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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Extreme Alternative Energy, Part I Barry Manz

The search for alternative energy sources has the feel of the California Gold Rush, as scientists the world over rush to find new ways to replace Evil Fossil Fuels with something, anything, cleaner. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some of these schemes range from the fantastically ambitious to just plain bizarre. Here’s a few examples:

Harnessing the Solar Wind

The Sun’s solar wind continuously streams charged particles with massive amounts of energy from its upper atmosphere, so why not grab some and send it back to power the Earth? That’s what scientists at Washington State University conceived several years ago, which fits neatly into the category of fantastically ambitious. Capturing this energy would be accomplished with a satellite that orbits the Sun to which is attached a 3,280-ft cable and solar sail 5,220 miles wide. The researchers calculate that it could theoretically be possible to generate 1 billion gigawatts of power this way, which is 100 billion times what’s needed to power everything on Earth. The problem is sending all that energy back to Earth, a challenge that remains unsolved.

The Sun’s solar wind conveys extraordinary amounts of energy that if captured and somehow transferred to Earth could theoretically power almost everything. Source: Wikipedia, from a bitmap created by NASA and rendered by Aaron Kaase.

Good Vibrations

Every day each one of us creates vibrations by simply walking, running, or….dancing. If this could be transformed into an electric charge using the piezoelectric effect, it could produce a meaningful amount of power. The piezoelectric effect is a phenomenon that occurs when certain materials such as crystals and some types of ceramics are mechanically stressed, much like the pounding of feet can mechanically stress a platform. Obviously, this works best in high traffic areas such as train stations in Tokyo and Shibuya, Japan, in which piezoelectrically-enabled floor materials are have been demonstrated since 2007 and at a dance club in Rotterdam, Netherlands called Club Watt since 2008. The U.S. Army is also exploring putting piezoelectric materials in soldiers’ boots to power portable radios and other battery-operated devices. Goodyear Tire & Rubber is looking into the potential for exploiting the piezoelectric effect in that could generate an electric charge as the tires spin.


All that energy expended dancing the night away can now be used to create electricity. Source: iStockphoto


Exploding Lakes

One of the more bizarre of the world’s phenomena is that of the exploding lake, of which there are only three in the world: Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun in Cameroon and Lake Kivu on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In two recorded cases, dissolved carbon dioxide has suddenly emerged from the depths as the CO2 displaces water. At Lake Nyos, for example, an eruption in 1986 suddenly released more than 80,000,000 m³ of CO2, killing 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock by asphyxiation. To safely harness some of the 1.94 trillion ft.3 of dissolved biogas in Lake Kivu, a project called KivuWatt developed by U.S. power developer ContourGlobal, is extracting methane from the lake to generate electricity. Currently in its first phase, the project is generating 25 MW of electricity to the local grid and in the next phase is anticipated to generate 75 MW.


The $325-million methane extraction platform at Lake Kivu developed by ContourGlobal is helping address Rwanda’s power needs. Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury.


Power from Cows

As cows are prodigious emitters of manure, Sustainable Conservation, headquartered in San Francisco, is using it to create clean energy and fuels with a methane digester. The manure is first collected in tanks or storage ponds where methane is trapped and then converted into biogas. The biogas is burned to generate electricity or further refined to produce biomethane that is comparable in energy output to natural gas. Sustainable Conservation says that between 2003 in 2010 its efforts have reduced California’s agricultural greenhouse emissions by 12,000 tons, the equivalent of taking 40,000 cars off the road. 


Cows: Not just for milk and beef anymore. Source: Texas State Energy Conservation Office

Continue on to Part II

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Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.

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