Eccentric energy: Watts so weird?
6th February 2018
If you think energy is a rather dull subject, we’ve designed our monthly “Eccentric energy” blog to try and change your mind. We’ll be featuring some weird and wonderful energy-related stories that, we hope, will entertain, inform and possibly even shock you – here are the first three:
We’ve not long finished January, the month when many of us set fitness goals for the year and the gyms see a spike in membership. And one enterprising fitness provider – the Club and Spa at Cadbury House in Bristol – has taken advantage of this extra footfall. Literally.
The club installed the Artis range of sustainable equipment from Technogym, which harnesses the energy of the people exercising to generate electricity. The manufacturer explains that it’s possible to recycle the energy to power the displays on machines or, on its Cardio equipment, to re-route the energy into the gym’s power network.
Technogym also uses new materials and technologies when assembling its treadmills, and this means that the machine consumes less power than it would have done otherwise.
Gyms may also start latching on to this second idea: using body heat to generate electricity. This natural source of warmth has helped humans survive for centuries, of course. But people have rather overlooked the potential of using this as a source of power for their offices, homes, and so on.
Until now that is.
The main railway station in Stockholm, Sweden – which has around 250,000 commuters every day – appears to be on the right track. Its ventilation system captures the heat of the masses, which it then uses to warm up a number of underground water tanks. The station then pumps the warm water into a 13-storey office building nearby, where it feeds into the heating system.
The company that owns the office block expects it to get between 15 – 30% of its heat from the station.
Getting all of those hot-and-sweaty commuters (or gym-bunnies!) into a confined space creates another opportunity too – for the utilisation of the inevitable bacteria circulating in the air.
The focus of this eyebrow-raising generation story is biodiesel. This fuel combines alcohol with vegetable oil (or diesel based upon animal-fats) and its production requires substantial quantities of both land and raw materials. As a result, scientists are investigating how they can use the natural activity of bacteria to transform seed oil into biodiesel.
For example, chemical engineers at the University of California have manipulated the genetic code of E-Coli (Escherichia coli) – a common gut bacteria. This means the bacteria is able to produce diesel from inexpensive, plant-derived sugar.
E-coli directly secrete the resulting biodiesel, so there’s no need for any purification processes. This is unlike similar schemes that use fats and oils from plants that must be changed, chemically, into an ester. An ester is the product of acids and alcohols reacting, once water has been eliminated.
While there’s still more research to be done, it seems that making fuel from microbes can become a commercial reality – and develop into a sustainable energy source.
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