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Demand for energy is huge. Thanks to key patented inventions, major improvements are being made in the field of renewable energies.


In the mid-1970s, the world's total energy production from solar cells was just 500 KW. Today, Europe is currently the largest world market with an installed capacity of more than 25 GW of production. Adolf Goetzberger has been hugely influential by improving the efficiency of photovoltaic cells winning the European Inventor Award 2009 (Lifetime Achievement) for his pioneering work.

Also influential is Jorg Horzel, whose method of selectively coating parts solar cells with phosphorous creates a cell which is less prone to short circuiting and easier to mass-produce at drastically reduced costs.

The largest share of energy from renewable resources currently comes from hydropower: generating electricity from bodies of water. According to the European Commission, hydropower currently provides nearly 20% of the world's electricity. For many years hydropower was regarded as a bit of a "problem case" in the alternative energy mix, traditionally relying on dams, which can disrupt ecosystems and significantly alter the landscape. The industry took a quantum leap, however, with the invention of a versatile spiral turbine by American engineer Alexander Gorlov. With its increased stability, the turbine increases the energy generated from water currents from 20% to 35% without requiring a dam.

Energy from biomass is another area that has seen major developments over the past few years. By the year 2020, energy generation from biomass is expected to cover 10% of the European Union's energy demand. A major step toward realising this goal was achieved by Jens Dall Bentzen at Dall Energy Aps in Denmark, winner of the European Inventor Award 2011 in the SMEs category. Their invention increases energy efficiency by 20 to 25% while lowering the cost of combustibles by 20 to 30% and decreasing construction cost for biomass plants by 10%.

Energy generation from wind turbines is also a field with tremendous potential: By the year 2030, the European Wind Energy Association expects offshore wind capacity to reach 150 GW, supplying 14% of Europe's electricity demand.

A major challenge for offshore wind turbines is that the energy parks are directly exposed to the brute forces of nature. German engineer and Award finalist (2008), Sönke Siegfriedsen, helped secure the turbines with his corrosion shield for offshore wind parks and optimised their energy yield with an internal air circulation system.

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Smart Grids

Conventional electricity grids are unable to provide feedback to a utility company's control centre, leaving them dependent on human supervision by a staff of technicians. Electricity grids of the future, however, are literally talking to themselves. Thanks to state-of-the-art information technology, all components of these grids are able to "report" their current status; including energy usage, power outages and the available amount of electricity from various sources. Components can also receive feedback from other parts of the grid, creating an interactive network capable of optimising its own energy efficiency. Digitally-enhanced components such as electricity meters in private households as well as feedback from relay stations, power plants and alternative energy sources provide a constant stream of data. This real-time information on energy usage can help determine how much electricity is used at what time of day and the peak times when power plants need to provide the most energy. They can also determine if alternative energy sources are available on a local level and calculate their power output.

Another possibility is for digital data to be streamed through smart electrical grids. This scenario became possible thanks to the method of data transfer through electrical networks, developed by Spanish company Diseno de Sistemas en Silicio SA. A finalist for the European Inventor Award in 2010, the technology affords transmission rates of up to 200 megabytes per second (Mbps) through electric lines and is already used in Europe, Japan and the US.

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Energy storage is a key issue for current policy makers seeking to raise the share of renewable energy sources. The European Commission's year 2020 action plan of covering 20% of EU electricity demand from sustainable resources also poses challenges in terms of electrical grid stability. In order to integrate renewable energy sources more smoothly and to allow for the imbalances produced between them, grid operators are relying on electricity storage solutions. As an alternative to simply raising the share of conventional, non-renewable energy sources when supplies run low, stored electricity keeps electrical grids balanced while maintaining a slim environmental footprint.

Fuel Cells

Winner of the European Inventor Award 2012 in the category SMEs, German chemical engineer Manfred Stefener, together with Oliver Freitag and Jens Müller, created the first fuel cell for portable use, known as the direct methanol fuel cell. A common working principle of all fuel cells is that they transform chemical energy into electrical energy directly. With no intermediate steps, no moving parts and with no significant loss in energy, fuel cells are a particularly efficient, reliable and clean source of electricity. They are also much more compact than a traditional battery-power supply and although conventional batteries might provide higher power than fuel cells, their chemical ingredients hold only a limited amount of charge. Fuel cells can produce electricity indefinitely for as long as fresh chemicals are supplied. Dr Stefener's cells, for example, will make electricity for as long as pure methanol reacts with water and oxygen inside the cell. They are already used in a vast array of applications from traffic management, to security and surveillance systems, to powering isolated environmental-data stations.

Pumped Hydropower Storage

Pumped Hydropower Storage (PHS) currently represents almost 99% of the world's electricity storage capacity. This typically involves pumping water uphill to reservoirs when electricity demand and prices are low, but then releasing the water back downhill through turbines to generate electricity when demand and prices are high. Around the world, governments are investing heavily to add water power to their energy mix. The three global market leaders in hydropower equipment technology are based in the European Union, controlling 50% of the worldwide market. Some of the world's biggest hydropower plants are located in Europe, including plants in Dinowig, Wales, and Isère, France - both capable of churning out over 1800 MW of electricity. Meanwhile, the EC also notes enormous potential for adding pumped hydropower storage technology to existing facilities across the EU.


