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Electric Fabric—An Energy Technology Bob Mackie Would Love

Michael Kanellos: September 1, 2008, 6:10 AM
Copenhagen – It can be strong like steel, but shimmer like silk. It's PolyPower, a somewhat astounding material devised by Danfoss, the Danish industrial giant. The fabric contracts and expands with small jolts of electricity. Give it a zap, and the fabric shrinks up. Take away the power, and it expands again. Because it is flexible and very thin, PolyPower can be manipulated in various ways for different jobs. At a demonstration at Copenmind, a three-day conference hoping to link up university researchers with corporations and investors, scientists showed how a roll of PolyPower – about half the diameter of a full roll of paper towels – can lift a five kilometer weight a few millimeters when jolted with a small dose of power. When the power stops, the weight drops. The PolyPower roll, however, weighs far less than a steel piston, which makes it cheaper and more energy efficient to ship. It also won't wear out or start to wear out its cylinder. PolyPower also works efficiently. The zap of electricity essentially turns the sheet of material into a capacitor, explained Hans-Erik Kiil, director of research and development at Danfoss PolyPower (To commercialize the technology, Danfoss created a separate company.) Thus, when the material contracts or expands, the energy is being delivered directly. In a traditional piston system, energy is delivered to a mechanical device (the piston) and the mechanical device then moves the object. The material has a number of uses. Rolls of the fabric could be used to close valves or position sensors. You could also coat the end of robot actuators with the fabric. The movement and shrink of the fabric can be precisely controlled, he said. You could also prevent the material from stretching after it gets a blast of electricity. This would allow force to build up In another demo, Danfoss researchers used a piece to transmit sound, like a speaker. In the future, the fabric could even be used to harvest ambient power, he said. In the pictures, you're looking at a few rolls of PolyPower and a strip of PolyPower used to pull two metal objects on a track together. But check out the wacky champagne gold color. Couldn't you see Cher wearing a dress made of that singing "Half Breed." Other companies have tried this in the past. Danfoss, though, says its material is different in that it requires very little energy and can be made cheaply. The film is produced with the roll-to-roll process used in plastics. I have to admit. It was one of the cooler demos I've seen in a while.

What’s Hot in Green Patents—Wind Power and Fuel Cells

Michael Kanellos: September 1, 2008, 5:43 AM
Copenhagen--Here's a surprise for you who like to study intellectual property. The European Patent Office gets more patent applications for fuel cells and wind power technologies than any other category in the new energy market, said Victor Veefkind and Thomas Maxisch, two patent examiners for the EPO during a presentation at Copenmind, a three-day conference aiming to link up investors with university researchers. Fuel cells accounted for approximately 50 percent of the new energy patent applications submitted between 1998 and 2007, inclusive. Wind, however, is growing the fastest, with 31 percent more patent applications being filed every year. Fuel cells is second in that category with a 20 percent annual growth rate. The new energy average is 20 percent. (The EPO gets about 2,000 new energy patents a year.) The applications come from companies around the world-- often organizations will file applications in Europe, the U.S. and Japan for the same invention. So what gives? History plays a part in the fuel cell explosion. Ten years ago, fuel cell cars seemed more realistic, said Maxisch. Thus, the growth will likely peak as fuel cell cars continue to get pushed into the future, if they ever come. Still, fuel cells won't completely disappear. Companies such as United Technologies are seeing increased demand for stationary fuel cells that can provide backup or main power for industrial plants and hospitals. But wind? Isn't wind a mature industry? Why all the activity around inventions? Although wind power is well understood, it's not easy, explained Veefkind. A large number of the patent applications filed deal with things like de-icing, off-shore maintenance, new materials for blades, protecting turbines from lighting strikes and wind farm architecture. Wind turbines have also surged in size. In the 70s, a good turbine might crank out 200 kilowatts. Now big ones can churn 5 megawatts and are far larger than their 70s counterparts. Several patents deal with how to transport these things. Germany, by the way, accounts for 39 percent of wind EPO patent applications. Germany gets 7 percent of its power from wind. The U.S. is second with 16 percent, although the U.S. only gets 1 percent or less of its power from wind. Denmark, home of turbine giant Vestas and strong winds, is third with 9 percent of applications. Denmark, though, gets 19.7 percent of its electricity from wind.