Harvesting Energy from the Environment: an Under-Appreciated Opportunity

Comments Off on Harvesting Energy from the Environment: an Under-Appreciated Opportunity
Harvesting Energy from the Environment: an Under-Appreciated Opportunity

When people talk about an energy crisis or an energy shortage, they tend to forget that the world we live in is awash in energy that is constantly flowing and changing its form.  Although overall in the universe, the amount of entropy or disorder is increasing all the time, the universe also creates an astonishing amount of order as well.  Life, for example, is a channel through which energy flows to create highly ordered forms that turn out to be more efficient at processing energy than inert, non-living forms.  This was once thought to be a contradiction of the laws of thermodynamics, which predicts increasing disorder.  But it is now seen as part of the natural tendency of the forces of the universe to operate as efficiently as possible.

There is no shortage of energy, then, but capturing it and putting it to work the way life forms do is quite a trick.  Over the brief period since the invention of energy-harnessing technology — say since the Industrial Revolution — most of our efforts to do that have been fraught with waste and inefficiency.  Most of the heat from a steam engine is lost in the air and does no useful work at all.  Most of the gasoline burned by an automobile goes into heat, as well as to moving the heavy steel structure of the automobile, not the passengers.  Incandescent light bulbs use up most of their electricity producing heat.

But recent efforts to capture the free energy around us — and even inside of us — have begun to change this state of affairs and offer new hopes of living more and more efficient lives.  For example, why not use body heat to power cell phones?  Why not use the motion of clothing to power laptop computers?  Why not use the natural contractions of your muscles to power a cardiac pacemaker?

All these and more are under development in a novel movement in science and technology known as "energy harvesting."  Among the groups and institutions involved in energy harvesting research are private enterprises that seek to commercialize energy harvesting technologies.

To take one example, a company called Voltree Power in Canton, Massachusetts, has developed a device that converts the metabolic energy of plants into useable electricity.1  The device called a bioenergy harvesting module is stabbed into the tree like a nail.  It then converts the sugars produced by the tree for its own growth into enough current to run Voltree's patented line of wireless sensor and telemetry devices.  This enables the company to quickly and cheaply establish a mesh network in hard-to-reach locations in infinitely customizable ways...

To continue reading, become a paid subscriber for full access.
Already a Trends Magazine subscriber? Login for full access now.

Subscribe for as low as $195/year

  • Get 12 months of Trends that will impact your business and your life
  • Gain access to the entire Trends Research Library
  • Optional Trends monthly CDs in addition to your On-Line access
  • Receive our exclusive "Trends Investor Forecast 2015" as a free online gift
  • If you do not like what you see, you can cancel anytime and receive a 100% full refund