Science & Tech

The Holy Grail of Green

Researchers get creative in their quest to make the next big breakthrough in green energy
  • May 31, 2012
  • 934 words
  • 4 minutes
An Oakville, Ont. plant produces biodiesel from used coffee grounds Expand Image
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Finding a clean energy source to replace crude is a bit like the search for the Holy Grail — the Indiana Jones version. It’s all about the adventure along the way. With researchers exploring everything from feces to tornadoes in their quest for green power, there’s no shortage of imagination at work.
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Lighting with lightning
If Ben Franklin could harness the power of a lightning strike using nothing more than a metal key tied to a kite, one would think that 260 years later, capturing the billions of volts naturally generated by one strike would be doable. At least Idaho-based Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI ) seemed to think so. After acquiring the small-scale design plans of an Illinois inventor who used artificially generated lightning to power a light bulb for 20 minutes, AEHI began developing a large-scale prototype in the storm-prone Houston, Texas, area. The lightning farm envisioned by AEHI — a system of towers to attract a strike, with grounding wires and a capacitor to store energy — was abandoned in 2007. A breakthrough study published last March, however, details how French researchers have coaxed artificial lightning to repeatedly strike the same spot, which may bring this technology a step closer.

Excreting energy
Instead of conjuring memories of a bad case of food poisoning, E. coli may one day become synonymous with biofuel if San Francisco start-up LS 9 has its way. In 2010, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, LS 9 published research about genetically modifying a strain of E. coli to convert glucose into biodiesel. After a 1,900-litre pilot program proved successful, the company bought a plant in Florida, where a 132,000-litre fermenter is scheduled to be up and running this year. A similar technology using algae has been studied, but LS 9 spokesman Dale Young highlights one significant difference: “In a lot of algae technology, the product is not excreted … basically, you have to squish the algae to get the product out.” But E. coli ingests sugar and excretes biodiesel — the fuel floats to the top of the fermenter and can be skimmed off.
Fecal matters
The concept of using human waste as a fuel source no longer involves a composting toilet that requires wood chips and a weekly stir. In Vancouver, when environmental groups launched a 2007 lawsuit against the city’s treatment facilities for violating federal pollution laws, a new liquid- waste management plan evolved. As part of a $1.1 million upgrade, a system was installed to collect the methane produced from processing sewage. The gas powers the facility and is fed into the city’s natural-gas distribution system. The project is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 500 tonnes a year and to produce enough energy to power 100 homes. Vancouver’s Dynamotive Energy Systems has gone further, using human sewage and wood chips to create BioOil, a substitute for fossil fuels in diesel engines and boilers. The company’s plant in Guelph, Ont., produces 22,000 tonnes of BioOil a year.

Taming tornadoes
To say that the atmospheric vortex engine harnesses the energy of a tornado isn’t 100 percent accurate — the idea is to create a tornado. Based on the simple concept that hot air rises, engineer Louis Michaud, president of Sarnia, Ont.-based AVE tec Energy, wants to redirect industrial heat waste into towers laden with turbines. As the hot, humid air rises, it would turn turbines and create a vortex. The system would not only increase the efficiency of existing power plants but also generate electricity at a fraction of the current cost — all within a footprint of less than one square kilometre. A small-scale vortex engine has been tested, but until Michaud finds angels willing to invest, the project’s future is up in the air.

Backyard power plant
Solar panels may be environmentally friendly, but they aren’t always easy on the eye. Solar Botanic of London, England, may have come up with a solution for homeowners who are a little more preoccupied with aesthetics, creating a combined solar- and wind-energy collecting system that emulates the maple tree growing in your backyard. Artificial “Nanoleaves” harvest wind energy as they flutter, while their green surface area collects energy from both direct sunlight and heat, capturing piezovoltaic, photovoltaic and thermovoltaic energy, respectively. An artificial broad-leaf tree such as a maple or an oak would generate up to 25.2 gigajoules a year, roughly one-quarter of the average Canadian household consumption.
Fuelling up on coffee grounds
Harnessing the energy from a cup of coffee is more than an expression at Energy Innovation Corp. in Oakville, Ont. In June 2010, the company opened the world’s first plant that produces biodiesel from used coffee grounds. Generally made from vegetable oils or animal fats, biodiesel is a renewable fuel that’s often used in cars, trains and buses. While it’s not a new product, demand is on the rise due to new government regulations requiring that diesel fuel sold domestically contain at least two percent biodiesel. As a result, Energy Innovation, which collects grounds from about 100 coffee shops, is now planning a major expansion. The company hopes to open up to eight more plants in Ontario over the next few years.
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