Weird Ways to Generate Electricity


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What is a plasma waste converter? How can a virus generate electricity? What does the Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor do? Join Jonathan, Joe and Lauren as they explore some unorthodox methods of energy production.

Male Speaker 1: Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to Forward Thinking.

Jonathan: Welcome to Forward Thinking, the audio podcast where we talk about the future and the things we need to take into consideration because, of course the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives. I'm Jonathan Strickland.

Lauren: I'm Lauren Vogelbaum.

Joe: And I'm Joe McCormick, and future events such as these will concern you in the future.

Jonathan: That's right, we're just going to quote Ed Wood movies for the rest of this episode. Actually that's not true, we're going to talk about energy and electricity and waste and ways that we can be smarter about generating electricity and hopefully managing the waste problem that we have while trying to create electricity. In a previous episode we talked about fusion which is where you fuse two light atoms together and in the process you release quite a bit of energy in the form of heat, which then turns water into steam, and that steam then turns steam turbines which then, connected to electrical generators, creates electricity.

Lauren: Yay. Which is a lot more efficient than anything that we have today, like nuclear fission.

Jonathan: Right, if we can get fusion to work. See, that's the problem, is that we have to make sure that the reactions themselves are giving off enough energy that it's more than what was required of us to get that reaction started in the first place. That's where we're kind of hitting the wall right now.

Joe: And we don't know for sure that we can do that, so fusion is a great possibility and I think it's an excellent place to do research, but we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket.

Jonathan: Yes, don't put all your electro eggs in one energy basket, as I said.

Joe: Right, because that could be a big problem. If you think about this, I mean, imagine that even if we are able to get a positive energy gain factor in a fusion reactor within 100 years, there's no guarantee that we'll make it that long unless we look at other -

Lauren: Alternate forms.

Joe: Right, so fusion may not work at all, which means that we need to look into alternatives anyway, and if it does work, it may be decades.

Jonathan: We still have to get there. So, either way, looking into alternatives where we maximize our production of electricity, which is really what we're talking about here, and we minimize the waste, that's gonna be important, because if in 100 years we get fusion but the world is not really a livable space anymore, it's not going to be so pleasant for the human race anyway, so we have to look into these alternatives.

Joe: Well Jonathan, I like the way you put that, with in terms of maximizing and minimizing, because I think a lot of the innovations that are going to get us into the future aren't just crazy new ideas that nobody's ever heard of before, like completely out of left field new technology. A lot of it is just going to be finding smarter, more efficient ways to do the things that we already do.

Jonathan: Well sure, yeah, definitely.

Joe: Looking for energy where we can find it.

Jonathan: And we've got lots of examples of this in things like the improvement of efficiency in wind turbines and solar farms, but those have been talked about a lot.

Joe: Ad nauseum.

Lauren: And one of the basic problems with creating energy is that we don't have an infinite supply of coal or oil or uranium or any of the other things that we're currently using to produce it.

Jonathan: Right, and just in case anyone wants to write in and yell, creating electricity, we know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, we can only convert mass into energy, which is still not creating it, it's just a transformation.

Joe: Take it up with Einstein.

Jonathan: Yeah. You know, hey, I obey the laws of physics, so don't send them after me. But one of the things that Joe found out when he was researching this episode, Joe wrote the video episode about energy, and you discovered an interesting approach to making nuclear fission reactions more efficient, because that's one of the problems with nuclear fission.

Joe: Right, so we've had nuclear fission for years and years, but there are a lot of problems with it. It creates really really toxic nuclear waste that you have to protect. You have to lock it up in graphite beams and bury it underground.

Jonathan: Right, under a mountain.

Lauren: Right, it's all so dangerous that it's technically, as soon as it's created it belongs to the government, it belongs to the department of energy.

Jonathan: That's exactly who I want to have access to all of the most dangerous things in the world.

