If you’re reading this with a laptop sitting on your legs, you might have noticed that computers tend to warm up as they work, turning electrical energy into thermal energy. In fact, two-thirds of all the energy we use is lost as waste heat. Maybe, instead of just using the heat from your computer to keep your lap toasty, we should be harnessing that heat by turning it back into electricity. But the thermoelectric materials that convert thermal to electrical energy aren’t very good at their job. While they have some applications, the expense and inefficiency of current thermoelectric materials make them impractical for implementing at a large, power-saving scale. Until now: a new thermoelectric material might finally let us recover the energy lost to waste heat—at a reasonable price.
Despite increasing worry about what our energy consumption is doing to the planet, we’re also increasingly tied to power-hungry electronic devices. To keep reliable, renewable energy flowing, some suggest, we must give the power grid a makeover. And one method that could change it is a breath of fresh air. Danielle Fong and her company, LightSail Energy, want to store renewable energy in tanks of compressed air. Because wind and solar can be unpredictable energy sources, the ability to save any surplus for a windless or cloudy day makes them more reliable.
Caleb Garling has written about Fong’s unusual method of storing power for Wired’s World’s Most Wired feature.
A geothermal plant in Iceland
Iceland’s gigantic energy reserves, generated from renewable sources like geothermal vents, are all dressed up with nowhere to go—it’s too expensive to get power from the chilly island to anywhere else. But transporting data to and from the island is a different story. Iceland is starting to attract companies that build giant server farms, lured by the cheap electricity and the possibility of being able to market “green” power.
One of the snails in question.
Just a few weeks ago we wrote about scientists who’d manage to draw power from the body fluids of cockroaches. Now, another team has reported achieving a similar feat with snails: a tiny biofuel cell implanted in the creatures draws glucose and oxygen from their hemolymph (the snail equivalent of blood) to generate power. And a yet-to-be-released study, Nature News reports, will feature beetles as the carriers of these minute power cells. All of this tiny cyborg excitement can be traced back to a 2003 paper, in which scientists generated power from a grape. Importantly, all of these biological generators—except, presumably, the grape—survived and thrived after their operations.
Now, we’re not talking about enough power here to run your cell phone or electric car. The snail cyborg can only produce about 0.16 microwatts of continuous power, though it can rise to more than 7 microwatts for short bursts (your average lightbulb consumes 60 watts). But if developed further, such biological generation could eventually be enough for the purposes of the military, which is interested in tiny spies that can crawl into nooks and crannies of buildings or through rubble, for instance, and would only need to generate enough energy to send signals back to their base. It’s interesting to note that this is presumably the kind of power generation referenced in The Matrix, when Morpheus explains that humans are grown in vats so that power can be generated from their bodies. But not to worry: the scientists’ next target isn’t human. They’re now aiming for a cyborg lobster.
Image courtesy of JACS
What’s the News: We’ve all fantasized about a cell phone battery that won’t quit. Now scientists hoping to harness the power generated when you walk are developing a device that might eventually use your footfalls to power small electronics. But will it overcome the hurdles of efficiency and cost?