Scientists are constantly pushing frontiers in search for solutions to the many challenges that human civilization faces, and nowhere is this truer than in energy.
With the tone of climate change alarm-sounding growing louder by the day, alternative energy sources have become one of the most active areas of innovation. Some of the results of that innovation are literally eye-watering. Others, you could call eye-opening.
This is not the waste-to-power you are probably thinking about; that is, farm animal manure or biomass.
No, this is the idea of turning human waste—both the number twos and the number ones—into energy. In Britain, a company operating in London has developed a sewage-powered heating system for more than 2,000 homes.
Per plans, sewage captured from the water treatment system can be used for heating, producing up to 7 GWh of electricity annually, which is a really impressive number. If this pilot project becomes a success, it will be expanded to more homes to provide them with low-carbon, essentially recycled power.
So much for the number twos. Meanwhile, number ones are also being researched as a source of energy and some researchers are producing results, such as this one: a battery capable of generating electricity from urine.
There’s also this one: scientists developing a fuel cell using bacteria that can turn urine into electricity. "The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun; we are actually reusing waste to create energy,” one of the scientists involved in the project said.
#2 Cremation as a dual use service
If you think using pee and poo to generate energy is kind of disgusting, wait till you hear about the idea of using crematoriums as power generators. Once you get past the initial shock. However, the idea actually makes sense on some level.
Crematoriums are a way of essentially disposing of human remains in an environmentally responsible way that incidentally involves the generation of massive amounts of strong heat—as much as 1,500 degrees F. Why let this heat go to waste instead of using it? Related: Rystad Sees Major Jump In Battery Storage Capacity Through 2023
It seems that a lot of researchers have been asking this question and some have come up with possible answers. One way of harnessing the power of heat from crematoriums was by attaching turbines to the facility’s burners. The turbines get turned by steam produced in the cremation chamber. The output is not massive, but it’s enough to power the crematorium and related facilities. And with more people choosing cremation over burial, at least in Europe, the “feedstock” is on the rise.
#3 The power of seaweed
Seaweed is already a pretty essential life form, but it could become even more essential in a low-carbon economy because apparently it could be used as fuel instead of gasoline or diesel.
A few years ago, Danish researchers drove a car fuelled by a seaweed-based fuel and managed to reach 80 kph with it. Seaweed-to-fuel has not yet become a major industry, but research continues.
Besides cars, biofuel produced from seaweed could potentially power aircraft as well. However, that path faces the same challenge as so-called sustainable aviation fuels or SAFs: there is too little feedstock. Planes use massive amounts of fuel.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is also involved in research focusing on seaweed and turning it into fuels, including jet fuel. A team is working on this in the Caribbean, with the twist that they are trying to see if they could combine abundant wood waste with seaweed to make fuel—and graphite. Graphite is a critical mineral or EV batteries. Seaweed is certainly an impressive life form.
#4 Sand batteries
One of the gravest problems with wind and solar energy is that battery storage based on the lithium-ion tech that dominates electronics today is hugely expensive. Some scientists are looking for alternatives and one team has found such an alternative in an unlikely place: sand.
It looks really simple. You just need to fill a silo with builder’s sand and then connect it to a wind or solar farm. The electricity that the farm produces goes into the silo and heats up the sand to temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celsius, or over 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heating creates hot air that circulates in the sand thanks to the deployment of a heat exchanger. According to the Finnish team that came up with the idea, this simple system can keep the sand heated up to 500 C/900 F for as long as several months. Once the energy is needed, it gets released to heat homes or other buildings.
#5 Body heat
If there is something even simpler than using 100 tons of sand to store heat, it is using the natural heat of human bodies to generate energy. “Simple” here doesn’t mean easy but the fact is that it is already being done.
Body heat energy generation is not a new concept. It has been around for more than ten years and it has been advancing. Initially, capturing the energy released as heat from the body could only power things like heart-rate monitors and watches, but now researchers are aiming higher—as high as cars.
A night club in Glasgow is storing the heat generated by the bodies of its patrons in reservoirs and then using it for heating or cooling the premises. The Mall of America in Minneapolis is also using the body heat of shoppers and visitors for heating purposes. Body heat looks like it has been underestimated for years but things are changing.
There are plenty of other weird-sounding or outright gross ideas for energy generation. Some of these could work and are already working, and others will likely never leave the lab. The momentum behind energy innovation, however, will likely remain quite considerable.
By Charles Kennedy for Oilprice.com
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