Joe: Right. And then there's the fact that we're not really getting all of the energy that we can out of these fuel rods, so what do you use to cause a reaction in a fission reactor? In your standard nuclear power plant, you have fuel rods that are full of tiny uranium pellets.

Jonathan: Refined uranium.

Joe: Yeah, highly enriched, that you use to - you set off a reaction in them, and that creates a fission reaction that releases a lot of energy, heats water, and creates your electricity. The problems we've said so far, waste, not the most efficient reaction. Also, there's a big danger, as we learned from the Fukushima incident during the earthquake.

Jonathan: Sure, and Chernobyl as well.

Joe: And Chernobyl.

Jonathan: Three Mile Island, although that wasn't a meltdown, but yea.

Joe: So these reactors are potentially very dangerous. You have to be extremely careful with them. Is there a way to get around this?

Jonathan: And that's where the waste annihilating molten salt reactor from Transatomic comes in.

Joe: That's a cool name.

Jonathan: Yeah, it just rolls off the tongue. I like to call it WAMSR. Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor, WAMSR.

Lauren: I don't know, then you don't get to say annihilating, and annihilating is such a great word.

Jonathan: Well, I say that so frequently in my daily life, but the idea here is to try and maximize that efficiency and in fact Transatomic claims on their website that the conventional nuclear reactors that use fission reactions only capture about three percent of the potential fission energy in a given amount of uranium before the uranium has to be removed from the reactor or else you're in danger of a meltdown. Their design, again the company claims, will capture 98 percent of the remaining energy that would have otherwise been lost.

Joe: That's pretty wicked.

Jonathan: Yeah, that's incredibly more efficient, if that in fact is true.

Joe: Yeah, if you buy their claim. But it combines several existing technologies, right? So the waste annihilating molten salt reactor, it uses this molten salt. You might ask, "What is molten salt?" Well, you don't usually encounter molten salt in your day-to-day life, but in this case it's not, molten salt doesn't become the fuel or something like that. Molten salt is what this reactor uses to manage its heat.

Jonathan: Yeah. As you are using the uranium in that initial fission reaction, you are getting nuclear waste as a result. You dissolve the nuclear waste, or rather Transatomic would dissolve the nuclear waste within this molten salt, which manages the heat, and it means that if you want to really simplify it, it means that the reactor can safely maintain the temperature it needs to continue to turn water into steam to turn those steam turbines and generate electricity, so you are really extending the useful life out of that uranium, and as a result less of the uranium is left behind, and uranium, that's the radioactive material that is so dangerous.

Joe: It means less nuclear waste at the end.

Jonathan: Or at least less radioactive waste. However you want to define it, it's going to be less radioactive waste, and from the estimates I saw, it reduces the amount of time where this radioactive waste is dangerous from the thousands of years, to around 300 years. Still longer than anyone's comfortable lifespan, obviously, but it's a huge difference from, this won't be safe to go near for 10,000 years.

Lauren: Because marking that barrel is difficult.

Jonathan: It also means that if you're able to build these reactors, there's the potential of taking nuclear waste that has already been generated and using that as a fuel.

Lauren: Which there are tons and tons of, just kind of lying about, really.

Jonathan: I hope it's a little less casual than that. I'm thinking about some cities I visited where I thought barrels of nuclear waste would not seem out of place, but I would like to think that they are mostly confined in fairly secure -

Lauren: Well according to the documentary Duke Nukem, they -

Jonathan: Well that's fair. According to Duke Nukem, they are a tasty shake. Yeah, and something else that I thought was interesting, this is just sort of an aside, is that the company has three founders. Two of them are MIT students, and the third is Russ Wilcox, who is the former CEO of E-ink, and I never would have thought of electronic ink and nuclear fission going hand in hand, but it's interesting because e-ink is all about efficiency too. It's this idea that you create a state of the ink so that it's displaying either a neutral side or a dark side to the screen, and it maintains that until you change the state of the electrostatic field, which means that once you establish it, it stays that way. That's why you're using an e-reader, it's not using energy until you turn the page, so in between page turns, that's why those batteries last forever, because it's not using a lot of electricity. So in that case, that's the only thing I could think of that's similar between the two.

