Practical Magic

Gadget, power thyself

Zero Mass Water
The Zero Mass hypropanels "generate" clean drinking water, rather than electricity.

I have no scientific basis for this statement, but I’d be willing to wager one of the first things readers of this newsletter do when they find themselves in any sort of temporary lodging or work location or travel lounge is hunt for a place to plug in. In the not-so-distant future, new forms of energy harvesting and in situ renewable power generation could make the practice of outlet worshipping a thing of the past, at least for very discrete use cases.

Just one example of what’s possible: Japanese electronics and digital workplace company Ricoh, the first company in its country to join the RE100 initiative two years ago, last week started shipping a new sort of solid-state solar module — one that can generate energy using indoor light.

The dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs) work by emulating the process of photosynthesis, using light-absorbing dyes instead of chlorophyll. I won’t get too technical about the various phases, but the end effect is that DSSCs could be used to provide an electrical charge to all manner of devices — everything from mobile gadgets to internet of things sensors.

And we might find them embedded in heretofore ordinary objects that might now be able to provide a source of power, such as furniture in offices or warehouses. Ironically, the technology is more efficient under weaker light sources — which could be a boon in older buildings that don’t have much access to natural lighting.

The largest DSSC in the series is already being used in a desk developed for use in Asia by Taisei and Design Office Line. Mobile devices sitting on top of the Loopline T1 can maintain a “consistent charge” for an entire workday.

One might imagine scenarios in which the modules could help charge pieces of equipment across both commercial office buildings or, to a lesser extent, in factories or other industrial facilities.

This is just one example of the broader concept of energy harvesting. There certainly are plenty of research and development initiatives centered on a tangential application, using solar power to turn windows into power-generating portals. Or how about “anti-solar” generating technology that works during the night?

Loopline T1 desk
Mobile devices sitting on top of the Loopline T1 can maintain a “consistent charge” for an entire workday.

Many of these ideas are nascent, but the emergence of self-powering equipment with sources of clean energy — including both solar and wind — will be critical for bringing technological advances to rural areas in both established and emerging economies without increasing our reliance on a highly centralized grid powered by fossil fuels. In other words, they’ll be crucial for an inclusive transition to the clean energy economy.

One, er, concrete example of what the future might look like is the wind-fueled, 105-foot-tall 5G cellular tower introduced in late January by CGE Energy, an energy services company based in Brighton, Michigan.

The technology, which can be delivered and installed using a flatbed truck, makes it possible to add this new wireless networking technology in remote regions. CGE Energy minimized the footprint, making it possible to put one of the towers in place without having to cut new roads or lugging in heavy equipment. The omnidirectional wind turbine operates on a vertical axis, which theoretically improves its efficiency in uncertain or severe weather conditions.

While some telecos have dabbled with solar-powered transmissions towers, the vast majority of remote installations are kept running today using diesel fuel. That practice is unsustainable for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it takes a lot of fuel-burning to transport the diesel fuel to the places where it needs to be burned.

A great example of a startup harnessing renewable energy for a very specific application is Zero Mass Water, which is using solar power to generate clean drinking water. It’s working on systems for both individual homes and entire communities — Zero Mass has created an array in Phoenix, Arizona, that can supply local businesses with up to 182,500 liters of water annually.

I sincerely hope the next wave of renewable energy advances is centered just as much on the possibilities for discrete applications as it is on offering utility-scale solar and wind power to the centralized grid. What innovations have caught your eye or ear? Share them with me at [email protected].

This article first appeared in GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.  Follow me on Twitter:@greentechlady.

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