Hi-tech football pitches, wave power and nuclear fusion are helping to move Britain away from ‘dirty’ fuels towards sustainable energy
By: Rebecca Burn-Callander
Scientists all over the globe are working to develop sustainable new energy sources to reduce our dependence on dwindling fossil fuel supplies.
In the UK, just 5pc of the nation’s energy comes from renewables. The Government has set a target of 15pc by 2020, but progress is slow.
Some sustainable energy sources, such as solar energy, are mature marketplaces, with 60 years of research behind them. Others, such as antimatter, are more experimental.
The science of antimatter is still in its infancy but scientists claim that mixing just half a gram of antimatter with half a gram of matter would create the same energy generated by the Hiroshima bomb.
There are several start-ups developing other ground-breaking technologies for generating electricity, some using methods that seem more Star Trek: The Next Generation than National Grid. We meet three entrepreneurs leading the charge into next-generation renewables.
Turning footsteps into electricity
Youngsters playing on a newly-installed football pitch in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slums are now powering the neighbourhood’s street lights with every step.
Their movements across the AstroTurf are converted from kinetic energy into electricity by 200 hidden energy-capturing tiles built by London-based Pavegen.
Founded by Laurence Kemball-Cook in 2009, the company exports its energy-converting tiles to 20 countries across the world. Customers range from infrastructure giants such as Siemens to retail brands Nike and
Uniqlo. “I started this in my bedroom with just a sketch,” Kemball-Cook, 29, tells The Sunday Telegraph. “Now we employ 30 staff in four offices and we’re profitable.”
Pavegen, which converts high footfall areas into pseudo-batteries, and sister company Roadgen, which aims to harvest energy from vehicles on the world’s roads, will help to power
the cities of the future, says Kemball-Cook. “We want to take the cost of the technology down to the same price as normal flooring. We’re looking to raise investment this year to help us meet that goal.”
Pavegen, which has been shortlisted for this year’s UK Private Business Awards, has now passed the £1m turnover mark and is on target to double that this financial year. “Next year will be pivotal for the company,” says Kemball-Cook, revealing that the company’s technology is due to be installed outside the White House next spring in its biggest US project to date.
The challenge of storing and converting energy from renewable sources is on the verge of a breakthrough, he said. “Elon Musk [of Tesla fame] has built his Gigafactory, which will manufacture batteries on a huge scale, bringing down the cost massively. And we’re working with technologists in the super and ultra-capacitor space to find solutions to the storage problem.”
Wind and solar alternatives are less efficient than Pavegen’s technology, and depend heavily on weather and geography, Kemball-Cook claims. “Human footfall is currently a wasted resource,” he adds. “We will become part of the fabric of urban infrastructure.”
The new wave of energy
The World Energy Council has estimated that if the planet’s wave power was harnessed, we could generate double the amount of electricity currently produced worldwide. The west coast of Scotland is home to some of the most powerful and consistent waves in the world. Over the past few days, waves have been recorded in the Orkney Islands topping 14ft.
Sam Etherington, a 24-year-old engineer and founder of Aqua Power Technologies, is testing a new device that captures wave power at a site near the UK archipelago.
“We’ve had some rough weather,” he says. “The waves are trying to destroy everything they hit and are coming every 20 seconds. It’s the best environment to test the technology.”
Etherington’s invention sits on the surface of the water and, unlike other wave power systems, works on a multiaxis basis; it can generate power no matter what direction the waves come from.
Enquiries are flooding in from all over Europe from consortiums keen to install the devices. “It’s very encouraging, given that we’re still developing the technology and don’t even have a price for them yet,” says Etherington, adding that the devices are likely to cost “millions”.
Etherington has funded his start-up through grants from the Regional Growth Development Fund, topped up with £1,000-worth of prize money for winning the Shell LIVEwire competition for bright young entrepreneurs. The devices are made in Cumbria, and Etherington is hoping to have two wave farms deployed in the UK by 2018.
“This is absolutely the future,” the young investor said. “The industry has seen some setbacks with two industry incumbents going bust, so we’re underpromising on all fronts. We’re telling people that the devices will pay for themselves within six years with a lifespan of 25, but that’s very conservative.”
Serial entrepreneur Richard Dinan, former star of reality TV show Made in Chelsea, has started a business that plans to recreate nuclear fusion – the process that powers the stars – right here on Earth.
Applied Fusion Systems, which is trying to build a tokamak reactor, which traps red-hot plasma in a magnetic field to generate nuclear energy, is working on a prototype demonstrator.
“I saw one company that built one for just £127,000,” he said. “I looked at the design and realised we could build something better.”
Dinan, who left school at 16, has taught himself physics in order to understand the particle theory behind fusion. He claims that AFS is not trying to match the research coming out of international nuclear fusion research and engineering organisation ITER, but that “getting my hands dirty” is necessary to know how to commercialise the technology when it arrives.
“For example, some of these reactors use tritium deuterium [a radioactive isotope of hydrogen],” he says. “That costs $30,000 (£19,000) a gram, so perhaps we will start breeding it.”
The company is still at a very early stage and Dinan is trying to raise funding. “When I tell people I’m building a nuclear reactor, they look at me as though I’m mad,” he says. “People think it’s science fiction or impossible, or at least a billion-pound effort that shouldn’t concern them yet, but I’m going to prove them wrong.”