Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rounding up the Power

Power generation remains the cornerstone of our modern society, and that is not changing any time soon. Today I have a selection of things from recent news ranging from innovation to research, and all pointing to a future I want to see.

First we go to Rwanda where Nuru Energy is using rechargeable LED lights coupled with wall socket, solar, and even pedal powered recharging systems to displace kerosene lamps. Sounds to me like a brilliant step forward, using today's technologies in an innovative way to help solve common issues and drive economic growth. Honestly, I think the US could use more stuff like this too.  Would it encourage you to exercise if your bike or elliptical had a system that meant an hour of use could charge your iDevices, phones, and laptops for days?

Next ArsTechnica presents a survey of nuclear power in the US based on a report from the Federation of American Scientists. With a new reactor approved for construction for the first time in decades, the increasing age of existing reactors, and the shadow of Fukushima lingering, nuclear power remains a divisive issue. It also remains a cornerstone of the power industry, but for how much longer?

Moving up the technology spectrum a bit to solar power, a company in Mississippi claims to have created a manufacturing process that can nearly halve the construction costs of photovoltaic panels. While announcements like this seem common, Twin Creeks Technologies says their development is ready for sale today. And while their initial focus was on solar panel manufacturing, they claim the technology has potential to be useful in the manufacturing of LEDs, electronics, and image sensors as well.

Moving into the realm of theory, fusion research continues. Even starting a fusion reaction is difficult, and scientists have long been looking at both inertial and magnetic methods for confining fusion fuel long enough to get it to actually fuse. Now they are looking at using magnetic fields to boost the efficiency of inertial confinement methods. And if none of that made any kind of sense to you, the article gives a brief overview of what inertial confinement means: lots of lasers making things go boom.

And now off to the land of the science fiction future where we meet some scientists in England who are researching ways of harvesting radio waves to power low-power devices such as remote controls and clocks. I love this idea. OK, I like any idea that could get rid of batteries, but this one just sounds like the proverbial "sufficiently advanced technology." Couple this with the current power-saving trends in computer chip manufacturing and you could see a Tesla-esque future where most devices harvest broadcast power.

Finally, I can hardly write round-up like this without including some news about my favorite not-quite-there-yet technology: supercapacitors. A recent Science article seems to be describing a method of using graphene (single molecule thick sheets of  carbon) to create flexible, high energy supercapacitors. Reports on this paper seem a bit light on the details. Specifically, there is no number attached to the all-important energy density of the capacitors, so this may not be the big breakthrough we need, but fingers crossed and all that.