Most people would agree that fossil fuels simply need to go. They’re the cause of pollution, wars and climate change. Scientists have been researching alternative energy solutions like wind and solar power, and hydrogen fuel for cars, for years. But while some automakers -- like Toyota and Honda -- are bringing hydrogen-fueled cars to market, wind and solar are still more expensive than oil and coal and may not be the best solution for all places or uses. For example, some medical devices that are implanted in a human body could benefit from super tiny batteries that last decades.10 Best Places to Harness Solar Power
So scientists continue the quest for abundant, cheap and efficient energy by investigating lesser-known sources, ones that may seem a little unusual, even ridiculous, unrealistic and, in some cases, morbid. “I think in order to solve the impending energy needs we might have to go a bit beyond,” said Bobby Sumpter, a senior research scientist of computational theoretical chemistry at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here are 11 of the more unusual sources that go above and beyond the norm. Who knows -- one day, you may use sugar to power your laptop, bacteria to run your car or dead bodies to heat a building.
Stretching the imagination when it comes to energy could get us closer to generating energy the way nature does: free and efficient. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson announced that excess heat from the subway tunnels and an electric substation would be funneled into British homes.Public Art Generates Renewable Energy, Beautifully
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.Tidal Power: Energizer Bunny of Renewable Energy
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.
One hundred billion times more power than humanity currently needs is available right now, out in space. It comes through solar wind, a stream of energized, charged particles flowing outward from the sun. Brooks Harrop, a physicist at Washington State University in Pullman and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State’s School of Earth and Environmental Science, think they can capture these particles with a satellite that orbits the sun the same distance Earth does.8 Cray Cray Ways to Harness Solar Energy
Their so-called Dyson-Harrop satellite would have a long copper wire charged by onboard batteries in order to produce a magnetic field perfect for snagging the electrons in the solar wind. The energy from the electrons would be beamed from the satellite via a infrared laser to Earth, since the infrared spectrum would not be affected by the planet’s atmosphere. This Dyson-Harrop satellite holds a few technical problems that researchers are currently trying to fix. It has no protection from space debris, and some of the power could be lost as it’s beamed through Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, finding a way to aim the laser beam across millions of miles of space is no small task. What seems more realistic is to use this satellite in order to power nearby space missions.
Getty Images/Rob D. Casey
Feces and Urine
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.Top 10 Countries on Wind Power
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.
Getty images/Skip Nall
People: Dead or Alive
The next time you’re standing in a crowded subway in the middle of summer, don’t sweat it. The heat your body produces can warm an entire building, complete with offices, apartments and shops. At least that’s what's happening in Stockholm and Paris. Jernhuset, a state owned property administration company is putting together a plan to capture body heat from train commuters traveling through Stockholm’s Central Station. The heat will warm water running through pipes, which will then be pumped through the building’s ventilation system.Top Wacky Wind Turbines: Photos
Paris Habitat, owner of a low-income housing project in Paris, will also use body heat to warm 17 apartments in a building, which is directly above a metro station near Pompidou Center. On a more morbid and less sweaty note, a crematorium in the United Kingdom is using gasses released from the cremation process to heat a crematorium. The energy in cremated bodies is already being captured when it has to pass through filters to remove the mercury in the deceased’s fillings. Instead of letting the energy escape, pipes are used to pump it through the building.
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.Ultimate Alternative Energy Quiz
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.VIDEO: Truckin From Diesel To Veg Oil
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.Jellyfish Rearrange Limbs After Injury
There are three known "exploding lakes," in the world, so called because they contain huge reservoirs of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in the depths by differences in water temperature and density. If temperatures should change and the lake turns, these gases would immediately fizz to the surface like a shaken bottle of soda, killing the millions of people and animals living nearby. In fact, such an event happened on Aug. 15, 1984, when Cameroon's Lake Nyos unleashed a huge cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide, instantly suffocating hundreds of people and animals. In Rwanda, Lake Kivu is such a place. But the government has built a power plant that sucks up the noxious gases from the lake to power three large generators, which produce 3.6 megawatts of electricity. The government hopes that in the next couple of years, the plant could be producing enough power for one-third of the country.
Billions of bacteria live out in the wild, and like any living organism, they have a survival strategy for when there is a limited food supply. E. coli bacteria store fuel in the form of fatty acids that resembles polyester. That same fatty acid is needed for the production of biodiesel fuel. So, researchers are looking to genetically modify E. coli microorganisms to overproduce those polyester-like acids. The scientists removed enzymes from the bacteria to boost fatty acid production, and then dehydrated the fatty acid to get rid of the oxygen, which made turned it into a type of diesel fuel. The same bacteria that can make us sick can also help save people money and the environment, by providing fuel for transportation.
Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes of carbon atoms that have a range of potential uses, from armor-like fabrics to elevators that could lift cargo between Earth and the moon. Recently, scientists from MIT have a found a way to use carbon nanotubes to collect 100 times more solar energy than a regular photovoltaic cell. The nanotubes could work as antenna to capture and funnel sunlight onto solar arrays. This means that instead of having an entire rooftop covered in solar panels, a person may need just a small space.
When it comes to space and energy, we need to think big. That’s what one Japanese company is doing — and they’re reaching for the moon, literally.
The best thing about the moon is that one lunar hemisphere is constantly bathed in sunlight (except for the occasional eclipse), so using solar arrays to generate power may not seem like such a stretch. Take China’s recently-launched Chang’e 3 Yutu rover for example, it’s solar powered. Also, Apollo astronauts set up solar-powered experiments on the lunar regolith. But how about wrapping the moon’s equator in a 250 mile wide band of solar panels and beaming the power generated back to Earth?
That’s exactly what Shimizu Corporation is proposing and they reckon their concept could harness a steady stream of 13,000 terawatts of power. According to Business Insider, “the total installed electricity generation summer capacity in the United States was 1,050.9 gigawatts.” Such a vast energy resource could be transformative for our civilization.
As Obi-Wan might say: “That’s no moon. It’s a space (solar power) station.”
“A shift from economical use of limited resources to the unlimited use of clean energy is the ultimate dream of all mankind,” says the company’s website. “The LUNA RING, our lunar solar power generation concept, translates this dream into reality through ingenious ideas coupled with advanced space technologies.”
Indeed, advanced space technologies will be needed, not only to harvest solar energy and efficiently beam it back to Earth, but its very construction will require several leaps in robotic technology development. Also, this mother of all engineering tasks will need to see some significant changes in international space treaties before it sees light of day.
Resembling a moon born from science fiction, the LUNA RING is just that, a ring around the moon. The ring, stretching 6,800 miles around the moon’s circumference, will be constructed by robots that will “perform various tasks on the lunar surface, including ground leveling and excavation of hard bottom strata.” The entire project will be overseen by a team of humans while the bulk of the robotic tasks can be teleoperated from Earth.
It’s all very well building a huge array of solar panels around the moon, but how would the power be sent to Earth? As our atmosphere is virtually transparent to microwaves and lasers, Shimizu envisages solar energy being fed through microwave/laser transmitters located around the Earth-facing side of the moon. As the moon orbits the Earth and the Earth rotates, international receiving stations will feed electricity grids with plentiful lunar solar power as the moon rises to when it sets.
The designers are keen to point out that this is a green energy resource that could benefit the whole of mankind. What’s more, when the infrastructure is set up, other resources can be exploited — such as mining for precious minerals and fabricating products from regolith. One could imagine an international consortium of nations and/or companies that buy a stake in the LUNA RING to aid its construction. Each partner would then have rights to construct receiving stations in their geographical location of choice, weaning us off polluting sources of power. Japan, which was hurt by the devastating Fukushima meltdown in 2011, is actively seeking out alternative power resources to wean itself off nuclear energy — it doesn’t get more “alternative” than this.
Shimizu isn’t suggesting we can build the LUNA RING now — they propose 2035 as the target start date. By that time, they assume that the technology behind space solar power — orbiting solar arrays that beam power to Earth via microwave transmitters — will have matured and we should have a sufficient in-space infrastructure to support such a project. Worrying about small practical details — such as how the LUNA RING solar panels will be cleaned and whether or not the international community would support such a plan — seems a little premature.
The project may seem a little “out there,” but assuming sufficiently developed current technologies, it could be done. Sure, it would be the biggest engineering task humans have ever undertaken, but it’s not out of line with what we’d envisage an advanced civilization to construct.
We would be well on our way to becoming a Type I civilization on the Kardashev scale if we could accomplish such a grand feat. The Kardashev scale is a well-known measure of a civilization’s technological development. We are currently a Type 0; we have a very limited ability of harnessing global energy supplies. Should we reach a Type I, we will be adept at utilizing all of the energy available on Earth. So, if we were to set up a space solar power hub on the very useful natural satellite in orbit around our planet, we are bound to get a Kardashev-sized boost in the civilization stakes.
It may only be a concept, but it’s not hard to see how the LUNA RING could undergo some iterative steps to eventually become a reality. And sometimes, you have to think really big to confront some of the biggest challenges facing our species.
Image credit: Shimizu Corporation