Technology

How electric jets will reinvent regional air travel

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Electric jets are going to revolutionize regional air travel, but how?

Flying interstate can be a hassle, usually costing at least $200 and 5+ hours of traveling door to door, not to mention security and other headaches. A new start-up called Zunum Aero plans to reinvent this, having announced plans to build a fleet of hybrid electric jets to sell to major carriers for use on densely traveled regional routes. The likes of San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX) or Boston (BOS) to Washington DC (DCA) are mentioned in an article released by The Verge this week.

“We’re entering the golden era where we’ll have high-speed links to every community on the backs of quiet, sustainable hybrid-electric technology, and that’s going to happen really fast.” – Ashish Kumar, CEO of Zanum Aero

It’s predicted that without the need to refuel the cost of travel could be reduced from 40 to 80 percent, and with fewer passengers would be subject to less security regulation. Although don’t expect things to change overnight, the first planes will roll off the assembly line in the early 2020s and planes which can carry up to 50 passengers and travel up to 1000 miles on a single charge are not expected until the 2030s.

The future for electric air travel does look very promising, this year an all-electric plane in Germany broke a record, flying 211 mph over a distance of under two miles. Airbus has also been developing its own electric plane prototype called the E-Fan concept, which flew across the English Channel in 2015.

So what about autonomous planes while we’re at it? According to an article by The Atlantic “On a 2.5 hour domestic flight, autopilots and flight-management systems typically do about 95 percent of the work.” Airliners like Boeing 777s and Airbus’s A330s can now fly further than earlier four-engine 747s, even with comparable passenger loads. They consume roughly 40 percent less fuel too it’s done with only two pilots instead of the three-cockpit crew of earlier airliners. Before the 1980’s the role of the third crew member was that of Flight Engineer, this was eliminated when controls were automated and placed in the pilot’s overhead panel.

It’s certainly clear that low cost, efficient, sustainable and even autonomous regional travel would be a welcome alternative to flying tiger airways to try and save a buck, advances in this industry could make common, regional flights like Sydney to Melbourne more viable for people and businesses, in the case of autonomy even totally redesigning how we live and work. However, it doesn’t look like there will be an overnight game changer in the short term, in the meantime we can dream about upgrading to Telsa’s new model X.

Technology

How thin can solar panels get?

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Solar panels called ‘Solar Paper’, due to their small size and weight, can now be used to charge a whole host of small appliances such as mobile phones or laptops.

Remember when computers were too heavy to lift? Depending on how old you are, maybe not. Either way, now they can fit into a pocket and the weight is barely noticeable. The same thing has happened with solar technology. First presented as heavy solar panels – that needed a lot of muscle to get them onto the roof –we are now at the other end of the spectrum. Solar panels called ‘Solar Paper’, due to their small size and weight, can now be used to charge a whole host of small appliances such as mobile phones or laptops.

Solar Paper fits into the pages of a book rather like a bookmark, only it’s a bit bigger than most bookmarks at 19x9cm and just 4mm thick. At the top end there is a USB charging port 11mm thick. Each ‘page’ of this solar panel device provides 2.5W of power. At 128gm you can easily stick two or three together and use them to charge up your phone, external battery, camera and other devices. In fact, four solar panels can be joined together to juice a larger device such as a laptop. And don’t worry, the devices are embedded with magnets so you won’t lose them.

Why would we want this?

Solar Paper is ideal for the person on the go who does not have time to take their phone home and wait for it to recharge. You don’t even have to find a power point to plug in your usual phone charger. Solar Paper means you can get power from the sun while you’re walking down the street, enjoying a coffee at an outdoor cafe, waiting to play tennis or riding a horse. It’s also ideal for camping, when there’s often no power available.

The best features

A nifty feature of Solar Paper is that it turns on automatically. Previous models switched off whenever a cloud hid the sun or if you walked through a shadow. They had to be rebooted manually. This could be annoying and frustrating, especially if you were busy and didn’t notice the shadow.

Another feature is the LCD screen that tells you how much power is being delivered at any one time. The advantage of this is that you can easily choose the correct angle of orientation to the sun for the best result. It also helps you understand how different kinds of weather will affect its ability to charge your device.