Lauren: So this isn't a new idea, I don't think. I think that they were first proposed power bombers, and one was operated back in the '60s and '70s at Oakridge National Labs, so it's been around for a minute, it's just not been in a -

Joe: There are newer and better designs I think.

Jonathan: Right, because again, if it's one of those things where, say, a modest increase in efficiency, it may not be worth the expense of actually -

Lauren: Toting around uranium.

Jonathan: Right, of either designing and building a reactor, or refitting existing reactors to be able to use this sort of methodology. You have to demonstrate that it's of incredible value before that becomes economically feasible.

Joe: And as we mentioned before, part of the value also of a molten salt reactor is that they say that it is much less vulnerable to meltdown.

Lauren: Right, yeah, it would stop the reactor, it wouldn't have the potential to explode the way that -

Jonathan: Or essentially it wouldn't have the potential for the uranium to reach a temperature that the reactor itself would be unable to contain. That's generally the idea that I get from it. So it's got a good potential, and it cuts down on waste, so we wanted to talk about another kind of technology.

Joe: Yeah, this isn't the only technology like this, right? That both cuts down on waste and gets something back out of it.

Jonathan: Yeah, so what you're referring to, I assume, is plasma gasification.

Joe: Which also sounds really cool. These things have great names.

Jonathan: Plasma waste converters. Plasma waste converters are, I write for howstuffworks.com, and one of the very first articles I wrote was about how plasma waste converters work. And as a result I got to actually go and speak with some of the thought leaders in plasma waste converters, and I got to watch footage. Actually somewhere I have a piece of slag from a plasma waste converter reaction.

Joe: You might want to explain what slag is.

Jonathan: I will, I will. All right, so plasma waste converters are all designed to get rid of garbage and convert it into one of two things. Anything that is non-organic, meaning it is not carbon based, gets liquefied. This liquid stuff ends up being inert, so there's not anything toxic about it, and when it cools, either if you cool it by air then it turns it to this kind of rocky substance that looks like obsidian or volcanic glass. That's the slag. If you cool it in water, by the way, it beads up into little pebbles, and if you run compressed air through it, which I got to see a video of, and boy was that terrifying, because it was actually a dude with a hose of compressed air standing next to a stream of molten slag. It looks like lava is what it looks like.

This molten slag is pouring out of the spigot, and he's blowing compressed air through it, making these strands of slag which, when they cool, through the air, become this sort of fluffy substance that apparently is incredibly efficient as an insulator. And it also floats on water, and it soaks up oil. So you could even use this to help soak up oil in an oil spill, if you wanted to. What was it called? Rock wool. It's all coming back to me. It's been years since I've written this article.

Lauren: So this sounds great. Why don't we have these on every street corner?

Jonathan: Well, before I even get there, I haven't even gotten to the really cool part yet.

Joe: Well, I want to know what creates the heat that liquefies this stuff.

Jonathan: Well I haven't gotten to that either. I've got to talk about the other half. I just said the non-organic. What about the organic? That's the question you should be asking.

Lauren: What about the organic?

Jonathan: Okay, here's what happens to the organic stuff. Anything that's carbon based gasifies, so it turns into a gas. That's because the incredible amount of energy you are applying to this stuff, in the form of heat, turns it almost instantaneously into gas. Now that gas you can then put through chemical scrubbers. You have to cool it down first; you put it through a cooling system, because the gas is incredibly hot when it first goes through the system. You cool it down, and in that process you can actually capture some of that heat and turn water into steam and generate electricity that way, but you can also scrub it with other chemicals removing some of the harmful elements out of it, making it inert, and the rest of what you have left is a synthetic gas that can be used as fuel.

So those are your two outcomes, is gas that can be used as fuel, and inert slag. Cool stuff. So what makes this heat is a plasma torch. So plasma is an ionized gas, it's a gas with free roaming ions, so that means electrons are also free roaming in this gas. It burns at an incredible temperature. We're talking surface of the sun or hotter.

