New Energy Conservation Technology

Roland Piquepaille has a very good post on his Technology Trends blog, “Creating energy from wasted heat.” Although much of the news about climate change has been grim (both the severity of the situation and the lack of political willingness, at least in the US, to even admit there is a problem), it is important to remember that there are remedies available.

This one is a new technology that takes the considerable heat lost in the production of electricity and uses it to generate more electricity. When most people talk about conservation, they generally mean the belt-tightening kind, the sort that it is difficult to get implemented on a wide-scale basis in the absence of a crisis (or a considerable price increase). They often forget that conservation also means more efficient use of resources, which is what this approach does.

This sort of solution is ideal from a political and practical standpoint. It doesn’t force people to make tough choices; instead, it in essence reclaims waste product (in this case, heat). And 90% of the world’s power comes from turning heat into electricity, so this technology has broad-scale application.

Of course, this technology hasn’t been proven on a large scale, and it takes longer to introduce new technology in the energy arena than in other fields.

And there is possibly another danger: possible misguided government intervention. Mind you, I am a big fan of things like a gas tax, energy tax, or a carbon tax (with say some tax credits to the poor to offset their regressiveness) but I am leery of direct government sponsorship. Not that I think the government is inefficient (the usual conservative charge) but that it is corrupt.

Exhibit 1: in the wake of September 11, there was a tremendous interest in new security measures, such as biometric IDs, face recognition technologies, and new datamining technologies. What happened? Every company that had a technology that they couldn’t sell to a bank (remember, banks are keenly interested in security) dusted it off and tried selling it to the Feds. And what got bought had very little to do with the merits of the technology and everything to do with the political connections of the people involved. Think Halliburton, just on a smaller scale.

Back to Piquepaille:

Today, about 90 percent of the world’s electricity is created through an indirect and inefficient conversion of heat. It is estimated that two thirds of the heat used by thermoelectric converters are wasted and released. But now, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have found a new way to convert this wasted heat into electricity by trapping organic molecules between metal nanoparticles. So far, this method of creating electricity creation is in its very early stage, but if it can scale up to mass production, it may lead to a new and inexpensive source of energy.

Let’s start with a quote from Arunava Majumdar, , UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering.

Generating 1 watt of power requires about 3 watts of heat input and involves dumping into the environment the equivalent of about 2 watts of power in the form of heat,” said Arun Majumdar. “If even a fraction of the lost heat can be converted into electricity in a cost-effective manner, the impact it would have on energy can be enormous, amounting to massive savings of fuel and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions….

So will this research lead to a new and inexpensive source of energy? In “Scientists Turns Heat into Electricity,” Red Herring gives some additional comments (February 16, 2007).

Still, the technology is at the “science project stage,” said nanotechnology consultant Scott Mize, explaining that it will likely take a while to bring the technology to market. But that’s normal for the energy sector, he said.

A lot of the technology that we see today is information technology which tends to be developed very quickly, but when you’re talking about energy, it takes a lot longer to get that into the marketplace.

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