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.
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.
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, the Scandinavian’s plan to convert the seized alcohol into enough biogas to fuel over 1,000 trucks and buses, and even a 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 – though not all from the smuggled alcohol.
3. Used Adult Diapers
Japan’s population is getting old 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.
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.
In a nation still reeling from the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, 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.
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 piezoelectric generators in the boots of soldiers. However, we utilise piezoelectricity more often than you might think: electric cigarette lighters feature a piezoelectric crystal with sufficient voltage to ignite the gas, resulting in a flame.
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 [Broken URL Removed] 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.
A prototype, the Electron Model of Many Applications [Broken URL Removed], 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.
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 from space?
In practice, a space solar power project might work something like this:
- A large geostationary array would collect and focus light from the sun.
- Photo-voltaic cells would convert that light into electricity.
- That electricity would be used to power a microwave laser, aimed towards a ground station on Earth
- Microwave energy would be received by the antenna array and converted back into electricity
7. Solar Wind
While we’re on the subject of space, let’s talk about solar wind.
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.
- 300 meters of copper wire, attached to a two meter wide receiver and a 10 meter sail could generate sufficient electricity for 1,000 households.
- A satellite with a 1,000 meter of cable, and a sail 8,400km wide, could generate one billion billion gigawatt’s of power.
Sounds good? It would be – if such a solar sail could be produced and launched into an appropriate orbit.
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 is providing immensely valuable data 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.
Our oceans are becoming more acidic. As such, Jellyfish populations are soaring. Most of them aren’t for human consumption, but they may prove to be more useful 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.
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.
GFP, applied to aluminium electrodes and exposed to ultra-violet light generates power measuring in the “tens of nano-amperes.”
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.
On the flipside, to prevent electricity from ruining your day, check out the best surge protectors you can buy.
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 [Broken Link Removed] 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