Are innovation spillovers about to accelerate the course of the energy transformation?

Achieving clean energy technology innovations will be vital if we want to meet the goals of net-zero emissions in the next fifty years.

Innovation is central to the energy transition through new technology solutions.

Innovation can accelerate and achieve rapid reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases to anything near the net-zero goals set in the Paris Agreement of 2015 to hold the global average temperature to below 2oC of pre-industrial levels.

We need significant development and diffuse new technology solutions to displace existing energy assets to move towards a global economy based on clean energy.

As we look at any clean energy scenarios, it is highly reliant on moving concepts, through prototyping into a commercial demonstration. Presently many of the clean energy solutions rely on technologies that are present only in a prototype or early smaller demonstration-scale and will not come to a commercial scale without significant new R&D efforts.

There are also numerous concepts indicating promising technology solutions that have not been, as yet, commercially deployed in any mass-market way. Some scenarios looking out over the next thirty or more years are suggesting these critical technologies can make up to 75% of solving any cumulative CO2 emissions.

The problem, as always, is the length of time of bringing new energy technologies to the market, these can take several decades. Solar PV, lithium-ion batteries, or LED took between 10 to 30 years from a prototype to a commercial momentum.

Finding a new way of bringing solutions quickly to market are needed

The efficient way that knowledge gets shared, adopted, and brought into a global standard will advance or slow down rapid innovation cycles. Presently this takes time to organize, negotiate, and resolve as national and competitive interests prevail.  Standardization takes time but is essential for the potential for mass production to take place. As solution providers ramp up their investments and solutions, this encourages a vastly different level of innovation intensity between competitors to improve products, bring them to market faster and reduce pricing to achieve this vital mass adoption.

The only way to accelerate collaboration is to enable the public sector, institutions, and private companies with willing financial investors to find ways to come together and effectively collaboratively.

One good example is the mission of the Hydrogen Council, deliberately set up as the enabler of this. Clean energy concepts need rapid deployment and solutions to be imagined out, clearer infrastructure understanding, and scaled out. One aspect that will help is the value of the knowledge of the “spillover” of knowledge sharing.

The value of the “spillover” of knowledge learning in any innovation has real value.

The concept of “knowledge accumulated and “rapid sharing” in any development stage of new technologies can speed up learning and adoption for any global solutions that need to be adopted to achieve the transition to clean energy.  Spreading awareness of specific technology applications can have potential spillovers of learning to not just collaborators where relevant applications have similar solution profile needs. This sharing or spreading knowledge can reduce duplication in R&D efforts, bring down costs, generate further synergies, and accelerate innovation technology transfer.

Within the Energy Transition, the hunt is on for strong spillover potentials

Recently the IEA published an important document called “Energy Technology Perspective- Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation,” which has set about establishing technology families and their potential footprint in the low-carbon value chain. They have grouped possible technology innovations into six families at present:

  1. Electrochemistry: modular cells for converting electrical energy into chemical energy and vice versa), this is explored more in this post
  2. CO2 capture where the processes to separate CO2 from industrial and power sector emissions or found in the air
  3. Heating and cooling exploring efficient and flexible designs for electrification
  4. Catalysis that generate more efficient industrial processes for converting biomass and CO2 to products
  5. Finding lightweight materials and their integration into wind energy and vehicles
  6. The digital integration between data and communication to make energy systems more flexible and efficient

The list at this time is not intended to be exhaustive but is looking to cover the solutions that hold the most promise, known today, for advancing value chains involving electrification, hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels, CCUS, and bioenergy.

Others have high potentials such as ocean energy, net-zero building envelopes, and thermal and mechanical energy storage. To bring them to any form of fruition, they need to move into validation and then into larger deployments. Until they have this more significant demonstration and adoption of interest, turning them into a more commercially relevant environment of validation, beyond concept and small prototypes, they are concepts that need dedicated research, validation, application, and solutions.

The one that excites me is the spillover effects between batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers.

In this IEA report, the chapter dealing with the spillover effect became interesting to me. Let me summarize what I read and understood here, about the family within the electrochemical area that has three of the potential most essential solutions of batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers.

There seems substantial potential gain from any sharing or this “spillover effect” in what the IEA has outlined within the electrochemical area. Batteries, fuel cells, and water electrolyzers are all electrochemical devices. They all offer the massive potential of storing this chemical energy in large quantities to aid electrical energy and work alongside the variable renewables of wind and solar.

The argument is that batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers share scientific principles, component design, and materials as well as manufacturing techniques that could benefit or advance the others within this grouping. These three technology solutions have a significant level of importance to rapidly bring down costs and take product solutions to market faster. All three solutions of batteries, fuel cells, and green hydrogen electrolyzers the market is indicating it wants and needs in scalable solutions as soon as possible. Can there be the level of synergies suggested across this electrochemistry family to resolve significant barriers today in scale, cost, and adoption to make the clean energy transition happen at faster speeds?

The question becomes one of the willingness to share.

Of course, if one organization is involved in the development of more than one of these technologies, the synergies are more likely to flow across them. Can a different model of collaboration in early R&D stages in some form of Electrochemical Energy Ecosystem collaboration be formed?  Can we build an ecosystem for collaboration that offers mutual benefit in the sharing of knowledge around this electrochemical family for faster understanding and adoption, and different synergies generated from this set of collaborative engagements?

The figure (IEA 2020. All rights reserved) below break down the cost-reduction potential for electrochemical devices by component category.

Who should be interested?

The automotive industry is interested in all three or should be.  Manufacturers of energy solutions who understand the applications and the chemical companies involved in the development of components for batteries, fuel cells or electrolyzers to grow their market are all prime candidates to investigate and accelerate any potential spillovers between the three.

The critical need in all three technology solutions of batteries, fuel cells, and electrolyzers are cost reductions by finding common component families of electrodes, membranes, and electrolytes as well as stack assembly and plant components. How can the advanced materials being used, including precious metals and manufacturing techniques, have some form of harmonization or alternatives to the existing offerings?

The critical components are the polymer electrolyte membrane found in the PEM electrolyzers, in fuel cells and Li-ion batteries

Then you have the spillover benefits of vehicle and grid storage, the learning in the three of manufacturing and deployment as these become more competitive as scale “takes hold.”

I only wish

I wish, as a non-technical person, I could walk across to the R&D Lab, convene discussions between engineers, scientists, R&D developers, and experienced manufacturing personnel to explore these potential spillover benefits.  As an independent, I certainly would like to be the facilitator as the whole divergence and convergence around synergies and learning are “my mentoring bag.”

The potential within this seeking out mutual value does open the potential for new business opportunities, offering the possibility to extend the existing core to advance where the business of today can transform out. The whole challenge of the work-to-be-done to accelerate innovation, adoption, and deployment and build new growth businesses is terrifically exciting

I have written previously about the “Diffusion of Energy” where innovation needs to follow the characteristics of any innovation diffusion that yields 1) relative advantage, 2) compatibility, 3) tackle complexity, 4) accelerate trialability, and 5) offer observability into adoption.

The way the IEA has grouped selected technology families does offer a fresh approach to evaluate the value of innovation within the energy transition to clean energy solutions. They plan to follow up on this recent report in late 2020 with a flagship report to delve even further into this. I await with real interest.

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