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Sunday, 08 January 2012

The Weird and Wonderful World of Alternative Energy

Where a new invention promises to be useful, it ought to be tried” This piece of advice by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States of America, seems to be heeded by a vast number of people in the search for the clean energy that we are all craving. When I do the background research for my articles I come across all kinds of ideas, projects and technologies. Some are well advanced, others are novel and daring, but a few look outright weird.

What constitutes a promise of usefulness depends on who is looking at the proposed method or contraption, of course. I met a number of inventors when writing a paper on the commercialisation of intellectual property. Most of them saw their brainchildren as exactly that, their offspring, and doted on them with fitting seriousness. Often enough others thought they had lost their minds in the dark and dingy corners of garden sheds or among the toxic vapours in laboratories. Frequently, that opinion extended to their creations as well.

Whatever these ideas might be, it always is fun to marvel at the ingenuity of the human mind. To celebrate the start of a new year, I have put together a small selection of my favourites. Should your head tell you that some of them are idiotic rather than ingenious, please don’t forget there are things that we take for granted today, which were once believed to be outlandish at best.

Voltage Dance

Nightclubs are usually associated with loud music, plenty of drink and sweaty people. If that turns you off, think what you might be able to turn on. I am not talking about someone you fancy. It is all about free power.

In 2008 Surya opened in London, Britain with a rather unusual dance floor. Underneath the boards are piezoelectric crystals that emit a current when excited by the revellers above. Originally, owned by a gentlemen who called himself Dr. Earth, management seems to have changed by now (2012) and no information is available about how well the energised floor is working.

In case you want to find out for yourself, the address is 156 Pentonville Road, about 500 yards from Kings Cross station.  If the earth moves let me know, will you?!

Bricks to Gas to Power

Waste has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years. The world produces more than enough of it. I cannot imagine there are any reliable figures of how much we throw away globally every year. Numbers given for America and Europe vary between 450kg and 730kg per person. If you take the mean (= 590kg) and calculate that for 7 billion people the result will be around the 4 billion ton mark. It might be less; let’s hope it’s not more.

Still, plans and technology for recycling as much of it as possible are not new. Compared to that businesses that build their commercial success on making fuel from what remains are. One such company is Ze-Gen in Boston, Massachusetts, which I found on www.power-technology.com. They intend to use intense heat in order to turn even construction waste into carbon monoxide, which can then be used as a power source. Although no large-scale application seems to exist at present the idea is too good to be shelved, and there are no reports that suggest it doesn’t work.

 

Mad scientist
Walking Generator

Josh Hunt, who calls himself The Futurist, has a few ideas of his own. He asks why we are not utilising the energy that is created all day, every day by us. The argument is that actions such as walking or flushing the toilet release energy that is lost. Devices, he says, could be integrated into fabric at manufacture that would create and store power from us moving about. Equally, running water in the pipes of our houses and flats might be able to run small turbines.

Again, what sounds crazy now could be the norm in the future. In his own words, “… the sharing of ideas can be a great starting point in thinking differently about ways we can make ourselves less reliant on the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy.” – and I agree. If we don’t push the envelope we might never know what the envelope actually is.

Hydrinos Anyone?

Pushing their luck is what many think about Blacklight Power. The founder, Dr. Randell L. Mills, claims he has discovered a limitless and easily exploitable energy source that has no ill effect on our planet whatsoever. For physics geniuses amongst you this is an old hat but quantum mechanics stipulate that atoms have a ground state characterised by an energy level below which they cannot drop. However, Dr. Mills is adamant he can create such a ‘lower than normal’ existence in Hydrogen atoms with the help of catalysts, something he terms hydrino that would then lead to energy being released. The company also claims that their experiments have been replicated and verified by Rowan University, New Jersey.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the scientific community seem to think this is all hocus-pocus. Andreas Rathke of the European Space Agency wrote an analysis of the techniques involved and could not find any evidence that it worked. You can read his report here.  Similarly, Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doubts a hydrino, which would shatter much of quantum theory, is real.

