Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Discovery of new way to generate electricity means batteries could be powered by water

The battery of the future could be powered by nothing but water following the discovery of the first entirely new way to generate electricity in more than 160 years.

Though hydro-electric uses water to drive turbines to generate electricity, the technique found by two Canadian scientists is the first to convert water directly into electricity. The last new forms of electricity discovered was solar power and proton exchange membranes in 1839.

Initial applications could be mobile phones and other electronic devices that use rechargeable batteries, but Larry Kostiuk and Daniel Kwok, researchers at the University of Alberta who made the discovery, think that, in time, it could even be used for full-scale power generation. The "water battery" would be non-polluting, non-toxic and completely portable. And it could be ready for commercial application before the end of the decade. The discovery uses the movement of water through microscopic channels to generate electricity by using just a hand-operated syringe, some water and a piece of glass 1cm in diameter and 3mm long. It is a breakthrough application of nanotechnology, the science of molecule-sized artefacts.

And it was also a complete accident, caused by Dr Kostiuk's decision, after he was appointed head of the university's department of engineering, to discover what his colleagues were doing. One of those was Dr Kwok.

"How long did we work on it? Oh boy, it's embarrassing," said Dr Kostiuk, who normally works in the field of combustion chemistry. "It's not like we laboured for years. One afternoon I went to visit Daniel, and he was explaining what he did in electrokinetics [the science of electrical charge in moving substances such as water]."

Dr Kwok explained how, when water travels over a surface, the ions that it is made up of "rub" against the solid. That leaves the surface slightly charged. With water being made up of positive and negative elements, those with the same charge as the surface are slightly repelled; those with the opposite charge are attracted. That creates a thin liquid layer which has a net charge, known as the electric double layer. "So I said, 'If you separate the charges, then it looks a lot to me like a battery,'" recalled Dr Kostiuk. At which Dr Kwok abruptly started looking at his work with fresh eyes. "It derailed my whole afternoon," said Dr Kostiuk. "We spent hours talking about how you would generate electricity from it."

The work is published today by the Institute of Physics journal, Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

And might it one day power everything? "You'd need a really big area, like a coastal region," said Dr Kostiuk. "But then again, I guess, those are available, aren't they?" For a clean, free form of electricity, the answer must surely be yes.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Stateline.org: Hawaiian legislator makes waves for renewable energy..

Hawaiians pay the highest electricity rates in the nation due to their dependence on imported gas and oil to generate energy. But state Rep. Cynthia Thielen believes the Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by the cleanest, cheapest and most abundant source of energy in the world – the ocean.

Thielen, the assistant Republican leader in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, hopes that Hawaii will soon become a leader in generating electricity by harnessing the power of the ocean’s waves.

“Hawaii has one of the best wave climates in the world, we could virtually power our island on wave energy for one third the cost of fossil fuel generated electricity, but without any negative impact on the environment,” Thielen said in a telephone interview.

Thielen, who turned 70 in September and is in her seventh term in the legislature, has been a life-long environmentalist. Although she is a Republican and considers herself a fiscal conservative, she has been a vocal critic of the state’s environmental policies and supports developing clean sources of renewable energy - an area she said Hawaii is woefully lacking in.

She said island nations like Japan and England have been experimenting with wave power technology since the 1970’s with mixed results, but technological developments made in the past decade have made wave power economically feasible.

On the Scottish isle of Islay, for example, the world’s first commercial wave power station has been generating enough clean, renewable energy to power 400 homes for the past three years, Thielen said.

Although many wave energy devices have been invented, none operate on a large scale and very few have been tested in a real ocean environment, energy experts say.

Thielen believes that wave power could not only lower electricity rates, but also reduce pollution by lessening Hawaii’s consumption of fossil fuels.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

ENN News Story - Isolated hamlet in Indian forest gets electricity from seed-powered generator

KAMMEGUDA, India — Deep in the tropical forests of southern India, the Kolam people were untouched by telephones, cars, or television, and they went to bed at dusk because there was no electricity.

Their village is still far from a road or a power line. Yet for the past year, dozens of 40-watt light bulbs have begun to glow in the mud-and-bamboo huts after the sun sets.

The villagers have found that electricity grows on trees — specifically the seeds of the Karanji trees in the nearby forest, which they're turning into biodiesel fuel to power a generator.