Lauren: 10,000 degrees or something like that?

Jonathan: Something like that, yeah. And at that temperature you're breaking those chemical bonds and that's what's making everything either melt or gasify, again, depending upon what it's made out of. So you have to provide energy to the plasma torch so that it will maintain this plasma field, this very hot field, and that's what makes this thing go. You use the cooling system around the reactor which, again, can capture off that heat and use that to help generate electricity, and assuming you have enough carbon material in the garbage that you're processing, you can create enough synthetic gas to act as fuel to run the whole system and even, potentially, if you have enough of it, sell electricity back to the grid. So you would actually be generating electricity by not really burning but processing garbage. It also has a couple of other phases.

Usually you would have a phase where you try to retrieve any metal before going through the system because metal you could actually recycle into other stuff, otherwise it's just going to melt down. So you would try and have to sort the garbage first. And you usually grind the stuff up. You've got some heavy grinders that grind everything up into little pieces before it gets exposed to the plasma torch, because then you've really cut down on tall that surface area, make it a lot easier to process it. And the reason why they aren't everywhere, Lauren, to get to your question, now that I've answered Joe's question about who it does this, is because it would be very expensive to build these things. So building a plant is expensive. You could co locate it at a dump, essentially, anyplace where there is a landfill.

You could put it at the landfill. There it is, right there next to its fuel source, and in fact most of the figures I saw was that once you get to a certain size of facility for a plasma waste converter plant, you would be able to not only take in all the garbage that was coming in from a community, but in fact start to mine any existing landfills. So in other words, you would take care of the garbage problem and remove the landfills eventually. Over several decades worth of time, the landfills would get smaller and smaller until you had reclaimed them, and then the plasma waste facility would just take in incoming garbage. And it wouldn't produce as much energy at that point, obviously, because part of its fuel supply is gone, but in a way that's a good problem to have, because it's taken away this environmental concern that we have.

Joe: So, in addition to this usable gas that you get from it that you can burn, the slag is also useful, right?

Jonathan: Yeah, you can use it as aggregate, you can use it in building materials, you can use it to freak out your coworkers, if you like. Like I said, I had a small sample of this inside a plastic box, and one of our former coworkers, his name is Jon Fuller, he sat next to me in our cubicles and I had this little clear plastic box that had this piece of what looked like volcanic rock in it, and he picked it up one day and he was looking at the box and I said, "Yeah, it's slag from a plasma waste converter. I got it when I was interviewing the guy who thought this idea up." He says, "Oh, that's so cool," and he pops the top of it off and puts the rock in his hand, and I'm like, "Oh no." He's like, "What?" I'm like, "Oh no, I've got to make some calls. Oh no." And he started freaking out, and I'm like, "No, I'm just kidding you." But yeah, for a while there he thought that he had accidentally unleashed the zombie plague.

Lauren: Poor Jon Fuller.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Joe: He opened the Hellraiser box.

Jonathan: Jon has moved on to bigger and better things where hopefully his coworkers don't make him think that he's created the zombie apocalypse. I just couldn't resist. The other thing I should mention is that plasma waste converters are not the solution to all of our energy problems. They could help offset energy production but they wouldn't be producing enough electricity to replace things like fossil fuels or solar plants or anything like that, it just would help.

Joe: Of course not, but the point I think we're making here is that every little bit actually does help.

Jonathan: Yeah, and it also ends up impacting another unrelated problem.

Lauren: Yeah, the environmental issues. Some of the detractors of it have said that, "Well, what if we had these everywhere and then nobody recycles?" And I think that that's kind of missing the scope of the point here.

Jonathan: Right, if nobody recycles, but the recycling thing, yeah, that's a weird argument. I can't imagine why you would make that. I guess maybe people in Portland.

Lauren: Oh snap.

