Fuel for Thought, Part 3: The Weird Stuff

Jonathan Strickland

© WALTER ZERLA/cultura/Corbis

Many people have come up with creative approaches to generating electricity or harvesting energy. I've blogged about alternative fuels (more than once) and the possibilities of fusion. But there are other ways we might squeeze out a few kilowatts of energy here and there if we are willing to think outside the box. These methods won't necessarily meet our energy requirements but they could help offset those needs and perhaps provide other benefits in the bargain.

Take plasma waste converters, for instance. I wrote an article about them years ago and I've been fascinated with the idea ever since. It's not even a new idea -- it's just one that people haven't adopted. But it's intriguing.

The basic premise is simple. Take some garbage and grind it up into smaller pieces. Put those tiny pieces in a furnace. Use a plasma torch to break down the matter. The energy from the plasma torch is so intense that it breaks the molecular bonds in the matter. That means anything carbon-based (organic matter) gasifies. Anything inorganic liquefies into slag. If you put the gas through a cooling and scrubbing process, you get a synthetic fuel. The molten slag cools into a substance that looks like volcanic rock.

The main selling point for plasma gasification isn't about energy -- it's about waste disposal. Build a plasma waste converter plant next to a landfill and you can mine the garbage. If the facility is large and efficient enough, it could take in all incoming garbage while still making a dent in the landfill itself. Within a few decades, the landfill disappears.

If you build a fuel processing facility alongside the converter, you can process the waste gas into fuel. This fuel can then be used in electric generators. Depending upon the composition of the garbage, you could end up with more potential energy in the fuel than it requires to operate the facilities, meaning the plasma waste converter plant becomes self-sustaining and it can even sell power back to the grid.

Another interesting way we might capture otherwise wasted energy is through piezoelectric applications. A piezoelectric substance essentially emits electricity when you apply mechanical stress to it. It works the other way around too -- apply an electric charge to the substance and it will vibrate in a predictable way. This is how quartz crystal watches keep time, through tiny charges of electricity and regular, predictable vibrations.

What if we were to coat surfaces that receive a lot of impact -- like the bottom of our shoes -- with a piezoelectric film? If we could capture the electricity given off with each step, we could potentially recharge our electronics. Or imagine installing such a surface underneath a sidewalk or maybe even the highways. In the episode, we talk about a virus that exhibits piezoelectric behavior. Coat an electrode with this virus and you could have a means of recharging a battery through numerous, tiny impacts.

There are a lot of incredibly creative and smart people coming up with new ways to capture and store energy. If we ever get fusion power to work or find some other means to generate a lot of electricity in an efficient way, these methods may not matter as much. But until we reach that point I think finding smaller ways to stretch our resources will come in pretty handy.