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Just a Thought - Power to the People


- September 1st, 2006

Some men see things as they are and ask why.
Others dream things that never were and ask why not.

- George Bernard Shaw
Irish Playwright and Critic

Not to make light of Mr. Shaw's weighty words, but I see my car and ask, "Why am I constantly filling this bad boy up?"

I see my iPod, cell phone, and my daughter's iBook and wonder why must they be constantly recharged?

Portable power is on the minds of a lot of people lately due to the increasing number of portable devices we carry. Maybe I should be asking why can't we have safe, dependable portable power, power units that won't corrode, explode, pollute, burn, or require recharging, that fits in a variety of form factors, is inexpensive, and can make a great cheese omelet.

With the possible omission of the cheese omelet, others have asked similar questions over the years, especially during times of high gas prices or when environmental concerns put the batteries in laptops, cameras and other portable devices in the spotlight. And, like me, people make largely futile and halfhearted attempts at helping the situation, but we routinely fall far short of what we try to accomplish. We walk or ride a bike to work a few times, recycle batteries when it's convenient or remembered, maybe we'll carpool for a few months until we convince ourselves that the inconvenience of being Earth-friendly is not worth the effort.

It's not that we're lazy and have no concern for the environment, it's just that our consumer oriented society makes it easier to consume than to conserve.

Then there are the "others" referred to in Mr. Shaw's quote. These folks make real attempts at fixing the problem, they ask why can't we have a limitlessly renewable source of energy, one that's cheap and clean and isn't confined by borders, politics or greed.

Over the years there have been many who claimed to have come up with the perfect solution to the world's energy problem. They offer up devices and theories that sound good to the laymen, and wonderful on paper, and some even manage to convince a few scientists, but in the end nearly every claim of limitless free power has proven false or inconclusive.

Remember Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman and their 1989 cold fusion announcement? The pair of scientists claimed that they were able to produce more energy than they used in a tabletop cold fusion experiment. If it was proven to be true the world could have a limitless supply of energy anywhere, and the media ate it up.

Unfortunately the Pons and Fleischman experiment could not be conclusively duplicated and the scientific community ate the pair up. The quest for cold fusion continues in small labs around the world, but, even if the Pons and Fleischman experiment is ever successfully proven, don't expect to hear about it in the mainstream media. It's still a sore subject for many.

More recently, however,  and not quite as earth-shattering, M.I.T's Professor Joel Schindall and his team has created a device that uses nanotubes (ultra-small carbon tubes) to combine many of the positive characteristics of both batteries (holds power for a long time, slowly discharges through use) and capacitors (quick "recharge", high energy density) with almost none of the faults of either. Professor Schindall's capacitors could power everything from iPods to MacBooks to cars, trains, and even homes. This is solid technology based on tried and true physics, so no one is looking for eggheads to roll.

While Professor Schindall's technology is still 5 years away from commercialization, another M.I.T. scientist, Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, has improved the common lithium-ion battery so that they last up to 10 times longer per charge, and recharge in a fraction of the normal time. Dr. Chiang has taken his discovery into the commercial world and the first products to use his technology, the A123 Battery, is being sold in a line of portable power tools from Black & Decker.

You may remember that lithium-ion batteries are of the type being recalled by Dell and Apple because of the battery's propensity to combust. In light of this massive recall ( at last count 4.8 million laptops recalled for Dell, 1.8 million for Apple) Dr. Chiang's battery should be welcomed by Apple and others with open arms.

Even with these great technologies we would still have to recharge these batteries. Why can't we have the Holy Grail of portable power, batteries that never need recharging? Such an independent renewable power source could keep MacBooks running forever, let iPods be sold without any cables whatsoever, and Mac Pros could go completely cable-less. Even more, cars could travel around the world without ever needing to fill-up, aircraft might stay aloft indefinitely measuring atmospheric conditions or relaying cellphone calls, robotic submersibles could track whale pods for decades on end, and there could finally be an unlimited supply inexpensive, but really good homemade ice cream. What a world that would be!

Such a power source may actually exist and in a very unlikely place, Ireland.

Very recently a company called Steorn issued a challenge to the scientific community in The Economist magazine. The small Irish company dared scientists around the world to test and prove, or disprove, the validity of its claim of being able to create unlimited power through a patented generator.

According to Steorn, their generator has been tested by several labs and was proven to produce more energy than it uses, but none of the labs would go public with their findings, presumably out of fear of a Pons and Fleschman-like reception. So, Steorn has gone public themselves. If their claim can be validated, Steorn will license the technology to some and offer it freely to charitable causes, like bringing power to remote third-world villages.

This could really be big; not only would it change the way our devices work and how we power our world, it would rewrite several established laws of physics, and change the way we look at nature.

Then again, these guys at Steorn could be pulling our collective leg.

Still, if you have to ask why not, why not go for broke?

I'm a practical man and I like to think that I'm as open-minded as the next optimist, so, while part of me hopes Steorn's claim is true, the practical part of me understands that Steorn may be another Pons and Fleischman. On this, we will just have to wait and see. Stop by the Steorn Web site and sign up for updates to keep track the validation progress.

In the meantime, let's see if Apple and other makers of portable devices can find a way to use some of these new battery technologies. We will still have to recharge our iPods and MacBooks, but doing so less often and without needing to alert the bomb squad whenever we plug them in is a big step in the right direction.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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