Technological breakthroughs in energy help us, no matter the energy source

For whatever reason, conventional thinking about technological innovation in energy production seems to focus only on renewable technology. It’s as if traditional sources of energy (which are not that old, by the way) are seen as incapable of technological breakthrough — finding new ways of doing things that make the source more efficient, relatively cheaper, and therefore more competitive with other sources.

But that’s not true. The biggest technological change in energy in recent memory was in oil and natural gas, combining horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing.

As I noted here in 2016 citing MIT research:

[T]echnological change — [long thought] to be the force that would some day very soon make renewable energy sources competitive with traditional energy sources — is also making traditional sources even more competitive.

As innovators strive for technological breakthroughs in various other energy technologies, that process is good for energy consumers, it’s good for competition, and it’s even good for renewable energy sources.

Here’s a new example from ScienceBlog of research that could help coal and biomass energy generation:

Advancements in a fuel cell technology powered by solid carbon could make electricity generation from resources such as coal and biomass cleaner and more efficient, according to a new paper published by Idaho National Laboratory researchers.

The fuel cell design incorporates innovations in three components: the anode, the electrolyte and the fuel. Together, these advancements allow the fuel cell to utilize about three times as much carbon as earlier direct carbon fuel cell (DCFC) designs.

The fuel cells also operate at lower temperatures and showed higher maximum power densities than earlier DCFCs, according to INL materials engineer Dong Ding. The results appear in this week’s edition of the journal Advanced Materials.

Whereas hydrogen fuel cells (e.g., proton exchange membrane (PEM) and other fuel cells) generate electricity from the chemical reaction between pure hydrogen and oxygen, DCFCs can use any number of carbon-based resources for fuel, including coal, coke, tar, biomass and organic waste. …

I don’t know if this technology will ultimately work or prove to be cost effective (the ultimate test of efficiency).

But I see it as more evidence of the world’s Ultimate Resource at work, seeking and prodding and testing for better, cheaper ways of doing something, which — even though this is an unintended consequencebenefits all of us.

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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