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A renewable future need material innovation

Renewable power will represent around 90 percent of the total power capacity added for 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. Surges of new projects are leading the charge for renewables, which could form an 85 percent share of the power sector by the close of 2050. With this shift comes the need for new technologies and solutions for energy production, as well as system enablers and new infrastructure. Sandvik Materials Technology is playing its part to prepare for a renewable future, as our expert explains.

Inevitably, our world will not be powered in the same way it has been for centuries, in just a few decades to come. 2020 alone witnessed many monumental changes in both actions and attitudes. Net installed renewable capacity will grow by nearly four percent by the end of 2020, reaching almost 200 gigawatts (GW). Elevated additions of wind and hydropower are taking global renewable capacity additions to new records, accounting for almost all of the increase in total global power capacity.

To limit the rise in global temperature to well below two degrees Celsius and closer to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the growth we’ve seen in 2020 must continue at pace. But what will that growth look like, and how do we make it happen?

For each renewable technology to progress, it will also need the continued development of advanced materials that will help us build a greener future

Tom Eriksson

Future thinking

Tom Eriksson, Vice President of Strategic Research at Sandvik Materials TechnologyAchieving the Paris climate goals will require significant acceleration across a range of sectors and technologies. “Creating a more sustainable future will require the continued advancement of the steps we’re already taking,” explains Tom Eriksson, Vice President of Strategic Research at Sandvik Materials Technology. “But for each renewable technology to progress, it will also need the continued development of advanced materials that will help us build a greener future.”

Wind power looks to lead the way for the transformation of the global electricity sector. Increasing infrastructure and continued investment mean that onshore and offshore wind could generate more than one-third of total electricity needs, becoming a prominent generation source by 2050.

Heliostats reflecting sunrays onto a receiver at the top of a fixed solar tower.Solar power could come closely behind wind as a leading energy source — with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicting that solar energy could generate a quarter of the world’s total energy needs by the same year. In addition to photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, other technologies such as concentrated solar power (CSP) are gaining traction. Instead of using standard PV panels, this system uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a receiver for boosted efficiency.

Sandvik Materials Technology combine our materials expertise with more than 15 years of knowledge to produce the pre-coated stainless steel strip for fuel cells.

Aside from electricity, other sources could prove to be effective and sustainable energy carriers. A fuel cell is a device that converts energy stored in molecules into electrical energy. Using hydrogen and oxygen as power, the fuel cell produces water, electricity, and heat without creating any emissions other than water vapor. Only oxygen and hydrogen are required to power the fuel cell — the former is readily available in the atmosphere, and the latter can be generated through electrolysis.

However, the environmental gains from using hydrogen as an energy carrier depend on how the hydrogen is produced in the first place. Currently, 96 percent of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. But that doesn’t mean it will always be. Electrolysis, the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, is a promising option for “green” hydrogen production from renewable resources or fossil-free electricity. Using hydrogen fuel cells in place of ordinary combustion engines can already halve a car’s emissions, and developments in other areas of renewable energy generation show promise for a greener future.

Getting prepared

“Turning these renewable forecasts into a reality will take more than research and development of new technologies. Critically, the materials that form renewable infrastructure must be able to perform well against the harsh and growing demands of the sector”, says Eriksson.

Many renewable technologies face material challenges. Materials must be lighter, stronger and able to resist corrosion from demanding atmospheres and high temperatures.

Tom Eriksson

“Many renewable technologies face material challenges. Materials must be lighter, stronger and able to resist corrosion from demanding atmospheres and high temperatures. If we take wind power as an example, windmills are moving to windier and more remote offshore locations as demand grows — offering a different set of challenges than for traditional onshore windmills. A marine environment gives rise to issues such as staining and pitting due to corrosive seawater”, Eriksson continues.

Uptake in CSP presents its own set of materials challenges. A common CSP technology is parabolic trough, which consists of a group of reflectors curved into a parabolic shape to focus the sun’s rays onto an absorber tube that runs through the center of the trough. Corrosive heat transfer fluids such as molten salt and synthetic oil run through these tubes, creating a challenging environment for the materials that form them.

Sustainability shouldn’t only consider implementing these technologies in the first instance, but should also involve keeping renewable infrastructure up and running for as long as possible.

Tom Eriksson

To enable dispatchable energy generation that matches demand rather than available sunlight, most large scale CSP plants include thermal storage capacity. These towers operate at temperatures even higher than the troughs, and use molten salts for thermal storage.

“It's also important to consider sustainability from more than just an environmental perspective. Sustainability shouldn’t only consider implementing these technologies in the first instance, but should also involve keeping renewable infrastructure up and running for as long as possible. Using advanced materials plays a key role in the sustainability of renewable technology, and contributes to the investment value of its infrastructure”, explains Eriksson.


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