Friday, 22 August 2014

Consumers May Soon Power Their Own Wearables

If new wearables are to enjoy maximum commercial development, technology companies have to start thinking of new ways to power wearable devices.  This includes harvesting energy from body heat and movement - at least that's the message heard by attendees at the recent Hot Chips conference and exhibition in Cupertino, California.  Texas Instruments’ lead design engineer Yogesh Ramadass discussed the push toward new energy sources at length.

Despite a lot of excitement about the future of wearables, the technology has already run into a significant problem early on: we do not have the capability of producing batteries that are both extremely small and capable of providing the power needs of wearables over the long term.  The solution proposed by Ramadass solves the problem by taking the battery out of the equation.

For now, the solution only applies to low-power wearables consuming energy measured in microwatts rather than milliwatts.  For example, a wearable device that collects health-related data and transmits it to a GP’s office without any user interaction would consume microwatts of energy.  Things like smart phones and wristwatches use milliwatts of energy to power their displays and touch screens.

The technology used to harvest ambient energy for powering electronics is still fairly new but Ramadass told the assembled Hot Chips crowd that research and development have come far enough to make it “convenient to replace the battery ... with ambient energy” in some cases.

How does it work? These new wearable devices are able to absorb energy from the surrounding environment.  For example, body heat can be absorbed and converted to electricity whenever a device is being worn.  Movement is another good source, using the friction of kinetic energy to generate electricity.  Other ambient sources including sunlight, air movement and even sound waves are being considered as possibilities.

Ambient Energy and the Internet of Things

Experts are already excited about the possibility of harvesting ambient energy in relation to the rapidly expanding Internet of things.  In the future, there will be literally billions of devices connected via Internet communications spanning the globe.  Everything from kitchen appliances to computers to wearable devices will all be talking back and forth to provide more efficiency and better management.  Developing ambient energy sources to power some of these devices could hasten further Internet of things development.

Technology companies are already looking for ways to integrate wearables with other forms of technology for both consumer and industrial applications.  For example, a device worn by a factory worker could collect data that could then be instantly sent to machines on the production floor.  Those machines could then modify their own behaviours to maximise efficiency in relation to how the worker is performing.  In order to make something like this possible though, wearable devices must be capable of long-term operation without the possibility of power failure.

It is interesting how consumer electronics are helping to direct the development of new power technologies.  This latest example just shows that there is innovation where demand exists.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

London Mayor's Warning Sparks DRUPS Concerns

London Mayor Boris Johnson took the opportunity to write a letter to the Sunday Times a few weeks back to warn of potential power problems in Britain's capital.  Johnson's warning suggested that the power in London could be compromised in the coming years if nothing is done to improve infrastructure and generating capacity.  The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM) seems to agree, at least where generation capacity is concerned, leading to additional questions regarding DRUPS units.

Diesel rotary uninterruptible power supply (DRUPS) units are what most data centres, hospitals and other mission-critical institutions use as backup power supplies in the event of a brownouts or blackouts, however, even as energy demand increases, some wonder whether DRUPS technology is the right way to deal with power outages or not.  It is technology with its own flaws, including the consumption of fossil fuels.

If a diesel-powered generator is to work properly, it needs clean fuel that burns at maximum energy producing capacity.  Yet the nature of diesel fuel is such that problems can arise very quickly.  If diesel fuel is exposed to moisture, for example, that could cause huge problems for generators - this is especially true where biodiesel is concerned.  Biodiesel is prone to certain types of bacterial growth if not completely sealed against moisture.

For the time being, experts are saying that data centres and others using diesel generators should make sure that they have a fuel maintenance programme in place.  Good fuel maintenance includes inspection, cleaning, polishing and stabilisation.  A fuel maintenance programme ensures generators will always run reliably when the need arises.  In the meantime, we also need to start looking at other ways to generate backup power for the future.

The Tremendous Need

The consensus between OFGEM and Johnson's office is that the power demand in London will double in the next 35 years yet even the best projections say generating capacity next year will only be 2% above peak demand.  There is no way capacity will keep up with a doubling demand if nothing changes and such a scenario would likely devolve into rolling brownouts or complete blackouts in the future.

So, what is to blame for the increased demand?  Most of it can be laid squarely at the feet of Internet technology, specifically cloud computing and virtualisation.  The advancements in digital networking have given rise to faster data transfer speeds, more computing power and ever-more efficient Internet servers.  Nevertheless, it all comes at a cost and that cost is increased power demand to make it all work.