Current battery solutions mostly serve to stabilise power distribution networks short-term, as opposed to providing substitute electricity for prolonged periods of time. In Puerto Rico, a battery system stabilises the local grid with a capacity of 20 MW for up to 15 minutes. Promising future technologies include "flow" batteries based on zinc-bromine components as well as lithium-ion polymer and sodium-ion battery solutions.

Battery Recycling

Another consideration with regard to energy storage is what to do with batteries that have reached the end of their life. Billions of lithium-ion based rechargeable batteries are produced every year to power cell phones, laptops and MP3 players and discarding them can add up to huge amounts of waste and the potential loss of large amounts of precious materials. Nominees for the European Inventor Award 2012 in the SMEs category, Farouk Tedjar and Jean-Claude Foudraz developed a fast, effective, inexpensive and low energy process to recycle these batteries and recover 98% of the valuable metals they contain. Their method involves dry crushing of the batteries at room temperature in an inert atmosphere, ensuring that there is no pollution transfer, and because the method does not require extreme heating or cooling, greenhouse gas emissions are avoided. As a result, their method consumes significantly less energy than competing technologies.

Thermal storage

Many energy applications produce heat, which can be stored for energy generation at a later point in time. Storage media may include hot water tanks or molten salt for capturing residual heat from solar energy panels. Stored heat is used to generate electricity or, funnelled directly through pipes, for residential heating.

Looking ahead, the growing share of renewable energies will also necessitate growth in electricity storage capacities. Renewable energy is already the fastest-growing segment of the global power market and the International Energy Agency expects 40% growth over the next five years, despite difficult economic conditions. Realising the growth in storage capacity requirements throughout Europe and beyond is a task for inventors, grid operators and policy makers alike.

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Electric transport

Stanford Ovshinsky was a fully self-taught inventor with no academic background, but driven by a desire to solve societal problems he arguably put the "green" into auto technology.

My intention was to make batteries more usable in the transportation sector, which is responsible for 40% of the pollution and climate change gases�."

The nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery Ovshinsky invented offers a clean-energy storage solution with record durability and two to three times the capacity of nickel-cadmium batteries of the same size.  His invention paved the way for the development of the world's first electric car and the popular hybrids of today.

One problem facing batteries for electric and hybrid cars however was their lifespan. The rechargeable batteries lost their ability to charge fully after periods of extended use, a problem which led to a development team, headed by engineer Shoichi Sasaki at Toyota in Japan, to research ways to perfect the technology.

They reviewed over 100 designs for hybrid vehicles and researched battery technology extensively, discovering that batteries reach their optimal life span when kept at a constant state of charge between 40 and 60% of their full capacity. Overcharging the battery leads to "aging" effects similar to those common in laptop computers.

Based on this finding, Sasaki created a new power management system that constantly monitors battery charge in a hybrid vehicle. It controls power supply to the battery and regulates discharge to maintain the optimal state of charge, vastly improving the lifespan. Continued Continuous improvements made by Sasaki's team have helped to establish the Toyota Prius as a market leading hybrid, with sales of the Prius family of vehicles passing 3.67 million units by March 2013.

Aluminium car frame system

Aside from new power sources, vehicles can be made more fuel-efficient. For example, the lighter a car is, the less gasoline it will use. This is where the aluminium car frame system developed by Norbert Enning and his team enters the picture.

Aluminium has been around for decades, and is used in aircraft frames, but car manufacturers had shunned it in favour of steel on the premise that "the heavier, the stronger." Many designers doubted that aluminium was resilient enough to perform under pressure. Merely substituting steel with aluminium was not an option. Without major design changes, aluminium would have bent at critical weight distribution points. To optimise the distribution of weight, Norbert Enning and his team completely re-thought the concept of automotive frame design. In addition to significant improvements in fuel efficiency the reduced frame weight was able to improve road handling, cornering characteristics and the ease of repair.

Jet engines

For years, inventions in the aerospace sector have focused largely on producing larger and faster aeroplanes, with the high noise levels of jet engines receiving little attention. That changed when Airbus inventors Alain Porte, André Robert and Hervé Batard developed a noise-absorbing layering for inside jet engines which makes the A-380 super-jumbo by far the quietest long-range aircraft in the world.

Reducing the noise from aircraft has huge implications for air traffic.  Major airports around cities like London and Paris impose strict noise regulations, limiting the arrival and departure times of louder aircraft, resulting in most regular planes only operating at certain times of day. Due to their reduced noise levels, aircraft equipped with this new sound insulation technology can bypassare exempt from these restrictions and keep moving passengers moving at times other models cannot.

Adaptive Cruise Control

The Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) system developed by Stéphane Kemkemian, Pascal Cornic, Jean-Paul Artis and  Philippe Lacomme has helped to reduce the number of car accidents and could potentially lead to increased yet safer traffic volumes on busy roads, all with reduced lower fuel consumption, by reducing fluctuations in a vehicle's speed.

