Energy demand is rapidly growing as the world population rises and the developing economies expand.

It’s estimated that energy demand will be more than 50% higher in 2030 than it is today. As chemistry is at the heart of energy science, chemists around the world are making energy cheaper, easier to store, and more sustainable.

The energy required to make a cup of tea, fuel your car or provide electricity for your toothbrush/radio/mobile phone largely comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Fossil fuels are “non-renewable” sources of energy because they take millions of years to form, and we are currently using them up faster than they are replenished.

Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The Government is imposing limits on allowed levels of CO2 emissions, which will change how we use our current energy resources.

Chemical methods are being developed to capture CO2 and store it away from the atmosphere, such as liquefying the gas and injecting it underground. With these chemical tools, we can continue to use fossil fuels in the near future while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Fossil fuels are running out, however, so we will need to use renewable energy to meet our growing needs. The chemical sciences will be vital in finding ways of providing clean, renewable energy, and improving the efficiency of current ways to generate and use power.

Energy conversion and storage

Many of the potential sources of renewable energy, such as sunlight and wind, are intermittent and dependent on the time of day or the weather. Scientists are therefore looking for ways to store this energy when it is available and distribute it when needed.

A good example of this is the National Grid’s power demand spike during ad-breaks in Coronation Street, when millions of people across the country boil their kettles for a cuppa. There is less sunlight available in the evenings to cope with this spike, so to use solar energy efficiently we need to be able to store it until we need it.

Fuel cells can be used as storage systems for intermittent sources of energy, such as solar or wind power, and scientists are working to improve their efficiency so that they can be used as a renewable energy supply for transport. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy stored in fuel directly into electricity. Hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells produce only electricity, heat and water.

Nuclear energy

Nuclear power station

Nuclear energy is a source of controversy – people generally don’t want nuclear power stations near their homes. However, this could be the most suitable stop-gap while scientists improve technology to provide renewable energy like wind, tidal and solar. Another major advantage of nuclear energy is that it is a low-carbon source of electricity, making it cleaner than many of the non-renewable alternatives.

Solar energy

Solar cells held by hand

In one hour more energy reaches the Earth from the sun than the world uses in a whole year. Scientists have developed ways to use sunlight to generate energy; current uses of solar energy include converting light to electricity, heating water, and powering satellites.

The major advantages of solar power are that sunlight is free, needs no fuel, and produces no waste or pollution. Chemists are now working on methods to employ the sun’s energy more cheaply and produce energy more efficiently on overcast days.

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