Having enough power is a constant concern in today’s society, especially when everything is electronic and runs of power. There have been several innovations in energy sources, including: solar energy, tidal energy, geothermal energy, wind energy and hydroelectric energy. However, with science forever trying to propel humanity into the future – people have come up with other clever alternatives to create power. Although, just concepts now, some of these ideas may become an everyday source of power in some regions of Earth.
The bane of many a homeowner, the dreaded termite, may gain new respect as a source of clean energy. An interdisciplinary team of researchers at UConn and CalTech has won a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore how communities of microbes found in the guts of termites interact to efficiently metabolize wood cellulose. The four-year project, funded under the agency’s Emerging Frontiers in Research & Innovation program, may lead to novel energy applications, in addition to shedding light on the complex signaling mechanisms that allow the gut community to convert wood into useful energy. The digestive tracts of so-called “lower” termites contain many different species of microorganisms. This microbial community, in cooperation with the termite host, can effectively break down the rigid, woody material in plants called lignocelluloses. Understanding how the microorganisms work together, handling different responsibilities and responding to changes in the environment, is an important aim of the project.
A new technology that harnesses the power of ocean currents could provide a clean and limitless form of renewable energy, some scientists say. A group of scientists and engineers who describe themselves as “nerds in wetsuits and flippers” has launched a crowdfunding campaign, called Crowd Energy, to do just that. Their idea is to use giant underwater turbines to capture the energy from deep-ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. While energy generated from these turbines may not be able to completely replace fossil fuels, as the group claims, the devices could still be an important source of clean energy, experts say.
Feces and Urine Power
Most people think that feces and urine should be disposed of immediately. But feces contains methane, a colorless, odorless gas that could be used in the same way as natural gas. At least two solutions — one in Cambridge, Mass., called Park Spark and one in San Francisco run by Norcal Waste — is focused on converting dog poo into methane. In both solutions, dog walkers are provided biodegradable bags, which after they’re filled, are placed into a large container called a digester. Inside, microorganisms process the poo, giving off methane as a byproduct. The methane can be used to power lights in Pennsylvania, a dairy farm is looking to cow manure for energy. Six hundred cows that produce 18,000 gallons of manure daily are helping the farm save $60,000 a year. The waste is used to produce electricity, bedding, fertilizer and heating fuel. And Hewlett-Packard recently released a study explaining how a dairy farmer could make money by leasing land to Internet server companies, who could power computers with the methane. Human waste is just as good. In Bristol, Australia a VW Beetle car is powered by methane captured from a raw sewage treatment plant. Engineers from Wessex Water estimate the waste from 70 homes can generate enough gas to make the car run for 10,000 miles.And let’s not forget urine. At the Heriot-Watt University’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Edinburgh, scientists are looking for a way to make world’s first urine-powered fuel cells. It could be a viable way for astronauts or military personnel, for instance, to produce power on the go. Urea is an accessible, non-toxic, organic chemical compound rich in nitrogen. So yes, humans are constantly carrying around a chemical compound that can produce electricity.
Tobacco as Fuel
A usual tobacco plant leave has 1.7 percent to 4 percent of oil per dry weight. The researchers modified two genes of the plant. They are the diacyglycerol acytransferase (DGAT) gene or the LEAFY COTYLEDON 2 (LEC2) gene. The plants were engineered to over express one of the two genes. The alteration of DGAT gene resulted in about 5.8 percent of oil per dry weight in the leaves. It is around twice the amount of oil produced by and large. When the researcher went for the LEC2 gene modification it yielded around 6.8 percent of oil per dry weight. According to Dr. Andrianov, “Tobacco is very attractive as a biofuel because the idea is to use plants that aren’t used in food production. We have found ways to genetically engineer the plants so that their leaves express more oil. In some instances, the modified plants produced 20-fold more oil in the leaves.” Dr. Andrianov opines, “Based on these data, tobacco represents an attractive and promising ‘energy plant’ platform, and could also serve as a model for the utilization of other high-biomass plants for biofuel production.”