When something radically new is being rubbished because it goes against the accepted wisdom of XYZ Theory I always remind myself that such apparent certainties have been overturned before.  Every generation believes it has all the answers but I am sure even in physics we don’t know half of it yet. On the other hand genius and madness live terribly close together. Sometimes they have the same address. It will be interesting to see on which side Dr. Mills has settled.

Two are company, three are a crowd, thousands are energy

The example of the Surya nightclub above showed how a bunch of people could recycle the energy they were burning off while having fun by feeding it back into the electric circuit. In 2007 two students at MIT proposed to take this a big step further. James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk came up with the idea of a Crowd Farm. According to MIT News“… [it] would work like this: A responsive sub-flooring system made up of blocks that depress slightly under the force of human steps would be installed beneath the station's main lobby. The slippage of the blocks against one another as people walked would generate power through the principle of the dynamo, a device that converts the energy of motion into that of an electric current.” 

Here is me being worried about an overpopulated world when it could solve our energy problems. I have a long list of possible applications already: British supermarkets before a bank holiday weekend; railway stations in Mumbai, India; Times Square, New York on New Year’s Eve; a beer tent at the October Fest in Munich, Germany; ….

Osmotic Turbines

Nature loves the equilibrium. If there are diverse conditions next to each other, the tendency will be to balance them. That is a principle explored to generate electricity with the help of unequal salt concentrations.

One way to do this is to have two solutions of different salinity on either side of a membrane. That membrane lets through only water molecules, which will wander over to the side of the higher salt content in order to dilute it. This stream of water can turn turbines that generate electricity.

The realisation of the mechanism is not a dream. The first country I heard of that had put it into practice was Norway, but apparently projects in the The Netherlands have done it too.

Based on the same underlying chemical and physical principles researchers at Stanford University in America are working on a battery that promises a higher efficiency than the osmosis-turbine combination .

Hygroelectricity

If I tell you there is energy in water you will not so much as raise an eyebrow. Harnessing that power is nothing to write home about either. After all, hydroelectric dams have been around for well over 100 years. However, researchers in Brazil are proposing that we will be able to pull our own watery electricity not out of a lake or stream but air.

Professor Fernando Galembeck at the University of Campinas demonstrated that water droplets could hold a charge. To scientists everywhere that was news indeed. Until then it was thought they were neutral. If that wasn’t exciting enough it became also clear that they could pass on that charge to other materials. The next step is to put a kind of reverse lightning conductor on our roofs that can pick up the electric load. I guess we will view thunderstorms in a totally different light.

 

Beach_tropical-Couple on

Solar Bikini

After all these mindboggling ways of creating renewable, planet-preserving energy it wouldn’t surprise me if you were in need of a few relaxing days at the beach. Sun, waves and sand in the tiniest cracks are just the right things to calm the nerves and replenish our own, human batteries. Yet, even here someone has thought of a way to be environmentally conscious.

A gentleman called Andrew Schneider (it had to be a man, hadn’t it?!) obviously looked at a lot of women in skimpy bathing gear. That does not mean I allege any wrongdoing. It was all in the name of science, as he was planning a fiendishly clever way to recharge the ubiquitous iPod, without people cannot exist these days. From there it was only a small step to the solar bikini. The explanation on his amazingly poorly designed website is that “The suit is a standard medium-sized bikini swimsuit retrofitted with 1" x 4" photovoltaic film strips sewn together in series with conductive thread. The cells terminate in a 5 volt regulator into a female USB connection.”

Feminist tempers need not be stirred. Apparently, a male version is in the making.

Many Cooks

… don’t spoil the soup. On the contrary, they make the world more interesting and come up with the myriad of concepts out of which the practical solutions emerge that we will all benefit from in the future. It’s what we call evolution.

I showed you some of the ideas that have aroused my curiosity but if you have your own favourite ways of generating renewable energy – the wave generator waterbed, perhaps or the intranasal snore turbine – I’d be very keen indeed to hear about them.

 

As usual, I will see you next week. Until then stay happy, healthy and green.

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