At Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, researchers are working on a novel, albeit somewhat distasteful, alternative to fossil fuels. They've developed a state-of-the-art toilet for use in developing countries that employs microwaves to chemically alter human waste into syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This syngas can then be used in stacks of fuel cells to generate electricity. Hypothetically, one toilet could generate enough juice to power several village households, freeing them from dependence on coal or oil [source: FastCoexist.com].
At first glance, Delft's scheme to turn poop into power may seem a bit daft. But drastic times call for drastic measures, and many people categorize the state of our environment as drastic. We live on a planet of finite resources -- some of which are crucial to our survival, and others that harm the environment every time we use them.
Rather than wait for the oil wells to run dry and coastal cities to disappear beneath rising sea levels, many people are looking ahead to cleaner alternative sources of energy. Some of these energy sources, like solar power, hybrid-electric vehicles and small, hand-powered gadgets have already caught on. Others, however, like feces-fueled water heaters, may take a little getting used to.
Here, for your reading enjoyment, are 10 of the wackier ideas for alternative energy. Some of them are already available; others need a few more trial runs before they hit the market. Either way, if you're reading this during a self-imposed Earth Hour, hand-crank your flashlight and prepare to be surprised -- or even amused.
When you're at the gym, does your mind ever drift off to ponder the perils of the planet? Do you feel a bit of remorse as your legs pound away on an electric machine that goes nowhere, while the ice-cold air conditioner blows down on your neck? OK -- so most likely, you're probably thinking more about the amount of calories you're burning. But if you're one of the more eco-conscious athletes out there, you may soon be able to let those concerns melt away with the pounds.
Several innovative gyms are popping up that convert human energy into useable electricity. One of them, in Hong Kong, has exercise machines that look perfectly ordinary from the outside, but have generators inside that create energy from movement. So while you're busy sweating it out, your efforts are creating electricity to power the exercise console and supplement the electrical juice it takes to keep the overhead lights on. The owner of the gym maintains that the average person can generate about 50 watts of electricity per hour on the machines [source: Blume]. So, unless you like running in the dark, you better get moving.
Pedal generators like the Pedal-A-Watt bike stand operate on a similar concept but are more powerful. A person in top condition can generate 500 watts of power, while someone in couch-potato condition could generate around 150 watts. Although that may not seem like much, that's enough to power two laptops, two fluorescent light bulbs and a cell phone -- as long as you maintain that pedaling [source: Treehugger].
The Pedal-A-Watt bike stand, which works by powering a generator with the movement of the bike's rear wheel, comes with an optional PowerPak that stores the energy you create for later use. The PowerPak has an outlet where you can plug in and power any appliance that runs on less than 400 watts of electricity. For a frame of reference, a large television uses around 200 watts, a stereo 20 watts, a desktop computer 75 watts and a refrigerator 700 watts [source: Convergence Tech, Inc.].
Everywhere you look, people have their heads down, vigorously texting away as though their lives depended on it. Americans sent a whopping 12.5 billion text messages in just one month in 2006, and cell phone users in the United Kingdom send out one billion a week [source: CTIA, text.it]. Admit it -- sometimes that obsession with text messaging can be annoying, but what if each of those finger taps could generate power?
That's just the idea behind Push to Charge, one of the innovative entries into the 2008 Greener Gadgets Design Competition. The concept relies on piezoelectricity, which is a fancy way of describing the way some metals generate electricity when hit. (Electric cigarette lighters use piezoelectric crystals.)
The Push-to-Charge cell phone would feature plastic buttons sitting atop a layer of hard metal. The bottommost layer would be made out of piezoelectric crystals, so that each time you pressed a button, the hard metal directly underneath it would hit the underlying crystal like a hammer, creating a small amount of voltage. Small wires located between the layers would convey the charge to a battery for storage.
The electricity generated by hitting just one button would be miniscule -- an estimated 0.5 watts, according to the inventor. But when you add up all the buttons required to send a single text message and multiply that by the number of text messages sent each day, that's quite a lot of wattage [source: Parker].
The same technology could be used in any other product that features buttons, including computer keyboards and video games. If all the HowStuffWorks writers had their computers hooked up to such a device, the office probably wouldn't need to pay any power bills. You have to admit that generating electricity simply by typing on a keyboard or keeping in touch with your friends is a pretty bright idea.
Hot Air as Fuel
Anyone who lives in an attic apartment will tell you: Heat rises. But Australian entrepreneur Roger Davey has proposed using this simple fact of physics to create vast amounts of clean energy without burning any carbon fuels.
