A stunning abundance of energy is available in the form of heat. It’s everywhere, literally, as there remain a few degrees in microwave form from the big bang or something, from more than 15 billion years ago. Heat is a product from the solar activity of every sun, most any chemical reaction, nuclear reactions, gravitational compression and is a byproduct of much animal activity. The gross amounts are nothing short of astonishing.

A hard fact is any object, reacting or not, that is warmer than the ambient region in which it occupies will radiate thermal energy to get to equilibrium. That makes the harvesting task easy from a raw physics view but incredibly puzzling from an engineering standpoint. You can easily warm yourself by the fire – but turning the heat into work is another matter entirely. Humanity has a few tools like internal combustion, steam and turbines, but the efficiency is pathetic.

I’d thought to amaze you with big numbers about how much heat there is to catch. However, when you start listing them from solar to planetary inputs, fuel burning, unused fission, process waste, and motor vehicle waste – well, the numbers just defy adding up with any brevity. As an example, a gasoline engine might be up to 20% efficient or more likely less than that and a diesel could be more than 20% efficient, but not by much. So all the oil made into fuels for transport are something on the order of 80% wasted. Of 85 million barrels of oil a day – 68 million are wasted. A coal plant might get to 30% so 70% is wasted. And on and on the list goes. Raw numbers are fine, who would quibble about a few percent when these proportions are utterly lost forever into the atmosphere and off into space?

That makes the next method of converting heat to work the single most important activity in history to date. Other than a fusion process that goes straight to electricity, any form of heat harvesting that makes the heat energy accessible in higher proportions – meaning higher efficiency – obvious paths to great improvements in reducing energy demand – thus increasing supply.

Closeup of a Nano Antenna Taking latent heat and turning it into electricity at high efficiency is one of the efforts underway at the Idaho National Laboratory. While the team is talking “solar” and other notions for their nano antenna electromagnetic collectors, the energy sources available to feed these little power plants are uncountable. You need to see this:

Prior reports have the arrays up to 80% thermal absorption. This report today asserts that the arrays can be made easily. The remaining issues are the collection of the arrays electrical output and converting the electricity to useful alternating current watts. What energy remains is yet to be seen, but any net efficiency over 50%, especially when the heat source has performed work would be a boon to energy consumers.

I have a hat tip to Sara Prentice at the Idaho National Lab for the video link. I have also asked for an email conversation with the team, so email or post your questions in the comments, perhaps they’ll find time to answer.

In any case, this is a new development in harvesting heat and solves the puzzle about how to make use of heat energy into electricity, itself a highly efficient means of handling the power of energy. This is I’m sure, a very important breakthrough, worthy of the world’s attention from entrepreneurs, capital investors, engineers and consumers. The most common form of energy in the universe now has a very broad method of harvesting and conversion into useable form. It is so far, the most significant development of the 21st century.


3 Comments so far

  1. Ramsey Frist on August 12, 2008 7:16 PM

    Sounds like nonsense. If their proposal were true it would violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The article implies that one could stick the thing in a beaker of water and the water would freeze while electrical power is spontaneously extracted. Our universe does not operate that way.

  2. yovoa on September 3, 2008 10:10 AM

    false !

    the second law doesn’t say : invoke me when I’m too stupid to understand

  3. Brian Westenhaus on September 3, 2008 12:08 PM

    Easy there guys – Its the IR range tuned to that determines if there is any radiation to collect.

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