Thomson Reuters is predicting a future powered by sunny days

According to a report by Thomson Reuters IP & Science titled “The World in 2025: 10 Predictions of Innovations,” solar will be the largest source of energy on the planet in the next 10 years.

Bob Stembridge, Senior Patent Analyst and Customer Relations Manager, IP & Science, takes us inside the crystal ball of citation analysis and patent data to discuss significant findings within the solar report, the data tracking behind the solar energy prediction, and what patents tell us about the future of alternative energy that tea leaves can’t.

What role does data play in making predictions about the world in 10 years?

Bob Stembridge: In terms of all of the predictions, what we did was to look at two things. First of all, the scientific literature, because within IP and Science we have a couple of very rich and powerful data sources for scientific literature. We looked at the Web of Science®, which covers all of the major significant research globally back over more than a 100 years. What we were able to do by looking into those data sources was to identify those topics that were becoming highly cited and, in that way, you can actually identify emerging technology fronts. So that would be the first clue we had that solar, amongst the other nine predictions, was one of the real fast-emerging technologies.

On the patent side then, that’s the other thing we take a look at to see what scientific research is actually being commercialized – because patents are, if you like, the next stage. So, the scientific research gives you the kind of theoretical basis on which you can develop solutions and then, as those solutions are developed, they will tend to be patented and so you can track the application of that research into real commercial solutions.

How did Thomson Reuters reach the conclusion that solar will be the dominant source of energy on this planet in 2025?

BS: There are a couple bits of evidence to back that up, actually. One of the really promising areas is in organic photoelectric cells, and that really is still at the research stage. It’s basically looking at using organic chemistry to create photovoltaics. The current generation of solar cells are inorganic and rely on elements like copper and indium and tellurium and selenium – fairly exotic materials which are pretty expensive to extract and turn into electric cells. If they can develop a way of producing solar cells organically, from organic materials, through organic chemistry, then that would be a real breakthrough in terms of being able to mass-produce at a very low cost.

The other kind of promising area is transportation, because fossil fuels like oil and gas are pretty convenient in terms of being able to transport from where you get hold of the stuff to where you need it. Not quite so within the case of solar, because you need infrastructure in place, you need transmission lines. But there is some work that’s been done, scientific research, at its early stages. They’ve been working at ways of chemically capturing sunlight.

All of these things –the reduction in cost and wider availability of solar cells, the increasing efficiency in capturing sunlight and improving techniques for transportation – I think, if you crack those, then that unleashes the full potential for solar power. And that’s suddenly what we see when we look at the research that’s going on and the patenting that’s going on. All of that indicates to us that, yeah, indeed, in 2025, in 10 years’ time, solar will be the largest resource of energy on the planet.

What is the significance of these findings?

BS: One of [our] other papers talks about the consumption of power worldwide, and that’s expected to double in the next three decades. That’s because of increasing population and rising demand. It also says the sun itself supplies about 120,000 terawatts, that’s about 6,000 times the present rate of energy consumption. So there’s way more than enough sunlight out there, even at 10 percent conversion efficiency, to power all of the global needs for energy; it’s just a matter of harnessing it and distributing it.

What reaction has Thomson Reuters received from the report?

BS: Well it’s been out for a while now, but certainly when we first published, it was picked up pretty widely and pretty well. There was a lot of interest generated and hopefully increasing awareness of the fantastic data within Thomson Reuters and how it can be brought to bear to bring insight into things like the future of technology and the direction in which we’re going. And actually, after launching it publicly, we started a debate internally within Thomson Reuters. We asked people to vote on the 10 predictions that we made in the report, and it turns out that the prediction on solar power was the one that was rated most highly by people internally on the poll and generated a lot of debate and discussion. I think this is the one that really resonated with people.

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