Davey's company, EnviroMission, wants to build a massive, 2,600-foot-tall (792.5-meter-tall) structure called a solar updraft tower in the Arizona desert [source: Almasy]. Instead of relying on solar panels to convert the sun's energy to electricity, the solar updraft tower would use a large, translucent sloping canopy, about as wide as a football field, to trap the sun's heat like a greenhouse. The hot air in the tent would reach a scorching 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius) and would flow into and up through the tower. As it rose, it would turn 32 turbines, spinning them fast enough to power generators and produce 200 megawatts of electricity per day, enough to provide power to 100,000 households [source: Almasy].
The concept has been demonstrated already on a smaller, experimental scale. In the early 1980s, a German construction company, Schlaich, Bergermann and Partner, built an iron tower capable of generating 50 kilowatts of energy on the Spanish plains, and operated it successfully seven years until its support cables broke during a storm. EnviroMission's improved $750 million design calls for the tower to be built from sturdier, more resilient steel and cement, which wouldn't need to depend on support cables, and company officials say it would last for 80 years, far longer than the average life of most conventional solar-generating facilities. According to EnviroMission, which already has worked a deal to resell its electricity to a southern California utility company, the small amount of carbon pollution created by the manufacture and shipment of the cement and other materials needed to build the tower would be offset after two-and-a-half years of power generation. A similar project also is being developed by a company in China [source: Almasy].
Capturing Methane Emissions from Cows
Cows may look pretty benign as they languidly chew on grass in farm fields, but some environmentalists warn that the animals' farting, belching and pooping is a major contributor to climate change. A 2006 United Nations report estimated that cows, along with other livestock like sheep and goats, contribute about 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet -- more than cars, planes and all other forms of transportation put together [source: Lean]. That's largely true because bovine emissions are rich in methane, a gas that's 21 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere [source: Los Angeles Times].
But cow fanciers should fear not, because scientists are busy finding ways to turn this smelly problem into a solution. They've already developed a method for extracting methane from cow excrement and converting it to a biogas fuel that's of sufficient quality to be fed into a standard natural gas pipeline. In Kern County, Calif., a company called BioEnergy Solutions uses that method to produce 650,000 cubic feet (18,406 cubic meters) of biogas from manure, enough to power 200,000 households [source: Levinson].
Harnessing cow farts as a fuel source might be tricky, but it isn't inconceivable, either. In Argentina -- a major beef producing nation where the collective herd of 55 million cattle outnumbers the human population -- researchers have developed a special bovine backpack that captures a cow's emissions via a tube attached to the cow's stomach, and discovered that the animals produce between 800 and 1,000 liters of gas each day [source: Zyga].
Fill 'Er Up with Microorganism Excrement
If you're like most people, then the word "E. coli" makes you nervous.
But believe it or not, this tiny organism commonly associated with stomach cramps and vomiting could actually alleviate some of our energy woes ... by excreting crude oil. It may sound crazy, but some rather inventive geneticists at a company called LS9, Inc., have been tinkering with the DNA of industrial yeast and harmless strains of E.coli, so these organisms can convert agricultural waste into fuel that's practically pump-ready.
Since crude oil is molecularly similar to the fatty acids that these tiny single-celled organisms normally excrete, the alteration isn't as "out there" as you might think. LS9 has already streamlined the gene-altering process from one that took several months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to one that takes just a few weeks and just $20,000 [source: Ayres]. That's not too bad when you compare these microorganisms to oil drilling, which can actually take years to get going and cost just as much (and more if you weigh in the environmental costs as well).
These inventors envision their microorganism excrement -- "Oil 2.0" -- as being both renewable and carbon negative. That means because of the raw materials it uses, the process will take even more carbon out of the atmosphere than what it puts back in. And these organisms wouldn't rely on any single agricultural waste, thereby eliminating the controversy over using specific food crops for fuel. Instead, the process would rely on whatever is abundant in the local environment.
As of June 2008, LS9 could produce the equivalent of one barrel of oil per week with a 1,000-liter machine that takes up 40 square feet (3.7 square meters) of space [source: Ayres]. So even though, as the project stands now, you'd need a building the size of Chicago to fuel the oil needs of the United States, you may want to reconsider your attitude about yeast and E. coli.
