Sunday, February 18, 2007

Making Electricity

I glanced at this story (my inner pedant requires that I point out that the title "New Energy Source? ... " is inaccurate as what it describes is in fact only a potentially more efficient method of transferring energy - this seems to have produced some confusion in the comments section of the story) a few days ago and didn't think much of it, but it just occurred to me that a practical development of this technology would be pretty revolutionary (except it is relevant because it is precisely, literally, not revolutionary [pardon the godawful pun]).

To summarise: some researchers at the University of California have worked out how to get the Seebeck effect to work in organic molecules. Organic molecules are much cheaper than elements like bismuth and tellerium, which have been the traditional materials used in thermoelectric converters. This raises the possibility of increasing the efficiency of power stations all over. I suppose it could also be relevant to Oceanic Thermal Energy Conversion.

Most electrical power stations in the world are glorified steam engines mated with something that vaguely resembles Pacinotti's dynamo. Heat is produced, either by burning something or sticking a load of uranium in a box and poking it with sticks, this heat melts water, producing steam, the expansion of which turns the rotors of the dynamo, generating voltage.

There's an episode of Futurama where Planet Express HQ suffers a power outage. Professor Farnsworth's response is an indignant "What do you mean no power! We're living in the future!" This is one of those lines that seems silly when you first hear it but becomes amusing much, much later, like when you're reading

Can you imagine the Death Star, Hot Needle of Inquiry, Problem Child or any of our favourite SF spacecraft/BDOs lugging around honking great big magnets to generate electricity?

The point I'm hovering around is that the future is solid-state, at least as far as the naked eye is concerned. Moving components for anything that doesn't need to move (i.e. where the object of energy expenditure is to move something e.g. in transport) is inefficient, and mechanical motion should be restricted to the smallest possible scale (i.e. molecular nanotechnology). BAM call me on that if there is some problem with this reasoning.

Majumdar, who is also a faculty scientist in materials science at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the field of organic thermoelectricity could open doors to a new, inexpensive source of energy. "The use of inexpensive organic molecules and metal nanoparticles offers the promise of low-cost, plastic-like power generators and refrigerators," he said.

In other words an alternative to the centralised, centrally controlled, and heavy-duty infrastructure we currently rely upon for electrical power. It's already happening with communications (although the Internet is no MANET yet, but one day...), and could happen with power generation with this and distributed generation technologies.

I apologise for over-hyping and ver-speculating about a seemingly minor, but potentially remarkable, breakthrough, but all this talk of throwing off the shackles of the state and living in self-dependent bliss brings out the crazy, survivalist, white-trash, libertarian, moisture-farmer in me (the one who gets Spider Jerusalem [adjective] all over the inner pedant).

Converting heat directly into electricity would make electricity-generation much more effective and efficient. It makes sense.

No comments: