As the Earth's resources deplete, innovators across the world are working to find ways to compensate for a changing environment: Some of their inventions can help families in need while others may reshape the global energy infrastructure yet all are important.
Below is a rundown of the 10 promising global breakthroughs that stand-out among the rest.
Austin-based company FTL Solar devised a solution to transport large amounts of fuel safely and efficiently to help victims of natural disasters. The PowerMod solar tent avoids hazards of spills, combustion, and contamination from fuel transport accidents.
Built from quality fabric and thin-film solar cells, the durable yet flexible 20x20' panel doubles as a shelter and generator, producing roughly 5 kwh/day. Tent assembly takes roughly 15 minutes and two people.
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Once set up, the PowerMod supplies clean, carbon-free energy to power lights, air conditioners, fans, portable electronics and other crucial devices. While the PowerMod has yet to see widespread adoption, it's certainly an idea worth building upon.
The brainchild of Japanese designer Satoshi Yanagisawa, this spring-driven gadget known as “Cyclus” allows users to charge their portable electronics without leaving behind a carbon footprint. The device's DC motor generates up to 30 minutes of light energy from a single twist of the bottom spring.
The energy source is purely mechanical, derived from gear rotation. Yanagisawa states that the energy produced is equivalent to roughly 6.6 volts or 3 watts.
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The team behind Cyclus envisions their device will have a significant impact particularly on third world communities, many of which lack a sophisticated and reliable energy structure.
Rather than have these countries spend resources to expand the infrastructure to reach these undeveloped areas, the Cyclus allows for quick, affordable adoption without carbon emissions. Since the Cyclus works as both a durable lighting source and a charging station, it may grow to become a vital tool in equal opportunity education for kids in low-income areas.
The International Energy Agency reports that 1.3 billion people – 18 percent of the global population – live without electricity, with many depending on kerosene lamps for light. The crowdfunded GravityLight provides a safer, brighter alternative using LED technology and simple kinetics.
The end of the device can support a 12 kg bag of sand, rocks, or other minerals. The force of the weight turns the GravityLight's gears to power a DC generator.
The total power output stands at just one deciwatt, enough to power an LED light up to five times brighter (measured in lumens) than a standard kerosene lamp. Once the light runs out, the weight can be lifted and dropped to produce more.
With its recent market launch, the project has the potential to improve the lives of communities in undeveloped regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa.
7. Clean Cookstove
Millions of people die each year from inhaling carbon monoxide produced by stoves that run on coal or wood.
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The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and its associates support the initiative for cleaner stoves to both save lives and reduce household fuel expenditures.
Clean Cookstove models include the Zoom Jet by Ecozoom, the ACE 1 by African Clean Energy, and the K2 Cookstove, developed by University of California, Berkeley, toxicology student Jacqueline Nguyen and her partner.
The K2 stove uses hyper-efficient turbo fans to create force convection, and is especially designed to eliminate toxins that occur from burning trash and plastic.
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The stoves use up to 50 percent less heat than standard coal or wood stoves and can even charge devices such as smartphones. Smoke inhalation claims more lives than AIDS, and these stoves are helping address the issue.
6. A more efficient solar dish
An unlikely blend of military technology and a 19th-century theory that led to the development of the Stirling engine may result in the development of the most efficient solar dish the world has ever seen. The proof? A pair of 100-square-meter solar dishes that are undergoing extensive tests beneath the unforgiving rays of the Kalahari desert.
Pioneered by Swedish company Ripasso, the system in question is said to convert roughly 1/3 of the sun's energy into usable electricity, making it nearly twice as efficient as standard solar panels.
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After four years of impressive results from these grueling tests, Ripasso is ready to enter the commercial space. Experiments conducted by UK-based IT Power showed an electricity generation rate of roughly 80 mWh per year per dish, or enough to power two dozen homes.
Equivalent electrical power derived from coal would release over 80 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. These benchmarks make the new solar dishes a candidate for many European nations seeking to move away from fossil fuels.