It’s water resistant, which is handy if a sudden shower strikes when you are out and about, or if your little brother sneaks up with a water pistol. There are also grommet holes, allowing you to attach it to things such as the outside of your backpack. So you can put it to work charging your phone while you are out on the go.

Why is it different to what is already available?

Many devices such as this that are already available don’t work because they’re too small to generate the amount of power needed. Others are too bulky to carry around easily. The new Solar Paper works well on just one panel and you can boost its power by adding up to three more panels, depending on the device you need to use it for most. These panels can still fold over for ease of transport when you are not using them; the magnets ensure that the parts will stay together.

Solar Paper solar panels are easy to carry around due to its compact size and light weight; you’ll hardly notice it. It certainly fills a niche, giving us a product we can trust to do the job we bought it for. And talking of buying – it is very affordable, given the usefulness it provides. You will no longer have to worry about your phone battery running out just when you need it most.

Upgrade by adding more

Three panels are advised for charging a Smartphone; this will be enough to charge it even in cloudy weather. The single panel will charge an external battery, iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy while four will be needed to charge an iPad Air 2.

Being able to decide on the amount of power – and therefore pages – you will need gives added versatility to this device. If you start off with the smaller size and find it is not quite enough, it is a simple matter to upgrade by adding another panel to the original. When the design of anything has obviously been well thought out, the result is something that almost everyone finds practical. Maybe one day something smaller and better will come along, but for now this has filled the niche, admirably ticking all the boxes of size, weight, affordability, ease of use and reliability.

Technology

Apps for a more sustainable life

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When the idea of living sustainably was just emerging there weren’t many resources for people who wanted to learn about sustainable practices.

Now, there is so much readily available information out there, as well as practical advice to help implement these ideas easily. More specifically we are talking about the type of help now available by downloading free apps onto your smart phone.

Sustainable transport

Transport is one of the many things that leave a large carbon footprint on our planet. Not only is fossil fuel consumption high in most countries, but the actual making of the vehicles is leaving a carbon footprint too.

While some people have already moved to hybrid vehicles, and it can be argued that more affordable models are being developed, hybrid vehicles still aren’t suitable for everyone’s budget. Even if you can afford a hybrid vehicle, the manufacturing of electric cars causes more than double the carbon dioxide emissions of making a conventional car. No matter what type of vehicle you own, you can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by cycling, walking or taking public transport whenever possible.

Wait, what about that app? Yes, there’s an app that can help you become more active in doing something about climate change. Better still, it rewards you for leaving your car at home. How? It calculates how much you use your car and how much you save by using any of the three alternative sustainable methods of transport.

You can then ‘purchase’ digital currency called Recoins – which are renewable energy coins. This digital currency is used to buy CO2 certificates to help fund climate protections projects. In this way you’ll be compensating for the carbon footprint created when you use your vehicle.

Not only is this app free and useful, using it can be lots of fun. You can have friendly competitions between friends, colleagues and companies to see who has saved the most. Since we all like a bit of friendly competition, this means the app is far more likely to be used. Enterprising companies could even offer small prizes for the winners.

For those who are time poor

There are only 24 hours in the day and sometimes you feel as if every one of them is filled to the brim with things to do. Another app of interest to people who feel like they are too busy to get involved in – or keep up with the news on sustainability – is the #climate app.

By using this app you can choose to hear climate change or sustainability news only from your favourite companies, e.g. Greenpeace. The app will curate the news for you and only send you projects that you have a particular interest in – once you have set up these parameters.

This is ideal for someone who works long hours and may have family commitments as well. People who would otherwise feel overwhelmed by adding more information to their daily agenda can get straight to what is relevant to them, by keeping tabs on what is happening in their chosen sub-sections of the sustainable world.

For those who need a reminder

When you’re pushed for time or have too much to think about you can easily forget the sustainable resolutions you’ve made. You may have resolved to decrease your carbon footprint, but before you know it, you’re following the same old routine over again simply because you’re on auto-pilot. When you’re ultra-busy you tend to do things from habit. If this sounds like you, another free app called Rippl would be perfect for you.

You can setup this app to give you reminders about things you want to do, like taking reusable bags to the supermarket instead of using their plastic ones. Locking such tips and reminders into your mobile phone and setting them to pop up daily (or more often) will help keep you on the straight and narrow by really simplifying the process of forming sustainable habits. You can choose the tips and the times of day to suit your lifestyle.