Lightbridge Corporation, a pioneering nuclear-energy start-up company based in McLean, VA, is developing the Radkowsky Thorium Reactor in collaboration with Russian researchers. In 2009, Areva, the French nuclear engineering conglomerate, recruited Lightbridge for a project assessing the use of thorium fuel in Areva’s next-generation EPR reactor, advanced class of 1,600+ MW nuclear reactors being built in Olkiluoto, Finland and Flamanville, France. In China, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and a clutch of Chinese outfits began an effort in mid-2009 to use thorium as fuel in nuclear reactors in Qinshan, China. Thorium is more abundant than uranium in the Earth’s crust. The world has an estimated 4.4 million tons of total known and estimated Thorium resources, according to the International Atomic Energy Association’s 2007 Red Book. The most common source of thorium is the rare earth phosphate mineral, monazite. World monazite resources are estimated to be about 12 million tons, two-thirds of which are in India. Idaho also boasts a large vein deposit of thorium and rare earth metals. Thorium can be used as a nuclear fuel through breeding to fissile uranium-233.
Traditionally, putting sugar into a gas tank is a prank that can ruin a car’s engine. But someday, it could be a great way to fuel a vehicle. “We should not dismiss ideas, we should let people pursue ideas of unusual things,” Diego del Castillo Negrete, a senior research scientist in the Fusion Energy Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. Researchers and chemists at Virginia Tech are developing a way to convert sugar into hydrogen, which can be used in a fuel cell, providing a cheaper, cleaner, pollutant-free and odorless drive. The scientists combine plant sugars, water and 13 powerful enzymes in a reactor, converting the concoction into hydrogen and trace amounts of carbon dioxide. The hydrogen could be captured and pumped through a fuel cell to produce energy. Their process delivers three times more hydrogen than traditional methods, which translates into cost savings. Unfortunately, it might be another decade before consumers can actually dump sugar into their gas tanks. What seems more realistic in the short term is using the same technology to create long-lasting sugar-based batteries for laptops, cell phones and other electronics.
Go out and party; it may help the environment. Club Watt in Rotterdam, Netherlands is using floor vibrations from people walking and dancing to power its light show. The vibrations are captured by “piezoelectric” materials that produce an electric change when put under stress. The U.S. Army is also looking at piezoelectric technology for energy. They put the material in soldier’s boots in order to charge radios and other portable devices. Although this is an interesting renewable energy with great potential, it’s not cheap. Club Watt spent $257,000 on this first generation 270-square-foot floor, more money than it can recoup. But the floor will be reprogrammed to improve output in the future. Your dance moves really can be electric.
California municipalities alone produce 700,000 metric tons of dried sludge annually, which has the potential to generate 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. The University of Nevada, Reno, is drying sludge to make it burnable for a gasification process, which turns it into electricity. A team of researchers at the university built the processing machine as a way of producing low cost and energy efficient technology. The machine turns gooey sludge into powder by using relatively low temperatures in a fluidized bed of sand and salts to produce the biomass fuel.
The waste-to-energy technology is designed to be on site which means companies can save on trucking costs, disposal fees, and electricity. Although the research is still ongoing, estimates show that a full-scale system can potentially generate 25,000 kilowatt-hours per day to help power reclamation facilities.
Jellyfish that glow in the dark contain the raw ingredients for a new kind of fuel cell. Their glow is produced by green fluorescent protein, referred to as GFP. A team at The Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, placed a drop of GFP onto aluminum electrodes and then exposed that to ultraviolet light. The protein released electrons, which travel a circuit to produce electricity. The same proteins have been used to make a biological fuel cell, which makes electricity without an external light source. Instead of an external light source, a mixture of chemicals such as magnesium and luciferase enzymes, which are found in fireflies, were used to produce electricity from the device. These fuel cells can be used on small, nano devices such as those that could be implanted in a person to diagnose or treat disease.