However, Ripasso's biggest challenge is cost. Traditional photovoltaics drop in price annually, and the large solar dishes can only produce large amounts of electricity under constant sunny conditions.
With private funding, CEO Gunnar Larsson is confident that the solar dish can succeed.
Sitting at the corner of playtime and power production is the SOCCKET kinetic energy ball, developed by Uncharted Play. Every toss, roll, or bounce of the ball powers an internal 3-LED lamp to provide bright, efficient lighting.
The SOCCKET is aimed at third-world markets, helping children come together and their families gain access to reliable lighting. Uncharted Play states that for every SOCCKET purchased, it will provide one child with a play-powered LED product.
4. The Q Drum
An astounding 750 million people are still unable to access clean drinking water, and those living in undeveloped countries who do have access must carry heavy buckets over their heads while walking significant lengths in unfavorable weather conditions.
Research shows that this movement carries great risk of injury and expends a lot of energy, making the hunger problem even worse in areas where food is scarce.
In an effort to conserve human energy and reduce the risk of injury, innovators developed a water transportation drum called The Q Drum, which is a large cylindrical water canister that rolls while being pulled by a rope. The drum holds up to 50 liters of clean drinking water and requires much less effort and time to transport than heavy buckets.
While renewable energy now makes up roughly 25 percent of Germany’s infrastructure, local inventor Wolfram Walter doesn’t seem to be satisfied. Traditional solar panels only provide power during the day, and complex generators are out of reach for most German homeowners. Walter's solution? A portable box the size of a college dorm fridge.
When wired to a solar panel system, the box functions as a miniature power plant all year long.
Named the Sonnenspeicher, meaning “Sun Storage,” the device addresses two major roadblocks on the path to a green energy-based infrastructure: intermittence and storage.
It does this by harnessing the most efficient batteries on the market – lithium-iron-phosphate – and maximizing their potential with specialized software and electronics.
Walter's idea isn't new, but it's refined enough to have won him an award for Renewable Product of the Year. The award, which was given to him in 2013, was based on the first Sonnenspeicher model that he built in his basement.
While the Sonnenspeicher hasn't reached the stage for national adoption, many homes and small businesses can now benefit from cleaner energy and significant cost savings.
More importantly, the Sun Storage and the other innovations listed above serve as inspirations and stepping stones on the path to clean energy worldwide.
Tesla Motors has found a way to apply the convenience of storage and portability to renewable energy.
The Tesla Powerwall Battery lets people capture energy from green sources such as sunlight, wind and water, take it with them – and use it – whenever desired.
The battery comes in residential 7 or 10 kWh sizes and in a corporate 100 kWh size dubbed the "Powerpack." Companies can store mid-afternoon solar energy and use its power for the next day's operations. Families can cut down significantly on their utility bills and enjoy nearly limitless clean energy.
While the Powerwall isn't the first gadget of its kind, it may be one of the most affordable, with a current price of US$3,500.
1. Energy Kite
Many countries have adopted wind turbine technology, but California-based green energy company Makani has a better idea.
Purchased by Google in 2013 and backed by the ARPA-E office of the U.S. Department of Energy, the company aims to bring wind energy to the forefront of the market.
Their ambition sails on the wings of the Energy Kite, a lightweight wind turbine designed to produce more energy using just a fraction of the materials.
Makani states that the Energy Kite operates from the same aerodynamic concepts as a standard turbine, but swaps tons of heavy steel for light yet durable electronics, software, and other state-of-the-art materials. The total material conservation is estimated to be 90 percent.
After launching into the air, the Energy Kite flies in large circles to harness power from turbulent winds. The rotors attached to the kite's wings then power electricity generation. A durable, conductive tether, then transmits the energy to the storage grid.
The kite’s built-in computer analyzes and adjusts the path based on multiple variables to fly in the optimum trajectories.
Overall, the Energy Kite can capitalize on stronger winds, operate in smaller areas, and outdo conventional turbines in both cost and benefit.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the August 2015 edition of Energy Digital. Click here to read the entire issue.