If you’re feeling truly enthusiastic, you can also jump into the deep end of this topic and schedule a whole heap of tips and tasks to come to your phone. The good thing about this app is that it was designed by environmental scientists from Ocean Conservancy, so the tips and recommendations are all science-based.

If you want your shopping to be sustainable

For those who want their shopping choices to be sustainable, check out the GoodGuide. This app has been developed by environmental scientists for those who want to know how the products they purchase stack up against more sustainable choices. Health and social performance ratings are other components of this app.

Scientists have devised a rating on a scale of 1-10 for health, safety and environment and the product score is based on an average of these three. So if you’re interested in purchasing safe, green, healthy and ethical products, this app will point you in the right direction.

As well as recommending products for you, the app incorporates a barcode scanner – so you can quickly and easily find the information you need on a product as you are shopping. This saves you looking up a whole list of products to find the one you want. It doesn’t get much easier than this! With more than 120,000 products incorporated into the app it’s highly likely that you will find what you’re after in there.

All these excellent apps will help make it easier to make living sustainably an established habit – in place of sustainable practices that are too hard to find and maintain in today’s busy life. There are many other apps on the market as well, so it could be worth searching for them too, if these don’t fit all of your sustainability needs.

Technology

What’s new in batteries?

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Many of us have been caught out with dead car batteries, or missed an important call because we forgot to charge our smart phones. So it’s a relief to hear about improvements that extend the life of the not-so humble battery.

It’s not only the power stored in batteries that is important, but a battery’s staying power, size, weight and ability to charge up quickly – not to mention the cost. Another important factor is safety. The elements used in batteries can be dangerous to handle, but people who use them don’t usually come into contact with these elements. However, if a battery degrades and is touched it can cause an acid burn. Also some elements in some batteries are flammable.

Batteries and technology

There are many different kinds of batteries and it’s important to get the right one for the job. Experts are working constantly on new technology to improve batteries – we’ve all seen the giant leaps forward in innovation over the last decade. This is an ongoing scenario with constant improvements – both big and little – all of which are important in the general scheme of things.

Technology is not the only consideration when it comes to improvements in batteries. It also has to be mixed with other factors such as affordability, lightness and the amount of deliverable power in each battery. Cosmos Magazine detailed a number of the latest trends in batteries which we’ve summarised below.

The lithium ion battery

Regarded as the champ of batteries, the lithium ion can be used for just about everything; from cars to small appliances and your household solar power supply. In fact, they have the potential to allow home-owners with solar power to make considerable savings. While the technology used in these batteries is mature and reliable, there are some safety concerns. Airline passengers are warned of the risk of fire, especially if appliances containing lithium ion batteries are stored in the luggage section, where a fire can break out unnoticed until it’s too late. It is better to keep such devices in the cabin where the risk can be minimised.

However, aeroplanes also use lithium ion batteries as back-up for ground maintenance and to provide electricity during flight, as well as for back-up power of other important in-flight functions. In 2013 they overheated due to a chemical reaction called thermal runaway, and caused fires in a Boeing 787. It wasn’t just the fault of the batteries; certain other issues played a part in the problem. For instance, during the investigation, Boeing and the Federation Aviation Authority (FAA) found 17 non-compliance issues, some to do with the battery manufacture, but others to do with outsourcing the manufacture of certain airplane parts. With the latter, certain changes to the design and assembly of components were made without being okayed by Boeing first. While these issues did play a part in the fire, it’s hoped that a replacement will be found for the flammable component in these batteries and with a little tweaking the new ones will be even better.

The lithium sulphur battery

According to Cameron Shearer, materials engineer at Flinders University in Adelaide, the lithium sulphur battery will be the next commercial battery that may even replace the lithium ion battery. Why? It‘s more energy dense, with the potential to hold five times more energy than the lithium ion battery. It will potentially be suitable for small appliances, cars and household power supplies. The lithium sulphur battery uses lithium instead of granite to catch the lithium ions at the anode, while at the cathode, sulphur is used instead of a mix of metals. This makes it a much lighter battery – the only downside is that it doesn’t have a long life due to the sulphur degrading and clogging up the works. Once a viable solution for this has been found this battery could shoot to the top of the list. In fact, chemists at the Toyota Research Institute of North America in Michigan are working on a polymer coating to stabilise the sulphur.

