Charge your wireless gadgets while roasting marshmallows over a camp fire?

powerpot-ghana-indoorsPower Practical, a company that sprang out of research from the University of Utah, has developed a pot that can charge wireless devices through a USB connection while boiling water. They call their device, no surprise, the PowerPot — retailing for $149. So far they have built and shipped 1,000 units after raising $126,000 through crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Success from that campaign soon led to another $750,000 in seed funding. It seems interest in the PowerPot is boiling over.

This is a seriously simple device. Really, it’s just a pot. You fill it with water. You put it on a source of heat, whether it be a camp fire, camping stove or a portable heating element. It produces electricity. How does it do this? There’s a thermoelectric plate at the bottom of the pot that taps into the differential between the heat source and the temperature of the water in the pot. Electrons move from hot to cold, and this movement of electrons produces an electrical current that PowerPot taps into. The bigger the temperature differential the more power that can be produced. A scoop of snow in the pot will produce more electricity than filling the pot with warm water.

How, you might ask, is this good for the environment? Well, it’s not necessarily good if you go build a campfire JUST to charge your iPhone. But if you’ve got a fire going anyway, whether to boil water for pasta or roast hot dogs and marshmallows, or simply to keep warm, then you might as well use the heat that is otherwise being wasted to charge up your digital camera, iPhone, BlackBerry, etc…

This also has potential application in the developing world, where cell phones are often more ubiquitous than electricity. “There are hundreds of millions of people with cell phones in Africa, and most people need to walk more than a mile and spend a big chunk of their income simply to charge their phone,” said Riley Swenson, Power Practical’s marketing director. The challenge here is get the costs down so it’s more affordable, but at $149 at low volume, it seems like there’s big potential for cost reductions here.

Neat.

The $149 PowerPot is just the basic model. It’s a 5-watt generator that can charge a small device like a cellphone or GPS unit or run low-power devices. Charge time can take a couple hours. There is a more advanced model called the PowerPot X which goes for $249. It’s a 10-watt model ideal for iPads, laptops and slightly larger gadgets.

Ocean thermal energy conversion gets one step closer to commercial reality

otecUPDATE: An interesting announcement from Lockheed Martin this morning. The military contractor says it has signed a “memorandum agreement” with real-estate developer Reignwood Group, founded and run by Thai-Chinese businessman Yan Bin, the second-richest man in Beijing. What have they agreed to do? Lockheed says it will design a 10-megawatt ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant, which will supply 100 per cent of the power needs of a planned “net-zero” green resort being built by Reignwood. “The agreement could lay the foundation for the development of several additional OTEC power plants ranging in size from 10 to 100 megawatts, for a potential multi-billion dollar value,” according to Lockheed in a press release.

This is exciting for two reasons. One, it’s very cool technology, and being an energy geek I love hearing this kind of news. Two, there’s huge potential here for the ocean to supply emission-free electricity around the world. Lockheed has been working on this technology since the 1970s. An OTEC power plant basically uses heat exchangers to extract heat out of the warmer upper ocean layers and create steam from a working fluid with a low boiling temperature, such as ammonia. As I wrote in my book Mad Like Tesla, “The steam would drive a turbine that generates electricity. Cold water from deeper layers would then be used to condense the ammonia back into fluid, at which point the cycle would be repeated.” In my book, I quoted Ted Johnson, director of alternative energy development at Lockheed, who is clearly optimistic about what the technology could offer. “I dream of thousands of floating OTEC ships roaming the seas of the world, providing an inexhaustible supply of clean energy and fuel and water for all people of the world.”

While Lockheed has been working on this for four decades, one of the first in-depth discussions of the concept came from Nikola Tesla, who at the age of 75 outlined how such a plant might be built in the December 1931 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics journal. Tesla spent considerable time trying devising a way to improve the efficiencies of such a power plant, but he determined that it was too great an engineering challenge at the time. “I have studied this plan of power production from all angles and have devised apparatus for bringing down all losses to what I might call the irreducible minimum and still I find the performance too small to enable successful competition with the present methods,” he wrote, though still expressing hope that new methods would eventually make it possible to economically tap the thermal energy in oceans.

