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The Earth is in trouble, and it’s definitely our fault.  It seems clear at this point that traditional methods of generating electricity are unsustainable, and we must find new energy sources that do not produce as much carbon (or dust off old ones, like natural gas and nuclear power).

The recognized need for alternative power sources isn’t new. We’ve seen massive solar arrays unveiled in vast deserts, enormous on-and-offshore wind-farms, wave-beams converting the power of our oceans, and a host of biomass solutions arrive and disappear.  However, these forms of alternative energy are not the only game in town: there are a number of weirder ways of generating power that scientists are investigating.

1. Harvesting Body Heat

A number of major cities have begun harvesting the heat trapped in their vast metro systems. Millions of commuters (not to mention the trains themselves) sealed in the insulated environment of the metro can lead to an enormous temperature differential.

London Underground

The heat produced can be converted into power and heat for local homes, apartments, and businesses.  Five hundred homes in the London borough of Islington, offices parallel to the Stockholm metro, and a Parisian residential block are all harnessing human heat, with more buildings set to benefit in the near future.

Mall of America

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The 2.5 million square-foot shopping mecca, Mall of America, already utilises the heat generated by the sheer volume of people passing through it.  This heat combats the usually harsh Minnesotan winter — so much so that the building has no traditional central heating system.  Innovative thinking for the designers, way back in the early 90s.

2. Confiscated Alcohol

When life gives you lemons, burn the lemons and use them to power trains.

Sweden’s national customs service confiscated 185,000 gallons of illegally smuggled alcohol last year. Rather than pour it all down the drain 15 "Dry January" Tools To Keep You Alcohol Free 15 "Dry January" Tools To Keep You Alcohol Free There are tons of health crazes out there, but “Dry January” might be one of the healthiest ones yet. Keep your Dry January going strong, or quit drinking alcohol altogether with these tools. Read More , the Scandinavian’s plan to convert the seized alcohol into enough biogas to fuel over 1,000 trucks and buses, and even a train.

Biogas Train

Working with Svensk Biogas AB, the Swedish customs agency aims to continue converting this free resource into power for as long as smugglers keep attempting to cross the border. By 2013, bus fleets in more than a dozen Swedish cities were running on biogas Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day. Learn a little bit about these 10 emerging technologies that could directly affect your life within the next few years. Read More – though not all from the smuggled alcohol.

Alcohol

3. Used Adult Diapers

Japan’s population is getting old Exploring Japan's Abandoned Haikyo & Its Effect On Communities [Stuff to Watch] Exploring Japan's Abandoned Haikyo & Its Effect On Communities [Stuff to Watch] Urban exploration involves actively seeking out and documenting these places in photographs and videos for all to see. Enthusiasts risk personal safety and being caught by authorities to bring the rest of us some amazing... Read More  fast.  So old that in the near future, Japanese sales of adult diapers will outgrow sales of regular diapers. Seriously.

However, whilst the aging Japanese population may be of wider economic concern, Tottori-based Super Faiths Inc. innovative SFD Recycling System sees the burden as a power-solution.

SFD System

The SFD Recycling System takes used diapers, then sterilizes, pulverizes and dries them in their patented machine, returning biomass pellets reading for burning in the appropriate furnace, returning around 5,000 kcal per kg recycled. Not a bad return for an entirely useless landfill article. Capable of “servicing” around 700lb of used diapers per day, the system could well make its way into retirement homes and large hospitals Medical ID Theft: How Scammers Use Records To Steal Your Identity Medical ID Theft: How Scammers Use Records To Steal Your Identity Read More .

Adults in Diapers

In a nation still reeling 6 Charities That You Can Just Text To Donate 6 Charities That You Can Just Text To Donate Back in early 2010, when Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake, text-to-donate campaigns helped raise the amazing amount of $10 million pretty quickly. Though that campaign is no longer active (you can still mail... Read More from the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami Free Storm Tracking Software To Get Warned Before Everyone Else Free Storm Tracking Software To Get Warned Before Everyone Else Read More , and the resulting Fukushima nuclear plant accident, alternative power solutions are gaining credibility as Japan seeks to become energy independent.

