Monday, June 18, 2007

Power in the North East.

It was often said that trying to do something superfluous and futile was like "carrying coals to Newcastle", in honour of Newcastle-upon-Tyne as the premier city in a major coal producing region of the UK and its first coal exporting port. The other day I was interviewed on Radio Cleveland (not so far from Newcastle) about the prospects of wireless power, or WiElectricity which could potentially eliminate the need for wires, plugs and their associated paraphernalia. It sounds good, especially in the light of soaring costs of copper which wires are made from, but how practical is it? Nikola Tesla experimented with long-range wireless energy transfer more than a hundred years ago, and his most ambitious attempt, which involved a 29 metre high mast known as the Wardenclyffe Tower, in New York, was abandoned when he ran out of money for the project.

A group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have reported a relatively simple system that could in principle deliver electricity to electronic devices like laptop computers and MP3 players without the need for wires or to plug them in anywhere. Apparently the research group has yet to construct and demonstrate a working model, but computer models and calculations indicate that it should work. Indeed, it would be highly convenient if we didn't have to remember to plug-in our cell-phones, laptops etc. to recharge them. The basic phenomenon behind the idea is resonance. A good example of this is two matched tuning forks: when one is struck so that it vibrates at its characteristic frequency, energy is emitted and some of it can be picked-up by the second fork in the form of acoustic vibrations (sound waves). Most of the energy spreads-out into the room, however, and so this is not a particularly efficient means for energy transfer.

The MIT "device", rather than using acoustic generators, employs "non-radiative" objects with so termed "long-lived resonances". When energy is applied to these objects it remains bound to them, rather than escaping into space. "Tails" of energy thought to be as much as several metres in length, flicker over the surface. However, if a second similar object with the same resonant frequency is brought into proximity with the first one, the energy can tunnel from one to the other. Hence we seem to be looking at a quantum mechanical effect. The team believe that it should be possible to transfer energy over distances of three to five metres. As the researchers admit themselves: "the work is "clearly at an early stage" but "interesting for the future." However, in regard to energy provision and supply, the world has more pressing matters to deal with, such as providing transportation fuel as its reserves of cheap oil begin to dwindle, and keeping power stations running as natural gas supplies begin to wane, probably within a couple of decades following Peak Oil.

More pragmatically, in the North East, attention is being turned toward tidal power. Inventors such as former Swan Hunter naval architect Graham Mackie are bidding for a share of the £50 million ($100 million) fund from the UK government to generate electricity from the ebb and flow of the tide. A new facility has been opened by the New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC), based at Blyth in Northumberland, will test prototype models and assess their potential as a future commercial proposition. Mr Mackie will demonstrate his scale-model to an audience of over 70 experts from the energy industry, launched into the water at the Tees Barrage in Stockton, pointing out that 3,000 of his devices (called Evopods) would provide an equivalent amount of electricity as between three and five nuclear power stations, or enough for up to four million homes. 300 Evopods would occupy three square miles of sea space and have the same generating capacity as a typical gas-fired power station, but without consuming a fossil fuel resource or pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

Enthusiasm reigns, since it is believed that extracting energy from the tides will engender a far greater contribution to the final energy-mix (planned to exist by 2050) than can be achieved from wind-power. However, there are problems in implementing "sea-power", which have discouraged its employment in favour of wind-turbines which are easier to install. Nonetheless, it is perhaps time to get to grips with the former technologies (tidal stream generators and rockers), as we are going to need all the renewable energy we can get, though I think it is debatable just what proportion of our current energy bill can be so met! Time, as ever, will tell.

Related Reading.

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