Lockheed is trying to demonstrate that the day has come. “Constructing a sea-based, multi-megawatt pilot OTEC power plant for Reignwood Group is the final step in making it an economic option to meet growing needs for clean, reliable energy,” said Dan Heller, vice-president of new ventures for Lockheed’s mission systems and training group. Lockheed said the technology is “well-suited” to island and coastal communities where — because of transportation logistics — energy prices tend to be high and there is great dependency on oil for power generation. “Unlike other renewable energy technologies, this power is also base load, meaning it can be produced consistently 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Lockheed. “A commercial-scale OTEC plant will have the capability to power a small city. The energy can also be used for the cultivation of other crucial resources such as clean drinking water and hydrogen for applications such as electric vehicles.”

Continues Lockheed: “Once the proposed plant is developed and operational, the two companies plan to use the knowledge gained to improve the design of the additional commercial-scale plants, to be built over the next 10 years. Each 100-megawatt OTEC facility could produce the same amount of energy in a year as 1.3 million barrels of oil, decrease carbon emissions by half a million tons and provide a domestic energy source that is sustainable, reliable and secure. With oil trading near $100 a barrel, the fuel-savings from one plant could top $130 million per year.”

There is one point of confusion, however. Lockheed says this planned OTEC project — at 10 megawatts — will be the largest ever built, but I was under the impression it had designed or was in the process of designing a 10MW plant off the coast of Hawaii. I’ve e-mailed Lockheed asking for clarification on this and will update my post when I get an answer. For more background on this concept check out this story from a few months back by the folks at Greentech Media.

(UPDATE: I received a response from Lockheed spokesman Scott Lusk on the company’s work in Hawaii. Here’s what he had to say: “While Hawaii is one of the main places where Lockheed Martin has conducted research and evaluation around the OTEC technology, to date there have been no contracts awarded for commercial-scale OTEC development in the state. Lockheed Martin has tested the heat exchanger technology, a critical component in the OTEC plant design, at the NELHA research facility in Hawaii. In addition, Hawaii is one of several locations where Lockheed Martin has conducted feasibility studies. Other locations include Guam and Japan.”)

Regen Energy partners with Carrier on its swarm energy management technology

L'affaire abeilleGood to see local T.O. company Regen Energy getting traction in the market for its energy management devices, which use “swarm logic” to coordinate when flexible building loads turn on and off. HVAC giant Carrier has agreed to offer Regen’s product through its global distribution network, giving the technology greater exposure to commercial and industrial customers. Tim Angus, president and CEO of Regen, said the deal is proof that the technology is gaining an industry foothold. Fact is, more commercial and industrial customers are looking for inexpensive ways of achieving dynamic load control, including participation in demand-response programs. Regen’s decentralized approach to load management is truly unique. (For more info on Regen’s tech, check here and here and here).

Catalyst breakthrough *could* change economics of hydrogen energy storage

icon_hydrogenI was in New York City doing a photo shoot for Corporate Knights when news broke that a duo of University of Calgary researchers had come up with a new, very inexpensive catalyst — i.e. rust — for generating hydrogen gas from water. Can’t believe I missed it, actually, because it received wide coverage — from MIT Technology Review to Canada’s Globe and Mail and CBC Online. Still, for those like me who missed it, here’s a quick rundown of why this is potentially important and what it means for the so-called hydrogen economy. I have no doubt that this has caught the attention of many big-name players in the hydrogen and broader energy sector since the research was published online in the journal Science.