The lithium air battery

It’s always good when something that is freely available can be used in a project. The lithium air battery is so called because it uses oxygen straight from the air, rather than sulphur to soak up the spent ions. This oxygen is exhaled as the battery is re-charged, making it the lightest battery yet. It can be used in devices and electric cars and has the potential to contain ten times more energy than the lithium ion battery. The main disadvantage is that it has a very short life span – so far. In fact, this battery has yet to move off the lab bench as it needs several elements to be improved before it’s suitable for commercial use. When that finally happens it may be the best battery of all.

The sodium ion battery

If you don’t mind weight and size, a cheaper battery that uses sodium rather than lithium is available for solar energy storage. The sodium ion battery also has the potential for use in cars and devices, but so far can only be used for applications where size is not a problem. The main disadvantage is that of poor performance, at least when compared with the lithium ion battery.

The flow battery

Last but not least is the flow battery which is ideal to store renewable energy. While it’s cheap and reliable, it can only be used for stationary applications due to using two tanks of electro-active liquids to shuttle the electrons between. Since the smallest of these batteries is the size of a bar fridge, you can understand that they are hardly suitable for appliances or even cars. But they are useful for places where size is not important. They’re great for use in remote locations such as mining sites. They could also be used for energy storage in the home by situating them behind a wall or somewhere that they can remain invisible.

As technology improves and delivers different and improved methods of making things, it’s highly likely that batteries will benefit. Even now techniques for high resolution microscopy are enabling scientists to custom design better and smaller battery components. So cool! Stay tuned on this one.

Technology

Solar windows for sustainable power

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Solar stained-glass window marries design with sustainable science

A London-based Dutch designer has combined art, science, chemistry and solar know-how to bring beauty and energy to buildings via a power-producing stained-glass window.

Marjan van Aubel has teamed up with scientists, designers and manufacturers to create a window using coloured glass and dye-sensitised solar cells.

The window can charge small electrical devices via USB ports incorporated into its frame or ledge, and is aptly titled “Current Window”.

Mimicking photosynthesis

It all works by putting titanium dioxide particles on a piece of transparent glass that is then dyed. The dyeing allows the titanium dioxide to better absorb sunlight.

Like photosynthesis – how plants convert sunlight into energy – the dyed solar glass uses the properties of colour to harness light to create energy.

When light falls on the pattern of blue, orange, and pink dye-sensitised solar cells, electrons stored in the titanium dioxide are released, creating an electrical current.

Unlike traditional solar cells that require direct sunlight to generate a current, van Aubel’s designs can charge even in diffused light.

The solar cells are packed between two panes of toughened glass and connected to a battery. The window can sustainably generate up to 25 watts per day, and the battery provides power in low light conditions.

Not just for homes

The first “Current Window” will be installed in a London home later in 2015.

Van Aubel’s window will not only suit home-owners looking for renewable energy, but will also offer significant sustainable energy benefits when installed in schools, hospitals, libraries and offices, which can harness free, sustainable power from their larger window areas.

See de zeen magazine for more information.

Technology

Phone case that charges your phone from thin air

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Phone case that charges your phone from thin air

The answer to recharging your phone battery may be in the air, and in a new phone case.

US-based start-up Nikola Labs may have found a better way to keep our smart phones charged using a phone case that converts the energy of radio frequencies (RF) into direct current (DC) electricity.

The pioneering concept not only harvests energy and converts it into reusable power for the phone; it may also extend the life of the battery by up to 30 per cent.

The patent-pending technology creates electricity by converting some of the RF signal produced when wireless phone and internet communications transmit data through the air. Only a small fraction of a phone or internet signal actually reaches the receiver, while the majority of the signal is wasted.

Nikola Labs’ technology captures that wasted signal and converts it into DC power using a proprietary energy-harvesting circuit, created by Dr Chi Chih Chen’s research team at The Ohio State University’s ElectroScience Laboratory.

The team claims its technology has no impact on data transmission rates or call quality.

