Ten unusual technologies that may power the future

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While green investors are throwing money at solar, wind and nuclear technology, researchers are exploring some innovative and surprisingly attractive alternatives to the alternatives.

Read our top ten list, including notes on the possible impacts of the technologies in 2020 from The Energy Roadmap's Garry Golden.


The Crowd Farm, a conceptual urban design for a train station that creates electricity from human steps. (James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk)

1. Human Energy

Do you live in a densely populated city like New York? Your busy lifestyle may make you more productive than you think. A pair of college students think all that frantic human activity — running, walking, even sitting — can be harnessed to generate electricity.

James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk from the MIT School of Architecture and Design came up with an award-winning conceptual urban design that could take advantage of the perpetual movement of pedestrians throughout a city. Their "crowd farm" features a motion-sensitive flooring system that uses piezoelectric materials to convert each step into electrical currents.

'People power' is already being milked on a smaller scale at The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon, where fat burners on stationary bicycles and other special equipment generate electricity for the facility.




Garry Golden's notes: Power from human-induced motion using piezeoelectric materials could be provide supplemental power to portable gadgets, wearable clothes and retrofitted buildings. But its biggest impact might be providing power to embedded sensors that cannot be ‘plugged in’ to the grid.



Related Links:
The Green Microgym
MIT: The Crowd Farm


Coconut (Ajay Kumar Singh (singhajaykr25/Morguefile))

2. Food Power

The surging demand for biofuels has spawned research in some exotic ideas. Kokonut Pacific, an Australia company, has built a prototype diesel engine that runs on coconut oil. As novel as the idea sounds, it isn't new. Coconut oil was a popular alternative fuel in the Philippines during World War II, when diesel was in short supply.

Roughly half a dozen coconuts are needed to produce a liter of gasoline, making it a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels.

Another palate-pleasing possibility, encouraged in many countries, is making fuel from grapes. Wineries in Europe have the option to sell surpluses of wine to refineries for ethanol production through a program run by the European Union.




Garry Golden's notes: The politics of ‘food versus fuel’ will continue to hurt the growth of crop-based biofuels. But without regulations, bioenergy companies will continue to explore new forms of crops and fruits that can be converted into liquid fuels.



Related Links:
Kononut Pacific
The EU Agriculture and Rural Development page on the wine sector


Pond (George M. Bosela (bosela/MorgueFile))

3. Algae Power

Sometimes referred to as pond scum, algae is finally getting some respect — at least from environmentalists and energy producers. The slimy green plant packs 15 times more oil per acre than traditional ethanol sources, such as corn, and soaks up carbon dioxide like a sponge.

In the past, the high costs and resources needed to produce energy from algae on a large scale have hampered its viability as a biofuel. For instance, algae typically requires lots of sunlight to flourish. But Solazyme, a San Francisco-based start-up, has figured out how to grow algae in the dark by feeding it sugar. The company is now experimenting with genetic modification of the plant for better oil yields.




Garry Golden's notes: It could take years to scale up carbon eating algae bioreactors, but the potential is much greater than plant-based biofuels. Naturally occurring or synthetically designed algae species could turn carbon emissions into a profitable ‘feedstock’ for bioreactors.



Related Links:
Video: For the algae company Bionavitas, one problem solved for making biofuels
Earth2Tech: Top 15 Algae Startups


(Jayanta Behera (jayofboy/stock.xchng))

4. Bacteria Power

When E. coli makes headlines, it's usually not welcome news. That may change now that an American biotech firm has discovered a way to engineer a genetically-modified strain of the bug to produces crude oil.

What makes this possible is the molecular similarity between petroleum and the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast and E. coli. With a few genetic tweaks, researchers at Silicon Valley-based LS9 Inc. were able to turn the microbes into mini energy plants. The byproduct still needs to be refined to create useful fuel, but making ethanol this way uses 65 percent less energy than standard methods.




Garry Golden's notes: Algae and bacteria are much more efficient converters of carbon into fuels using the power of sunlight or sugar. E. coli can be genetically engineered to produce high quality liquid fuels and hydrogen allowing us to ‘grow' energy.



Related Links:
LS9 Inc.: Petroleum from bacteria
Research abstract for hydrogen-producing bacteria


A model of a new 'gasification' facility that will burn trash to produce electricity. (PlascoEnergy)

5. Trash power

In the classic 80's film Back to the Future, a mad scientist fuels his time travel machine with a futuristic invention called Mr. Fusion, which converts banana peels, egg shells and other forms of garbage into gas. In Ottawa, Hollywood's future is already here. City officials have given the go ahead for the construction of a facility that will produce electricity from household trash. It's the first of its kind to be built and operated in North America.

The power plant will be capable of generating 1.21 jigawatts, er, 21 megawatts of net electrical power per day.

This method of converting waste into energy isn't new, but was considered impractical because it cost more energy than it yielded. PlascoEnergy, the company contracted to build the facility, solved this problem by developing electric plasma torches that operate at a lower temperature than traditional incinerators.




Garry Golden's notes: Utility companies are already looking at ‘waste’ as a cheaper, greener source of power. There are many methods to convert waste to energy to choose from using heat or bacteria.