4. On the Dance Floor

More people power, please! The kinetic energy generated by our everyday tasks is under the spotlight as underground stations, nightclubs and gyms begin to utilise piezoelectric harvesting technologies. Piezoelectricity is generated in certain crystals in response to compression force.  If you have a surface that’s moving for any reason, you can attach piezoelectric crystals to it, and get small amounts of energy out.

Piezo Dancefloor

The accumulated electrical energy can be used to power services within the same building or area, or routed to a new location. Piezoelectricity isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, with DARPA evaluating You Won't Believe It: DARPA Future Research Into Advanced Computers You Won't Believe It: DARPA Future Research Into Advanced Computers DARPA is one of the most fascinating and secretive parts of the US government. The following are some of DARPA's most advanced projects that promise to transform the world of technology. Read More piezoelectric generators in the boots of soldiers. However, we utilise piezoelectricity more often than you might think: electric cigarette lighters The Electronic Cigarette Debate: Are They The Future Of Smoking? The Electronic Cigarette Debate: Are They The Future Of Smoking? If I told you that you could smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and no longer face health risks, would you believe me? Well, that might very well be the case. Read More feature a piezoelectric crystal with sufficient voltage to ignite the gas, resulting in a flame.

Electric Lighter

In the wild, we have seen Tokyo underground station power its ticket turnstiles, and the world’s first sustainable nightclub in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Piezoelectric energy-generation is also moving into the rail-sector.

Israel Railways, in collaboration with the Technion University and renewable energy company Innowatech installed 32 piezoelectric energy capture devices along a reasonably busy section of railway, harvesting some 120 kWh, enough to power signals, lights and track mechanisms.

5. Thorium Reactors

Miniature nuclear reactors powered by just one ton of radioactive thorium could feature in a new generation of local power generation schemes.  That said, thorium reactors would require high-energy neutrons to trigger their fissile activity, which has lead British scientists to begin work on miniature particle accelerators Panoramic Virtual Tour Of CERN Comes To Google Street View Panoramic Virtual Tour Of CERN Comes To Google Street View If you ever wanted to visit and see the Large Hadron Collider, now you can. Thanks to Google Street View you can take a panoramic virtual tour of the CERN site. Read More .

CERN Particle Accel

A prototype, the Electron Model of Many Applications, or EMMA, operates at around 20 million electron volts, or 20 MeV, which is a strong start.  That said, a fair degree of skepticism remains around the use of thorium and the practicalities of building and maintaining a larger number of local nuclear reactors.

6. Solar Power in Space

What could be more exciting or futuristic than a massive solar array, floating on a platform above the planet, beaming wireless electricity toward the Earth’s surface.  There are a lot of advantages to this option: no need to take up valuable real estate on Earth, and no energy fluctuations caused by weather.

That said, there is a long way to go with this form of alternative power. Wireless electricity transmission, long-term radiation shielding, meteorite protection, and the sheer cost of putting the equipment into orbit are just some of the stumbling blocks.

NASA Suntower

But John C. Mankins, President of the Space Power Association and Artemis Innovation, believes that just as nuclear power has received five decades of research, and billions of dollars of research funding to arrive at our current understanding, why shouldn’t there be a serious financial effort toward harvesting solar power What Is Solar Energy And Why Hasn't It Taken Off? What Is Solar Energy And Why Hasn't It Taken Off? What's the big deal with solar energy? If it's really as important and necessary as so many claim it to be, why hasn't it taken over the energy industry yet? Read More from space?

photovoltaic

In practice, a space solar power project might work something like this:

7. Solar Wind

While we’re on the subject of space, let’s talk about solar wind Catch An Aurora! 5 Of The Best Tools To Spot The Magical Polar Lights Catch An Aurora! 5 Of The Best Tools To Spot The Magical Polar Lights This winter is one of the best times to see polar lights. The next best time is in about 10 years, so you better catch them now. Be in the right place at the right... Read More .

