Plucking Power from Thin Air

By Zane Scott, Vice President of Professional Services

Paleobiologist Meredith Perry dreamed of a battery charger that could recharge batteries without a wired connection to the power source from which the power was drawn. That technology existed but was severely limited to very short distances because the electromagnetic power driving it degraded in intensity directly in proportion to the distance of the battery from the power source.

She recognized that the energy from mechanical vibrations would not be subject to the degrading effects that distance has on electromagnetic energy. Energy transmitted through sound vibrations would travel greater distances without losing its power-producing capability. By using transducers to capture the energy in the vibrations batteries could be recharged at greater distances from the power source. She leveraged the power of ultrasound to create an even greater reservoir of power, focused it on a gathering device that could convert the sound to electricity and is on the way to productizing the long-range charging devices.

In a separate effort, a group of professors and graduate students representing several colleges are perfecting the use of the photoelectric effect to convert excess heat into electric power. By developing a way to use the photo galvanic effect to capitalize on relatively low temperature differences to produce electricity, the group has provided the basis for placing batteries into contact with heat being lost from industrial processes in order to capture the escaping heat as electric power stored in the batteries. Energy lost as escaping heat is captured as useful battery power.

What do these two very different technologies have in common? They both rest on the recognition that energy is being lost from a productive process and is available recapture and use. By redirecting the inefficiency into productive use the overall rate of energy production can be reduced. This means that fewer scarce resources are consumed to produce a given level of energy. The critical insight is that the inefficiency exists in the system and that it creates the opportunity for recapture.

This is a systems insight. It can only be seen through the lens of a systems understanding. That ultrasound and industrial processes consume energy that is lost into the environment is a concept understood only when the processes that produce the heat and ultrasound are understood as systems processes. This understanding results not only in new technologies that provide conveniences like remote battery charging but in the good stewardship of precious resources through their efficient use. Yet again this bears witness to the importance of the systems perspective and thinking.

As these technologies develop and mature this systems view will remain important. It is the shield against unintended consequences. For example, just as in the days when microwaves were being developed, the voices that raise the environmental and health concerns will be important so that the technology brings us its intended benefits without introducing harmful side effects from its propagation. This reinforces the value of the systems view in the inception and development of new technologies like these.

Leave a Reply