Nikola Labs’ award-winning concept featured in a campaign on Kickstarter earlier this year. Although it fell short of its funding goal, the concept netted 752 backers and the early-bird special iPhone case completely sold out.

The team hopes to deliver a superior product to its backers within six months of the Kickstarter campaign, after partnering with local companies experienced in design for manufacturing.

And who knows where this kind of innovation could lead?

As Nikola Tesla, the energy pioneer for whom the company named itself, wrote:  “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.

Read more at Design Taxi (external link).

Technology

In-flight solar power to remove ‘battery anxiety’

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Solar-powered window shades will soon be able to charge our personal electronic devices mid-flight. Recharging your tablet, phone or laptop could be as easy as plugging into the window shade near your seat.

You know what I mean, that sinking feeling when you realise your phone or other device is about to blank out – just as you board your plane. You know you should have charged everything in the terminal, but there just wasn’t enough time.

Travellers will be pleased to know the problem is on the way to being solved. A winning mix of renewable energy technology, sunlight and solar cells is being developed by engineers at B/E Aerospace.

The 2015 Crystal Cabin Award – an international award for aircraft cabin products and concepts – went to B/E Aerospace for a design called the Solar Eclipse, which could soon recharge our personal electronic devices in-flight via the power of sunlight.

The Solar Eclipse is a solar-powered window shade with USB power outlets. With the growing availability of Wi-Fi service on aircraft and/or wireless entertainment offered by airlines, being able to recharge while flying to their destination will be a blessing for battery-anxious passengers.

Just plug in and play

Recharging your tablet, phone or laptop could be as easy as plugging into the window shade near your seat.

“The Solar Eclipse brings DC power directly to passengers where no power exists,” B/E Aerospace told the judges of the Crystal Cabin Awards. The Solar Eclipse won the top prize in the Greener Cabin category.

“Super-efficient thin film solar cells integrated into the window shade convert the high-solar irradiation available at altitude into 8-44 watts of energy,” the judges were told.

As a result, B/E Aerospace says Solar Eclipse prevents passengers from suffering through what it calls ‘battery anxiety.’

Simple to install

The beauty of Solar Eclipse is that it’s simple for technicians to install. It requires no change to the rest of the cabin components, making it a quick power supply option for airlines to choose.

It also weighs only slightly more than an ordinary window shade at 29-50 grams. B/E Aerospace says the Solar Eclipse will actually “generate more energy than the extra fuel required” to carry it, meaning that “on a single 737 making six 1000 nautical mile trips every day, the Solar Eclipse would yield a savings of around USD$22,000, fuel savings of over 27,633 litres per year, and reduce 69,853 kilograms of CO2 emissions.

The main challenge of the Solar Eclipse for both airlines and passengers is deciding who benefits from all this free power.

Passengers seated near a Solar Eclipse window could choose share with the rest of the row. Airlines could also choose to charge more for the window seat, leading to the rise of a new elite class in the Economy section.

Check out the Wall Street Journal’s Solar Eclipse video.

The possibilities are endless for the airline industry, plus many others.

Technology

Home batteries are set to shake down power bills

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The revolutionary new Tesla Powerwall home battery will be available in Australia next year. What does it do and how will it benefit you?

Never having to worry about paying an electricity bill is a thoroughly appealing prospect. Reducing both your electricity bill and your carbon footprint is doubly appealing. Never having to suffer the inconvenience of a power outage again positively triples the appeal. And it appears this win/win/win solution is fast approaching, at an upfront cost accessible to many Australians.

In April this year, Tesla Motors, makers of the Tesla Model S electric car, announced the launch of Tesla Energy – a suite of high-capacity batteries designed to store electricity. Of the three models, each aimed at different levels of electricity use, the one for use in the home is the Tesla Powerwall. There is also one for business use and a very large capacity battery for use by utility companies.

What sources of energy can the Powerwall work with?

The batteries can work with wind and solar electricity systems as well as the traditional power grid, storing energy during times of peak production or when power from the grid is cheapest and allowing its dispensing later. This eases the problem of intermittent supply when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, or providing back-up power if the grid goes down.

