decarbonisation concept

7 decarbonisation technologies with huge potential

Decarbonisation means avoiding emissions of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) that damage the atmosphere, therefore preserving our environment for generations to come.

Though simple in principle, decarbonisation is a challenge in practice. There is not a single solution to the problem. Instead, a future without damage to the ozone layer can only be achieved through innovative engineering solutions across many sectors.

Although technology caused the environmental situation we find ourselves in, technology will also be responsible for fixing it. In this article, we explore seven new and emerging technologies that will assist with decarbonisation. They are organised into the following areas.

  • Heating/cooling
  • Transport
  • Energy use
  • Waste management

Heating and cooling technology

Most heating and air conditioning in homes and offices today require significant energy expenditure. The following technologies decrease the amount of energy that goes into heat radiation and air conditioning.

High-efficiency heat pumps

Heat pump outside a private homeHeat pumps sit outside residential or commercial buildings and can either cool or heat our homes and offices. Cooling is achieved by taking cool, outside air and bringing it inside. Ground source heat pumps can warm things up, using the heat trapped under our feet. Therefore, heat pumps reduce the reliance on traditional, gas-powered radiators and air conditioners.

A report from the UK Government’s Committee for Climate Change indicates that 19 million homes need heat pumps for the government’s net-zero targets to be met by 2050.

The further development of heat pump technology, making them more efficient at a lower cost, will make a big difference if they are adopted widely.

District heating & cooling

Heating and cooling of homes can be achieved more efficiently on a community or district level. In other words, instead of every home in an area having a boiler to heat water, a centralised energy centre would heat the water, then send it through pipes to homes on demand.

District heating, an example of a proposed heating network in Ontario that serves a sports centre and other large commercial buildings from a single energy plant.An example of a proposed heating network in Ontario that serves a sports centre and other large commercial buildings from a single energy plant.

According to a report from the Energy Technology Institute, 2% of UK houses already use district heating. There is a long way to go. The most significant example of a district network is in Copenhagen, Denmark, where it heats 98% of buildings.

One challenge in delivering such systems to a wider number of homes is the infrastructure cost. Expensive, highly-insulated pipes must be laid from the heat sources to the houses.

Transport technology

Transport contributes more to humanity’s carbon footprint than any other sector. Cars that use fossil fuels — such as petrol and diesel — release carbon dioxide from their exhaust pipes. Planes use kerosene-based fossil fuels and emit huge exhaust fumes.

As our population continues to grow, more people will rely on these modes of transportation, and the amount of carbon dioxide they produce will increase dramatically. For this reason, we must find alternative methods for powering our transport.

Hydrogen vehicles

Hydrogen trainIn cars, trains and planes, hydrogen fuel can power a combustion engine or an electric motor. This works because hydrogen produces clean energy when it is combined with oxygen. By avoiding the use of petrol, diesel, and kerosene, harmful emissions are reduced or eliminated.

However, hydrogen fuel cell technology still needs work. Hydrogen is found abundantly in other substances, such as water and oil, but extracting it takes energy. Handling hydrogen also presents a challenge, as the gas needs to be compressed to a convenient size.

Despite this, most people agree that hydrogen will have a big role to play in a carbon-neutral future. There are hydrogen cars for sale, passenger trains powered by hydrogen in use, and successful attempts have been made to fly under the power of hydrogen, too.

Subway advanced control systems

Monitoring and controlling the operation of subway systems can reduce energy consumption significantly by improving efficiency on transit routes, optimising scheduling and route plans, monitoring braking power and managing ventilation systems.

Additionally, the advanced control system would help maintain and improve maintenance regimes for subway vehicles, helping keep them running longer and reducing their environmental impacts over time.

Energy use technology

In the UK, close to half of the energy is generated from sources that emit carbon into the atmosphere, according to the national grid. Increasing renewable energy sources and investing in technologies such as smart grids will reduce the need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Smart grids/smart metres

Smart grid network - power supply and renewable resources infographic with isometric buildings

Today’s electricity grid is a one-way system: a demand for power is made (turning on an appliance), and the grid responds. The grid does not monitor where energy is used or why.

Smart grids use digital technology to monitor and control the flow of energy in an urban area. With this data, the smart grid can react to inefficiencies, reduce waste, and therefore help reduce a city’s overall energy consumption. A smart grid understands when to use wind or solar power (i.e. when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining), whereas current systems do not. This makes integrating renewable energy into our lives much easier.

The UK Government published an aspirational roadmap in 2014 for a possible UK smart grid, though it is yet to be implemented.

Distributed energy storage

Sometimes known as DES, Distributed Energy Storage is a system of multiple interconnected storage devices across the country, connected to the power grid.

These devices use batteries and other storage methods (such as flywheels, pumped hydroelectricity, or compressed air) to hold electricity during times when demand is low, then release it back into the power grid when demand is high.

This avoids the need for additional burning of fossil fuels when energy demand is high, as the stored energy can be used instead. In 2013, Energy Storage was identified as one of the “eight great technologies’ which will propel the UK to future growth”.

Energy storage would work hand-in-hand with the smart grid described above.

Waste management technology

Waste management significantly impacts carbon emissions due to the energy required to process and transport waste. Also, landfills release large amounts of methane and other gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Reducing, reusing and recycling — especially materials such as paper, plastic and food waste — can significantly reduce global carbon emissions.

Waste robotics

Waste robots typically use sensors, cameras, AI and machine learning to detect and separate different types of waste. This reduces the amount of time and money required to manage waste efficiently.

Robots do not suffer the risks of handling hazardous materials that humans do. By increasing the accuracy of sorting recyclable materials and increasing the amount of waste that can be safely sorted, the waste sent to landfill can be greatly reduced.

More items recycled means fewer new items need to be produced, reducing the carbon footprint of manufacturing.

Waste to energy

Waste to energy, also called energy from waste (EfW), is the process that generates energy from waste that is unrecyclable. It’s a sort of energy recovery that helps reduce CO2 emissions from power generation and supports the circular economy.

For more information, read our blog ‘The role of waste-to-energy in renewable power’.

Sterling Thermal Technology is committed to decarbonisation

If you work in the renewable energy sector, we want to become your partner in thermal engineering and heat exchanger technology. Read more about heat exchangers for renewable energy or contact us today.

If you want to know more about how Sterling TT is improving its own environmental management, read our blog “Why we implemented ISO 14001 (and why it is important)”.

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