Creating power out of thin air

Imagine a material that can suck in heat from the environment and power a notebook. A New Jersey company is aiming to do just that.

Syrdec is swinging for the fences when it comes to alternative energy.

The Princeton, N.J.-based company is working on a material that, when combined with another substance, will generate electricity with ambient room heat, Andrew Surany, the company's president, told CNET News.com this week.

Conceivably, one could take that material and fashion it into a passive fuel cell that can create power by just sitting in an ordinary room heated to about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to self-charging electronic devices.

"It derives heat from the environment" and converts it to electricity, Surany said. "I'm talking about embedding cells into doors or the panels on a car. In a laptop, I am talking about embedding cells into the case."

And no, it won't suck out all the heat like some freakish invention from Mr. Freeze on the old Batman show. As long as the sun doesn't explode or Earth doesn't get plunged into nuclear winter, it conceivably could produce electricity without effort indefinitely.

Theoretically, one could heat the material, too, to get better results. If you heated one square meter of the material to 100 degrees Celsius, or the boiling point of water, the material could absorb 1.2 kilojoules of heat energy. Converting 5 percent of that heat to electricity would give you enough energy to power a car, Surany asserted.

So how does it work? Syrdec is trying to combine something called the Seebeck effect and the product of nuclear fusion. In the Seebeck effect, electric current can be generated from temperature differentials. Put metals or semiconductors near each other that exist in radically different energy states and you get power. It's not just theoretical: Germany's EnOcean, another energy-harvesting specialist, has come up with sensors that get power from the temperature differentials between the interaction material that makes up a pipe filled with hot gases and a material heated to room temperature.

Now the nuclear fusion part: Syrdec says it understands a way to artificially alter the natural energy state of a particular undisclosed material. Instead of being in a "normal" energy state at room temperature, the altered material is in a normal energy state at, hypothetically, minus 40 degrees Celsius or colder. Thus, when this material is put into a room-temperature environment, it's excited. Put that next to a material with a much higher natural energy state and you get the Seebeck effect.

"We are looking to create an artificial energy state inside the molecular structure of the substrate," Surany explained. "The materials are unique and specialized. They were brought to our attention through nuclear fusion research."

Outlandish as it sounds, the CEA, the atomic energy agency of France, has already concocted a microgenerator that can produce electricity at ambient temperatures via the Seebeck effect. The thermoelectric generator in CEA's prototypes has an output of 4 milliwatts per centimeter square for every (Celsius) degree difference between the two materials. The India Institute of Science also has examined ways of generating power via the Seebeck effect with changes in pressure.

Syrdec's fuel cell doesn't exist yet, but theoretically it's possible, Surany said. (The material altered by nuclear fusion, by the way, isn't radioactive.) Even if one can be made, there are other complications. How small could such a fuel cell be? How does it do with recharging?

Although the fuel cells would ultimately produce electricity by just sitting around, producing the materials for the fuel cells takes a lot of power. "Manufacturing is energy-intensive," Surany said.

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