Future Tech: Clean energy for everyone to enjoy

An abundance of gadget power for all? T3 investigates...

Future questions answered, definitively

We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.

We've already examined such visionary subjects as the prospect of flying cars, robots in the home and pills giving us extra brain power. T3 now turns its attention to: Abundant clean energy.

What's the big idea?

Keeping the lights on, quite frankly. And doing it without wrecking the environment. As the economies around oil become less and less stable and politicians fret about nuclear power in the wake of Japan, the imperative for clean, affordable energy - and lots of it - becomes ever more critical. Will renewables ever be up to the job or is there a silver bullet waiting in the future?

What's happening now?

The fierce, heavily politicised debate rumbles on while scientists tinker with a raft of technologies, old and new. Currently, renewables make up less than 2% of the UK energy mix. “The EU has given us a target of increasing that to 15% by 2020,” says Professor Jim Skea, research director at the UK Energy Research Centre. “The critical thing is bringing the cost down for wind and solar, otherwise they are proven, mature technologies that we will see incremental advances in as time goes by.” Also emerging are things like carbon capture and storage, a means of trapping CO2 emmissions as they're released from coal-fired power stations.

This would be a viable mid-term option, along with nuclear, providing us with stable energy until renewables make a larger contribution. Meanwhile, in the lab, scientists are experimenting with new, potentially game-changing ways of producing energy. Crops of algae offer biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, albeit not a zero-carbon one. And physicists are hoping to recreate the conditions found at the centre of the sun by training high-powered lasers at a tiny pellet of hydrogen, hopefully triggering a fusion reaction.

What's the hold-up?

The economics of energy mean that quickly ramping up our reliance on renewables is unlikely. “We’ve been through an era of cheap fossil fuels and haven’t really put an economic cost on greenhouse gas emissions,” says Skea. “Against that background renewables have simply been expensive.” Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet waiting in the lab. Instead future energy will be underpinned by advances in more basic science. “For example, advances in genomics will give us a better understanding of how to breed more efficient and drought-resistant energy crops. Meanwhile materials science and nanotechnology will make progress possible in photovoltaic cells and battery technology.”

When will we see it?

An optimist might say we'll be able to power the planet on clean, sustainable sources by the middle of the century. “We've come to the end of conventional, cheap oil effectively, but there are lots of other hydrocarbons out there,” says Skea. “Frankly, it's now a choice for the human race: do we go on burning hydrocarbons or do we want to switch to low-carbon technologies that have less implications for climate change?”

Timeline: 2050

Stay tuned to T3.com for more future tech questions answered

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