Our society breathes power: whenever the lights go out, everything stops. Unfortunately the current electrical grids of the world are not capable of meeting the needs of the future. So where will we get power tomorrow? Quite possibly right from inside your own yard, if these three technologies become commercial…
1. Static power for small devices
Electricity is always around us. The challenge with power has not been a lack of electrons – the particles responsible for electric power – but how to urge electrons into action. We’re reminded of that abundance every time we get a shock of static electricity.
The phenomena of static electricity is the result of something called the triboelectric effect. This is when an object carries an electric charge and then comes in contact with a different object. The result is that stinging jolt we feel whenever we touch something on a dry day.
Static electricity is not powerful enough to run major appliances or machinery, yet it can boost less demanding equipment. For example, a new technique using teflon paper can generate enough juice to power e-ink displays, LEDs and infrared sensors.
Any business or home is littered with small devices syphoning power: alarm displays, temperature controllers, remotes, security sensors… the list goes on. Imagine the savings if each of those could generate their own power. With static electricity that may one day be entirely possible.
2. Power from heated surfaces
Power is generated in only a handful of ways. Most of the electricity we use emerges from magnets rotating against each other, with a much smaller portion coming from other technologies such as photovoltaic cells on solar panels that convert light into power.
But heat can also create power, when used correctly. Thermionic generators are still in their infancy – existing only inside laboratories. It’s not a new technology, yet has become much more practical with modern technologies. Thermionic generators could greatly increase the amount of power we get from large generators at power plants and may even one day provide local power for a home of business.
It’s a rather complicated technology, but the basics seem straightforward. Two plates are put in very close proximity to each other – less than a hair’s breadth. One is heated while the other remains cool. The resulting interaction creates a current of electricity at greater quantities than existing large generators. But it also requires careful engineering and construction, which is why the effect has only been accomplished in labs. Still, your grandchildren might one day use this technology everywhere.
3. The fuel cell revolution
The holy grail of power is to get off the grid. Once it made sense to feed everyone’s electricity needs from a central source. But as our demand for power grows, the old way of doing things simply doesn’t stand up anymore.
Currently creating your own power is either very expensive or pretty inefficient. But fuel cell generators could change that. These generate electricity through chemical processes, using the input of fuel or gas to kickstart the reaction. Unlike more conventional generators, which use magnets, fuel cells are much more efficient. That means far cheaper power that undercuts even the bulk production of power stations.
A lot of money and effort are going into fuel cell development and some international companies expect the concept to take off in 2016 and 2017. In a decade or so we may be using cheap fuel cell technology to fully power our homes and companies.