Science making inroads in alternative energies

With the prime minister planning on phasing out the oilsands

With the prime minister planning on phasing out the oilsands, astounding as that statement maybe, in the long term, is it really inevitable? As mentioned before, carbon is “the” building block for many of nature’s components. It is the release of carbon in its gaseous forms that currently pose a threat to the environment. With scientists examining capture and sequester technologies, carbon utilization is changing its scope.

While it is true that someday we will have the means of producing alternate sources of the enormous amount of energy that stave off the cold of a Canadian winter, as well as allowing us the ease of transportation we currently enjoy, that period is still some distance off. Science is making inroads, but innovations need time to develop the universal trust and affordability currently beyond the reach of most.

When we can bottle sunshine in the summer and put it in our furnaces come wintertime, and do this with same alacrity as our existing technologies, then and only then may we have hydrocarbon independence. Fusion is one method that has been worked on for years and whiles it is literally a means of bottling the suns nuclear processes, progress has been slow.

Alternatively, researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research or EMPA (Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs-und ForschungsAnstalt) are working on simpler heat storage technologies, based on sorption processes.

EMPA In partnership with six research faculties and three business entities compete in the COMTES Project, (Combined development of compact thermal energy storage technologies.) Their goal is to find ways of storing summer time heat for winter use in the average home. With three lines of development, “A Group” is looking at solid Sorption, where a material like zeolite absorbs water vapour to generate heat. Summer sun is then used to dry the zeolite allowing it to be reused the next heating season. The calculated energy density is over 170 kWh/m³, dependent on materials used.

The second, and EMPA’s “B group” focus, is liquid sorption where a diluted mixture of sodium hydroxide and water is concentrated by evaporating the water. The concentrated solution can then store heat without loss until needed. To release heat, the system uses two reactors to re-introduce water vapour to the mixture. The first reactor provides lower temperatures for space heating and the second reactor provides water heating for domestic use. Estimated heating potential for this method ranges from 170 – 400 kWh/m3.

The last line of development, “C group”, uses solar heat to melt sodium acetate trihydrate which when stored will cool down below its melting temperature but will not “solidify due to the super cooling effect,” When solidification is triggered the 58 C heat that is generated can be used for underfloor heating and domestic water. This processes heating potential runs 100 kWh/m3.

The purpose of this research is to supply domestic home space heating and supply of hot water without the use of hydrocarbon, while making it affordable for the public. The paradigm is changing.

Lorne Oja can be reached at

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