.
“To us all, IRENA has become a lighthouse in the energy revolution we need,” she added. “Promoting innovation and widespread adoption of renewables and energy efficiency technologies and encouraging Governments to accelerate the transition. Spain is proud to align with IRENA’s endeavours and I will be honoured to take the lead of its 11th Assembly in 2021.”
Assembly sessions on the 18th, 19th and 20th include a high-level panel on energy transformation for a sustainable post-COVID recovery, followed by four ministerial discussions covering the topics of national energy planning and implementation, scaling up of renewable energy financing, the pathway to carbon neutrality and the role of the energy transition in energising healthcare.
Additionally, conclusions from preliminary stakeholder meetings that took place on the 13th and 14th of January, including IRENA’s Legislators Forum, Public-Private Dialogue and the IRENA Youth Forum, will be reported back to the Assembly. The Assembly, which takes place at the start of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), is being live-streamed on the IRENA website.
“IRENA’s global mandate offers us a unique opportunity to convene global leaders, promote knowledge sharing and create the partnerships needed to advance low-carbon development and realise the immediate and long-term benefits of the transition,” continued La Camera. “The Assembly is at the heart of these efforts.”
Impacts Of Nuclear Waste Disposal
Nuclear energy has long been regarded as an excellent option to provide the electricity needed to heat and light our houses. Without emitting greenhouse gases, it can produce electricity. But following several horrific accidents at nuclear power facilities throughout the globe, people are becoming increasingly aware that, if not handled wisely, nuclear power poses a severe threat to our way of life.
The storage of nuclear (radioactive) waste has also raised safety and health concerns. Fortunately, functioning nuclear power facilities now have extreme safety measures in place, making them much safer than they once were. However, they continue to produce tonnes of hazardous trash every year. The Utility Bidder greatly emphasizes the efficient disposal of nuclear energy waste.
In order to ensure that all nuclear waste is disposed of safely, carefully, and with the least amount of harm to human life possible, nuclear power plants and other businesses must adhere to several essential and stringent regulations. Nuclear waste disposal, also known as radioactive waste management, is a significant component of nuclear power generation.
However, the amount of radioactive waste left behind from nuclear power plants is relatively tiny compared to the waste produced by other energy-generating techniques, such as burning coal or gas. However, it can be expensive, and it must be done perfectly.
Nuclear waste is often stored in steel containers that are placed within a second concrete cylinder for disposal purposes. These shielding layers stop radiation from entering the environment and endangering the environment around the nuclear waste or the atmosphere.
It is a pretty simple and affordable means of keeping very hazardous compounds. For example, it doesn’t require special transportation or storage in a particular spot. However, certain risks are associated with the disposal of nuclear waste.
Because the by-products of nuclear fission have long half lifetimes, they will remain radioactive and dangerous for tens of thousands of years. It indicates that nuclear waste might be exceedingly volatile and harmful for many years if something happens to the waste cylinders in which it is kept.
That makes it relatively simple to locate hazardous nuclear waste, which means that if someone were looking for nuclear waste with bad intentions, they might very well be able to find some and use it. That is because hazardous nuclear waste is frequently not sent off to particular locations to be stored.
The question of storage is another difficulty with nuclear waste disposal that is still under discussion. Due to the difficulties involved in keeping such dangerous material that would remain radioactive for thousands of years, many alternative storage techniques have been considered throughout history. Among the ideas considered were above-ground storage, launch into space, ocean disposal, and ice-sheet disposal. Still, very few have been put into practice.
Only one was put into practice; ocean disposal, which involved discharging radioactive waste into the sea, was adopted by thirteen different nations. It makes sense that this practice is no longer used.
The potential impact of hazardous materials on plants and animals is one of the main worries that the globe has regarding the disposal of nuclear waste. Even though the trash is often tightly sealed inside enormous steel and concrete drums, accidents can still happen, and leaks might occur.
Nuclear waste can have highly detrimental impacts on life, such as developing malignant growths or transmitting genetic defects to subsequent generations of animals and plants. Therefore, improper nuclear waste disposal can significantly negatively affect the environment and endanger millions of animals and hundreds of different animal species.