Instead of going to sleep at sunset, children are now busy practicing their alphabet in the community center each evening, writing their names on black slates and showing them to proud village elders, who never went to school.

"Our place has changed a lot," said Kammeguda's oldest man, Aathram Maru Patel, who does not recall his age and has never been away from the village.

The Kolams gather the seeds from the surrounding forest and take a few hours to extract the oil, using a mill powered by the generator that provides the electricity. There is substantially less pollution than from petroleum-based diesel and no power bill.

"With lights, we can chase away snakes and animals that stray into our village in the night. We can catch the occasional thief also," said Lakshmi Bai, chosen by her community to manage the tiny power station. "Earlier, we used to put our children to sleep early, but now we make them study under the lights," she said.

Udupi Shrinivasa, a gray-haired, bespectacled mechanical engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Science, walked into the village more than a year ago and lit up the Kolams' lives.

For years, he had been teaching the institute's students about the mechanics of the diesel engine and the plan of its German inventor, Rudolph Diesel, for it to run on vegetable oils as a source of cheap energy.

Researchers around the world are working on replacing oil-based diesel with biodiesel fuels, which can be made from a variety of agricultural products from animal fat to soybeans, and Shrinivasa decided to apply that idea for the benefit of power-starved Indians.

"All we did was to take this rudimentary technology to people who had no means of getting all the energy they needed," he said at his office in Bangalore, 560 miles south of this village in Andhra Pradesh state.

Until about 10 years ago the Kolams hunted animals for food and lived in isolation. The state government then weaned the tribe away from hunting and they now keep poultry and cattle. The electrical system has brought further change, and people from other villages in the forest are coming to see the lights of Kammeguda.

At sunset, the generator starts up and lights about 60 bulbs in 35 households, the 100-square-foot community center with bamboo walls, and the village's single lane. As children study in the center, people sing community prayers and women paint their palms with decorative patterns of henna, a bright red, herbal paste.

Women no longer have to walk several miles to fetch water. The generator runs a pump that draws underground water for storage in an overhead tank.

Next on the village's wish list is a television set and a video cassette player.

Shrinivasa says the experiment in Kammeguda points to a possible solution of the power shortages that hinder economic expansion in India, home to 1 billion people. And biodiesel generators also could help cut India's annual $18 billion bill for oil imports, he said.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Water shortage close to crisis levels in Middle East: World Bank

The water shortage problem is close to crisis levels in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region a senior World Bank official warned Sunday.

"Fresh water availability is falling to crisis levels in MENA countries," said Jean-Louis Sarbib, senior vice president of the World Bank, speaking at a conference on the sidelines of the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Dubai.

Annual per capita fresh water availability in MENA countries is about 1,200 cubic meters (1,600 cubic yards) compared with a world average of about 7,000 to 7,500 cubic meters (9,000 to 9,700 cubic yards), according to Sarbib.

He said the figure for Yemen is about 500 cubic meters (650 cubic yards), almost half the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters (1,300 cubic yards).

Sarbib said nearly 70 percent of municipal water in cities like Amman goes unaccounted for, while Egypt recovers only two percent of its irrigation costs.

Jordan's Minister of Water and Irrigation Hazim el-Naser said the problem lies in the fact that many countries in the region have "no long-term vision" regarding the water issue.

The World Bank has made the politically-charged issue of scarce water resources one of its so-called millennium development goals.

Although the MENA region accounts for five percent of the world population, it has only one percent of accessible fresh water worldwide, according to the World Bank.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Thai architect hits on blueprint for sustainable living in the tropics

n a gated community just outside the teeming megalopolis of Bangkok, Soontorn Boonyatikarn's three-bedroom home appears much like any other, with the solar panelling on the roof the only hint that something out of the ordinary lies beneath.

Soontorn calls this home a blueprint for sustainable living in the tropics: the unassuming house is 15 times more energy efficient than its neighbours, produces enough surplus electricity to power a car and creates its own water-supply and cooking gas.

"This house is a dream house for the future," says the architect, who challenged himself to build a self-sufficient dwelling in Thailand three years ago and has now been living in it for six months.

To meet his goal, Soontorn needed to design a house which had energy needs that could be met by solar panels squeezed onto its roof -- one fifteenth the area required to supply a typical house with solar energy.