According to the press release out of FireWater Fuel, the company spun out of this research, what has been discovered is a “breakthrough method of fabricating electrocatalysts made of inexpensive, non-toxic, and abundant resources, that facilitate the production of clean hydrogen from water.” An electrocatalyst, I should say, is simply a material that causes a chemical reaction to take place when an electrical current is introduced. Conventional catalysts used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen come from rare and expensive metals such as platinum, which costs more than $1,700 an ounce and is highly volatile price-wise. Pre-2008, it had reached over $2,000 per ounce. I remember a conversation I had with Ballard Power president John Sheridan back then. When the recession hit and platinum prices plunged to $800, Sheridan said Ballard locked in a large order knowing full well the price would rise again — and it has. Platinum prices matter to fuel cell developers. When they’re high, they can represent up to one-third of the total cost of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell. Water electrolysis units used to produce hydrogen are basically fuel cells that operate in reverse, meaning they also rely greatly on platinum.

(It should be said that platinum also plays a big role with internal combustion engine vehicles, as every catalytic converter in a vehicle (required by law) contains platinum. However, ICE vehicles generally contain less than one-tenth the amount of platinum as a fuel cell-powered vehicle.)

The need to eliminate our dependency on expensive platinum and other rare-earth metals is why the U of C breakthrough is potentially game-changing. If you can eliminate the need for platinum and replace it with a less exotic, more abundant and — most importantly — dramatically cheaper catalyst, then the dream of using hydrogen as an energy storage medium becomes that much more real. Indeed, FireWater Fuel claims it can make a competitive catalyst from “Earth-adundant” materials such as iron oxide — i.e. rust. We certainly have a lot of rust, so that’s promising. Cobalt and nickel are other plentiful compound metals that are used. Essentially, the researchers use light at low temperatures to produce mixed metal-oxide films for the electrodes that are used in the electrolysis process.  FireWater says its second-generation prototype “already outperforms the industry benchmark despite costing only a fraction of the price and consisting of environmentally benign materials.” By “fraction” they mean nearly 1,000 times cheaper. So far, the approach is more than 85 per cent efficient and the company is working to have its first commercial electrolyzer on the market by 2014, with a small home-scale unit possible by 2015.

The commercial units could, for example, be used to economically produce hydrogen from surplus, low-cost electricity (such as overnight wind energy production). That hydrogen could then be stored and used later to generate electricity (via fuel cell or combustion turbine) when the power is most needed, thereby smoothing out the variability of wind. It could also be paired with an off-grid wind farm in a remote area that wants to wean itself from diesel back-up generators. At home, a smaller unit could be used to produce hydrogen on demand from rooftop solar panels. If this becomes economical, it may remove a major barrier that has prevented fuel-cell vehicles from entering the market.

Perhaps. May. Could. Potentially. This would all be VERY cool if it came to fruition, but having reported on past announcements like this I will wait for more evidence of progress. This has to be proven at a scaled-up level, and there will certainly be many speed bumps and funding challenges along the way to commercialization. It’s also worth noting that this research isn’t entirely unique. There are many start-ups and research teams out there making breakthroughs in alternative catalysts for hydrogen production. Just type in “cheap + catalyst + hydrogen” in Google and you’ll see what I mean. One particular company, Georgia-based GridShift, claims it has developed a catalyst that uses no rare-earth materials and reduces catalyst costs by 97 per cent — i.e. catalysts at $60 an ounce versus $1,700 for platinum.

Back in 2010, when it emerged out of stealth mode, GridShift said it could produce hydrogen at a cost of $2.51 per kilogram, “effectively making hydrogen a more affordable alternative than gasoline at an equivalent cost of $2.70 per gallon of gasoline.” According to the company, “GridShift’s new method for hydrogen generation produces four times more hydrogen per electrode surface area than what is currently reported for commercial units today. This means that an electrolysis unit using the GridShift method would produce at least four times more fuel in the same-sized machine, or require a unit four times smaller than normal to make the same amount of hydrogen.” Three years later, there’s not much word from GridShift, even though it is backed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Still, founder Robert Dopp keeps putting out studies.

So in a nutshell, I’m very excited about this University of Calgary research and hope FireWater Fuels can get to a finish line that others have so far failed to reach. It would truly put hydrogen back in the running as an energy storage medium for renewables and fuel-cell vehicles, with the added irony that it would originate from Calgary — the financial heartland of Canada’s oil sands industry.