The most considerable worry is the harmful consequences radiation exposure can have on the human body. Radiation’s long-term effects can potentially lead to cancer. It’s intriguing to realize that we are naturally exposed to radiation from the ground underneath us just by going about our daily lives. The “DNA” that ensures cell healing can change due to radiation.
Problems can occasionally arise when transporting nuclear waste from power plants. Accidents still happen and can have catastrophic consequences for everyone nearby, despite all the precautions taken while transporting nuclear waste. For example, if radioactive material is contained in subpar transportation casks, a minor bump or crash could cause the contents to leak and impact a large area.
People frequently scavenge for abandoned radioactive nuclear waste, a severe issue in developing countries. People will willingly expose themselves to potentially harmful quantities of radiation in some nations because there is a market for these kinds of scavenged products. Sadly, radioactive materials can be pretty volatile and lead to various issues.
People who scavenge these materials wind up in hospitals and may even pass away from complications brought on by or connected to the radioactive materials. Sadly, once someone has been exposed to radioactive materials, they can then expose other individuals to radioactive materials who have not chosen to go scavenging for nuclear garbage.
Accidents happen, even though careful disposal of nuclear waste is frequently emphasized. Unfortunately, there have been many examples throughout history where radioactive waste was not disposed of properly.
That has led to several terrible events, such as radioactive waste being dispersed by dust storms into places where people and animals lived and contaminating water sources, including ponds, rivers, and even the sea. Animals that live in or around these places or depend on lakes or ponds for survival may suffer catastrophic consequences due to these mishaps.
Also, drinking water can get poisoned, which is terrible for locals and others near the disaster’s epicenter. Nuclear waste can eventually enter reservoirs and other water sources and, from there, go to the houses of people who unknowingly drink high radioactive material.
Severe accidents occur extremely infrequently but have a significant impact on a large number of individuals. That is true even if it only seeps into the ground. There are examples of these incidents from all over the world and from all eras.
Dream of unlimited, clean nuclear fusion energy within reach
by Gareth Willmer
The old joke is that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away. Yet the dream of abundant clean energy is no laughing matter as we meet an ITER researcher to catch up on progress at the reactor facility.
The Sun has fuelled life on Earth for billions of years, creating light and heat through nuclear fusion. Given that incredible power and longevity, it seems there can hardly be a better way to generate energy than by harnessing the same nuclear processes that occur in our own and other stars.
Nuclear fusion reactors aim to replicate this process by fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium, releasing energy in the form of heat. Sustaining this at scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power source.
The quest began decades ago, but could a long-running joke that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away soon start to look old?
Some hope so, following a major breakthrough during a nuclear-fusion experiment in late 2021. This came at the Joint European Torus (JET) research facility in Oxfordshire, UK, in a giant, doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.
Inside, superheated gases called plasmas are generated in which the fusion reactions take place, containing charged particles that are held in place by powerful magnetic fields. Such plasmas can reach temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius, an unfathomable 10 times hotter than the Sun’s core.
In a sustained five-second burst, researchers in the EUROfusion consortium released a record-breaking 59 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy. This was almost triple the previous 21.7 MJ record set at the same facility in 1997, with the results touted as ‘the clearest demonstration in a quarter of a century of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy’. Follow the link to learn more about the successful nuclear fusion experiment at JET.
The results provided a major boost ahead of the next phase of nuclear fusion’s development. A larger and more advanced version of JET known as ITER (meaning “The Way” in Latin) is under construction on a 180-hectare site in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southern France.
ITER, which is being built as a collaboration between 35 nations, including those in the EU, is aimed at further firming up the concept of fusion. One of the most complicated machines ever to be created, it was scheduled to start generating its first plasma in 2025 before entering into high-power operation around 2035 – although researchers on the project expect some delays because of the pandemic.
The results at JET represent a major landmark, said Professor Tony Donné, programme manager of the EUROfusion project, a major consortium of 4 800 experts, students and facilities across Europe. ‘It’s a huge milestone – the biggest for a long time,’ he said.
‘It’s confirmed all the modelling, so it has really increased confidence that ITER will work and do what it’s meant to do.’ While the energy generated at JET lasted just a few seconds, the aim is to ramp this up to a sustained reaction that produces energy.