Solar battery storage isn’t revolutionary, however the cheapest lithium-ion battery storage system currently on the market costs around $AU15,000 including installation. At a price of $US3000 for a 7kWh lithium-ion battery pack, Tesla has significantly reduced the price of solar battery storage, without compromising on quality. What’s more, the Powerwall comes with a 10-year warranty, something not available from any other battery company, and it’s compact, easy to install and maintenance-free.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley has said it expects the arrival of the Powerwall will catalyse the solar energy sector and lead to a rapid take-up of battery storage by Australian consumers.

From powering cars, to powering homes

Similar to the battery used in the Model S electric car, the Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that stores energy from solar panels or load shifting from the electricity grid to power your home at times when your solar panels aren’t providing enough electricity, for example, in the evening. It also provides a backup electricity supply in case of power outages.

Powerwall consists of the lithium-ion battery pack, a liquid thermal control system and software that receives dispatch demands from a solar inverter. The compact unit is mounted on a wall and integrated with the local electricity grid, or connected to the home’s solar panels to harness excess power and allow homeowners to draw energy from their own reserves when needed.

Closing the gap between supply and demand

In most homes, electricity use is higher in the morning and evening than during the day, when solar energy is plentiful. Powerwall closes this gap between your renewable energy supply and demand and makes your home’s solar energy available when you actually need it. It also reduces demand on power plants and reduces carbon emissions (and your power bill by avoiding peak rates). In the event of an outage, Powerwall automatically switches to battery power.

While home batteries are already available on the market, the current generation are bulky and can be expensive to install and maintain. Powerwall, on the other hand, is completely automated, compact, easy to have installed by an electrician and requires no ongoing maintenance.

Powerwall, due to arrive in Australia in early 2016, will be available in 10kWh weekly cycle and 7kWh daily cycle models. Both will offer 10-year warranties and sufficient energy to power the average home during peak evening hours. For larger than average homes (with more than four bedrooms), multiple batteries can be installed together. The wall-mounted Powerwall can be installed indoors or outside, however in areas where temperatures tip over 43C indoor installation is advised.

It’s estimated that 75 per cent of all electricity produced in Australia is generated by coal, with an average cost per household of about $2050 annually. Installing a Powerwall could potentially cut this cost by half, even without solar power.

While it’s ideal to pair the Powerwall with solar panels, households with no solar power still benefit from load-shifting, as the battery charges itself during the night when electricity is cheaper and discharges during the day when peak rates apply.

Preparing for Powerwall

Homeowners who already have solar systems can get their systems upgraded to support a Powerwall. Anyone planning to install a solar system prior to the Powerwall launch in Australia should ensure their system is Powerwall-ready in preparation.

There’s a crucial financial factor in getting a Powerwall-ready system now – the government-run solar energy financial incentive scheme. If you install a solar system now, it is subsidised by a government scheme worth about $700 per kW installed. The scheme is currently in place until at least May, 2017, but the dollar value will drop as the market for solar rises.

An investment in the future

The Powerwall  will launch in the US priced at $US3000 for the 7kWh model and $US3500 for the 10kWh model (excluding inverter and installation), with higher capacity models available for business use. As at August 2015, there was no definitive word on pricing for the Australian market but it’s expected the fully installed price for a 7kWh battery will be approximately $6000, so you’re looking at a relatively low initial investment in terms of ongoing future savings. Similarly priced systems from other major companies, including LG, Samsung and Bosch, are also expected to launch in 2016.

Tesla Motors, based in California, was named after eccentric genius and pioneer of electrical engineering, Nikolai Tesla, and has a stated mission to become an energy innovation company enabling zero-emission power generation. With the launch of Tesla Energy, the company is taking another vital step away from the use of fossil fuels and towards a sustainable energy future.

“Our goal here is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy,” Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk told Bloomberg. “We’re talking at the terawatt scale. The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy structure of the world.”

Musk predicts 80 to 90 per cent of Tesla Energy sales will be in the large Powerpack system, designed to help major utility companies store power to reduce the need for expensive facilities that only run during times of peak demand.

Tesla’s $US5 billion ‘gigafactory’, currently in construction near Reno, Nevada, will drive down the cost of the company’s energy storage products even further through mass production. More such factories will be necessary in order to assist the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Musk said.

More power to Tesla, and other companies leading the way.

