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.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
7 min read
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.

If you think the recent flurry of big-media and technology operations setting up shop in virtual worlds such as Second Life is a passing fad, think again.

Representatives of companies such as MTV Networks and its Nickelodeon cable TV division, IBM, AOL and Disney, as well as institutions such as Harvard University, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gathered in New York for Virtual Worlds 2007, the first major conference designed specifically to promote marketing in virtual worlds to Fortune 500 companies.

The two-day conference comes at a heady time for virtual worlds and 3D social environments. Even as the Virtual Worlds event kicks off, the Accelerating Studies Foundation is readying its formal written report from last year's Metaverse Roadmap Summit--in which participants were tasked with prognosticating on the look and feel of the 3D Web in 2016--and a congressional committee is nearing completion of recommendations on whether the economies of virtual worlds should be regulated.

MTV Networks, which already has one of the most valuable brand names in television, is hoping to repeat that marketing success in virtual worlds.

The company is calling its new cross-platform strategy "4D." Essentially, the approach will attempt to combine content from network television shows with fully 3D virtual worlds and then put it all through a feedback loop in which people can interact with TV personalities and create content that becomes part of the shared experience.

MTV already has launched two branded virtual worlds, Virtual Laguna Beach and Virtual Hills. These take the story lines of hit shows Laguna Beach and The Hills, respectively, and weave them into a large, public 3D digital environment in which users can meet the shows' stars, or "live" the lifestyles of the programs. Now MTV is preparing to unveil Virtual Pimp My Ride, a virtual-world version of another of the network's hit shows.

Wild about wireless
Intel has come up with a form of Wi-Fi that would let a laptop in San Francisco connect to the Internet from a base station in San Jose, Calif. Academics and researchers from the company's labs have created a system that lets Wi-Fi signals, which ordinarily carry a few hundred feet, instead travel more than 60 miles.

The system isn't designed for the United States or Europe. Instead, it is part of the chipmaking giant's efforts to bring computing technologies to people in emerging markets. The communications infrastructure in most of these countries is fairly anemic, and most of it is concentrated in cities. Villages, where a large portion of the population lives, are effectively cut off from the outside world except by car, bus or footpath.

You won't find Intel's Wi-Fi system in London, but when in London, feel free to use the River Thames to access the Internet. The river has been turned into a giant Wi-Fi hot spot that can be used by anyone with a wireless device on the river or along its banks.

The wireless broadband Internet access stretches for 22 kilometers along the Thames, from the Millennium Dome out in Greenwich up to Millbank by the Houses of Parliament, and it is expected to be extended further over the next two months. The Thames Online service uses mesh-networking technology across 100 access points, allowing users to roam along that stretch of the river without any interruption to their Internet connection--effectively creating one big hot spot.

Another wireless technology--WiMax--was a hot topic at the CTIA Wireless 2007 trade show in Orlando, Fla. WiMax, which is similar to Wi-Fi (both are packet-based wireless technologies), already has the foundation for a strong ecosystem, thanks to support from handset and infrastructure makers such as Motorola, Samsung and Nokia, as well as from chipmaker Intel.

One of the bigger proponents of WiMax is Sprint Nextel, which pushed forward with its plan to build a high-speed mobile network with the announcement of new device vendors, as well as additional markets where the network will be deployed.

Sprint, the third-largest mobile operator in the United States, said in August that it would spend $3 billion in the next two years to build a network using Internet Protocol-based WiMax. The company expects to build a network that can reach 100 million people by the end of 2008. Sprint is using its existing 2.5GHz spectrum, half of which it acquired from its merger with Nextel, to deliver the service.

News.com sat down this week with John Burris, Sprint's vice president of wireless data services, to discuss the company's strategy for the future.

Also of note
Dell said an internal investigation into accounting problems has found "evidence of misconduct," and it therefore will be delaying the release of its annual report...The TJX Companies said 45.7 million accounts were compromised over a nearly two-year period in an update of an investigation into a data breach of customer records...Microsoft claims that Windows Vista is off to a fast start, having sold more than 20 million copies since its January 30 consumer release.