First published in Cleantech magazine, Volume 6, Issue 1. Copyright Cleantech Investor Ltd
Natural gas is something of a taboo in some parts of the cleantech community. However, the reality is that the shale gas revolution in the US has resulted in cheap natural gas, at least for that market. Felicia Jackson makes an ‘appeal’ to the US to continue to view natural gas as a transition fuel, rather than a destination fuel in her comment in this issue (see page 23). However, the reality is that gas will play an important role in the energy and transport industries over the next decade and more.
While some in the renewables industry see gas as a competitor, the increased availability of natural gas doesn’t negate the value of biogas technologies. There is investment activity in the space of syngas-related technologies, typically appropriate for stranded gas resources and remote locations (see comment from Cleantech magazine).
Gas also offers potential in the air transport industry. To date ASTM approval has been achieved only for synthetic paraffinic kerosene (SPK), from hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFAs) – under ASTM D7566. This effectively means fuels based on oils from feedstocks such as algae, jatropha, animal fats and camelina. However, ASTM approval for GTL-based jet fuel is expected this year – which will cover fuel from both natural gas and biogas sources.
The price of gas outside the US is relatively high, which should bode well for alternative gas sources such as biogas. However, growth in the LNG industry will also be critical. Shell has made a major commitment to GTL, through the Pearl GTL plant, a joint venture with Qatar Petroleum. This is set to reach full production this year (processing gas from the North Field, which stretches from Qatar’s coast out into the Gulf and contains more than 900 trillion cubic feet of gas – or about 15% of worldwide gas resources). It remains to be seen whether the US will embrace the potential for LNG exports.
While fossil fuel prices still play a major role in the rate of growth in the uptake of clean technologies, there is little doubt that innovation in cleantech is revolutionising the way we live. A recent report from the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies identified ten key trends in technology innovation. Of these, some lie outside the scope of cleantech. However, most are firmly within the cleantech space (albeit that some overlap with other disciplines). The six with ‘cleantech’ credentials are listed below:
Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering
- Includes the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes including converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials.
Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass
- Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new green revolution holds the promise of further increasing crop production yields, minimising environmental impact, reducing energy and water dependence, and decreasing the carbon footprint.
Nanoscale design of materials
- The increasing demand on natural resources requires unprecedented gains in efficiency. Nanostructured materials with tailored properties, designed and engineered at the molecular scale, are already showing novel and unique features that will usher in the next clean energy revolution, reduce our dependence on depleting natural resources, and increase atom-efficiency manufacturing and processing.
Utilisation of carbon dioxide as a resource
- Carbon is at the heart of all life on earth. Yet managing carbon dioxide releases is one of the greatest social, political and economic challenges of our time. An emerging innovative approach to carbon dioxide management involves transforming it from a liability to a resource. Novel catalysts, based on nanostructured materials, can potentially transform carbon dioxide to high value hydrocarbons and other carbon-containing molecules, which could be used as new building blocks for the chemical industry as cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals.
- Society is deeply reliant on electrically powered devices. Yet a significant limitation in their continued development and utility is the need to be attached to the electricity grid by wire – either permanently or through frequent battery recharging. Emerging approaches to wireless power transmission will free electrical devices from having to be physically plugged in, and are poised to have as significant an impact on personal electronics as Wi-Fi had on Internet use.
High energy density power systems
- Better batteries are essential if the next generation of clean energy technologies are to be realised. A number of emerging technologies are coming together to lay the foundation for advanced electrical energy storage and use, including the development of nanostructured electrodes, solid electrolysis and rapid-power delivery from novel supercapacitors based on carbon-based nanomaterials. These technologies will provide the energy density and power needed to supercharge the next generation of clean energy technologies.
Gas or no gas – there are clearly a host of investment opportunities in cleantech!
Anne McIvor – February 2012
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