It is clear that Internet technology is only going to consume more power as we move ahead.  Moreover, with London being a world leader in such technology, it will be no surprise if demand does increase as dramatically as the experts are saying therefore we need to start taking action now to make sure generating capacity can meet our needs 35, 70 and 100 years from now.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

German-Chinese Researchers Reveal Graphene Power Storage Potential

A team of German and Chinese researchers recently revealed the potential of a developing power storage technology.  They researched and reported on a graphene-based solution that could pave the way for more energy-efficient power options for applications requiring excessive power output in short bursts of time.  Their research should help move forward the development of graphene-based planar interdigital micro-supercapacitors (MSCs) capable of millions of power cycles.

The team of researchers hail from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research and China's Shenyang National Laboratory for Materials Science.  A recent report issued by the group covers the history of supercapacitor development along with a highly technical review of the current graphene-based materials being used to manufacture MSCs.  Those materials include graphene sheets, hybrids, and quantum dots.  The report also covers device configurations and strategies for micro-fabrication.

Graphene is a pure carbon product fabricated in thin, flexible sheets.  It is an incredibly strong material that is capable of high efficiency heat and electrical conduction.  A specific process for manufacturing graphene was first patented in the US in 2002.

Important Research

The importance of the German-Chinese research is underscored by the limits of current micro-scale power storage solutions.  The most commonly used solutions for modern portable electronics and implantable medical devices rely on batteries storing energy by way of redox reactions.  Such solutions are limited by lower power densities and cycling capabilities of no more than several thousand.  These batteries are completely incapable of addressing high power needs on a larger scale.

Researchers chose to focus on graphene due to its unique physical and structural properties. For example, it has a large surface area, which enables maximum storage without compromising flexibility.  It is an excellent material that can take full advantage of planar geometry to create on-chip energy storage solutions regardless of the size or shape of the chip in question.  Interaction between graphene layers is also more efficient and powerful than traditional stacked layers.

Planar MSCs are not necessarily new technology as the first prototype was developed in 2003 however advancements over the years have created super-capacitors capable of doing so much more with so much less.  Today's state-of-the-art MSCs are driving the future of micro-scale energy storage.

The Next Step

Now that we have results from the German-Chinese research, what is the next step?  The research does not necessarily reveal anything ground breaking, but it does provide a framework for developing graphene-based MSCs in the future.  Now that research has proven it can be done on a large scale, designers and manufacturers need to figure out how to do it in a cost-effective manner.

We will not be seeing any off-the-shelf graphene-based solutions this year or next; nevertheless, the research should motivate more companies to get behind graphene solutions for micro-scale energy applications.  As a side-note, funding for the German-Chinese research came from the European Research Council, the German Research Foundation and China's National Natural Science Foundation, Ministry of Science and Technology and Academy of Sciences.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

How the Smartphone Is Revolutionising the Data Centre

There is a revolution brewing at the heart of the tech world.  It's not a revolution of political ideas or educational dogma, but one in which technology will transform the data centre of the future into something we never could have anticipated just a decade ago.  What's more, the revolution is being led by the smartphone.

Every person that owns a smartphone holds in his or her hand a supercomputer capable of a nearly endless set of functions without the need for cooling fans, mechanical drives and much of the hardware you find in a typical desktop computer.  Truth be told, the smartphone is an extremely efficient piece of equipment that does a lot with very little.

The data centre of the future will be operating on equipment and components very similar to what you hold in your hand.  CPUs will be powerful AND energy-efficient; flash drives will replace optical drives and software will be run in the cloud.  It has to be this way – if for no other reason than the fact that we have reached critical mass whereby power and cooling can barely keep up with computing power.

There are three primary areas ripe for major change:


In the old days, proprietary hardware manufacturers determined the course of global computing.  Data centre architecture, like everything else, had to be designed and constructed according to proprietary standards.  Any hardware manufacturer wanting to flex its muscles could do so by simply refusing to support vendors.

Smartphone hardware, on the other hand, was developed outside the proprietary bubble. It was developed to adapt to consumer need rather than corporate demand.  Someone came up with a few ideas for apps and hardware makers figured out how to meet those needs.  The result is commodity-based software that responds as development moves forward.  Future data centres will be built using this commodity-based hardware that is not tied to a single proprietor.


Developers of proprietary software are also on the verge of losing their control.  The open source community is now a force that must be reckoned with, being largely responsible for the software that runs the world's Internet servers and the majority of our smart phones.  There will be a day, if it has not yet arrived, when the open source community is working directly with hardware manufacturers in a mutually beneficial relationship that is anything but exclusionary.

Cloud Computing

Lastly, the data centre of the future will be making extensive use of software as a service (SaaS) in the cloud.  IT services will no longer need to be implemented at the customer level; they will exist and operate in the cloud. The benefits of such a model include lower cost, the ability to test drive applications before purchase and the availability of instant updates.

