Technology: Powering the Future of Energy
May 19, 2023
Deep in the sun's core, two protons of hydrogen atoms collide violently. Under immense pressure they fuse together and release vast amounts of energy in a process known as nuclear fusion. Travelling at the speed of light, some of this solar energy reaches Earth, where it powers our planet. From kettles to cars, almost all of the energy that we rely on originates from the sun: Fossil fuels were once plants energized by photosynthesis; solar panels absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity; even windfarms and hydroelectric power stations rely on the sun's energy to warm the land and sea to create the wind and rain-fed rivers that turn their turbines. To power our increasingly electrified lives, there is an abundance of clean and renewable energy sources that we can draw on. And technology is at the cutting edge of harnessing this renewable energy more efficiently.
Solar panels are one of the most ubiquitous renewable energies, already generating more than 3.5 percent of the world's electricity. But there is scope for improvement: Capturing just one hour of the world's sunlight would power the planet for a year. Not only are more solar panels being installed, but technology is also finding ways to make them more efficient. Placing hexagonal lenses into a panel's protective glass coating, for example, can concentrate the incoming light to achieve an efficiency rate of about 30 percent, compared to an industry standard of 15-22 percent. Adding thin layers of silicon to both sides of a solar cell increases its efficiency to around 25 percent.
However, with silicon, one of the most energy intensive components of traditional solar panels, science has developed an alternative using perovskite crystals. These can be made both transparent and flexible, bringing the possibility of photovoltaic building materials such as windows and roof tiles, and even wearable fabrics. Another big advance has been PERC (Passivated Emitter Rear Cell) technology, that reflects unabsorbed light back into the solar cell for a second chance at conversion into electricity. PERC also enables solar panels to be bifacial—capturing sunlight on both sides with sun-tracking technology moving the panel to ensure maximum exposure.
Among the most recognizable forms of renewable energy is wind power, with wind turbines an increasingly common feature of both landscapes and coastlines. Wind already generates more than six percent of global electricity, and technologies are being developed that will make wind turbines cheaper, more efficient, and more powerful. A key focus has been on the blades that catch the wind's kinetic energy, with technological improvements, including 3D printing, enabling blades to be built longer and lighter for greater efficiency. Research has also added a gently curved tip to the blade that helps it make the most of even light winds, and smart blades that can adjust themselves to the wind flow for peak performance.
Computer modelling of the complex physics of wind flow not only determines the best locations for wind power, but the precise configuration of wind turbines to maximize the wind they catch as it flows through the farm. Wind deflecting turbines have even been developed that divert the wind hitting the tower onto the blades so that even more energy is harnessed. Beyond this, future developments being explored include Airborne Wind Energy that operates like a kite, the absence of a tower making it cheaper to deploy and able to reach higher altitudes where winds are often stronger.
By far the biggest producer of renewable energy is hydropower, with running water generating around 17 percent of the world's electricity. Despite having more than a century of experience behind it, hydropower technology is still making improvements. One of the biggest opportunities is with low head hydropower that can generate electricity from even a gentle slope. The development of an Archimedes Hydrodynamic Screw system, where the water flows down the screw, turning it as it descends, has shown how effectively low head hydropower can be deployed for widespread, small-scale hydropower generation.
The use of technology to gather and analyze data is also improving efficiency: Many hydroelectricity plants are decades old, so evaluating details of their deterioration can proactively pre-empt problems. Even more, analytical tools such as hydrological forecasting, seasonal hydro-systems analysis, day-ahead scheduling, and real-time operations are helping hydro plants operate more efficiently. This becomes even more important with climate change bringing more variable and extreme water flows, for which high-tech weather forecasting will be crucial.
With all this energy originating from the sun, scientists are working to imitate the sun's nuclear fusion on Earth. Long considered the stuff of science fiction, the reality of nuclear fusion providing safe, abundant energy on Earth is increasingly a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. One project working to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion is ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Taking on one of the biggest technical and technological challenges ever faced, the ITER project brings together scientists from around the world to build the world's largest machine of its kind, the ITER Tokamak. This is where hydrogen isotopes will be heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, theoretically fusing together to release 10 times more energy than they take in. With more than one million components and 10 million parts, technology is key to a project of this scale. And technology services company Capgemini has been working with ITER for years.
Capgemini partners with companies and organizations to transform their activities by harnessing the power of technology. Working with ITER, Capgemini has provided a raft of support for bringing its vision to life by combining engineering, technology, and project management expertise. From supporting the construction of technical buildings to applying advanced engineering expertise to make sure the visions of scientists and engineers are feasible, Capgemini has worked with ITER for more than a decade on bringing this unprecedented project to fruition. It has also been developing the features for a digital twin—a precise digital copy of the proposed Tokamak. Bringing together all of the available data in a way that makes it accessible to everyone involved, the digital twin will allow every element to be tested, simulating the stages of construction and improving the design by identifying and resolving issues. By placing all the data in a single unified source, Capgemini will enable ITER to make more informed decisions and improve the project's overall efficiency and performance. The vision is for the digital twin to be a critical component of operationalizing this experiment for generations to come.
As the world looks to end its reliance on fossil fuels, the improvements being made in solar, wind, and hydro—along with the promise of nuclear fusion—are crucial to meeting the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goal of affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. We have the ability to generate carbon-free energy: The sun has provided the answer—and technology is helping to unlock it.