Electricity collected from the air could become the newest alternative energy source

Imagine devices that capture electricity from the air ― much like solar cells capture sunlight ― and using them to light a house or recharge an electric car. Imagine using similar panels on the rooftops of buildings to prevent lightning before it forms. Strange as it may sound, scientists already are in the early stages of developing such devices, according to a report presented today at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future,” said study leader Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D. His research may help explain a 200-year-old scientific riddle about how electricity is produced and discharged in the atmosphere. “Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” he maintained.

“If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes,” Galembeck said, noting that lightning causes thousands of deaths and injuries worldwide and millions of dollars in property damage.

The notion of harnessing the power of electricity formed naturally has tantalized scientists for centuries. They noticed that sparks of static electricity formed as steam escaped from boilers. Workers who touched the steam even got painful electrical shocks. Famed inventor Nikola Tesla, for example, was among those who dreamed of capturing and using electricity from the air. It’s the electricity formed, for instance, when water vapor collects on microscopic particles of dust and other material in the air. But until now, scientists lacked adequate knowledge about the processes involved in formation and release of electricity from water in the atmosphere, Galembeck said. He is with the University of Campinas in Campinas, SP, Brazil.

via Electricity collected from the air could become the newest alternative energy source.

The Recent Future / August 27, 2010 / Nature, SciFi, Tech / 0 Comments

Ultra-tiny frogs discovered living like faeries inside pitcher plants

One of the world’s tiniest frogs has been discovered in Borneo. At 10-12 mm long, Microhyla nepenthicola may be micro, but its croak is loud. That’s how researchers found them, swimming in tiny puddles of water captured by pitcher plants.

A group of zoologists with Conservation International say they found the frogs by the side of the road in Borneo, near a national park. They were very hard to locate because of their small size, but the scientists followed the frog’s loud calls (you can listen to some here) and discovered them living among pitcher plants. They lay their eggs on the inside of the pitchers, and tadpoles grow up swimming in the tiny pools of rainwater that collect in the bottom of these plants. While most species of pitcher plant are carnivorous, the ones preferred by these tiny frogs only eat leaves – in fact, the frogs most likely help break down the leaf material and aid in the plant’s digestion.

via Ultra-tiny frogs discovered living like faeries inside pitcher plants.

The Recent Future / August 25, 2010 / Nature / 0 Comments

Flywheel power grid storage project gets DOE loan

Beacon Power on Monday said it has closed a $43 million loan guarantee with the Department of Energy for a project to use flywheels to buffer 20 megawatts of power on the grid.

The loan covers 62.5 percent of the estimated $69 million needed to construct the flywheel storage plant in Stephentown, N.Y. The New York Energy Research and Development Authority is also providing $2 million in funding for the plant which is now under construction.

Once done, Beacon Power said that the plant will be the only one of its kind in the world. Rather than use a large battery, it will use a network of 200 flywheels to store electricity from the grid as kinetic energy and disperse it in quick bursts of up to 15 minutes.

Right now, grid operators typically use natural gas power plants to maintain a balance between supply and demand and keep a steady frequency of 60 cycles per second. The Stephentown project, expected to be completed by the end of the first quarter next year, will be able to provide 10 percent of the frequency regulation services in New York needed on a typical day.

The project is significant step up for the technology, which so far has been used in smaller-scale installation of about one megawatt of power.

via Flywheel power grid storage project gets DOE loan | Green Tech – CNET News.

The Recent Future / August 18, 2010 / SciFi, Tech / 0 Comments

Star Trek-like Heisenberg Compensators!??!

A quantum memory may be all scientists need to beat the limit of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, according to a paper published in Nature Physics. According to a group of researchers, maximally entangling a particle with a quantum memory and measuring one of the particle’s variables, like its position, should snap the quantum memory in a corresponding state, which could then be measured. This would allow them to do something long thought verboten by the laws of physics: figure out the state of certain pairs of variables at the exact same time with an unprecedented amount of certainty.

Our ability to observe particles at the quantum level is currently limited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Heisenberg noticed that when someone measured one variable of a particle, such as its position, there were some other variables, like momentum, that could not be simultaneously measured with as much precision—there was a small amount of uncertainty applied to one or both of the measurements.

The physical reasoning behind this is hard to follow. But Paul Dirac, another physicist, made up a scenario to illustrate why some variables have this contentious relationship.

Dirac pointed out that one of the only ways to measure a particle’s position is by bouncing a photon off of it, and seeing where and how that photon lands on a detector. How the photon lands completely describes the particle’s position, but by hitting it, the measurement changes the particle’s momentum.

Likewise, a measure of momentum would change the particle’s position. Because of this quirk, scientists thought it was impossible to know certain pairs of variables that affect one another at the same exact time with a very high degree of precision.

Then along came entanglement. When two particles are entangled, reading even one variable of one of the particles collapses the wavefunction of both particles, giving finite values to all related variables.

The cadre of scientists behind the current paper realized that, by using the process of entanglement, it would be possible to essentially use two particles to figure out the complete state of one. They might even be able to measure incompatible variables like position and momentum. The measurements might not be perfectly precise, but the process could allow them to beat the limit of the uncertainty principle.

Quantum memory may topple Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

The Recent Future / August 2, 2010 / Star Trek Did It!, Tech / 0 Comments