Nov 16, 2016

Mobile solar: the sky's the limit

3 min
In late June, a solar-powered drone developed by Facebook took to the skies for a 96 minute test flight. The aircraft, called Aquila, might have the...

In late June, a solar-powered drone developed by Facebook took to the skies for a 96 minute test flight. The aircraft, called Aquila, might have the wingspan of a jet airliner, but it isn’t designed for commercial passenger flight. The minds behind the world’s most popular social network have an entirely different plan for their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV): ‘beaming’ internet signals to communities in remote locations.

With Google also carrying out internet-delivery drone trials early this year, it’s clear that tech giants feels unmanned aircraft are part of the industry’s future. Facebook is still assessing whether Aquila will be an efficient and effective alternative to simply installing network infrastructure in unconnected regions. However, this doesn’t mean that other developers are waiting for a big name to prove the technology is viable before moving into the market.

The many uses of a solar drone

“Right now, it certainly seems like unmanned aircraft are a ‘no-brainer’. It’s going to happen and it has the potential to be quite big,” says Rich Kapusta, Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Sales at Alta Devices, a California company which specialises in delivering the world’s most thin and efficient mobile solar technologies. This year, the company broke the world record for dual-junction solar cell efficiency and currently holds the record with 31.6 percent of sunlight converted into electricity by its gallium arsenide (GaAs) cell.

Alta Devices is currently in the midst of exploring the applications of its ultra-thin and efficient solar cells. And it’s putting significant stock in the UAV market.

“If you believe what Facebook and Google are saying about how many planes are gonna be needed to cover certain pieces of the globe to provide communications services, the numbers are in the tens of thousands of airplanes,” Kapusta says. “We are talking to all the manufacturers that make those kinds of aircraft.”

While large solar drones have potential in the telecommunications sphere, Alta believes that a different market for smaller unmanned aircraft will soon develop. A small solar UAV won’t fly for months at a time, but will spend days or hours monitoring large agricultural assets or carrying out remote search and rescue operations. When the wings of these aircraft are covered in Alta’s solar cells, Kapusta predicts that they will be able to stay aloft for perhaps 9 or 10 hours at a time.

Do we have the technology?

If solar drones, big or small, are going to be flying to every corner of the globe, they will inevitably encounter regions with short days or very low sunlight. This will present hardware challenges and require more efficient solar cells and greater battery storage capacity.

“You can imagine a government that might want to do surveillance over the polar ice caps,” Kapusta explains. “They’re going to spend a lot of money making that happen, and that market may be small, but there is going to be a need for higher performance solar cells.”

Developers worldwide are approaching the theoretical limit for solar cell efficiency, particularly those using crystalline silicon, the most common PV manufacturing material. Other compounds, including gallium arsenide — Alta’s material of choice — have greater efficiency potential. Adding multiple junctions, or layers, to a single cell can also improve its efficiency. Supplementary layers can be optimised to convert certain pieces of the sun’s spectrum into electricity, thereby increasing performance. However, the more complex the solar cell the more expensive it will be to produce and eventually purchase.   

“We’re trying to make our single junction as cheap as possible and then create a few technologies that give higher performance at higher cost points for those people that really need the extra performance,” says Kapusta of Alta’s attempts to reconcile cost and energy output.

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Jul 29, 2021

Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030

Dominic Ellis
4 min
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades says the UK's National Infrastructure Commission

Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission

Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.

The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.

The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture. 

It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.  

The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020. 

Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.

The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.

While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.

Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.

Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse. 

"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.

“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.” 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets. 

Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.  

Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."

McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:

  • Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
  • Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
  • Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
  • Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
  • The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere

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