Emerging technologies: a mix of the worthy and the weird

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By: SGN Staff

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By Doug Peeples

SG News Editor

 

One thing about smart grid and related technologies is that there's never a shortage of innovation, whether it's a new twist on an old concept or something so new it makes you wonder how someone could think up something like that. And some that are just plain strange.

 

If you think the explosion in wind power and other renewable energy sources makes them a hot spot for innovation – and competition – you'd be correct. As Green Energy News rightly points out, wind turbines are like other technologies: they get old and out of date and are replaced by newer, more efficient and cheaper versions.

 

Building a better wind turbine

Case in point: GE is working on fabric-on-frame turbine blades. The well-known player in the smart grid sector expects the fabric-covered frame blades will be lighter, so they will turn more easily in the wind and be easier to transport – and cheaper to manufacture. If it sounds kind of old school, that's because it is. Early designs look a lot like sails, or the fabric-covered wings of the first successful airplanes.

 

And another company, Sheerwind, is taking a different approach entirely. As you can see in the photo, the Sheerwind system looks nothing at all like a typical wind turbine assembly: no rotor, no blades and the power generation component is on the ground.

 

It's basically a funnel head connected to a tapering tube that speeds up the air flow. The accelerated air powers a generator that is installed on the ground. Several towers can be connected to the same generator. Sheerwind says its system is about half as tall as a typical wind tower and that the ground-based turbine uses blades that are 84% smaller than those on the typical installation. Operating and maintenance costs are lower because fewer generators are needed, and power output is higher. Sheerwind says the system is equally appropriate for large-scale wind farms and micro-generation.

 

And a better battery?

Fluidic Energy has been working on an interesting battery technology for years, and more recently quietly conducting demos with customers. Fluidic says the first application for its zinc-air battery has been replacing diesel or lead-acid battery backup systems for telecommunications towers. Metal-air batteries are said to have the potential for more energy storage than lithium-ion batteries used in EVs and some grid storage applications, and also could be less expensive than lead-acid batteries, now the cheapest and most widely used rechargeable batteries.

 

Fluidic's battery also includes air electrodes that can outlive others on the market by five to seven times. While it would be tempting to say "Well, let's put them in EVs if they're cheaper and last longer," but as Cody Friesen, Fluidic's found and chief technology officer told MIT Technology Review, "We're not anywhere close to that." A catch is that in the past, metal-air batteries haven't been all that efficient, wasting about half of their stored energy – although Friesen said his company has taken care of that problem.

Pssstt... wanna see something strange?

Some will likely say this is an appropriate blend of minimalist art and science and others are likely to say it's just plain weird. But Dutch design company Tjep has come up with what it refers to as an Isolée, a small off the grid retreat that opens at both ends like a cupboard. A "solar tree" projecting from the roof rotates to gather the solar needed to fully power the unusual retreat. The combined technologies incorporated are intended to make it completely self-sufficient, and the three-story building sits atop a concrete pier foundation to make impact on the site as minimal as possible. A wood-burning stove heats water which is piped through the walls for heating. You might question the sustainability of burning wood for heating, but Tjep is scouting for investors turn its concept into the real thing.

 

Solar islands... not quite as strange?

Swiss company Viteos plans to build three floating solar arrays on Switzerland's Lake Neufchatel. The energy company is working with tech firm Nolaris to construct the islands, which would be 82 feet in diameter. The islands are not intended to be working power plants, but the focus of a 25-year R&D project to evaluate the corrosive effects of water, waves and wind on the installation. Each island is expected to generate 33 kW of electricity and rotate 280 degrees to track the sun for maximum solar energy collection. The islands are scheduled for deployment in early 2014. If you're interested in this kind of thing, read the earlier Smart Grid News story on a detailed concept of a "dynamic floating offshore solar field" from DNV.

 

Taking wireless vehicle charging out of the lab

We've mentioned R&D projects on inductive, aka wireless, charging for vehicles before but those were primarily miniature scale efforts intended for laboratory research. Canadian multinational Bombardier, known for aircraft and mass transportation among other things, is taking its show on the road, or rather on rails. Its Berlin, Germany, rail division plans to conduct a test run of a wireless electric bus recharging system in Mannheim, based on the company's PRIMOVE Technology. The thinking is to find out if inductive charging works in the real world. Buses will be retrofitted with the PRIMOVE system which will receive current through the air from equipment embedded in the roadbed. Testing and evaluation is to run for 12 months and will lay the groundwork for future testing. The trick is to use the right size batteries: they can be small as they will be recharged frequently but must be large enough to ensure a bus can finish its daily route without needing to stop just to recharge.

 

Ever heard of pedestrian energy?

You might have, as the idea of harvesting energy from human body movements isn't entirely new. But Central Michigan University students are building an electrical panel that will collect the "vibrational energy" of pedestrian footsteps  as they walk in and out of the college's Engineering and Technology building. This student-run project "...is about generating energy through human footsteps and using that energy to sustain a system without batteries," said assistant professor of engineering Tolga Kaya. "This is a small prototype. If this works, similar panels could be installed in train stations or settings that experience heavy vehicle traffic like highways." It may be one of the cheapest research projects around: the budget for the panel is $1,500.

 

As always, you are encouraged to use the Talk Back form to share your thoughts – and to share emerging technologies and concepts you find interesting... or at least entertaining.