Week in review: New breezes blowing in energy tech

Wind power, hydrogen fuel, even manure--that's the stuff that start-up dreams are made on.

As concern over global warming heats up, the tech community is taking a lead role in developing alternative fuels and more energy-efficient hardware.

Hydrogen fuel has emerged as a stronger contender in the alternative-energy race, thanks to technology developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Start-up Ecotality plans to produce a prototype of an apparatus called the Hydratus that generates hydrogen fuel, from a reaction between magnesium and water, as it's needed by a vehicle's fuel cell.

The JPL has developed a new version of the Hydratus that offers double the mileage of the old version, but at the same weight and volume. Ecotality plans to unveil its prototype by the end of 2007, which will give the company time to put refinements into the newer version of Hydratus.

The Department of Energy has been encouraging research in alternative-energy technologies such as that used in hydrogen fuel cell cars, whose only byproduct is water. But large-scale implementation of hydrogen fuel faces obstacles that many critics say could be almost insurmountable.

The announcement stirred up strong feelings about global warming with CNET News.com readers. And while most readers debated the effects and existence of global warming, one tried to put the whole debate in perspective.

"Whether a person believes in the existence of global warming or not, all agree that we need to take care of the environment and that reducing or eliminating our dependence on foreign oil directly impacts our national security," one reader wrote to News.com's TalkBack forum.

Another alternative-fuel contender is Microgy, which makes and runs facilities that turn manure into natural gas. Six of eight planned digesters--large silos that effectively employ heat and microbes to transform the manure into gas--are up and running. When the facility is fully operational, it is expected to be capable of producing 650,000 million cubic feet of gas a year. That's the equivalent of 4.6 million gallons of heating oil. (About 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas can produce 1 million British thermal units.)

Getting natural gas from manure has commercial and environmental benefits, according to Microgy. Harvesting manure efficiently could help reduce natural-gas exploration and imports. The carbon dioxide produced in the process is also considered renewable: alfalfa sucks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cows eat the alfalfa, and when carbon dioxide gets released as the cows digest the alfalfa, some portion gets reabsorbed by plants. The process also doesn't add additional carbon from the middle of Earth to the environmental cycle taking place on the surface.

In another energy arena, start-up General Compression says it has devised a system to produce electricity from wind turbines, even when there is no wind, taking on the major challenge of storing wind-generated power.

Wind turbines typically have an onboard power generator that sends electricity down the tower and onto the grid. General Compression plans to break with that basic design, placing an air compressor in the nacelle, the housing on a turbine where the generator usually sits.

The plan calls for sending highly compressed air down the tower and into underground storage, such as caves or depleted gas wells, or through pipelines. The pressurized air can be released when needed to power an electricity generator, even if wind is not spinning the turbine's blades.

Meanwhile, a new watchdog group report claims that the Bush administration has been muzzling government scientists who research climate change, raising eyebrows among a small group of politicians. The 131-page document by a whistle-blower organization called the Government Accountability Project documents a number of instances since 2001 in which scientists at government agencies have encountered obstacles to communicating their publicly funded research to major media outlets.

And where do you go when you've had your fill of the enterprise software business? If you're Shai Agassi, once a rising star at SAP, you just might check out your options in alternative-energy and environmental policy. Agassi resigned unexpectedly from the German software giant this week after apparently losing his favored spot as potential successor to SAP's current CEO, Henning Kagermann.

Virtual growth
Sometimes real-world changes originate in the virtual world. World Without Oil, which will launch April 30, is an alternative-reality game that essentially encourages people to envision a world in which the United States has been cut off from oil imports. Then, visitors will be urged to participate in the game by writing their own stories, creating videos or even by conjuring so-called flash mobs in U.S. cities.

Alternate-reality games are interactive story lines that draw on the real and virtual worlds--as well as players' actions--to unfurl the narrative. In recent years, the increasingly popular games have even been used in elaborate marketing campaigns such as the recent launch of Microsoft's Windows Vista.

Jane McGonigal, a game designer for the research group Institute for the Future and one of the lead designers of the game, said World Without Oil is the first nonprofit-backed game designed for "social good."

"It's like: play before you live it," McGonigal said.

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