Tech Universe 2013 favourites: Eager for energy

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

GREEN BEER: The Alaska Brewing Company is being a bit clever and using its own brewing process to power the brewery with a unique boiler system. A furnace burns the waste accumulated from the brewing process, creating steam to power the majority of the brewery's operations. Previously they shipped the spent grain out at high cost to be used for other purposes such as stock feed. The spent grain steam boiler should offset the company's yearly energy costs by 70%. That's a nice bit of almost perpetual motion there.

GROWING DIESEL: We may have the University of Exeter to thank if we can fill up our trucks soon with diesel produced not from oil but from bacteria. The diesel produced by their special strains of E. coli bacteria is almost identical to conventional diesel fuel and the engines that run on it won't need any modification. The next challenge is to make the process commercially viable.

Bacteria — so useful.

OIL SOAK: Boron nitride is also known as white graphene and it can do a particularly useful job: cleaning up organic pollutants from waterways. The material has a large surface area for its weight, so it can mop up a lot of pollutants. In recent tests researchers found it could mop up 29 times its own weight in engine oil yet still float on water. Then the oil can be driven out in a furnace or by being ignited so the sheet of boron nitride can be used again. Even better would be to find a way to extract the oil so it could be used productively.

FIRE LIGHT: Put the Voto in a hot cooking stove and the small fuel cell creates and stores energy for an LED light or to charge cell phones. The device has two parts: a fuel cell box contains fuel cards designed to derive energy from the heat of charcoal burning around the box. The other part is a rechargeable handle that remains outside the stove to collect and store the energy. Disconnect the handle after the fire cools and use it to charge a phone or light the included LED. The Voto is designed for developing nations where cookstoves and kerosene lamps are the norm. It's a superb idea, though the initial cost could be a barrier for those who most need this and similar gadgets.

SPEED CHARGE: Charging a cellphone seems to have grown quicker over the years, but Eesha Khare of California thinks it should take only 20 seconds. She's invented a tiny flexible supercapacitor that can last for 10,000 charge-recharge cycles, compared with 1,000 cycles for conventional rechargeable batteries. So far she's only used her supercapacitor to power an LED but she says it could fit inside cellphones and other portable electronics. There's only one question: how soon?

OH, H2: There's one thing we have plenty of on this planet, and that's the ocean. So wouldn't it be useful if we could use seawater to power our homes and vehicles? Australian scientists have produced an artificial chlorophyll on a conductive plastic film that acts as a catalyst to begin splitting water. That's the first step to producing hydrogen for power. The research team say 5 litres of seawater could power an average-sized home and an electric car for a day, and their flexible catalyst could be used in portable devices. That daily dip in the ocean could perhaps refresh both you and your gadgets.

ELECTRIC DONUTS: How do you create a hydroelectric dam in the middle of the sea? With a donut-shaped island, of course. Belgium currently derives more than half its electricity from nuclear plants, but it wants to phase them out and use North Sea wind farms instead. One problem with that is how to store excess wind power for use when it's needed. The planned island will be built out of sand 3 km off the Belgian coast. Surplus power will be used to pump water out of the centre of the island and into the surrounding sea. When more electricity is needed the sea will be allowed to flow back in through turbines. Ingenious, but couldn't severe storms be rather a problem?

UP, DOWN, UP: How often does your electricity go out? It's a nuisance when it does, but after all, in places like New Zealand the power supply is pretty reliable. Of course, you may lose Internet for a bit, but the power comes back, your modem flashes its lights and all's well. Not so in places like Africa where the electricity supply is really unreliable. That's where the BRCK modem comes in to keep you online whatever happens. It works like a mobile phone, switching between wi-fi and 3G when a fixed line network is down. Add a SIM card to connect anywhere in reach of a cell tower. An 8 hour battery and an antenna to boost signal strength mean it can work almost anywhere. It'd be very handy for disaster relief too.

RIGHT LIGHTS: Light pollution is a huge waste of energy and money, damages our health and stops us from enjoying the natural wonders of the night sky. Unfortunately conventional sodium or mercury vapour streetlights contribute to the problem, scattering and leaking light in all directions. Now a team of researchers has an idea for LED streetlights that send a rectangle of light on to the street where it's useful. A special lens focuses the light's rays so they travel parallel to each other in a single direction, while a reflecting cavity captures any rays that escape. Meanwhile a diffuser reduces glare. Now they're working on a prototype that can prove the concept. Let's keep the skies dark.

Miraz Jordan, knowit.co.nz

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 23 Jul 2014 16:31:37 Processing Time: 411ms