Big ideas from young minds

Having wowed our CEO Louise Kingham and President Steve Holliday earlier this year with their ‘Blu Pipe’ drainpipe generator, which scooped them the EI’s Big Bang Climate Change Award, the young team at Walton High School in Stafford are back with a guest blog post in which they share their big ideas for a clean energy future…

James:

With the growing issues of climate change and global warming, we need to begin to act now if we are to achieve the UK’s target of net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. With the energy industry contributing significantly to these emissions, alternative methods of generating energy must be used One option in the long term may be nuclear fusion.

A newly emerging technology born from long recognised scientific principles, nuclear fusion may hold the answer to clean, reliable energy. As the driving force behind the sun’s energy, it is a reaction where two or more nuclei are combined to form a heavier nucleus under intense heat and pressure. The fusion of lighter nuclei up to iron will typically release energy, conserving the difference in mass between reactants and products. This energy could then be harnessed as a useful output of the reaction, transferred, and transported as electric energy.

Using nuclear fusion as an energy source would have many benefits, notably releasing no CO2 emissions or other greenhouse gases with its major product consisting of helium – an inert, non-toxic gas. Furthermore, the fuel used (deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen) is abundant in the Earth’s oceans and produces large volumes of energy for the amount of reactant used. When compared with nuclear fission, fusion is a much safer alternative, there is no risk of meltdown due to the intricate conditions required and low fuel amounts used. Additionally, the small amount of radioactive waste produced is only short-lived and could be recycled or reused within 100 years.

However, nuclear fusion like all forms of energy production is not without its drawbacks. For the reaction to occur, the fuel plasma must be heated to millions of degrees which requires a large amount of power input. Since nuclear fusion was first proposed in 1940, no design has successfully produced more fusion power output than electrical power input. This problem may be solved with new designs such as the tokamak and the inertial confinement laser being tested in France and the US. Secondly, neutrons released by the reaction must be managed as they can degrade many common materials used within reaction chambers over time.

In conclusion, nuclear fusion is a promising source of energy for the future which may be crucial in becoming completely reliant on renewable, clean energy. While it currently has two major problems, as technology continues to develop, these can be overcome to provide an essential supply of energy.

Harvey:

I believe that small changes in our lifestyle are vital in the fight against climate change. There are schemes in the UK and Denmark now that are encouraging people to ride a bicycle to work instead of driving a car. If one did this it would improve your lifestyle with more exercise, reduce emissions from cars and free up more space in urban areas. In the United States this would be very significant because over half of all the country’s downtown space is given to roads or parking. At the moment, there are only 6 major cities worldwide where more than 10 percent of journeys are made by bicycle: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Berlin but there are several cities where bike journeys are becoming increasingly prevalent. In conclusion, a semi-realistic option of reducing the rate of global warming is to change our lifestyle choices to more ecological options.

Eden:

Whilst we shift our focus onto renewable energy sources in order to alleviate the output of greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere, it is important to optimise the efficiency of these methods of producing energy. With many of these, such as wind and solar power, it can be difficult to control exactly how much energy is being produced, therefore at times, the amount of electricity could exceed demand. This electricity, if not needed at one point, could be in high demand at another time in the day, therefore it is useful to store electricity to improve the stability of the supply of renewable electricity.

Our current methods of storing electricity include hydroelectric, batteries, compressed air, flywheels, and thermal energy storage. However, there are some issues with these storage methods. Pumped hydroelectric storage can have a significant environmental impact considering that often the infrastructure causes the destruction of ecosystems in mountains and valleys, and moreover, it can require additional energy to pump water up to the highest dam. Reducing the environmental impacts of hydroelectric power storage and reducing the energy needed to allow for it would be extremely beneficial, as hydroelectric storage is an incredibly popular method of storing energy, is mainly efficient, and improves the reliability of other renewable energy sources with electricity outputs which are difficult to control.

Recently, in order to reduce the environmental impact on ecosystems affected by the reservoirs, some concepts have emerged which would create sub-surface reservoirs in caverns or abandoned mines. Additionally, creating reservoirs away from river systems minimises impact on existing rivers, and their position can be optimised such that it is in the most beneficial position to support the national grid. As our technology improves for drilling and construction methods, it should become easier to construct these systems in a wider variety of places. Newer technologies for pumped hydroelectric storage mean that its efficiency has improved greatly, with reversible pump turbines, insulation systems for generators, turbines for which their speed can be adjusted. As these continue to improve, the long term efficiency and cost of maintaining pumped hydroelectric storage systems should also improve.

Ultimately, in order to sustain a future where our energy supply includes a much higher percentage of renewable energy sources, it is necessary that we stabilise the supply with energy storage methods. Funding the optimisation of these methods, such as pumped hydroelectric storage, to minimise damage to our planet and improve efficiency should not be overlooked when trying to achieve carbon neutrality.

Harry:

Solar energy is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society since it is a very flexible source of electricity due to the scalability of solar cells. For example, road signs often have small integrated solar panels to provide enough energy for them while large scale solar farms can produce enough for large businesses and homes. Solar panels can also be run independent of the mains grid which makes them ideal for use in isolated communities such as in deserts where sunlight is in abundance. I think that solar energy is great because it is a clean reliable source of electricity.

For info about the Climate Change Award and the winning project energy-inst.org/climate-change-award

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