Possible power

G Magazine

What are the some good, clean energy ideas?

Bright ideas for energy

Bright ideas for powering our homes might be right in front of us.

Credit: Geoff Cook

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If you were to boil down two millennia of wisdom and philosophical enquiry to just one sentence, you might be left with the phrase: 'there's no such thing as a free lunch'. And this holds especially true when it comes to generating energy.

Even 'cheap' energy comes at a cost. Coal and oil are finite resources, and both contribute heavily to the greenhouse effect that is driving climate change. Nuclear is a package deal; you can't get the energy without the risks or the distasteful waste.

Hydroelectric is better, but it disrupts ecosystems and virtually all the choice sites have already been nabbed. Even solar and wind - while having the boon of 'free' fuel - would require vast areas of land to supply whole cities. No free lunches here.

Yet energy abounds all around us: motion is energy; heat is energy; there's energy squirreled away in chemical bonds. Even our bodies generate a surprising amount of power. According to Max Donelan, director of the Locomotion Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Canada, "an average-sized person stores as much energy in fat as a 1,000 kg battery". Just a walk down the road uses enough energy to power a bright incandescent light bulb.

The question becomes: can we harvest even a fraction of this 'loose' energy into useful power for our homes, businesses and iPods? Could there be such a thing as a free lunch, after all?

Just watch

Harnessing 'ambient energy' is not a new idea. In fact, in 1770 a brilliant Swiss watchmaker, Abraham Louis Perrelet, solved a perpetual problem of contemporary watches by inventing a self-winding mechanism. The motion of a short stroll was sufficient to wind the watch for several days' use.

His mechanism, perfected by more modern watchmakers, still powers most spring-driven watches from the likes of Rolex and Omega to this day.

Even now endeavour hasn't ceased when it comes to producing clever timepieces that require no mains power or batteries. One of the most recent examples is the Seiko Thermic, a watch powered by the very warmth of your skin. All it takes is a small temperature difference between your skin and the outside air to generate a minute electric current - only a fraction of a watt, but enough to power a wristwatch.

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