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Friday Catch-Up (12/16/05)

airshipturbine.jpgThere's a lot of worldchanging going on out there, and it's hard to cover even a fraction of it. Rather than let interesting ideas and nifty developments fall by the wayside, we'll be pulling together collections of annotated links on a semi-regular basis. Enjoy.

Flexible Circuits
This has been the week for flexible plastic electronics, with (at least) three different examples showing up. Gizmodo and the Inquirer note the development by TDK and the Japanese Semiconductor Energy Laboratory of a plastic microprocessor with wireless networking capability. ZDNet and Technology Review describe work by US company Sarnoff on organic polymer processors with speeds of up to 100MHz -- over 100 times faster than earlier plastic processor designs. And researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced this week that they'd come up with a way to make silicon electronics flexible, too, without any loss of capability.

Current electronic systems are rigid, limiting their use in everyday materials that embody some degree of flexibility, such as clothing or furniture, as well as in applications we haven't yet tried because they haven't been possible. These developments make a "smart environment" easier. In addition, organic polymer electronics are much friendlier to the environment than traditional electronics, and developments that make them more usable are a big ecological win.

(More catching up in the extended entry)

Renewable Energy
Two examples of generating energy from sources that would once have been considered wasted space, two examples of the growing use of hydrokinetic power, and a funky balloon round out the energy catch-up.

Today's BBC News has a short article about "electro-kinetic road ramps," relatively inexpensive devices that can generate 5-50kW of power when a vehicle passes over them, depending upon weight. This sounds like a lot, but remember the power is generated for just a split-second -- still enough to power traffic lights and road signs. Like the solar panels for trains in Italy discussed by Green Car Congress recently, the ramps demonstrate the kind of thinking we're going to need to get through the next few decades -- looking at all built-up locations as potential sources of clean energy.

The BBC also reports on a tidal power station in operation at the Bay of Fundy in Canada, which is reputed to have the greatest tides in the world. The station, which only generates power when the tides are in motion, pumps out a maximum of 50 megawatts; despite sitting idle for much of the time, the station should pay back the investment and then some, in part because the design is meant to last for up to 200 years with proper maintenance. Contrast this to the PowerBuoy units deployed by Ocean Power Technology off the coasts of Hawaii and New Jersey. Each buoy only puts out 40 kW peak, but does so at a constant rate, driven by the up-and-down motion of the ocean. These units are real-world tests of the PowerBuoy system, meant to inform the design of the next version.

Last but certainly not least is the Magenn Power Air Rotor System (MARS), which combines wind-turbine power generation and airship design. Each unit is essentially a spinning balloon-kite, parked at an altitude where the winds are constant, generating up to 1.6MW of power. The MARS units vary in size, and the 1kW system -- measuring about 20 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, and costing just under $2000 -- should be available by 2007. Bigger systems, putting out enough power for homes and neighborhoods, won't be available for a few more years. The MARS alert comes to us from the good folks at WattHead.

I'll leave it to Jeremy to evaluate the actual technical plausibility of the MARS design; he's pretty good at spotting the inherent flaws of systems like these. What struck me most about the concept, however, was its illustration of the principle that innovation and creativity are the keys to changing the world. The notion of an airship/wind turbine is brilliantly absurd -- just the kind of lateral thinking that will help us avoid the worst-case scenarios that lay before us.

Comments (2)


I wonder if this will compete with organic photovoltaics in the solar energy market? How efficient is this new flexible silicon for producing solar energy? Anybody know?

The MARS generator concept immediately conjured up a scene, perhaps an opening sequence, in the science fiction that plays periodically in my head.

I can just see it. It's near sunset. A helicopter, with our hero, buzzes onto the landing platform of a gigantic MARS station anchored high above cloud level (Perhaps a thunderstorm is rattling below.). The station is enormous, at least the size of an supertanker, and perhaps counterintuitively matt black, being covered with light absorbing PV fabric. In a break in the clouds we see Chicago, Tokyo, Moscow or, to be really hip and futuristic, Lagos gleaming off in the distance.

Maybe this could be followed by a scene with protesters calling the stations a hideous eyesore.


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