The results were the culmination of years of preparation, with Prof Donné explaining that one of the key developments since 1997 involved changing the inner wall of the JET vessel.
Previously, the wall was made of carbon, but this proved too reactive with the fuel mix of deuterium and tritium, two heavier isotopes – or variants – of hydrogen used in the fusion reaction. This resulted in the formation of hydrocarbons, locking up the tritium fuel in the wall.
In the rebuild, which involved 16 000 components and 4 000 tonnes of metal, the carbon was replaced with beryllium and tungsten to reduce tritium retention. Ultimately, the team was able to cut the amount of trapped fuel by a large multiple, contributing to the success of the recent fusion shot.
In preparation for the next stage of fusion’s epic journey, upgrades to JET ensured that its configuration aligns with the plans for ITER. Further in the future, the next step beyond ITER will be a demonstration power plant known as DEMO, designed to send electricity into the grid – leading on to fusion plants becoming a commercial and industrial reality.
‘ITER is a device which will create 10 times more fusion energy than the energy used to heat the plasma,’ said Prof Donné. ‘But as it is an experimental facility, it will not deliver electricity to the grid. For that, we need another device, which we call DEMO. This will really bring us to the foundations for the first generation of fusion power plants.’
Prof Donné added: ‘JET has shown now that fusion is plausible. ITER has to show that it’s further feasible, and DEMO will need to demonstrate that it really works.’
Planned to provide up to 500 megawatts (MW) to the grid, he thinks it is realistic for DEMO to come into operation around 2050. ‘We hope to build DEMO much faster than we built ITER, making (use of the) lessons learned,’ he said.
Yet there are other key challenges to overcome on the way to getting nuclear fusion up and running. Not least is that while deuterium is abundant in seawater, tritium is extremely scarce and difficult to produce.
The researchers therefore plan to develop a way of generating it inside the tokamak, using a ‘breeding blanket’ containing lithium. The idea is that high-energy neutrons from the fusion reactions will interact with the lithium to create tritium.
Prof Donné said nuclear fusion could prove a pivotal green and sustainable energy source for the future. ‘I would say it’s essential,’ he said. ‘I’m not convinced that by 2050 we can make the carbon dioxide transition with only renewables, and we need other things.’
And although he says the current method of creating nuclear energy through fission is becoming safer and safer, fusion has key advantages. Proponents for ITER talk of benefits such as an absence of meltdown risk, adding that nuclear fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste and that reactor materials can be recycled or reused within 100 to 300 years.
‘It’s definitely much safer,’ said Prof Donné. Referencing the stigma carried by nuclear energy, he said, ‘What we see when we interact with the public is that people very often haven’t heard about nuclear fusion. But when we explain the pros and cons, then I think people get positive.’
Referring to Lev Artsimovich, dubbed the “father of the tokamak”, he said, ‘Artsimovich always said fusion will be there when society really needs it. If we get fusion up and running, then really we have a very safe and clean energy source which can give us energy for thousands of years.’
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Salt and a battery – smashing the limits of power storage
by Caleb Davies
Thanks to the renewables’ boom, the limiting factor of the energy revolution is not power supply as much as power storage these days. Cleaner, greener batteries are needed to charge our cars, ebikes and devices for longer.
We have all been there. The rectangular icon in the top right-hand corner of the screen turns red and flashes to indicate you’re almost out of battery. But the problems with batteries go far beyond this kind of minor inconvenience. Batteries are a crucial part of our green energy future but also an imperfect one.
In future, a large portion of our energy will come from renewable sources such as solar and wind. But there are times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. To even out supply, we need to store the surplus electricity generated by renewables, until we are ready to consume it. One important means of doing so is with better batteries. We also need huge numbers of batteries if we are to power the envisioned fleets of electric cars and mobility devices.
The trouble is, even the best batteries have problems. One big sticking point is that lithium-ion cells use lithium as a key component. This is mined as salt. Europe does not presently have any large reserves, so relies on imports from only a small number of places, such as Australia and Chile. Lithium batteries are also expensive, have a limited storage capacity, and lose performance after repeated charging.