By using radar technology ACC combines both cruise control and headway distance control. Coupled with an emergency brake assistance system ACC can drastically improve road safety. The assistance system emits an optical and acoustic warning if the approach speed to the car in front is too high.  If the driver doesn't react, a partial braking manoeuvre is triggered and if the driver still fails to react, full braking is automatically performed, bringing the car to a standstill.

Fuel Injection

Hans Meixner started his research in the 1980s but only in the mid-1990s, when fuel efficiency was suddenly making newspaper headlines, was the world ready for the innovation he and his colleague Randolf Mock developed.

Their idea for adapting piezo technology into a fuel injection system was based on the understanding that a piezo switch is able to respond almost instantly (within one ten-thousandth of a second) to an electrical charge. The piezo switch is made of a ceramic material which expands when an electrical current is applied. Similar technology is used in computer inkjet printers which emit tiny drops of ink when their piezo crystals are charged, but the difference here is that with fuel injection, the piezo technology opens a valve allowing fuel to be sprayed into the engine cylinder.

This method of fuel injection allows the fuel flow to be more precisely calibrated, and to burn more completely. The result is an improvement in fuel economy and a reduction in exhaust emissions.


Building the future: Four innovation trends that are shaping green construction

The energy-efficiency frontline

Europe's buildings are receiving an energy-efficiency makeover and a host of innovative, green building technologies are the perfect tools for the job.

1. Heating and cooling: filling the energy drain

One of many promising heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) patent areas is air purification, which incorporates technologies such as ultraviolet light and photo-reactive chemicals similar to those found in the Earth's atmosphere. Such systems enable buildings to reuse large amounts of their internal air and help lower heating costs.

Another up-and-coming field is passive solar and radiant heating, where warm, sunlit air is diverted to heat a building or, during the summer months, used to draw in colder air for ventilation. Such passive solar designs are used in many high-efficiency buildings, including the large glass dome of the German Bundestag in Berlin and the new Raiffeisen RHW-2 building in Vienna.

2. Staying insulated

Many commonly used, high-efficiency insulators were developed several decades ago and have seen gradual improvements and refinements since. These include Insulating Concrete Forms (ICF), the brainchild of German-Canadian engineer Werner Gregori. ICFs use interlocking polystyrene concrete forms to create a seamless wall through which air cannot penetrate.

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) are another favourite insulation option, partially because they can be integrated into a number of materials, including particle and gypsum board, sheet metal, plastics and foams. They work by sandwiching insulation into interlocking sheets of building material to create uniform coverage.

A new type of insulation, which employs a different thermal principle, has become a sensation since it emerged a little more than five years ago. Unlike typical insulation that traps air in pockets between strands of fibrous material, Phase-Change Materials (PCMs) absorb or discharge heat as they change back and forth from a solid to liquid state. In a sense they "melt" and "freeze" at conditions close to room temperature, drawing in or releasing heat in the process.

3. Let there be efficient lighting

Keeping our homes and workplaces well lit eats up energy as well – somewhere between 10 and 30% of a building's total energy consumption. LEDs and OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes) require about one tenth of the energy of incandescent light bulbs and roughly half of that of the compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which are standard in Europe. They also last at least 40 times longer.

Red and green LEDs had been around for decades, but when Shuji Nakamura and his team created the first LEDs to emit blue light in the 1990s, they paved the way for the long anticipated white LED, as well as lighting of every colour imaginable. British scientists Richard Friend, Jeremy Burroughes and Donal Bradley created the first OLEDs, whose slim size allows them to be incorporated into building materials such as tiles and transparent window-like materials that allow in the sun's rays during the day and illuminate at night.

4. Self-powered buildings

The transition to truly green buildings - the realm of net-zero-energy construction and beyond - will not be complete until such structures are not only extremely efficient, but also produce enough power to cover their own energy requirements and even send excess energy back into the power grid.

Skyscrapers provide ideal locations for roof-mounted wind turbines. Thanks to nearly constant air currents at higher altitudes, turbines can generate a considerable portion of a building's own power requirements.

Solar power is a more widely tested method for buildings to create renewable energy. Photovoltaic cells are not only found on rooftops but also on buildings' facades and even in transparent modules used as windows and skylights.

Outlook: 2020 and beyond

The EU's Energy Efficiency Plan 2011 (EEP), has identified the construction sector as the area where the greatest significant energy and emissions savings can be made.

The Buildings Performance Institute Europe estimates a net energy cost savings of €1,300 billion by 2050 through implementing wide-spread green building practices in line with the EU's plans. The EU calculates annual financial savings of up to €1,000 per household and a reduction of 740 million tons of greenhouse gasses per year from its entire Europe 2020 programme.

The initiative will also translate into increased revenues for the European construction sector, which represents about 10% of the region's GDP and is one of the largest single-sector employers. Moreover, as other countries throughout the world push for more energy-efficient and ecologically friendly buildings, innovations developed in Europe will pay back with dividends.