News, Research & Development

High Risk Renewable Projects

The Research Council in Norway has launched their first high-risk/high-reward call for renewable energy projects.

In August 2013, four projects were chosen out of 49 entries to receive NOK 35 million. The selected projects will develop new battery technology, solar cells, micro-sized power plants, and fuels and fertilizer from carbon dioxide and air. What they all have in common – on top of being focused on renewables — is that they are all pioneering concepts that would normally fall out of the ENERGIX program’s regular call for funding

The decision to make a call for basic research on new, innovative concepts or novel approaches to energy research was a consequence of the Technopolis Group’s report in August 2012 “A Good Council?” The report evaluated the effectiveness of the council in general. One of the findings was that the council could improve efforts to stimulate new ideas. Similar findings came out of a separate evaluation of the two programs: RENERGI, the renewable energy program preceding ENERGIX, and PETROMAKS, which focused on optimal management of petroleum resources.

“The conclusion we got from the evaluations was that we had potential to be bolder and accept more risk in the projects,” says Ane Torvanger Brunvoll, ENERGIX program manager. “So we designed a new call for projects to attract novel ideas and collaborators to support ground-breaking energy concepts that would otherwise be left at the drawing board.”

Expanding Solar Energy Spectrum

The four high-risk research projects will be run in two phases. The first phase will determine if the project can go to the second level, which would bring the total length of each project up to four years.

One of these projects is looking at capturing the energy from three bands of solar energy light — compared to currently one — using highly refined cubic silicon carbide. Ole Martin Løvvik, a senior researcher at SINTEF Materials and Chemistry in Oslo, is leading a 10-man joint research and industry team that aims for the first time to actually demonstrate intermediate band technology on this new material, rather than just in theory.

“In order for electrons to yield energy, light frequency has to be above a certain threshold,” says Løvvik.  “Solar light comes with very different energies, some much too high so it’s wasted, and some too low. With one band gap, it’s difficult to improve the efficiency behind silicon.”

The Research Council has granted the group’s project “Efficient Exploitation of the Sun with Intermediate Band in Silicon Carbide” up to NOK 7 million for four years, starting January 2014. The team has two years to demonstrate its success or risk termination under the Research Council’s new high-risk funding program.

“This has not been done on silicon carbide before, which is why it is such a high risk” says Løvvik. “It has been previously demonstrated in practice only for complex systems using quantum dots (nanoparticles of a semiconductor material).”

Researchers at program partner Linköping University in Sweden have for the first time synthesized ultra-pure cubic silicon carbide, comprising cheap and abundant elements found in the earth’s crust. Part of the silicon carbide will be provided by the Norwegian unit of Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials.

Together with researchers at SINTEF Materials and Chemistry, SINTEF ICT, and the University of Oslo, they aim to “dope” the highly refined version to obtain the intermediate band. Løvvik says this can theoretically increase the efficiency of the solar cell beyond 60%, making it half the cost of conventional solar cells.

“It’s relatively expensive and cost is so crucial to getting solar cell energy out to the masses,” he adds. “Efficiency is perhaps the only one remaining parameter to reduce costs.”

Converting Nitrogen to Chemicals

Another project is looking at using the sun in a whole new way: to split nitrogen molecules using renewable energy via a “cold” process. Researchers at the University of Oslo, together with SINTEF and Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU), will start work in April 2014 on a NOK 12 million project “Novel Photoelectrocatalytic Concepts for Conversion of Water, Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen to Fuels and Chemicals.”

The project aims to prove that it is possible to use extra power from the solar and wind power grid along with sunlight to photo-chemically activate nitrogen. One of the potential products is ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizers. The fertilizer industry currently makes ammonia by heating up the nitrogen molecules several hundred degrees Celsius.

“We are going to serve the energy cold,” says Truls Norby, chemistry professor at the University of Oslo leading the new Research Council funded project. “It hasn’t been done before the way we will do it, so we are starting from scratch.”

The project is regarded as high-risk. Splitting the nitrogen molecule is energy demanding and doing it efficiently and cheaply is regarded in research circles as the “Holy Grail,” he says. But if successful, it could have many applications. This innovative way of activating nitrogen could be used to allow small farmers in third world countries to produce their own fertilizer using sunlight and the nitrogen abundantly present in the air.

The concept could provide impetus for fertilizer companies to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Norwegian company Yara (formerly Norsk Hydro) currently makes fertilizers using natural gas and the traditional high-temperature process of splitting nitrogen. Yara and the Norwegian nitrogen technology company N2 Applied are invited as advisors in the project.

The technology could also lead to environment friendly solutions for energy intensive industries. For example, the flue gas from cement factories could be used to make fuels and chemicals.

“In peak wind and solar hours, there will be too much electricity from renewable sources,” says Norby. “There is nothing better than producing high energy chemicals such as hydrogen or ammonia. It’s a way to store energy in a useful chemical.”


Silicon carbide (pictured) is being used by SINTEF to make new solar cells that can convert more of sunlight spectrum

Source: Mikael Syväjärvi/Linköping University

See IMG_0861_13_high_res_crop.jpg

New solar cells developed by SINTEF convert more of sunlight spectrum

Source: Research Council of Norway/Eivind Vetlesen

Researchers at the University of Oslo have studied advanced materials to produce fuel and fertilizers from CO2 and air

Source: Research Council of Norway/Eivind Vetlesen