The whir of alternative energy ideas is dizzying. From man-made tornadoes to harnessing the movement of crowds, the number of new energy saving concepts seems to be infinite.
While many new ideas seem whacky, it is a historical truism that figures such as Galileo were tried for heresy and men of vision have been dismissed as quacks. Still, skeptics have trouble buying that anything beyond traditional oil is a viable solution for our energy malaise. And while many alternative ideas are technically feasible, the question is whether they are cost effective.
One invention, called the crowd farm, draws energy from human movement. In a busy train station, a system of sub-floor blocks would depress slightly when stepped on by droves of commuters. The blocks would generate electric current as they rubbed against each other.
A crowd could theoretically power a moving train this way, according to the concept’s authors, James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk, who were both graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when their idea won first place in the Holcim Foundation’s Sustainable Construction Competition in Japan last year.
They calculate that 28,527 steps would produce enough energy to power a moving train for one second. The principle could also be applied at large events such as rock concerts, where more movement could result in louder music.
George Friedman, chief executive officer of Stratfor.com, a private intelligence firm, said such ideas miss the point. While many new energy concepts focus on generating electricity, few address electricity’s storage limitations. Whereas oil and gas can be stored in a bottle and used later, electricity always has to be online, or it quickly dissipates, Friedman said.
“We’re always forgetting that hydrocarbons [in their traditional form] are the most efficient storage and transportation system for energy that there is,” he said. “We do not know of any other source of energy that you can put in a bottle, walk 15 miles, put in your car and drive. Three weeks later when you go out, you start your car, it’s still there.”
Another idea purports to generate electricity from man-made tornadoes. The Atmospheric Vortex Engine, invented by Canadian scientist Louis Michaud, is a more than 200-yard-wide area whose walls are 100 meters high. Warm air enters at the sides and flows in a circular motion. The air reaches speeds of up to 200 mph and a vacuum forms in the center. The winds keep this shape as they rise several miles into the sky. Each of these structures could generate 50 to 500 megawatts of electrical power.
Michaud’s website said the process could become a major source of electrical energy. “The unit cost of electrical energy produced with an AVE could be half the cost of the next most economical alternative.”
Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said he pays little attention to such energy exotica.
“Nine times out of 10 these ‘arresting’ ideas never get off the ground because they are not economically viable,” he said. “You can spend a lifetime hunting down these stories and find that the pilot project or the press release that gets attention never pans out to anything.”
Another company is extracting oil from the excrement of microorganisms.
In a process not unlike beer making, scientists at LS9 Inc. Renewable Petroleum Company break down sugars from plants or other sources into what is essentially a sugar-based brew, which is cooked up in a large fermentation tank. The microbes, which are from strains of E. coli, are then added and begin to feed off the sugars.
The company claims to be the first to report the cloning of the genes responsible for hydrocarbon production, which it infuses into microbes. Those microbes then excrete diesel fuel.
The procedure is environmentally friendly, said Greg Pal, senior director of corporate development. Unlike ethanol, it does not go through an energy intensive process to separate water from ethanol, he said.
The fuel is more energy dense than ethanol or butanol, Pal said. The plan is expected to go commercial in an estimated two to three years.
LS9’s microorganism project will be able to build a successful business even if the company can target a small percentage of the market, a Pal said. The firm acknowledges that there is no silver bullet for eliminating dependence on traditional fossil fuels — at least for the foreseeable future.
But having a hodgepodge of energy sources would require separate technologies and technicians to support them, Friedman said.
“How much of the intellectual bandwidth of society are we going to devote to energy generation?” Friedman said. “Do you really want biologists forming the core of companies that convert bug [excrement],” referring to companies such as LS9. “The more you fragment the energy types, the less efficient you are.”
“One of the reasons that oil is so good is because you have petrochemical engineers and… you have an integrated industry that really leverages expertise,” he said. “It may be inefficient in other ways but it [uses] manpower well.”
Despite T. Boone Pickens’ trumpeting of electricity from wind power, critics said there is simply not enough available land in which to place the multitude of wind turbines needed to power even one state, Friedman said.
“You’d have to cover most of the state of Nevada. And when I say ‘cover’ I don’t mean here or there have one, I mean cover the state,” Friedman said, adding that it could have unforeseen environmental effects.
What most people don’t realize is that the true barriers are economic rather than scientific, Taylor said. “There’s any number of ways to move a car without fossil fuels. The question is: can you do it cheaply.”
And that’s the reason we don’t harness wave power for electricity or put giant reflector dishes into the atmosphere to redirect solar energy onto the ground, he added.
“If it turns out that there is economic value in turning turkey carcasses into fuel, then I’ll start noticing when plants get built and stories get written about all the increasing market share associated with dead turkeys,” Taylor said, referring to a small facility making fuel from dead birds. “But since that day has never come in my lifetime, I don’t hold my breath.”
Over the years the public has seen energy ideas come and go, Taylor said.
“Every 20 years we go through some madness regarding coal-to-liquid processing,” Taylor said. “We’ve been doing this since 1948, at least in the United States.”
Statistics on how much money is chasing unusual ideas around are scant, but Richard Stuebi, president of Next Wave Energy, a consulting firm, estimates that about 1 percent of the capital for new energy ideas goes toward inventions that may be considered off beat. Still, they are often touted in the media when a new one sprouts up.
Energy alternatives are nothing new, Stuebi said. But what is new is that more people are paying attention now. And more mad scientists, as he called them, have shelved their time travel experiments to focus on concocting the next big energy breakthrough, he said.
Some ideas have gained the attention of the military. One invention simply takes something that we already have in abundance - - trash. Michael Ladisch and Nate Mosier at Purdue University, along with project leader Jerry Warner, founder of Defense Life Sciences LLC, a collaborating company, have invented a machine that converts garbage to energy.
The same idea was in the film Back to the Future, in which the DeLorian time machine was powered with a device called Mr. Fusion. Now the Army is testing it in Iraq.
A contraption about the size of a small truck takes kitchen waste and converts it to ethanol. Gas is then fed to a diesel engine that generates electricity from a generator. The ethanol, in vapor form, is also fed to a diesel engine, which also generates electricity from a generator.
“It really kills two birds with one stone,” Ladisch said, noting the use of two fuels, not to mention that it eats waste.
Warner said the invention makes good economic sense by using something they are going to get rid of anyway. He concedes that it only works well under certain conditions and is not intended to be the world’s energy savior, although he does see a widened use at some point.
About a ton of trash could power roughly three or four houses for a day, for example, although the technology would not necessarily be used to power single houses, Ladish said. The company, Defense Life Sciences, also plans to eventually put it to commercial use, such as powering an office building with cafeteria refuse.
Waste conversion has been used in other ways. In Rwanda, prisoners’ feces are converted into combustible “biogas,” or methane gas that can be used for cooking. And Israeli firm BioPetrol is developing ways to make gasoline out of human sewage sludge.
High oil prices are bound to spur more unusual energy saving concepts. Still, it would be shortsighted to simply dismiss all alternative energy ideas out of hand, Taylor said.