Why data is key to unlocking secure and sustainable energy

By Bryan Davies
With the challenge being reducing carbon footprint while, at the same time, expanding energy output, here we take a look at how data can solve this issue

Net zero and energy security goals can often seem at odds: one focuses on reducing emissions through emerging power sources, the other looks at providing uninterrupted, affordable energy. But the two are inextricably linked – innovations in energy are enabling nations to both diversify energy sources to increase their energy security posture, while meeting net zero goals.

These innovations will come to fruition faster with the discovery and application of relevant scientific research. Between 2001 and 2020, the number of publications related to net zero energy and renewables grew faster than all other research areas to 1.6 million papers – tackling this data will be critical to decarbonizing and sustainably growing energy sources.

There are a multitude of areas set to deliver huge benefits – here are just five of the most promising.


Battery performance

Improvements in battery performance are critical to the continued electrification of infrastructure, so countries can phase out oil use over the next decade. Lithium-ion batteries are the most widely used, with global lithium consumption almost quadrupling over the past decade. However, mining for critical minerals can be environmentally damaging; targeted data-driven mining practices can help battery supply to grow sustainably. Data-driven exploration and extraction draws on a variety of data, such as geological setting and sedimentary environment (e.g., salt lakes, metamorphism), as well as rock types, mineral deposits and geochemistry.

Additionally, there is a need for alternative battery materials that are more abundant, can store more energy, and have a longer lifespan. With information about the latest materials and chemical data, scientists can propel these projects to a swifter, successful application. For example, recent innovations include a battery made of wood, developed by Finnish scientists, and promising chemistries, such as sodium-ion batteries.


Offsetting and carbon capture tech

Unfortunately, nations will still have to use fossil fuels in the short term, so they have enough energy to be considered secure while they transition to lower emission sources. The International Energy Agency notes that carbon capture technologies will play an important role in this transition, by allowing fossil fuel plants to continue providing power but with a reduced environmental impact.

Like all emerging technologies, published scientific literature and cross-disciplinary collaboration will be vital to accelerating breakthroughs in carbon capture technology. For example, to assess potential subsurface carbon storage sites, project teams need geospatial intelligence on factors such as geological structure, stratigraphy, reservoir properties, environmental impact, and risk.


Offshore sites

Oceans are an abundant source of renewable energy and will play a huge role in helping coastal and island nations become more energy secure. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts offshore wind energy production will increase more than ten-fold from 34 GW in 2020 to more than 2,000 GW by 2050.

Screening, siting, and developing offshore locations requires in-depth geoscience data, especially since offshore sites are typically in environmentally extreme locations with limited supply chains and connectivity. This includes regional geology, shallow seismic data, seabed mobility and obstructions, and meteorology data, which can drastically de-risk projects.


Developing new “wonder” materials and redesigning old ones

Redesigning and discovering new materials used for energy infrastructure can help prolong the lifespan of facilities, while making energy more reliable and sustainable. For example, wind turbines currently have a lifespan of about 25 years and solar panels around 20 years. Extending these windows will make renewables a more viable option for less economically developed nations, since they can be assured of a longer term ROI after initial investment.

Scientists in the energy sector analyse physical, thermodynamic, electrical and toxicity properties to make incremental improvements in existing materials as well as to help identify the next so-called “wonder materials.” For example, graphene offers significant promise to the energy sector – its high efficiency and excellent thermal properties mean it can produce more compact and reliable pumps for cooling.


Protecting and maintaining operations

Optimizing existing operations, including the maintenance of grids, power plants, and infrastructure, can help reduce outages and ensure power supply is efficient and reliable. Corrosion is one of the main factors responsible for shortening the lifespan of equipment – causing unplanned downtime, environmental issues and safety incidents – all with an impact on energy security. NACE estimates that corrosion costs the global economy $2.5 trillion per year.

Moving from a reactive to proactive stance on maintenance significantly improves facilities’ reliability and reduces the risk of environmental impact from events such as rust affecting water supply. This level of planning requires intelligence from the latest research – to inform materials selection, and mitigation and repair strategies. Scientists also use real-world case studies to compare their situation to actual plant conditions.


Sustainability and security go hand-in-hand

It’s clear from exciting developments in these areas that the energy transition is well underway. Such innovations are paving the way towards decarbonization, sustainable growth, and more diversified, secure energy. To keep pace with new discoveries, engineers, scientists and stakeholders need data to be searchable, interoperable, and in user-friendly formats to provide better insights into the sustainability of various choices, commercial feasibility, and mitigate risk. With this heightened understanding, the industry can overcome the global energy challenges of today and reduce the environmental impact on tomorrow.


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