Think programs in energy have covered everything under the sun?
Advances in energy technologies are driving a need for a new generation of skilled graduates who know how to fix the energy storage problem.
Increased energy demand, the growth of intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and growing adoption of EVs is driving the need for more efficient and powerful ways to store energy. The Bloomberg New Energy Fund predicts investment in the energy storage industry will exceed $620 billion by 2040. Advances in energy storage technology can improve the reliability and stability of our energy supply, reduce costs, and help us move towards a more sustainable energy system.
Higher education can help make this happen by advancing research and providing programs that train graduates to improve existing storage technologies and innovate new ones.
Types of Energy Storage
When thinking about energy storage, batteries might be the first thing that comes to mind. But in fact, there are several different types of energy storage technologies available, each with its own unique characteristics. Mechanical energy storage systems, thermal energy storage systems, and chemical energy storage systems, including hydrogen fuel cells, are all examples.
Advances in Battery Storage
While batteries have been around for over 200 years, the materials used in batteries are constantly evolving. Lithium batteries are now commonplace, but limitations have driven the need for research into new materials. A common element that we use everyday may be the next best thing in batteries – salt, or sodium. Sodium batteries are a focus of current research and are expected to be the biggest competitor for lithium batteries. They can store a large amount of energy at a low cost and are also non-flammable, reducing the safety risks associated with lithium batteries.
Innovative battery designs are also emerging. Researchers at Tufts University and a team at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois are working on flexible batteries that can be bent and folded, making them ideal for portable devices and potentially electric vehicles.
Advances in Thermal Storage
Thermal energy cells store heat or cold at a high efficiency for long periods of time. Recent research includes the development of a thermal energy storage unit using another common and abundant material, sand. Polar Night Energy in Finland successfully developed the world’s first large-scale sand “battery,” which is now online. The battery is a large steel container filled with hundreds of tons of sand, which is heated with renewable electricity. The stored heat can then be distributed for use in the local energy system.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Another common element may provide new opportunities for advances in energy storage: hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to store energy and could prove to be ideal for large-scale applications such as powering vehicles, buildings, and even cities. The hydrogen economy was one of our picks for an emerging program in 2021.
In the Future – Quantum?
Finally, there is early-stage research on quantum batteries, which have high energy density and fast charging capabilities. While promising, this technology is still in its infancy, and more research is needed to understand and harness the full potential of quantum batteries.
Implications for Higher Education
What does all this mean for higher education? While many colleges and universities have existing programs related to current energy generation and storage systems, some are beginning to develop degree programs and courses focused more specifically on new energy storage technology, engineering, management, and policy. They include interdisciplinary programs that bring together engineers, scientists, and business professionals to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the energy storage industry. These programs cover the technical aspects of energy storage, including the design and implementation of new energy storage systems, as well as the economics and policy considerations associated with the deployment of these systems.
Some examples of new programs related to energy storage include the University of Texas Arlington’s new Bachelor of Science in Resource and Energy Engineering and the University of Nevada, Reno’s Minor in Batteries and Energy Storage Technologies. Universities are also partnering with companies in the energy storage industry to provide students with real-world experience and bring industry experts into the classroom.
Energy storage is an emerging program that offers the opportunity to address a need for a new generation of skilled graduates who have the potential to make a significant impact on the world by creating much-needed energy efficiencies, improving energy reliability and availability, and reducing both environmental and economic impact.