Tag Archives: Nikola Tesla

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.”)

Crowdfunding meets Tesla, clean energy… Can the crowd fill a gap left by government and business?

Nikola Tesla, the inventor of much that we take for granted, is finally getting his due.

I’m a huge fan of Tesla. Even wrote a book last year in his name. His life and mind are fascinating subjects. So it was delightful to hear last week that efforts to build a museum in his memory had passed an important milestone.

At last count, roughly $1.2 million (U.S.) has been raised to buy back Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe laboratory, located on Long Island about 100 kilometres from New York City.

It was there, roughly 110 years ago, that the Serbian-American engineer began conducting wireless communications and long-distance power transmission experiments. He predicted a world without wires that only in the last two decades we have come to realize.

Telsa’s vision was so compelling that he convinced financier J.P. Morgan to invest in construction of the 57-metre tall tower that was to be the heart of a global communications and free energy transfer system.

Like many of Tesla’s grand projects, however, the money ran dry. The whole operation got shuttered after about 15 years and the property was sold off.

Now, Tesla followers are determined to buy it back. But what’s fascinating about this story is how they’re doing it.

The Tesla Science Center, a not-for-profit group trying to take possession of Wardenclyffe, approached humour cartoonist and long-time Tesla fan Matthew Inman, who operates the popular and highly clever website theoatmeal.com. They explained that if they could raise $850,000 they could get a matching grant from the state, giving them enough to make the purchase.

Inman decided to help. A crowdfunding campaign was set up on the website IndieGoGo.com and the cartoonist used his wide online reach to draw attention to the museum project. With 29 days still left in the campaign, Inman has already blown well past his $850,000 goal. (Find project at http://igg.me/p/204900)

About 28,000 people have donated, myself included. The final tally could very well top $2 million.

This story illustrates the power of the crowd and how more organizations and entrepreneurs — too often turned down by government and banks — are going straight to the masses to get financial support for their projects. Clean energy initiatives are no exception.

Take the PlanetStove project, spearheaded by Dylan Maxwell and Olivier Kolmel, the founders of Montreal-based firm Novotera. The company has developed a new type of wood-fuelled cooking stove that addresses many problems associated with traditional indoors wood fires, which is the common way of cooking in many developing countries.

Indoor cooking fires and the smoke inhalation that results cause thousands of premature deaths a day, according to the World Health Organization. The carbon dioxide and soot that’s release also contribute to global warming. The mere presence of smoke means such fires are an inefficient way to make heat.

Several years ago Maxwell and Kolmel began working on a new type of portable indoor stove based on the TLUD or “top lit, updraft” design, which is basically a metal cylinder with another metal tube inside that gets packed with wood and kindling.

As the name suggests, the kindling at the top of stove is lit on fire. This begins to heat up — but not burn — the wood below, releasing hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those gases travel up through the air gap between the cylinder and inner tube and are ejected out small holes at the top of the stove into the burning kindling, where the gas itself begins to burn.

In effect, the wood is “gasified” and the stove burns like any gas-burning stove. The result is very little smoke, making it much safer for indoor use. The approach also produces the same amount of energy using a third less wood.

But just as important is what the stove leaves behind when the cooking is done. After the wood is gasified it is essentially charcoal, which still contains 50 per cent or more of the carbon that was in the original wood.

That charcoal — or “biochar” — has amazing properties. It is a known soil enhancer for its ability to help land retain water and valuable nutrients. And when it’s added to the soil, the carbon inside the biochar is essentially sequestered.

Maxwell and Kolmel discovered that in some countries that char can be sold for just as much as what was paid for the original wood. So not only does the stove improve health, reduce impacts on climate, and reduce the rate of deforestation, it can enhance agriculture and is also a potential source of income for villagers.

Having tested the stoves for two years now in China, Maxwell and Kolmel now want to distribute 1,000 of them across parts of Asia for free, which is where crowdfunding comes into play.

Like the Tesla museum initiative, Novotera — with the help of greentech investor and consultant Lee Schnaiberg — has launched a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo.com.

The company has found a manufacturer in China that can make the stoves for $25. The two entrepreneurs are hoping to raise $25,000 by mid-October so they can purchase the stoves and begin handing them out later in the fall.

“If you pay $25 you’re basically giving a stove to a family,” said Maxwell.

Last time I checked, they had raised $1,200 with 43 days left to go in the campaign. Their big challenge is in spreading the word.

Schnaiberg said the success of the Tesla museum initiative boosted their confidence. “Our goals are much more modest, but that campaign really confirmed to us that using IndieGoGo was the right choice.”

Come Oct. 12, they’ll know for sure. The bigger question, however, is how many of these efforts the crowd will be willing to fund as the calls for help begin to grow.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Mad Like Tesla, now shipping from Amazon.com

Canadian sites are taking pre-orders for a few more days still, but for my U.S. readers Amazon.com has started shipping my new book Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy. The book tells the stories of some clean energy entrepreneurs/inventors taking huge risks and thinking outside the box to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues. Each one is at a different level of development but all face similar barriers along their journey. The stories set the stage for discussion about a specific type of clean energy, technology or field of discovery (e.g. fusion, solar, waste-heat recovery, biofuels, energy storage, biomimicry, etc.) supported by some historical context and current-day examples.

Why Mad Like Tesla? That’s explained in the introduction, but in a nutshell Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla invented many important technologies in his lifetime. yet he faced constant struggle against naysayers and skeptics who couldn’t, at first, grasp the significance of what he was sharing with the world. Many dismissed Tesla as a mad scientist, and yet his inventions shaped the world largely for the better. So, in my view, if someone today is mad like Tesla, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s quite a good thing, actually — we need more of these people, for the changes necessary in our world will not come from the kind of cautious, incremental steps being taken today.

I have a website for the book in the works, but it won’t be ready until end of August.

Thanks for your support!

Library Journal review of Mad Like Tesla: “This book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders”

Hi all, I’m delighted to report that the first review of my upcoming book, Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy, is in and it’s, well, pretty encouraging. Here’s what Library Journal, an important industry trade magazine used as a purchasing guide by library buyer and book wholesalers, had to say:

Hamilton, energy and technology writer for the Toronto Star, examines some of the latest, most far-out green energy innovations and the people behind them. How far-out? Take, for example, a retired engineer’s idea to produce electricity via an artificial tornado, or a plan for a space-based power station that would harvest the sun’s energy, using microwaves to beam it down to earth. Other gizmos and processes seem more amenable to commercial success and social acceptance: Hamilton tells of a secretive company called EEStor that claims to have made a breakthrough in energy storage, and of a team building a low-cost nuclear fusion reactor. He strikes a fine balance between hope and hard realism when considering barriers to energy transition. As the “tornado guy” says, upon considering financial and regulatory obstacles: “Holy crap, that’s a lot to get through.” VERDICT: Mad Like Tesla is easy to get through, even for readers with only a basic knowledge of energy issues. Hamilton makes complex technologies comprehensible, and he clearly enjoys the remarkable human stories behind the science. Many of the risk takers and visionaries portrayed are Canadian (rocker Neil Young makes a cameo appearance!), but this book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders.

Can’t complain with that. The book is scheduled for public release on Sept. 1 and is already available for pre-order on a number of sites, including Amazon.com/Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca. The book won’t break the bank, either. We decided to do paperback release on first run to make the book more accessible to a larger audience. You can likely pick it up for $13 or so. I built a Web site I’m not entirely happy with, so plan to have a newly designed site finished by the end of August. Stay tuned!