Technology

15-year-old invents a green flashlight powered by human energy

Grab the torch! And just by holding it you get 20 minutes of LED light with no batteries.

Aged just 15, young scientist Ann Makosinski has invented a prize-winning, hollow, battery-less flashlight powered simply by the warmth of her hand, after learning a friend in the Philippines was having trouble in school because she had no light to study at night.

Not that there’s much call for flashlights now that mobile phones come equipped with them, still, Makosinski , from Victoria, Canada, invented her torch in a sincere attempt to change the world.

For her efforts, she was a winner in the 2013 Google Science Fair.

The most important part of her invention is not the flashlight, which, as already mentioned, is virtually obsolete. It is that a 15-year-old cares so much about the environment and the world that, hopefully, in the future she and others will come up with more smart inventions using human energy.

In a You Tube video, Makosinski tells how she made the flashlight, saying she became interested in the area of “harvesting surplus energy” after learning “humans are a great source of untapped thermal energy”.

To produce enough power to turn on LED lights in the torch, Makosinski says she used four Peltier tiles. If one side of the tile is heated by a human hand and the other exposed to cool air, electricity is produced.

Her design was based on the Seebeck effect, discovered by German physicist Thomas Seebeck in 1821, which states that electric current is produced when two dissimilar metals are joined, and one side of their junction is cooled and the other is heated.

After Makosinski worked out the figures, she proved that the energy from a human hand could produce enough electricity via the Peltier tiles to power an LED in a torch. And after several prototypes, a few failures and lots of exasperation, she produced two working prototype flashlights — one aluminium and one PVC pipe.

Rather than being just another human using up the world’s resources, Makosinski did what she could to ease the environmental impact of the tonnes of batteries used and thrown away by people around the world. In a TED Talk she asked what the politicians were doing personally to reduce carbon emissions.

“Recently, after talking to one of our local green party politicians,” says Makosinski, “I saw her drive away in a hybrid, my dream car, the one that is actually good for the environment, or so we are led to believe.

“Come, on! Hybrid still has wheels, and a frame, and a gasoline engine and an electric motor and a gigantic nickel hydrate battery,” she says.

“And what happens to that battery when it has to be replaced? A recent analysis from the National Research Council in Canada has proven that ‘the environmental damage stemming from hybrids and electric vehicles will be greater than that of traditional gasoline-driven cars until at least 2030’.”

“So is the person driving a hybrid really saving the world? Or is it just sales talk?”

She asked what a 15-year-old could do about the problem. “Well, maybe not about the car our parents drive in, not on product labelling, but yes, I think we can make a difference.”

She says her story may not be the best example. “My first toy was actually a box of transistors … in grade six I started participating in the local science fair. Most of my projects were energy-related and included experimenting with Peltier tiles, piezoelectric discs and solar cells. This year I made a flashlight that worked solely from the heat of the human hand.”

The young scientist and her invention have received international attention since then. She was a guest on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, showing off the body heat-powered flashlight that won her a top prize. As a then Grade 11 student at St Michaels University School in Victoria she was named one of Time magazine’s 30 under 30 in 2013 and has given two TED Talks.

During a TED Talk, she said someone at school had called her a dilettante, so she looked up the word and now calls herself an ‘envirottante’ , that’s a cross between an environmentalist and a dilettante. She went on to question the philosophy and commitment of being ‘green’. When her experiment worked she said she realised: “We have the power to give something to the world, that we can actually give something to the environment, to actually be a resource, rather than being the one who takes away the resources.”

The final step in her experiment, after working out how much energy the human body emits, and how much she needed to power a torch, was the physical aspect of her design.

“Because I only needed to heat one side of the Peltier tiles the heart of my design was the hollow aluminium tube. The air flowed freely through the tube and also cooled the other side of the tiles. My results proved my hypothesis, and I was able to produce around five mW of power and five foot candles of brightness. I achieved my objective of creating a flashlight that runs solely on the heat of the human hand.”

The parts that went into the torch cost a mere $26.

Makosinski says she was inspired by Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, and Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Renewable energyTechnology

Free Power: Harness Electricity From a River

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Free Power: Harness Electricity From a River

Going off-grid has never been easier, especially if you live near a river. Just throw a Mobile Hydro Rotor into the water, and you can run a refrigerator, water pumps, a small computer or appliance 24 hours a day. What’s more, the benefits to third world countries could be huge.