Floating Wind Farms in the Middle of the Ocean
There's been plenty of talk of developing offshore wind farms to supply electricity, but as the chronically-delayed effort to build the CapeWind project in Nantucket Sound demonstrates, it's not that easy to convince people in coastal areas that wind turbines won't mar the natural beauty of their surroundings or damage delicate marine ecosystems [source: Lindsay]. That's why the ultimate solution may be to put wind farms hundreds of miles from coastlines, conveniently out of view, and to have them float on the surface of the water, tethered rather than attached to a structure to the ocean floor.
In addition to being less obtrusive, floating wind turbines have a much greater potential to generate power. They can capture the energy of winds in the open ocean, which can reach speeds at least twice as fast as winds near land [source: Economist]. Some reports suggest that wind farms could provide up to 15 percent of the world's future energy needs [source: Jacquot].
In late 2011, the first such offshore floating wind farm, a $30 million prototype called WindFloat, was put in place 217 miles (349 kilometers) off the coast of Portugal [source: Scientific American]. It uses a 2-megawatt turbine manufactured by a Danish company, Vestas, which is bolted onto a triangular floating platform made by Seattle-based Principle Power. The platform is moored with four lines, two of which are connected to the column stabilizing the turbine, which helps to reduce excess motion. As the wind shifts direction and places loads on the turbine and foundation, pumps will shift ballast water between chambers in the platform, enabling the installation to cope with more powerful offshore weather. As Antonio Vidigal, CEO of EDP Inovacao, one of the partners in the project, told Scientific American: "The deep ocean is the next big energy frontier" [source: Scientific American].
Kites Attached to Ocean-going Ships
Here's another alternative energy scheme that would be deployed in the middle of the ocean. While most of us landlubbers think of global warming as a problem caused by coal power plants and automobile exhaust, cargo ships plying the seas spew about 2.7 percent of the world's manmade greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the International Maritime Organization. That works out to about 870 million tons of climate-altering pollution [source: IMO].
Any technology that could help ships to reach their destinations without burning as much fuel would be a big plus. That's why in recent years some visionaries have been trying to revive wind power, a method of ship propulsion that saw its heyday in the mid-1800s, as a way to augment large cargo ships' carbon-burning engines. In the mid-2000s, one company proposed outfitting freighters with gigantic, 13,000-square-foot (1,207-square-meter) kites, which would fly a thousand or so feet (300 meters) above the ship and help pull it along [source: McSweeney]. By one estimate, such a device could reduce a ship's consumption of diesel fuel by as much as 25 percent, which not only would significantly reduce its carbon output into the atmosphere, but possibly save in excess of $1 million in fuel costs for the biggest ships annually [source: McSweeney].
In 2008, 10,000-ton container ship MS Beluga Skysails became the first to use auxiliary kite power, attaching a 160-square-meter (1,722-square-foot) kite 300 meters (984.2 feet) above its bow on a voyage from a German port to Venezuela. The ship managed to cut its diesel fuel expenditures by 10 to 15 percent, and saved between $1,000 and $1,500 per day in the course of the two-week trip. The Beluga Group, the ship's parent company, hopes to eventually use kites to slash its fuel bills by 20 percent [source: Huck].
Super Small Nuclear Reactors
You've heard of tenants getting eviction notices for not paying rent or for making too much noise. But in 2011, a 31-year-old Swedish man named Richard Handl became possibly the first apartment renter in history to get in hot water with his landlord for trying to build a nuclear reactor in his kitchen.
Handl, who told a local newspaper that he'd been interested in nuclear physics since his was in his teens, spent about $950 to acquire the parts and materials he needed to build a DIY nuke, and amassed the necessary quantity of radium by buying luminous clock hands on eBay for a few bucks apiece. He also extracted thorium oxide, another ingredient, from Coleman gas lanterns, and built a crude neutron gun by inserting a small glass pipe inside a plastic pill bottle and covering it with lead. (In case anyone else wanted to emulate him, Handl dutifully documented all these details in his "Richard's Reactor" blog.) But when the amateur nuclear engineer contacted government officials to make sure he wasn't breaking any laws, the government sent police to raid his home and seize the DIY reactor [source: The Local].
Nevertheless, our Swedish friend may have been onto something. Nuclear power, which generates energy with only tiny amounts of greenhouse emissions, was enjoying an image upgrade until an earthquake caused a catastrophic accident at a Japanese nuclear complex outside Tokyo in March 2011. But even if big nuke plants seem scary, what about smaller, more easily contained units? Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a design for a reactor the size of a hot tub that could generate enough electricity to power 20,000 homes. One problem: At $25 million apiece, the price is a bit too steep to justify putting one out on the backyard deck [source: Zyga]. Another Chicago-based outfit reportedly has been trying to develop an even smaller nuke, this one the size of a microwave oven [source: Koziarski].
