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A dozen (plus) of the most outlandish energy sources spawned by the green movement


From nano-charged clothes to a commuter's, people-powered gym...


By Jessica A. Knoblauch



It’s clear that the energy crisis is real when Paris Hilton has an energy plan and Republicans are yelling “Drill, baby, drill.” The good news is that this challenge has brought out all types of unusual innovations that just may help solve the energy crisis. At the very least, the list below should provide some entertainment.

Powerful Apparel
Solar powered bra
The SPB was unveiled in May by lingerie maker Triumph International Japan Ltd. and features a solar panel worn around the waist. It can charge from both sunlight and room light, and is said to be able to charge cell phones and iPods. It’s a bit impractical though, unless you’re an exhibitionist.

Solar powered necktie
The SPN is developed by Iowa State researchers, and just plain ugly. But what this tie lacks in style it makes up for in usefulness by putting out 3.6 volts in full sun with the use of photovoltaic thin film. This generated energy can then be transferred to a cell phone placed in the handy hidden pouch.

Solar powered denim jacket
German company Bogner’s sun powered denim jacket is by far the most fashionable of the solar powered clothing lot. Its integrated solar panels can charge iPods as well as laptops, or can even be connected to an internal battery for later use.

Nano Energy
Use your clothes to power your iPod. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers are making clothes that create power when people move by weaving together fibers covered with zinc oxide nanowires. As people move, the material gets rubbed together and creates an electrical charge, which can then be used to power a range of small electronic devices. Don’t worry. Your clothes won’t catch on fire, but stay away from washing machines as zinc oxide isn’t waterproof.

Suspended-load backpacks
Backpacks created by University of Pennsylvania researchers are harnessing electrical energy by converting the up and down motion of the backpack’s springs to mechanical energy. Though the amount of energy generated depends on whether you’re power walking or just strolling along, packs with loads of 40 to 80 pounds can generate as much as 7.4 Watts. In comparison, cell phones or even night vision goggles require less than one Watt to power.

Community Movers
River Gym
Ever feel like you’re going nowhere on that treadmill? So does Mitchell Joachim, which is why he created a floatable gym that’s powered by people sweatin’ to the oldies. The River Gym is basically a covered boat with a gym inside. When gym goers start working out, the energy they create is used to power the boat across water, so it’s great for coastal cities looking to green their ferries or for multi-taskers trying to fit in that daily workout. “We were looking for an ‘out of the box’ solution that would provide incentive for getting people to work out on their way to work,” says Joachim.

Green Microgym
A people-powered gym in Portland, Oregon, is using peddle (and solar) power to energize the facility. To capture pedal power, owner Adam Boesel attached small motors to stationary bikes that feed energy to a battery bank. He’s working on capturing excess energy from elliptical trainers as well. Plus, the green gym features solar panels that generate an average of 8 kw hours per day. Greenest of all, Boesel says most gym members opt to walk rather than drive to the gym.

Disco Fever
If all you want to do is dance, dance, dance (while creating energy), San Fran’s Temple nightclub is the place for you. This club outfitted its floors with crystal piezoelectric sensors that charge when squeezed, shaken, or stirred. According to a past Plenty article, Temple’s not alone in its quest to power the place with booty shakin’. Other nightclubs looking to do the same can be found in New York, Chicago, Rotterdam, and Tokyo. 

Harnessing the elements
Heat Under the Feet
As anyone who’s ever gone barefoot on blacktop knows, that stuff gets HOT. Researchers are working to grab this heat by using underground water pipes as heat exchangers to turn asphalt heat into useable energy. Principal investigator Rajib Mallick says that soaking up blacktop heat can also reduce the urban “heat island” effect. Mostly though, it’ll just be nice to no longer have to hop from one foot to the other to keep from getting burned feet.

Rain Power
Using water for hydropower is so last year. Scientists at CEA/Leti-Minatech have developed a rain energy harvesting system that recovers mechanical energy vibrations from raindrops and converts them to electrical energy. Not surprisingly, the scientists found that the largest raindrops produced the largest vibrations, which then created the greatest amount of electricity. Though promising, keep in mind that harvesting rain comes with some dampers.

Waste heat converters
University of Utah physicists are converting waste heat into sound and then electricity. “It’s the conversion of something very disorderly into something orderly,” says university researcher Orest Symko. The process first uses the excess heat to warm up a metallic screen inside a plastic tube, which creates a loud sound similar to when air is blown into a flute. This sound is then converted into electricity using a piezoelectric device—a handy little do-hicky that creates energy when subjected to sound wave pressure. Though the device can be as loud as a jet engine (around 150 decibels), the sound can easily be muffled with a well-placed absorber. The devices could cool off electronics, harness solar energy, and conserve energy by changing waste heat into electric power.

Handling the icky stuff
Hydrogen-producing bacteria
Germs are gross, but they’re often more useful than we think. Case in point: Researchers recently found unique strains of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that produce hydrogen. Once the bacterium is located, the team snatches the hydrogen so that it can later be combusted with oxygen to create electricity.  Researcher Telisa Loveless says that nitrogen-fixing bacteria are quite plentiful and can be isolated fairly easily. “We are in the early stages [of this technology],” she says. “But we can see no reason why it will not make a major impact on bio-hydrogen production in the future.”

Cow power
It turns out cows are good for more than just meaty burgers. Energy companies are turning cow poop into energy by using a high tech scrubbing system that transforms methane emissions from the manure into usable natural gas. Here’s how it works: Manure is collected in an oxygen-free atmosphere that has a lot of microbial activity. The microbes convert the waste into methane, which is then “scrubbed” to wipe out corrosive elements. What’s left is usable natural gas that power plants can burn. The technology does come with some caveats, however. For one, burning natural gas still releases carbon dioxide emissions. And, some argue these operations encourage an inherently unsustainable practice—that is, eating large quantities of cheap meat. For now though, the technology is a step in the right direction.

And, dog poop power
San Franciscans are enlisting Fido in the climate change fight by burning dog feces for power. Similar to the cow poop to power method above, this process anaerobic digestion to convert organic waste into methane. The methane is then captured and used to power equipment that normally runs on natural gas, such as kitchen stoves or heaters. (As a side note, the process also makes great compost!) Currently dog poop makes up almost 4 percent of the garbage from San Fran residential collections. Though this percentage may seem small, any step to reduce carbon footprints makes a difference, no matter how tiny the paw print.

So there it is, the world’s most unusual and outlandish energy sources. These eccentric energy oddities may look weird, but hey, so did Bill Gates back in the day and he turned out okay.