If we were ever to have a game of Survivor, the Trans-Galactic Edition, where all life forms across our local cluster of galaxies competed against each other to avoid getting voted “off the cluster,” there’d be a few attributes that might make us animals alliance-worthy. As we make worried glances toward the Stromulans from J5231, a plasma-cloud form of life with a level of consciousness far beyond our own (but alas, rather picky about what environments they will live in), we might trumpet our ability to form bodies of trillions of cells based on one single starting cell, our fantastic mobility, and the cultural productivity of our human species, which has led to amazing innovations like the George Foreman Grill.
Intuitively, there just shouldn’t be any way for something wind-powered to move directly downwind faster than the wind itself. It’s impossible: Release a balloon, and the wind blows the balloon as fast as the wind is moving, and that’s as fast as any wind-powered object can go, before the wind. Sure, sailboats can win a race against the balloon by moving diagonally across the wind, but moving in a straight line down a 10 kph wind, and the balloon moves at 10 kph. End of story.
Or, start of story.
Rick Cavallaro and John Borton have built a cart that moves 2.86 times the speed of the wind, moving straight downwind. That may seem impossible, but after a year of tinkering and some financial assistance from Google and Joby Energy, they did it. Don’t believe me? Check out the video. Keep a weather eye out for the green flag at 0:35. Notice how it’s blowing the exact opposite direction of the orange wind socks on the cart? That’s because the cart is going faster than the wind.
How is it possible?
S.A.R.A.H. (Self-actuated Residential Automated Habitat), the talking, thinking, usually helpful house on Eureka is such a regular on the show that she could qualify as just another wacky genius in a town full of them. But though she’s smarter than any smart house ever known, she has a bit of a problem: her power source. We’re told that her radioisotope thermoelectric generator supplies plenty of power for energy independence, but these devices only output power at low levels, albeit for a long time, plus they depend on radioactive materials—which is why in real life they’re used on long-lived unmanned probes and satellites.
S.A.R.A.H.’s designer, Douglas Fargo, should take some cues from the Solar Decathlon, a biennial contest hosted by the U.S. Department of energy. This year, representatives from 20 teams have reconstructed their high-tech solar-powered houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C. for inspection by the public and judges alike. (See 80beats’ gallery of some of the houses.) Houses are scored on 10 criteria, from efficient appliances to market-worthiness.
Most of the houses share a few themes: They maximize the insulation to minimize heat and cool loss; they have large sections of walls that can be opened onto decks and patios to increase the amount of livable space in the house; they had ways to access appliances or climate controls remotely, whether from an iPhone app or an Internet connection; and all of them can, at the minimum, operate without electricity from the grid, though many generate excess power.
On the TV series Stargate Atlantis, the current installment from the Stargate franchise, a device small enough to be held in your hands provides the energy for an entire city. Called a Zero Point Module, the device glows with golden light and produces an almost unlimited supply of clean energy. But it seems that the ZPM is an unrealistic little gizmo because it somehow creates energy from… well, nothing, and therefore, the thing belongs in a prop room shelved somewhere between the Flux Capacitor and the One Ring. But what if it was real?
Recently, as part of the time-and-space traveling adventures on Doctor Who, the Doctor and Donna wound up in Pompeii, the day before the infamous volcanic eruption that would simultaneously put the town on the map and wipe it off the face of the Earth. (warning, minor spoiler follows)
Turns out that—guess what?—aliens were tapping the volcano for geothermal energy. It may seem odd, on first glance, that superadvanced aliens would rely on boring old lava for a power source rather than some fancy technology, but it turns out that there is a vast amount of energy beneath our feet. Places like Iceland have been tapping geothermal energy for decades, but the U.S. is increasingly getting in on the act as well as we discussed in DISCOVER’s April issue :