The Alternative Crowd: Unusual Renewable Energies0

Ysabel Yates | Sun Jul 8 2012

Considering their popularity, “alternative energy” is almost a misnomer for increasingly mainstream energy sources like wind, solar and biofuels. Some alternative energies still fit the title, however. These renewables, which will principally provide power for small devices, use unusual sources to create their juice, including vibrations, clothing, viruses, water — even the movements of the human body.

The ability to generate electricity from these alternative sources is critical for powering gadgets in remote places, like on top of bridges or underwater. And having cellphones powered by vibrations means that we won’t have to stay close to our chargers anymore. The only question is: how long will we have to wait until these energies are part of the “it” crowd?

Some are ready…

Some “alternative” alternatives have been commercially developed for years. Take people power, for example. Gyms powered by their patrons are springing up all over the world, and it’s not hard to see why: one popular franchise, Portland, Oregon’s Green Microgym, claims its patrons (with the help of solar panels) generated 36 percent of the electricity it needed in 2010.

Others have far to go

Many fringe alternatives are not ready yet for commercial development. Again, consider human power: the latest innovations include a knee brace that harvests kinetic energy, and a backpack that produces energy from walking, although neither of these have release dates. But, there is a bright spot: an energy-generating sidewalk has a concrete (no pun intended) launch date set for the 2012 London Olympics, when it will be used to help power Europe’s largest urban mall.

Power to the people, from the people.

Other alternatives in development include energy generated from shock absorption, and electricity-harvesting viruses, both of which won’t be ready for quite some time. We also won’t be wearing the recently developed T-shirt battery for at least another decade.

The hydrogen frontier

Hydrogen has been an up-and-coming fuel for decades now. But some small devices, like the RoboJelly,  are finally delivering on the promise of the abundant element. This robotic jellyfish can convert the hydrogen in water into fuel, giving it an unlimited power source. It gets extra points for being biomimetic. The hydrogen fueled prototype is still anchored to the tank, but great strides have been made in the four years of research dedicated to the ‘bot.

Finally, speaking of hydrogen, researchers at Harvard recently developed a hydrogen fuel cell capable of both converting energy to hydrogen, and storing it like a battery. Currently, it saves only three and a half minutes worth of power, but the researchers maintain that it is a proof of concept and expect to have a more advanced version ready for testing within two years.

Unusual doesn’t mean unusable.

Decreasing the cost, increasing the efficiency, or developing the technologies on a large enough scale are important issues at hand when it comes to commercially releasing these unusual renewables.

Still, unusual doesn’t mean unusable. Many of these technologies show great potential for one day providing power where wind, solar, or biofuel can’t.

Top image: The bacteriophage Epsilon15 studied by Wen Jiang from Purdue University. The bacteriophage is shown at a resolution of 4.5 angstroms – the highest resolution achieved for a living organism of this size. Courtesy Wen Jiang lab.