National Commentary

The Great Energy Transition: Thoughts on the SunCell

On New Year’s Day, CNN ran a story on Brilliant Light Power’s progress in developing its SunCell which the company claims has the capability of replacing all other sources of energy. The network had run a story on an earlier version of this technology about nine years ago but noted that the laboratory technology demonstrated at the time never became a commercial product in the intervening years. The new CNN report is well-balanced, carefully pointing out that the company’s claims about the SunCell’s potential have yet to be fully verified by outside scientists. The network also noted that most scientists who have heard about the science behind the device have doubts that the scientific principles on which the SunCell is based are valid. If the science behind this potentially revolutionary technology is ever accepted by the scientific community, then parts of our current understanding of nature will have to be rethought. There clearly are more shoes to be dropped in this 25-year-old saga.

The current schedule for development and marketing of the SunCell calls for a fully functioning prototype to be operating by the end of March. During the second half of the year, Brilliant Light hopes to have prototypes in the hands of potential manufacturers and customers for testing and evaluation. If all goes well during the development and testing, then the company hopes to begin leasing electricity generating systems to commercial customers in 2018.

This tight schedule raises the question of whether such a revolutionary technology, based on extracting energy from a 10,000+ degree ball of plasma the size of a teacup, can achieve the reliability to become a dependable commercial product so quickly. The company argues that while the science required to create the high-temperature plasma took 25 years to develop, the path to a working commercial product is only straightforward engineering. Brilliant Light also points out that the SunCell will have no internal moving parts to fail and that the external cooling system should easily last for years.

Outside critics, however, note that so far SunCell prototypes have only been tested for periods lasting hours rather than the months or years a commercial device, even if controlled by a computer, would require. The company counters that adding a digital control system to the prototype is its top priority and that good progress is being made.

These critics are also questioning the longevity of any device that contains a 10,000+ degree plasma. While Brilliant Light Power says it has engineered their device to run continuously for years on end, nobody has even attempted to maintain a plasma inside a carbon ball for such extended periods. Until tests of a continuously operating system have taken place and have given at least an indication of the device’s durability, there is reason to expect that Brilliant Light may have trouble adhering to its schedule.

At this point, we might ask as to whether it matters whether a commercially viable device can make it to market next year, or five years from now, or even five decades. The fossil fuel industry tells us that we have enough reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas to last for the next 50 – 100 years. What’s the rush?

There are a couple of reasons to getting the SunCell or equivalent technology into operation as soon as possible. From Brilliant Light’s point of view, the investors who have now advanced over $100 million to finance the SunCell’s development, would like to get their money back and may not be willing to keep financing a project that does not promise returns in the near future.

Of overriding importance, however, is the rapid deterioration of the global climate. It certainly looks as if 2016 will be the warmest year on record and will be the third straight year of new global temperature records. The threat of hazardous air pollution continues to grow with new particulate records being set in India and China in the past two months. The World Bank says that air pollution now is taking the lives of some 5.5 million people each year and is costing some $5 trillion a year. Computer modeling at Stanford says that the costs of air pollution will hit some $23 trillion by 2050 under business-as-usual conditions.

Although costs of wind and solar energy are falling rapidly and the share of non-polluting energy growing, all indications are that this shift is not happening nearly fast enough to save the earth from the direst consequences of climate change. The world has become so dependent on energy from fossil fuels that civilization would stop without the energy they produce. In many countries, especially in the U.S., the effects of climate change as yet have not become serious enough to forge a consensus that only drastic efforts to restrict carbon emission will save the earth from becoming a very unpleasant place on which to live.

Given this situation, it appears obvious that only a source of non-polluting energy which is so much cheaper than the cost of any other source of energy can reverse the climate situation. With a projected cost of a tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour, Brilliant Light Power’s SunCell seems to be the best technology, which could be available in the immediate future, that can slow and reverse climate change and all that it implies. Even then, it will almost certainly take decades of rapidly substituting SunCells or an equivalent technology for fossil fuels to make a noticeable difference in the climate situation.

In America, denial of climate change seems to be in the ascendancy at the minute. The new administration is unlikely to be interested in supporting the expansion of a new source of energy that is likely to cause a major disruption to the status quo, However, it is a big world, and there are many countries without indigenous sources of energy that are becoming increasingly desperate to clean up their air and stop or mitigate the ravages of climate change while maintaining and growing their economies.