The Great Energy Transition: The Years Just Ahead

September 25, 2017 10:10 AM0 comments

As the global climate continues to deteriorate, consideration of where our civilization is heading becomes more critical with every passing day. The frequency and intensity of hurricanes and cyclones around the world are forcing many to reconsider just how disruptive global warming could become. While many in the U.S. still refuse to accept that the excessive combustion of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming, most of the world’s leaders are now in agreement that fossil fuels eventually must be phased out.

Another looming problem is how long plentiful supplies of affordable fossil fuels can last. Global oil consumption is now running close to 98 million barrels per day, and the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that global oil consumption will continue to grow for the next 25 years although not quite as fast as the 1.5 million barrels per day annual increase we have seen lately.

A little multiplication shows that the world now is burning through 36 billion barrels of oil each year and soon will be around 40 billion if consumption keeps growing. This, of course, adds up to 400 billion barrels of oil each decade or circa 1 trillion barrels of oil consumption in the next 25 years. Although nobody likes to talk about it, consuming this much oil by the early 2040s is not likely to happen. Either the climate is going to get too bad to continue, or the costs of extracting each additional barrel of oil will get too high in comparison to other alternatives.

The combination of global warming and the depletion of affordable fossil fuels suggests that somewhere ahead, possibly as soon as five to 10 years from now, global civilization is going to be in big trouble unless we can find a viable alternative to fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. The use of solar, wind and maybe even biofuels will grow rapidly and new techniques for storing electrical energy from intermittent sources are likely to come into widespread use in the decade ahead. However, current projections say that renewable fuels will only amount to some 15 percent of our needs 25 years from now. If, as seems likely, consumption of fossil fuels is constrained for one reason or another, the global economy is going to change, perhaps rapidly.

Another and more interesting alternative, however, is whether there are completely new technologies in the offing that could be used as a substitute for fossil fuels — possibly even in time to mitigate the effects of climate change and eventual fossil fuel depletion. Although it may sound far-fetched to many, from time to time, new technologies are discovered and developed which change civilization — think steam, electricity, internal combustion, or electronics.

Currently there are two alternative technologies which seem viable and could be on the market in the next few years. These are Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) and Brilliant Light Power’s (BrLP) SunCell. Both of these technologies have been under development for years, but are based on scientific principles not as yet well understood and controversial. Despite the lack of a well understood scientific basis, both seem to work as has been verified by experiments going back many years. The controversy surrounding these technologies accounts for the lack of publicity in the mainstream media.

Although numerous scientists and organizations around the world are working on LENR, only two currently are saying they are close to launching commercial products. Unfortunately, neither of these entities are very forthcoming about the details of their devices. The Italian, Andrea Rossi, who seems to be as far ahead in developing the LENR technology as anyone, says he is finishing up testing, will be ready for a public demonstration later this year, and start selling heat generated by his devices next year.

BrLP Power and its CEO Randell Mills, however, have always been quite open about the progress they are making and even the difficulties they are encountering. From BrLP’s recent presentation we learned that they will not meet their goal of having working prototypes ready for external testing this year. As could be expected from a radically new technology operating at extreme temperatures they have encountered numerous difficulties in turning a laboratory prototype into an automated and reliable device that can be put into commercial service.

At the presentation in Denver, last week Mills released a new schedule which now envisions field testing of his SunCell in the second half of 2018 and a commercial launch in the second half of 2019. This announcement sets the projects commercial launch back by about a year.

Mills, however, outlined several new developments which could turn out to be good news for the SunCell project and speed with which it can be turned into a commercial product. He reports that in the past year, BrLP has overcome a series of “key engineering challenges” in automating the device and that the engineering is far enough along to turn the project over to their partner, Columbia Tech of Boston, MA, to finish the engineering and build the first automated prototypes. Reaching this goal would be a significant achievement, for an automated SunCell should be able to run for extended periods and develop information about its performance and reliability.

The current schedule allows another nine to 15 months to build and test the first prototypes in-house. Hopefully, during this period, there will be a public demonstration of a fully automated SunCell that can produce energy continuously. Such an achievement may be enough to convince the scientific community, the mainstream media, and governments around the world that an alternative to fossil fuels may be available soon.

During the past year, BrLP has rethought its plans and has decided to delay development of the complex concentrated photovoltaic subsystem that was to produce electrical energy directly from the luminescent sphere energized by the hydrino reaction. The company now is planning to develop a “thermal” version of the SunCell which would be capable of delivering 500kW of thermal energy for boiler, hot air or hot water systems. BrLP has contracted with a leading heat exchanger firm, TMI Climate Solutions, to develop the concepts leading to a commercial heat-producing SunCell.

In comparison with concentrated photovoltaics, the design and construction of a thermal energy producing SunCell as opposed to an electricity producing one should be relatively easy. Heat exchangers are an old and well-understood technology even if extracting heat from a plasma glowing at 3,600K is unusual. BrLP likely hopes it can bring a product to market in less time than it takes to develop a concentrated photovoltaic version of the device.

To speed up the electricity-producing version of the SunCell, BrLP has decided to use readily available off-the-shelf photovoltaic cells that should get the device working much more quickly and with fewer development problems. This decision will result in a less efficient electricity-producing version of the SunCell which will only produce 120kW in its first iteration. For a second generation, BrLP now is considering attaching its device to a magnetohydrodynamic device. Such a device would pass the 3,500K plasma produced by the hydrino reaction between two magnets which will produce electricity. Such a device could in theory be very efficient and allow later versions of the SunCell to generate electrical power several times higher than the first generation will be able to do.

While many are frustrated at the seemingly endless delays in bring these new sources of energy to the place where they can produce useful energy, it should be remembered that we are dealing with technologies that are based on science somewhat beyond our knowledge and understanding of nature. Given the potential of Brilliant Light’s SunCell technology or various LENR project that are underway, they are well worth waiting for given the current outlook for the world’s climate and energy supply.

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