10 disruptive trends for 2020

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Disruption is everywhere. Here are 10 trends that will create opportunities – and threats – in 2020.

Twenty years ago, when I started advising startups and Fortune 500 companies on their innovation strategies, a “2020 vision” served as a key staple in most business planning efforts. The future is finally here.

Emerging technologies catalyze disruption. But 2020 promises to be especially extra turbulent. Election year dynamics, coupled with an increase in grassroots business activism, and governments taking action on environmental issues, will infuse even greater chaos into our everyday experiences.

Last year, I described the disruptions facing a variety of industries, including healthcare, packaging, travel and hospitality, software, real estate and construction, retail shopping, and manufacturing.

Here’s my take on the biggest forces transforming business and society in 2020:

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MIT’s solid-state battery breakthrough may see phones last for days

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A breakthrough in battery architecture could lead to lithium batteries with far greater energy densities than those used today

One of the many ways scientists hope to improve the performance of today’s lithium batteries is by swapping out some of the liquid components for solid ones. Known as solid-state batteries, these experimental devices could greatly extend the life of electric vehicles and mobile devices by significantly upping the energy density packed inside. Scientists at MIT are now reporting an exciting advance toward this future, demonstrating a new type of solid-state battery architecture that overcomes some limitations of current designs.

In a regular lithium battery, a liquid electrolyte serves as the medium through which the lithium ions travel back and forth between the anode and cathode as the battery is charged and discharged. One problem is that this liquid is highly volatile and can sometimes result in battery fires, like those that plagued Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone.

Replacing this liquid electrolyte for a solid material wouldn’t just make batteries safer and less prone to fires, it could also open up new possibilities for other key components of the battery. The anode in today’s lithium batteries is made from a mix of copper and graphite, but if it were made of pure lithium instead, it could break the “energy-density bottleneck of current Li-ion chemistry,” according to a recent study published in Trends in Chemistry.

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New quantum switch turns metals into insulators

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Artist’s impression of the dissolving of the electronic ‘traffic jam.’ The red atoms are different in their quantum nature and allow transport of electrons in their surroundings.

Most modern electronic devices rely on tiny, finely-tuned electrical currents to process and store information. These currents dictate how fast our computers run, how regularly our pacemakers tick and how securely our money is stored in the bank.

In a study published in Nature Physics, researchers at the University of British Columbia have demonstrated an entirely new way to precisely control such electrical currents by leveraging the interaction between an electron’s spin (which is the quantum magnetic field it inherently carries) and its orbital rotation around the nucleus.

“We have found a new way to switch the electrical conduction in materials from on to off,” said lead author Berend Zwartsenberg, a Ph.D. student at UBC’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI). “Not only does this exciting result extend our understanding of how electrical conduction works, it will help us further explore known properties such as conductivity, magnetism and superconductivity, and discover new ones that could be important for quantum computing, data storage and energy applications.”

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Hydrogen is a bad car fuel, but it’s the perfect boat fuel

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Because boats are cars too

There are issues inherent with hydrogen as a fuel for cars. It is incredibly expensive and energy intensive to create, it is difficult to pressurize and transport, and the infrastructure for hydrogen as fuel is far less developed than battery electric charging. A few automotive manufacturers, chiefly Honda and Toyota, have hung their zero emissions program hat on the hydrogen peg, but it’s still a very small sliver of the automotive market. It’s pretty much only viable in a small area of Southern California near the fueling stations. As a car fuel, hydrogen straight up sucks.

 Toyota and the Energy Observer are proving that hydrogen might be best served as a fuel for traversing the high seas, however. Toyota has adapted what it has learned from the Mirai hydrogen experiment to the Energy Observer, a former racing catamaran which now travels the world preaching the gospel of maritime ZEVs.

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Hydrogen-fueled Drones Will Inspect U.S. Gas Pipeline

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Public-safety drone consultancy Skyfire Consulting has announced a partnership with UAV company Doosan Mobility Innovation and hydrogen-fuel service provider ReadyH2 to tackle a pipeline-inspection project for an unnamed American company.

Doosan will deploy a hydrogen-powered octocopter. The drone sports a hydrogen-powered generator fueling two hours of flight time per mission over nearly 50 miles.

ReadyH2, in cooperation with parent company Fortress UAV, will be responsible for providing a ready supply of hydrogen gas for the project.

The six-month mission will establish inspection procedures for a domestic gas pipeline.

“Distances like that are simply not possible on battery technology,” Skyfire CEO Matt Sloane said.

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The smart cell turning solar energy into hydrogen

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What could be better than a solar cell that captures most of the visible light spectrum to generate energy? A cell that can capture the whole visible light spectrum and turn the energy into hydrogen. The cell is actually a molecule, and it is a busy molecule: it not only harnesses 50 percent more solar energy than existing solar cells, but it also turns this energy into hydrogen.

“The whole idea is that we can use photons from the sun and transform it into hydrogen. To put it simply, we are saving the energy from sunlight and storing it into chemical bonds so it can be used at a later time,” explains the lead researcher in the team that developed the molecule, chemistry professor Claudia Turro from the Ohio State University.