Joe: Well, I don't know the economics of it. There may be a reason why recycling is important, like, if you want, obviously if you're converting all of these different things to just slag and gas, there may be materials that we want to keep in quantity.

Jonathan: Recycling would be important for any material that requires a great deal of energy for us to access or convert into whatever it is we use. So for example, glass, not a problem. Glass is made out of sand. Sand and heat, and that's easy to do, so glass actually, I've heard lots of arguments saying that recycling gas actually doesn't make that much sense because the amount of energy needed to recycle the glass is greater than it would be to create new glass. So the better thing to do with glass is not just use it and throw it away, but to reuse, because we hear about reuse and recycle, and this would be a case for reusing. But things like plastics, that's different, or aluminum would be different too.

But again, the facility would separate some stuff out already, so it probably would not remove the necessity for recycling completely, but it would reduce the importance of it. But, we don't have them, so it's kind of a moot point. There's only a few facilities like this that exist in the world. They do exist. It's not like this is just in theory. There are actual plasma waste converters out there, there's just only a few of them.

Joe: You know, one of the funny things that happens when you start thinking about energy and efficiency is you can look around the world and you can just see that energy is wasted everywhere. And I'm not talking about just leaving the lights on, the kinds of ways that we normally think about wasting energy, I'm talking about, what happens to the impact energy when you put your foot down on the floor and you take a step, or when you press the keys on your computer?

Jonathan: Right, you're not doing any useful work there. You're not; things that are actually an expense of energy aren't being recaptured in any meaningful way. So what if you could find a way to capture that energy so that all these little things we do throughout the day, but everyone pretty much does them, what if we could recapture that energy and put it to some other use like creating electricity?

Joe: Right. As people have already thought of doing this kind of thing in cars, right? Like when you have regenerative braking or, the brakes used to be just wasted energy.

Jonathan: Yeah, just friction and heat, and that's all, you would loose all that energy.

Joe: Just going out the window, but if you have regenerative braking, the car manufacturers figured out, "Oh, we can actually reclaim some of that energy and use it for something."

Jonathan: Right, which means that you extend the battery life of an electric car, for example. So it's not that you're recapturing all the energy that you just used. You can't do that. You're losing some no matter what.

Joe: Right, entropy holds.

Jonathan: But you can at least extend the battery life that way by having regenerative braking. So what if we could do that with ourselves? What if we could end up doing it where either we have something that's lining the floors or even in our shoes that could capture this energy, and you found something that was kind of interesting, that all has to do with a virus.

Joe: Yeah, there's a phenomenon, piezoelectricity.

Jonathan: I call it piezoelectric and everyone else calls it piezoelectric.

Joe: I call it piezo, but Jonathan's smarter than me.

Lauren: I call it pie-zo, because pie electric, I think this could really catch on.

Jonathan: Electric pie does sound delicious and zappy. But anyway, I probably pronounce it incorrectly but I'm stubborn and I shall continue to do so.

Lauren: Well, go for it. Far be it from us.

Joe: Whatever it is, piezoelectric energy comes from pressure, right? So any time you apply pressure to something, there is some kind of energy transfer going on there, and what if we can harness that energy? Well, it turns out there are ways to do this. In fact, I think just scales and stuff like that use this.

Jonathan: And you know, fi you look at a timepiece that uses a quartz crystal, that's piezoelectric. It's a material that, when you compress it, it emits electricity essentially, or if you induce electricity, if you give it electricity, it then vibrates, so it's that relationship there.

Joe: Right, it's a relationship between -

Lauren: Mechanical stress and electricity.

Jonathan: Yes, very good. Thank you Lauren for making my stumbling actually sound smart.