Related Links:
PlascoEnergy Group
About Gasification


An Atmospheric Vortex Engine could produce energy from artificial tornados.(Louis Michaud)

6. Weather Power

Windmills tap into the immense supply of power inherent in Mother Nature. So why not crank it up a few notches?

That's probably what Canadian engineer Louis Michaud was thinking when he drew up designs for a machine that can whip up tornadoes and harness the power for electricity. His proposed Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE) would take in the warm air expelled from power plants and create a swirl of rising steam. Meanwhile, built-in wind turbines would harvest the energy generated by the artificial twister, which could reach wind speeds of up to 200 mph.

And in Japan, frigid weather doesn't go to waste. The New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido will be outfitted with an air conditioning system that uses stored winter snow to chill the building's cooling system liquid. The technology relies on top-of-the-line heat insulation that minimizes melting and lets the snow cool down the terminals all summer long.




Garry Golden's notes: Smaller, distributed power systems that tap the power of wind, solar (thin films, for example) or temperature changes could be a low-cost way of generating local power.



Related Links:
Atmospheric Vortex Engine
Denso Corporation


The stigma of old-fashioned gasoline could disappear if harmful emissions are recycled as fuel. (Adam Jakubiak (jakubson/stock.xchng))

7. Pollution Power

A big reason for developing clean energy sources is to curb the impact of greenhouse gases on our environment. But at Los Alamos National Laboratory, scientists believe alternatives might ultimately be unnecessary.

This is because existing technologies make it possible to recycle harmful emissions into fuel. For example, the chemical potassium carbonate can absorb carbon dioxide from the air with high efficiency. The pollutant can then be extracted and reprocessed into fuel using tried-and-true chemical engineering methods.

Another sign that fossil fuels may still be with us for a while can be found over at BMW, where engineers are testing a thermoelectric generator to see if wasted heat from car exhaust systems can be re-captured and used as electricity.




Garry Golden's notes: Scientists and technology visionaries are rightfully trying to find ways to turn waste carbon and waste heat into usable forms of energy.



Related Links:
Los Alamos National Laboratory: Carbon Sequestration
Wikipedia: Automotive Thermoelectric Generators


Energy from Fido's poop?  San Francisco says Yes! (Craig Jewell (craigpj/stock.xchng))

8. Poop Power

Clean energy, oddly enough, might come from a not-so-clean source. Turning 'biowaste' — simply put, 'sewage' — into fuel is catching on. Large-scale projects are being launched all over the country: San Francisco has been running a program where pet poop is collected from city streets and brought to a facility to be converted into biofuel, while the Vintage Dairy Biogas Project in Riverside, California, hopes to power homes with cow manure.

Bacteria do most of the dirty work, breaking down feces and other sewage into methane. Methane can be stored, transported and used to power any appliance that runs on natural gas.




Garry Golden's notes: Organic waste found in municipal sewers is rich in hydrogen and shows promise for conversion into biofuels or into electricity via microbial fuel cells.



Related Links:
Norcal Waste Systems


High tech networking may give electric grid a badly needed upgrade. (Rodolfo Clix (clix/stock.xchng))

9. Silicon Valley Power

Developing alternative energy sources can ease energy woes, but they aren't the only solution.

Much of the high energy costs that plague homes and businesses can be blamed on inefficient energy usage, so Sentilla, a start-up company focused on energy management technology, is making smart chips and software to improve energy efficiency. Their chips measure electricity consumption of energy-gobbling computer servers, then, after analyzing the data, the company recommends how to use the computers and when to replace the aging, less-efficient ones.

And speaking of efficiency, the electric grid could use an upgrade. Seven percent of the energy produced on the grid is lost because of technical problems, which drives up costs for consumers. Silver Spring, a green tech firm, thinks 'smart grid' technology may fix these glitches. The company's network card can be integrated into electric, gas and water meters, so that every household appliances has an IP address and can be tracked by utility companies and consumers.




Garry Golden's notes: Efficiency gains from the power of software, sensors and energy storage are the 'lowest hanging fruit' for new energy.



Related Links:
Silver Spring Networks


A Tata/MDI CAT compressed air car. (Deepak Gupta)

10. Air Power

Wind farms resort to a little-known energy source to keep generators up and running when winds die down. But with growing interest in the technology from automakers, it may not stay a well kept secret for very long.

Compressed air energy storage systems (CAES) stuff compressed air into underground chambers, then tap into them when backup energy is needed. Companies looking to develop zero-emissions cars have applied similar principles to build engines powered by compressed air. MDI, a Swedish car company, has developed prototype vehicles that store compressed air in fuel tanks that can withstand high pressure. When the air is released, it expands, driving the engine's pistons. MDI hopes to have a street-ready version of the vehicle available in 2009.




Garry Golden's notes: There are many methods for storing energy to power vehicles, but the most cost-effective methods are based on high-density storage of electrons and molecules via batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.



Related Links:
The Air Car
Wikipedia: Compressed air storage
Wikipedia: Information on compressed-air cars

The Takeaway is on a Power Trip, taking an in-depth look at the future of energy: technologies, ideas, innovators, and your stories about the one thing that you won't give up to save energy.