Reprocessing Coffee Grounds into Biodiesel
That morning cup of Joe that helps fuel us for the day ahead could soon also help propel trucks as well. In 2009, University of Nevada-Reno engineering professor Mano Misra, known around the lab for his coffee consumption, noticed the sheen of oil floating on top of a cup of brew that had cooled. A light bulb went off in Misra's caffeinated brain, and he asked a couple of students to work on a project to investigate whether coffee oil could be a feedstock for biodiesel.
The students determined that, depending on the particular bean used in the brew, coffee grounds can contain as much as 20 percent oil, and that it has an unusually high oxidative stability (which means it won't break down when exposed to oxygen and therefore gunk up fuel lines). They subsequently developed a method to remove the sulfur found in coffee biodiesel, which comes from the volcanic soils in the mountainous regions where coffee generally is grown. The resulting fuel was sufficient to meet the standards set by ASTM International, an international testing organization, for biodiesel.
The researchers estimate that if all the waste grounds generated by the world's coffee drinkers were gathered and reprocessed, the yield would amount to 2.9 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. Alternatively, the coffee grounds could be converted to fuel pellets. If all of the leftover grounds from Starbucks were reprocessed, they would produce 89,000 tons of such fuel pellets annually, enough to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the coffee-shop chain, as well as help counter rising fuel costs for trucking companies [source: Schill].
Orbiting Mirrors to Transmit Solar Energy
You've probably witnessed the glee children experience when they see their reflection in one of those shiny mirrored balloons that are popular at birthday parties. Now, imagine an array of enormous versions of those party balloons -- perhaps as large as a mile in diameter -- deployed in geostationary orbit around Earth. Could they provide a possible answer to the world's energy shortage and climate-change woes?
In a 2007 article, the late Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor William F. Schreiber proposed launching into orbit a fleet of such balloons, which would be activated by remote control to unfold and inflate. As the Earth's position changed with respect to the sun, the spherical mirrors would be adjusted continuously to catch and focus solar energy and transmit it in concentrated beams to receiving stations on Earth. At those receiving stations, that solar energy would be used to heat water into steam and drive turbines to generate electricity.
"The balloon approach is very attractive because it enables focus to be controlled by pressure [inside the balloon], rather than by making and then placing into orbit a very precise mirror," Schreiber wrote [source: Schreiber]. While Schreiber's idea for using giant shiny balloons may sound a bit outré, scientists increasingly have been looking at the possibility of using satellites to harvest solar power and transmit it to Earth. A study group from the Paris-based International Academy of Astronautics recently proclaimed: "It is clear that solar power delivered from space could play a tremendously important role in meeting the global need for energy during the 21st Century." And U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Smith, the director of the Pentagon's Center for Strategy and Technology, recently noted that the concept has the potential to supply safe, clean energy to the entire planet "if we can make it work" [source: Daily Mail].
Bill Nye says he quit his day job at Boeing to engage young people in science literacy. And he's still fighting that fight today.
- How Biodiesel Works
- How Wind Power Works
- How Hydropower Plants Work
- How Gray Water Reclamation Works
- How the Hydrogen Economy Works
- How Solar Cells Work
- How Alternative Energy Mutual Funds Work
- Do cows pollute as much as cars?
- Ultimate Alternative Energy Quiz
- What is the cheapest new alternative energy?