Joe: Exactly. So you can imagine that, oh, if we could put these generators just everywhere that there's wasted friction, like if you put them on stairs or on the soles of your feet or something like this, could you reclaim, over time, the energy cost that it would cost to create them, and could you even get a surplus? So say I want to put piezoelectric fields on the bottom of my shoes, walk around all day, and charge my IPod. Well, it turns out that you might be able to do something like that. Now but part of the problem is, creating these things, we haven't reached peak efficiency yet, so at this point in a lot of cases it would probably cost more to create one of these and it wouldn't put off enough electricity, but we're getting better. Also, they tend to involve materials that you don't want to put into consumer electronics, like lead and stuff like that.

Jonathan: Yeah, things that are toxic.

Lauren: Generally not good.

Joe: But the lab that we were looking at figured out a way that you could create a small ocean of viruses that don't affect humans. They're bacteria phage viruses.

Lauren: They attack bacteria and not people.

Joe: Right, and so they wouldn't be harmful to you. They're the kind of viruses that eat the bacteria that's all over the sidewalk and everywhere.

Lauren: M13 specifically is the bacteria designation.

Joe: Wow, M13, yeah, I remember that now. It sounds like a British secret service network.

Jonathan: Way behind M5.

Joe: But yeah, so anyway, you can use viruses to generate electricity. They found out you can make a little ocean of these that when you slap it, they put off electric current.

Jonathan: So you coat an electrode in this stuff, and every time you apply pressure compression to that electrode, then a little bit of electricity passes through it and accumulatively this starts to matter.

Lauren: Right, when you push it once, I was reading up on it and it only produces maybe a quarter of the voltage of a triple A battery, which doesn't sound a lot until you consider the fact that you just made viruses into energy.

Jonathan: Right, and if you're doing lots of steps, if you're walking a lot, and you have these in your shoes, then obviously you're going to generate more electricity. Or if you have this as part of a heavily trafficked area, then you could harness electricity. You could even, in theory; create a highway system in the future that would use something along these lines that could, through the amount of pressure being applied to it when cars are passing over, start to reclaim some of the energy.

Lauren: Yeah, if you could paint this film onto a street then -

Joe: Exactly, yeah. We don't know where it would be efficient in the future to use things like this. In fact, we don't even know for sure if we can get there, but it's really cool to try.

Jonathan: yeah. The nice thing about discovering things like this is that even if, ultimately, it turns out that your initial discovery is not applicable in any meaningful way, you can learn other things during that process that end up informing other processes, so you make other things more efficient, even if your initial approach ends up being a bust, you may find other things that help you out in ways that you had not intended when you started out, which is why I love science. I love the idea, and I don't think of science as having - you'll hear about a scientific study where you're thinking, "What's the practical application of this study?"

Joe: Pure science versus technology.

Jonathan: And really, yeah, I think that's the wrong question to ask, because if we only concentrate on things that we thought were going to have a practical outcome, we would be so far behind where we are today.

Joe: Today's pure science is tomorrow's technology. It's ridiculous. Who would have thought that quantum mechanics would ever have a technological application 100 years ago when people were talking about these strange quantum states, but now we're talking about quantum computers and quantum encryption.

Jonathan: Yeah, there's definitely some emerging technology today that came out of pure science from 100 years ago. And maybe in another hundred or 200 years we'll be saying the same thing about something like string theory, where right now we don't even really call that a science, we almost call it a philosophy because there's no way to test it or observe it. But who knows, maybe in 100 or 200 years, that will be the genesis of something that really changes the world, like the genesis project, which is documented in Star Trek 2, Wrath of Khan. All right, well let's wrap this up. This was a good discussion, and these were just three examples of some of the ways people have found.

Joe: Yeah, there's a million other things like this.

Jonathan: Yeah, to maximize electricity generation while minimizing waste, and it's really cool application of ingenuity and technology, and I really think that this is pretty amazing stuff. If you guys have suggestions for future topics for us to cover, I highly recommend you go to our website. It's fwthinking.com. There you can watch the video series, you can listen to this podcast, you can read the blogs, and you can also connect with us on our various social platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, and we will talk to you again really soon.

Male Speaker 1: For more on this topic and the future of technology, visit fwthinking.com. Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places.

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Duration: 30 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: piezoelectricity