IBM 5 in 5: Generating energy from unexpected sources

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Editor’s note: This post about IBM’s Next 5 in 5 prediction about future energy sources is by IBM Distinguished Engineer Harry Kolar.

It happens all the time; you forget your cell phone charger at home, and your smartphone battery runs out after hours of email and Angry Birds. But what if you could recharge your cell phone using power you’ve generated simply by walking?

Anything that moves has the potential to create energy. In the next five years, advances in renewable energy technology could make it possible for us to draw on power generated by everything from our running shoes to the ocean’s waves.

Your body will become an energy-generating machine

Walking involves a variety of dynamic forces. The strike of your heel on the ground and the bend of your sole release a lot of dissipated energy.

These simple movements can become a power source, enough to charge your cell phone, with the help of small device with an antenna inserted into the sole of your shoe.

This science — parasitic power collection — pulls and transmits energy created by the slightest movement.

Think about the possibilities. A device on the spokes of your bicycle could measure and collect energy that’s then transmitted to power your kitchen appliances. The water running through your pipes could power on the lights in your house.

Now think bigger: what could you do if you could harness the energy of the ocean?

You can harness the power of the ocean

Wave energy and tidal energy are developing forms of clean energy that are virtually limitless. They’re clean, renewable, and will lessen the strain on our traditional power grids.

Wave energy and tidal energy are collected from the ocean in different ways. Most wave energy converters float on the surface of the water and use various designs to generate electricity. The tidal energy converters typically sit on the sea floor and are completely submerged. They look like large turbines or propellers that spin with the incoming and outgoing tides. Tidal energy is quite predictable due to the periodic nature of the tides, while wave energy requires more complicated modeling to predict characteristics over time. 

Before we can make use of these energies, however, we need to understand and minimize their environmental impact. For example, the devices that collect and convert wave and tidal energy generate noise underwater that can affect marine life.

My team is working with The Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland to use real-time streaming analytics that monitor the underwater noise and track its potential impact on the marine environment. That data will be shared across the wave energy industry to help build a clearer picture of how this type of technology can be safely, sustainably used and controlled.

Beyond the obvious benefits like cleaner power, using the ocean’s energy could have significant economic benefits.

High-wave energy conditions exist in many areas around the world and could have real value for coastal countries like Ireland, which has one of the largest concentrations of wave energy in the world, yet had to import about 86 percent of its energy (mostly fossil fuels) in 2010.

The economic ecosystem that will surround wave energy generation sites will involve many parties and bring considerable investment. Power companies will become involved to provide grid connections. Specialty disciplines in marine engineering will be involved in ways like care and maintenance for the sites.

Information Technology will be a key participant in this process too. The integration of leading-edge technologies like advanced analytics and smart grid components will help connect and manage new renewable resources and ensure operational efficiencies as well as consistent and predictable performance. 

IT will be needed for monitoring, analysis, simulation and modeling. IT will also help monitor and capture the economic performance of the technology and further support the application of these new renewable energy sources.

Making it easy to make smarter energy choices

Now more than ever, we’re starting to understand the need to conserve energy. With populations growing and electricity demand expected to grow at 2.2 percent per year to 2035 (according to the World Energy Outlook 2010), our current energy infrastructure is just not enough.

But our consumer decisions are motivated by factors like convenience, comfort, cost and the opportunity for digital connection. We need access to the right tools and information to make smarter energy consumption decisions, and those tools are getting closer to reality thanks to technology like parasitic power collection and wave and tidal energy.

Think this topic is the most-likely prediction, or maybe just the most innovative, among the Next 5 in 5? Vote for it by clicking “like” on IBM’s smarter planet.

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