[pagebreak:The 10 Wackiest Greentech Ideas]
To make money in greentech, you can try to come up with a slightly cheaper solar panel, or a biofuel process that can extract 110 (versus 100) gallons per ton of dried vegetable matter.
But to get people to scratch their heads and send you flame mails, you’ve really got to dance on the fringes of science. In that spirit, here’s my list of the wackiest greentech ideas.
Some might work -- synthetic biology sounded like crazy talk five years ago. Some might pave the way for commercially viable technologies. And others might fade away. Check back with me in five years.
1. Generating Electricity from Nothing:
Via the Seebeck Effect (coined by Estonian physicist Thomas Seebeck), electric current can be generated by the energy differences between two materials in close proximity. Germany's EnOcean has sensors that can generate power where a hot pipe fronts cool air.
But others say they can do away with extreme temperature deltas and generate power from two materials at room temperature. It’s about as close as perpetual motion as you can get.
The CEA, France’s Nuclear Commission, has an ambient thermoelectric generator that can put out 4 milliwatts per square centimeter for every (Celsius) degree difference. And in the United States, entrepreneur Andrew Surany said at a Dow Jones Conference in 2007 that it’s possible to generate power at room temperature with materials altered by nuclear fusion.
"I'm talking about embedding cells into doors or the panels on a car,” he told me.
2. The Self-Powered Hydrogen Plant:
Under this scenario, offshore platforms would harvest power from deep-sea waves to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
Some of the hydrogen could be used to power the offshore platform, while the rest could be shipped to mainland fuel cells. (Ocean pressure on the undersea pipeline would liquefy the gas and make it easier to transport.)
Scoff all you want, but it’s a scenario being contemplated at the national labs.
3. The Refrigerator on a Chip:
Cool Chips was at one time my favorite company to cover, for the sheer entertainment value.
Based in Gibraltar, the company claimed to have invented a chip-sized device that could suck electrons out of a contained space.
It was always on the verge of more fully discussing its prototypes. It said it had big-name licensees lined up. It even had a secret lab in an unidentified city in Russia. "We don't want to be more precise for security reasons--both to protect our people there and to protect our (intellectual property)," a spokesman told me in 2004.
And its logo was a porpoise holding a pickaxe.
The company is still out there. Click here for its patent applications.
This one actually is somewhat realistic. Israel’s BioPetrol wants to take human sewage and convert it into liquid fuels through thermochemical processes. (It’s the same trick the Third Reich used to turn coal into tank fuel.)
In one stroke, the idea would end offshore drilling, slash the cost of oil and eliminate the problem and cost of disposing of human waste.
A ton of high-quality sludge can produce about 30 kilograms of fuel, according to the company.
But it’s not in high-volume production yet.
5. Energy Towers:
Another idea from our friends in Israel. In this scenario, courtesy of professor Dan Zaslavsky, water droplets at the top of a tower would evaporate, causing hot desert air to cool.
The air would sink and be directed into a turbine, effectively generating wind power. A 50-megawatt energy tower would have to be more than 600 meters high and stretch a few hundred meters wide, so the neighbors might have a few questions about structural integrity.
But I like the “Look about you, young Grasshopper, and feel the universe” aspect of this concept.
[pagebreak:Wackiest Ideas: Continued]
6. Imperium Renewables:
Geez. Did I say that? Excuse me all over the place (see Another Setback for Imperium).
7. The Portable Nuclear Plant:
These plants could churn out 70 megawatts of heat, or 27 megawatts of power. They distribute nuclear power, which is good from a meltdown point, and bad from a meltdown point. The technology comes from Los Alamos National Labs.
Bonus points to Hyperion for putting a picture of San Francisco Victorians in the “News” section of its Web site. It makes it seem like Grover Cleveland could have owned one.
8. The Geodesic Dome:
This is a walk down memory lane for those of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. These soccer ball-like domes, championed by Buckminster Fuller, represented the future of construction: light, large, potentially cheap.
The only problem is that you can’t build internal walls easily, so the family all lives in one room. And they leak. And sometimes they go up in flames. The domes faded away about the same time my mom stopped letting me buy Space Food Sticks.
Another theory taught in my high school that’s been debunked.
The idea, coined in the 17th century by Johann Becher, was that combustion was caused by a fifth element undiscovered by the Greeks. We now know goblins cause it.
10. Photovoltaic Dyes:
Konarka Technologies and others have shown that dyes can harvest solar power. The problem is that the time for these to become a big market may have passed. By the time dyes are ready for mass production, only niche markets may be left.
Honorable Mention: Ocean Seeding
Planktos and Climos. Spooky idea, but great names. “I am Planktos. I fight with the strength of 10 men.”