“What makes it work is that the system is able to put the molecule into an excited state, where it absorbs the photon and is able to store two electrons to make hydrogen,” Turro added. “This storing of two electrons in a single molecule derived from two photons, and using them together to make hydrogen, is unprecedented.”

The molecule is a form of rhodium—an inert metal and member of the platinum group—and because it can both collect solar energy and then act as a catalyst to turn it into hydrogen, it makes for a much more efficient fuel production system than existing alternatives, at least with respect to energy loss during the process of conversion of solar energy into hydrogen.

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Is America’s fossil fuel empire collapsing?

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Since the close of World War II, the United States has overseen an expanding global order built on fossil fuels. That era has come to an end. Where coal powered the British Empire, and oil powered the American Century, renewable energy technologies are now set to drive the post-American world. Europe’s “Green Deal” represents the beginning of this new era.

The most ambitious clean energy project in history, Europe’s Green Deal marks the beginning of a new era in clean energy policy. Notwithstanding its challenges, Europe’s plan represents a “broad roadmap” for remaking its entire economy with the aim of creating the first climate-neutral region in the world by 2050. Underwritten by one trillion Euros in investment, the Green Deal calls for establishing the first-ever climate law anchored to the 2050 climate neutrality target.

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Electric cars will challenge state power grids

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A Chevrolet Volt hybrid car connected to a charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles.

SEATTLE — When Seattle City Light unveiled five new electric vehicle charging stations last month in an industrial neighborhood south of downtown, the electric utility wasn’t just offering a new spot for drivers to fuel up. It also was creating a way for the service to figure out how much more power it might need as electric vehicles catch on.

Seattle aims to have nearly a third of its residents driving electric vehicles by 2030. Washington state is No. 3 in the nation in per capita adoption of plug-in cars, behind California and Hawaii. But as Washington and other states urge their residents to buy electric vehicles — a crucial component of efforts to reduce carbon emissions — they also need to make sure the electric grid can handle it.

The average electric vehicle requires 30 kilowatt hours to travel 100 miles — the same amount of electricity an average American home uses each day to run appliances, computers, lights and heating and air conditioning.

An Energy Department study found that increased electrification across all sectors of the economy could boost national consumption by as much as 38 percent by 2050, in large part because of electric vehicles. The environmental benefit of electric cars depends on the electricity being generated by renewables.

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Rolls-Royce plans to build up to 15 mini nuclear reactors in Britain

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Artist’s concept of a Rolls-Royce SMR plantRolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce has announced that it plans to build, install, and operate up to 15 mini nuclear reactors in Britain, with the first set to go online in nine years. In a BBC Radio 4 interview with business journalist Katie Prescott on January 24, 2020’s Today program, Paul Stein, chief technology officer for Rolls-Royce, said that the company is leading a consortium to produce factory-built modular nuclear reactors that can be delivered for assembly by ordinary lorries.

Currently, the world is undergoing a boom in nuclear power. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 448 operating civilian reactors and another 53 under construction. However, almost all of these are being built in Eastern Europe and Asia, with China alone building more reactors than the entire Western world combined.

Part of the reason for this is political with every reactor program in Europe or North America facing implacable environmentalist opposition and part of it is the expense of building and operating large reactors in an energy economy now dominated by cheap natural gas. However, one technology trend that could reverse this stagnation is the development of small, modular nuclear reactors that could be mass-produced in factories, carted to the site by ordinary lorries, and then assembled to generate cheap carbon-free electricity.

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The future of energy is being shaped in Asia

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China now accounts for almost three-quarters of global solar panel production.

A Frenchman is credited with being the first to discover the photovoltaic effect that produces electricity from sunlight. The first solar panel was built in the US. But when Abu Dhabi decided to build the world’s largest individual solar power project, they looked east for help.

The country partnered with Chinese and Japanese companies to construct a facility, which opened this year, with a peak capacity of 1.18 gigawatts generated by 3.2 million solar panels. That’s because Asia, more than any other region on the planet, and China, more than any other nation, currently represent the future of solar energy, and are at the heart of the ensuing industrywide transformation from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear energy.

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The major discoveries that could transform the world in the next decade

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Here’s what scientists are really excited about.

The last decade ushered in some truly revolutionary advances in science, from the discovery of the Higgs boson to the use of CRISPR for Sci-Fi esque gene editing. But what are some of the biggest breakthroughs still to come? Live Science asked several experts in their field what discoveries, techniques and developments they’re most excited to see emerge in the 2020s.

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Gates, Bezos bet on flow battery technology, a potential rival to big bets on lithium-ion

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H/O ESS containers

The U.S. energy storage market is expected to grow by a factor of 12 in the next five years, from 430MW deployed in 2019 to more than 5GW and a value of more than $5 billion by 2024, says Wood Mackenzie Energy Storage Service.

Tesla and GM are making big bets on lithium-ion batteries for energy storage systems and electric vehicles, but billionaire investors and venture capital firms are investing in competing battery technology, such as flow batteries.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the group of private investors led by Bill Gates and fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson and Jack Ma, invested in iron-flow battery maker ESS in November.

ESS, which makes long-duration, iron flow batteries, secured $30 million in a Series C investment round from Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), the group of private investors led by Bill Gates and fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson and Jack Ma, among others.

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