Thanks to the humble smartphone, we may be finally coming to the end of global networking controlled by proprietary interests.  The revolution destined to make it possible is one that is long overdue.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Nevada Power Plant First in the World to Tap into Hot Rocks

A US power plant in the state of Nevada, known for being among the first to try new technologies, is poised to become the first power plant to tap into hot rocks located well below the surface of the earth.  The Stillwater Geothermal / Solar Hybrid Plant is all set to deploy the geothermal portion of the revolutionary plant in a few weeks.  They are already generating electricity through a combined process that uses both solar thermal and solar collection.

Stillwater is owned and operated by Italy's Enel Green Power North America.  Enel has a reputation for investing in cutting-edge technologies for the purposes of producing green energy.  As for the Stillwater plant, it has been largely experimental since it first went online in 2009.  Enel shares data from the plant with a number of important US labs in a joint effort to produce more green energy initiatives.

Once online, the geothermal portion of the plant is expected to have a capacity of 33 MW.  The solar panel collectors and solar thermal generation already combine for a total of 28 MW.  Together, the three technologies will produce enough green energy to sustain the nearby town of Fallon.  Having said that, Fallon has a population of only 25,000 and that is engaged mostly in agricultural pursuits.

When engineers first set out to design and build the geothermal portion of Stillwater, they wanted to tap the region's known supply of hot lava rocks in a way that would have the least environmental impact possible.  A system was developed with two closed loops; one loop extracts hot water from geothermal wells and brings it to the surface, while the second uses a liquid with a low boiling point to extract heat from the water by way of the heat exchanger.  The closed loops allow the system to operate without adding anything to the ground or generating emissions.

The Perfect Environment

Stillwater is a state-of-the-art power generation plant that has been successful, in part, because of Nevada's natural environment.  In fact, Stillwater officials say Nevada is perfect for hosting both solar and geothermal projects.  We already know the desert region gets ample sunshine, but the area is also home to an incredibly large number of geothermal wells.

Nevada is so attractive that Apple built a new data centre in the northern portion of the state in order to take advantage of renewable energy potential.  In addition, there are now more than 45 energy projects under-way, capable of generating hundreds of thousands of megawatts of renewable power.  It looks like Nevada will eventually eclipse California as the centre of renewable power in the United States.

So far Enel has spent more than USD $75 million on research and development at the Stillwater plant.  We expect that the things they learn from the geothermal phase will carry through to other projects they have located in the US and are around the world.  Perhaps tapping lava rocks is just the beginning.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

New Florida Biogas Project Already Reaping Great Rewards

In February, a new biogas project began operating in central Florida managed by a company known as Harvest Power.  The company was contracted to handle food waste in the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), otherwise known as the property owned by the Walt Disney World resort.  The project was implemented as a means of turning the food waste generated by the resort into a source of sustainable energy.

At first, the Harvest Power Energy Garden was planning to only accept food waste from the various restaurants and hotels scattered around the Disney property however the results of the project were so favourable in such a short amount of time that the company is now accepting food waste from other commercial entities in the general vicinity.  They are taking discarded food, fats, oils, grease and bio solids from local restaurants, hotels and other entities.

So, what happens to all of that waste?   It is pumped into a series of processing tanks capable of holding 1.2 million gallons each.  The tanks provide the optimal conditions necessary for certain micro-organisms to digest the waste in a comparatively short amount of time.  What would take years to decompose in a landfill is completely digested by the micro-organisms in less than 30 days.  The result of all this microscopic feasting is enough methane gas to produce 27 million kWh of energy annually.

Most of the energy produced thus far has gone to meet the power and cooling needs of the Walt Disney World resort however, as business picks up, it is conceivable that Harvest Power could expand their operations to the point of sending excess electricity to the local grid.  Being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US, Central Florida could potentially produce enough food waste to significantly reduce the state's dependence on fossil fuels.

Old Technology Reborn

One of the exciting things about the Florida biogas project is that it is taking a very old concept and applying it in a very modern way.  For instance, biogas production is nothing new.  All of the food waste that goes into landfills produces methane as it decomposes.  That is why landfills have to be vented for a certain amount of time after being closed.  The biogas concept simply speeds up the decomposition through the process of anaerobic digestion.  Turning food waste into usable energy makes use of an old process while at the same time reducing the stress on landfills and providing sustainable energy.

Other biogas projects similar to what Harvest Power is doing exist in other parts of the US.  These are also popular in Europe.  Biogas projects are easy to set up, comparatively inexpensive and easy to maintain.  What's more, the need for new infrastructure is minimal in most cases.

The Harvest Power Energy Garden should serve as an exhibition of the potential of biogas as a source of renewable energy.  The world throws away a lot of food that could be used in place of fossil fuels.