If we are to make them better, first we need to understand how they work. Traditional lithium-ion batteries have three key components. There are two solid components called electrodes – the anode and the cathode – and a liquid called the electrolyte. When the battery discharges, electrons stream out of the anode to the cathode to power whatever device it’s connected to. Positive lithium ions diffuse through the electrolyte, attracted to the negative charge of the cathode. When the battery is being charged up, this goes in reverse.
The whole process is a reversible electrochemical reaction. There are many flavours of this basic process with different kinds of chemicals and ions involved. A particular option being explored by the ASTRABAT project is to do away with the liquid electrolyte and make it a solid or gel instead. In theory, these solid-state batteries have a higher energy density, meaning they can power devices for longer. They should also be safer and quicker to manufacture, since, unlike typical lithium-ion batteries, they don’t use a flammable liquid electrolyte.
We need to continue to invest in research to validate the next generation of batteries.
Dr Sophie Mailley, ASTRABAT
Electrochemist Dr Sophie Mailley at the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) in Grenoble, France, is the ASTRABAT project coordinator. She explains that lithium-based solid-state batteries do already exist. But such batteries use a gel as the electrolyte and only work well at temperatures of about 60 C, meaning they are unsuitable for many applications. ‘It’s clear that we need to innovate in this area to be able to face the problems of climate change,’ said Dr Mailley.
She and her team of partners have been working on perfecting a recipe for a better solid-state lithium battery. The job involves looking at all sorts of candidate components for the battery and working out which ones work best together. Dr Mailley says they have now identified suitable components and are working out ways to scale up manufacturing of the batteries.
One question she and her team plan to investigate next is, whether it will be easier to recycle lithium and other elements from solid-state batteries compared to typical lithium-ion batteries. If it is, that could increase the recycling of lithium and to reduce dependence on imports.
Dr Mailley estimates that if the research goes well, solid-state lithium batteries like the one ASTRABAT is working on could be entering commercial use in electric cars by about 2030. ‘I don’t know if it is these solid-state batteries that will be the next important battery innovation,’ said Dr Mailley. ‘There are a lot of other possible solutions, like using manganese or sodium (instead of lithium). Those might work out. But we need to continue to invest in research to validate the next generation of batteries,’ she said.
When it comes to storing energy for the purposes of smoothing out supply to electricity grids, batteries need be reliable and high capacity, which means expensive. Scarce lithium isn’t the best choice. Instead, the HIGREEW project is investigating another different kind of battery, known as a redox flow cell.
The main components of redox flow batteries are two liquids, one positively charged, one negatively charged. When the battery is in use, these are pumped into a chamber known as a cell stack, where they are separated by a permeable membrane and exchange electrons – creating a current.
The project’s co-ordinator is chemist Dr Eduardo Sanchez at CIC energiGUNE, a research centre near Bilbao in Spain. He explains that plenty of large-scale redox flow batteries are already in operation around the world and they are designed to be stable, lasting about 20 years. But these existing batteries use vanadium dissolved in sulfuric acid, which is a toxic and corrosive process. Safety requirements mean these batteries must be manufactured at great expense.
I would say we have a bloom here in Europe, with a lot of companies working on flow batteries.
Dr Eduardo Sanchez, HIGREEW
‘Vanadium has lots of strengths – it’s cheap and stable,’ said Dr Sanchez. ‘But if you have a leak from one of these batteries, that’s not nice. You must design the tanks to be extremely durable.’
The HIGREEW project is planning to create a redox flow battery that uses far less toxic materials such as salt solutions in water which stores carbon-based ions. Sanchez and his team of colleagues have been working on developing the best recipe for this battery, screening many different combinations of salts and chemical solutions. They have now come up with a shortlist of a few prototypes that perform well and are working on scaling these up.
Work on one huge prototype battery is ongoing at the CIC energiGUNE centre. ‘We have to ensure that they maintain their good performance at scale,’ said Dr Sanchez.
His team have also been investigating a method of dipping commercially available battery membrane materials so as to chemically alter them, making them last longer.
Dr Sanchez sees a bright future for redox flow batteries. ‘I would say we have a bloom here in Europe, with a lot of companies working on flow batteries.’ He predicts that manufacturing redox flow batteries could bring abundant employment opportunities to Europe in the coming years.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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