Technology Trending: Energy communities, hydrogen train and photosynthesis in space

Technology Trending: Energy communities, hydrogen train and photosynthesis in space
Image: Alstom

A new type of energy community in Finland, North America’s first hydrogen train and the potential of photosynthesis for life support on the Moon and Mars are in the week’s technology radar.

A new type of energy community in Finland

“A new type of energy community” is what the Finnish energy distributor Caruna calls an initiative that has been launched with the Karelia University of Applied Sciences and electrification specialist North Karelian Sähkö in the southwestern city of Joensuu.

The pilot, which is expected to last two years, involves two student residences located apart with one fitted with solar panels but the energy generated shared between both to form a virtual energy community.

According to Caruna’s Innovation Manager Verneri Kohonen, the Joensuu pilot is aimed to ensure that market operators have the ability and tools to implement a virtual energy community with the existing infrastructure. At the same time, experience will be gained on how a virtual energy community serves customers.

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“We want to encourage the acquisition of renewable energy sources and the growth of renewable production in order to achieve Finland’s climate goals,” he says.

Previously such an approach has not been possible as current legislation only allows energy communities for properties located at the same address and with the same electricity connection.

Such energy communities have been growing since the legislation was introduced in 2021 but the possibility of virtual energy communities with sites located at different addresses would open up their potential even further.

The student housing operator Joensuu Elli has 45 residential properties in Caruna’s electricity network, 14 of which have solar panels, and the ultimate aim in the pilot is to test the forming of all into a single energy community.

Board North America’s first hydrogen train in Quebec

The Quebec rail operator Réseau Charlevoix has launched North America’s first green hydrogen powered train and is currently taking bookings through to the end of September.

The two carriage Coradia iLint train from Alstom runs from Parc de la Chute Montmorency in Quebec City approximately 2 hours along the St Lawrence River to the city of Baie-St-Paul.

The Coradia iLint was introduced as the world’s first hydrogen train by Alstom in 2016 and went into first commercial service in Germany in 2018. Subsequently it has clocked up some 220,000km and orders for 41 trainsets in Europe.

The initiative, which has received support from the government of Quebec, was initiated by Alstom with the aim to better assess with the train in commercial operation the subsequent steps for the development of an ecosystem for hydrogen propulsion technology and its penetration into the North American market.

According to Alstom the Coradia iLint, with a top speed of 140km/h, has the acceleration and braking performance of a standard regional diesel train but without the noise and emissions. In September 2022 the train achieved a recorded distance of 1,175km without refuelling.

Photosynthesis for lunar and Martian life support

Photosynthesis is a well known biological process on Earth, essential for plant growth and carbon removal from the atmosphere, and also is emerging as an option for hydrogen production.

Scientists are hoping to be able to use the same artificial photosynthesis approach in space with a range of possible uses in mind from powering rockets to complementing life support systems on the Moon and Mars.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from the University of Warwick and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have evaluated the performance of semiconductor based artificial intelligence systems in lunar and Martian conditions.

They find that tandem-junction photoabsorber cells are the most effective configurations for these environments when examining realistic long-term solar-to-chemical conversion efficiencies, whereas solar driven gas diffusion electrode devices are not able to reach their full potential.

In particular lunar photoelectric cell water splitting possesses a very high capability for hydrogen and oxygen production, although for Mars coupling to solar concentrators would be required due to the lower solar irradiance at its further distance.

Katharina Brinkert, of the University of Warwick’s Department of Chemistry, believes the technology could provide ample oxygen production and carbon dioxide recycling on both the Moon and Mars.

“Human space exploration faces the same challenges as the green energy transition on Earth: both require sustainable energy sources. With sunlight being so abundantly available in space, we have shown how this source could be used to harvest energy – much like plants back on Earth – for life support systems for long-term space travel.”

While the research has shown that the application of these devices could go beyond Earth and potentially contribute to the realisation of human space exploration, there are obviously many challenges and research to undertake before they become a reality, not least the ability to deploy them in those harsh environments.

For this a potential research environment is the terrestrial polar regions, where such devices have been demonstrated to work.