The solar wind consists of an enormous number of charged particles, emitted by the sun at very high speeds.  In principle, these particles can be used to generate electricity by using an enormous solar sail and a charged wire, which generates energy from the solar wind passing along it.  According to preliminary analysis by the University of Washington, the amount of power you can generate is essentially limitless, constrained only by the size of the solar sail you deploy.

Sounds good? It would be – if such a solar sail could be produced and launched into an appropriate orbit.

IKAROS

It’s worth noting that that isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency successfully launched IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun) in 2010, becoming the first spacecraft to utilise solar-sailing as its main form of propulsion. Their continued exploration Can We Contribute To Space Exploration? These 7 Online Tools Say We Can Can We Contribute To Space Exploration? These 7 Online Tools Say We Can What about the man on the sidewalk? The high-schooler in the science class? The mother who once dreamt of suiting up for a space flight? Will there dreams remain so, or can they contribute to... Read More is providing immensely valuable data Robotic Fabric May Advance Space Exploration and Medical Care Robotic Fabric May Advance Space Exploration and Medical Care Imagine a second-skin that contorts on command and is filled with sensors. That's exactly what researchers at Purdue University are trying to do with their development of a robotic fabric. Read More to research scientists in a number of key areas.

That said, IKAROS is much smaller than the sails being considered, so don’t hold your breath for solar wind to become a practical option in the immediate future.

8. Jellyfish

Our oceans are becoming more acidic. As such, Jellyfish populations are soaring. Most of them aren’t for human consumption Safe Or Scary -- How To Identify Which Wildlife Is Really Dangerous Safe Or Scary -- How To Identify Which Wildlife Is Really Dangerous Some creatures are venomous predators whose bites and stings can be dangerous to humans. How can you know which animals are cause for alarm? Use these online guides to stay safe outdoors. Read More , but they may prove to be more useful How Eel Drones Will Turn The Tide On Underwater Warfare How Eel Drones Will Turn The Tide On Underwater Warfare The U.S. government is now pouring significant resources into the development and deployment of unmanned undersea drones. Read More for another global issue. Swedish researchers have been steadily liquifying large numbers of Aequorea victoria, a glowing jellyfish common to the shores of North America.

Jellyfish

WHY? I hear you cry.  For power, of course! The Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) contained within the jellyfish can be used to create miniature fuel-cells that could be used to power a generation of medical nano-devices How Nanotechnology is Changing the Future of Medicine How Nanotechnology is Changing the Future of Medicine The potential for nanotechnology is unprecedented. True universal assemblers will usher in a profound shift in the human condition. Of course, there's still a long way to go. Read More .

GFP, applied to aluminium electrodes and exposed to ultra-violet light generates power measuring in the “tens of nano-amperes.”

GFP

It’s not insignificant. The development of biological fuels could enable further research into bio-nanotechnologies that require no external fuel or electrical current to continue functioning. If the technology could be scaled-up, it could be extremely useful in the long-run, especially if our oceanic acidity issue continues.

Other Alternative Power Sources?

Some of the energy sources we’ve looked at here are bizarre, but many may have practical applications down the line. Others are already around us, providing us with alternative energy in our day-to-day.  This sort of energy research is critical, if we wish to continue to sustain our growing civilization without irreparably damaging the planet.

What is your favourite alternative power source? Do you have any ideas for alternative power generation? We’d like to hear them. Let us know below!

Image Credits: London Underground via Wikimedia Commons Mall of America via Flickr Swedish Biogas Train via Wikimedia Commons Counterfeit Alcohol via Wikimedia Commons SFD System via superfaiths.com Adults Wearing Diapers via Wikimedia Commons Piezo Dancefloor via ecofriend.com Electric Lighter via Wikimedia Commons CERN via michaelhall.co.uk NASA Suntower via Wikimedia Commons, Photovoltaic Tile via pixabay.com IKAROS via Wikimedia Commons, Aequorea Victoria via Wikimedia Commons, Green Fluorescent Protein via Wikimedia Commons

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