- How Global Warming Works
More Great Links
- "100 Wireless Facts." CTIA. Undated. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.ctia.org/consumer_info/service/index.cfm/AID/10377
- Almasy, Steve. "Can hot air be the free fuel of the future?" CNN. Oct. 20, 2011. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/02/tech/innovation/solar-tower-arizona/index.html
- "A new twist for offshore wind." The Economist. June 5, 2008. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.economist.com/science/tq/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11482484
- "Ask the EcoGeek: Muscle Power." Treehugger. July 5, 2007. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/07/ask_the_ecogeek_1.php
- Ayres, Chris. "Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol." The Times. June 14, 2008. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article4133668.ece
- Blume, Claudia. "People in Hong Kong Gym Generate Electricity While Exercising." Voice of America. March 11, 2007. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-03/2007-03-11-voa14.cfm?CFID=166504319&CFTOKEN=62982364
- "Floating Wind Turbines Set to Conquer Deep Ocean." Scientific American. Jan. 3, 2012. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=floating-wind-turbines-conquer-deep-ocean
- "Giant orbiting power plants could harvest the sun's energy to provide world's power needs." Mail Online. Nov. 15, 2011. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2061852/Giant-orbiting-power-plants-harvest-suns-energy-provide-worlds-power-needs.html
- Huck, Peter. "Sailing into the Future." New Zealand Herald. Jan. 26, 2009. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.nzherald.co.nz/shipping/news/article.cfm?c_id=317&objectid=10553225
- Jacquot, Jeremy Elton. "NASA Satellite Could Make Floating Ocean Wind Farms Possible." Treehugger. July 11, 2008. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/quickscat-wind-maps.php
- Kahn, Jeremy. "Waste not, want not." Fortune. Feb. 27, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008) http://money.cnn.com/2008/02/26/news/international/kahn_biogas.fortune/index.h tm?postversion=2008022704
- Grover, Sami. "Kite Power on Ships Outpowers Sails Five Times Over." Treehugger.com. Aug. 18, 2008. (Jan. 23, 2012)
- Koziarski, Ed M. "A Nuclear Reactor in Every Home?" Chicago Reader. July 29, 2010. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/personal-cold-fusion-reactor-invention-lenr/Content?oid=2165464
- Lean, Jeffrey. "Cow 'emissions' more damaging to planet than CO2 from cars." Independent. Dec. 10, 2006. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/cow-emissions-more-damaging-to-planet-than-cosub2sub-from-cars-427843.html
- Levinson, Yoni. "Cow Biogas Provides Clean Energy, GHG Reduction." Ecogeek.org. Nov. 18, 2008. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.ecogeek.org/biofuels/2302
- Lindsay, Jay. "Report: Cape Wind unlikely to be done by mid-2015." Associated Press. Jan. 12, 2012. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9S7H89O0.htm
- "One billion text messages are sent every week in the UK." TextIt. Nov. 5, 2007. (Aug. 6, 2008) http://www.text.it/mediacentre/press_release_list.cfm?thePublicationID=0F3FA2 1C-15C5-F4C0-99335F38D7517452
- Parker, Alexander. "Push to Charge." Greener Gadgets Design Competition 2008. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.core77.com/competitions/GreenerGadgets/projects/4242/
- "Pollution on the hoof." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 15, 2007. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/15/opinion/ed-methane15/2
- Schill, Susanne Retka. "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Biodiesel." Biodiesel Magazine. Feb. 10, 2009. (Jan, 17, 2012) http://www.biodieselmagazine.com/articles/3238/wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee-biodiesel
- Simpson, Scott. "Human waste proposed as source of natural gas." The Vancouver Sun." July 22, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008) http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/story.html?id=47e363c0-1b3b-4a5b-81b5- ae45ea0a9853
- Schreiber, William. "Solving the Energy Problem." MIT Faculty Newsletter. May/June 2007. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/196/schreiber.html
- "Terasen Gas to develop B.C.'s first biogas alternative energy project." Terasen Gas. July 18, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008) http://www.newswire.ca/en/releases/archive/July2008/18/c6052.html
- "The Pedal-A-Watt Stationary Bike Power Generator." Convergence Technologies. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.econvergence.net/electro.htm
- "The Toilet Of The Future Will Turn Poop Into Power." FastCoExist.com. May 2011. (Jan. 16, 2012) http://www.fastcoexist.com/1678292/the-toilet-of-the-future-will-turn-poop-into-power
- "The world's first full-scale floating windmill." StatoilHydro. June 17, 2008. (Aug. 4, 2008) http://www.statoilhydro.com/en/TechnologyInnovation/NewEnergyAndRenewables/Wind/VindTilHavs/Pages/
- "What is this site all about?" The Open Source Fusor Research Consortium. Jan. 1, 2007. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://49chevy.blogs.com/fusor/2007/01/what_is_this_si.html
- Zyga, Lisa. "Cow Backpacks Trap Methane Gas." Physorg.com. July 11, 2008. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.physorg.com/news135003243.html
- Zyga, Lisa. "Mini Nuclear Power Plants Could Power 20,000 Homes (Update)" Physorg.com. Nov. 12, 2008. (Jan. 17, 2012) http://www.physorg.com/news145561984.html