The Mobile Hydro, a simple, floating rubber ring made from recycled materials, with three rotors inside, is moored to a river bank and uses the natural swirling of the water to turn its blades. A generator captures the energy and transfers power back to the bank, where a battery and transformer kit awaits.

However, it’s not just a great idea for camping trips to keep the drinks cool and the food fresh. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that 1.3 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity – and this major energy poverty crisis within the global energy system has its epicentre in sub-Saharan Africa.

In a special World Energy Outlook report last year, Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director, IEA, said more than 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa – around two-thirds of the total population – live without electricity.

“Only one country in the region – South Africa – consumes even as much electricity as London,” she said. “In addition, nearly 730 million people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on hazardous, inefficient forms of cooking – using wood, charcoal, dung or agricultural residues as fuel in polluting cook stoves, and causing huge numbers of premature deaths each year.”

Empowering people as well as their appliances

So the German team of engineers who invented the Rotor, Andreas Zeiselmair and his colleagues Markus Heinsdorff and Christoph Helf of the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, Mobile Hydro, have bigger plans for their creation – empowering people as well as their appliances.

Electrical supply plays an important role in improving the living conditions and economic growth of developing communities. For lighting, supply of small loads, such as refrigerators and water pumps or charging of mobile phones, there is a very real basic need in all remote, rural areas of the world. Yet existing solutions to these problems are very expensive, due to high running costs and complicated high-tech machinery.

The German team says harnessing hydro energy has potential for these remote, low income communities in poorer parts of the world where on-grid energy is either not available or costs are too high. They estimate about one fourth of the 1.3 billion people living without electricity live near rivers, and even though small hydro, wave or tidal energy sources are still too expensive as a mainstream supply of power, these people could invest in a small Rotor, rather than importing fossil fuel from distant places for their generators.

The Rotor was developed, analysed and tested by Zeiselmair at the Hydromechanics-Laboratory under the supervision of Dr.-Ing. Christoph Rapp in 2011. The design was originally used for wind turbines and driven by lift force but also runs underwater. This vertical axis water wheel can produce electricity with an integrated dynamo/generator up to 2 kW, depending on flow velocity produced by the river.

Portable, continuous power for isolated areas

Although it doesn’t offer huge energy potential, the Mobile Hydro is portable and provides continuous power, 24 hours a day, unlike some renewable energy sources that don’t generate energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Without 24-hour power, daily life  in remote communities in poorer areas like Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America is restricted and  daily productive work just ends with sunset, Andreas Zeiselmair told a Falling Walls Conference last year in Berlin.

“It’s (the Rotor) put in a river, fixed at the embankment on both sides or even only on one, and through the flowing water, the rotor turns in the middle and drives the generator which finally produces electricity,” he told the Falling Walls Conference.

“We can feed it into a simple car battery; the whole system is kept really simple, and use it for different appliances, which can be light bulbs, charging mobile phones, TVs or small computers,” he said. “Our goal is to set up a certain business, and to promote also local businesses which can use our product to give services…our goal in total is to empower people and to replace the diesel generators in use now.”

Depending on the river flow, it takes about two and a half hours to recharge the battery.

“The main target is isolated areas without grid connections. In a few steps, local energy providers, small business holders, farmers, and households can produce electricity at minimum costs,” Zeiselmair said.

This year, the team is carrying out pilot projects in Latin America, East Africa, and India. Their initiative was founded in 2013, and, based on the successful Empowering People Award of Siemens Foundation the team further developed their idea with the vision to substitute diesel generators through eco-friendly alternatives and the ambition to supply electricity to rural areas.

An award-winning initiative

Mobile Hydro was a national winner in the 2014 James Dyson Award. The design is not yet commercialised, but intellectual property was secured through registration of the design and technical concept. Market entry, including series production, is envisioned for this year, 2015.

In 2013, the Mobile Hydro won the German Recycling Design Award and successfully reached the awards stage of the finalists of the Empowering People Award of the Siemens Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. In May 2014 the technology was successfully presented and awarded with the Innovation Award of the European Small Hydropower Association (ESHA) in Istanbul, Turkey.