‘Climate change is severely impacting the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants, and we must transition to a clean energy economy that does not rely on fossil fuels’.

That’s a quote from the world famous environmentalist and renewable energy advocate Leonardo DiCaprio (he also does acting sometimes).

‘sustainable energy is an ever growing necessity for our planet’

Although he may not be a scientist, he is right: sustainable energy is an ever growing necessity for our planet. And where there is a demand, there is money to be made.

Richard Branson suggested that ‘climate change solutions will create more wealth than any other sector in the next decade’. As a result, scientists and entrepreneurs alike are competing to create new inventions in the name of saving the planet and possibly making huge amounts of money. These inventions go to new lengths to create energy – they vary from using our own bodies to harness energy, to building wind turbines that float 1000ft in the air.

Field of wind turbines. Source: wiki media

In order to generate ‘green’ energy, scientists have often looked to areas such as wind, solar and hydro. 20 or 30 years ago it may have seemed unthinkable that our own bodies could be used for the same purpose. However, much like water or wind we create kinetic energy from our movements.

This was realised by Dr Max Donelan, who with a team of American and Canadian researchers developed an electricity generating knee brace in 2008. The device itself, weighing three and a half pounds, had the ability to power 10 cell phones at once at the leisurely walking speed of 2.2mph.

‘much like water or wind we create kinetic energy from our movements’

Although original prototypes were deemed as too heavy and bulky, evolutions of the device are now being used in the military to power communication and navigation equipment supplied by the company ‘BionicPower’.

Despite sounding like it plans to take over the world with an army of robots, ‘BionicPower’ itself suggests the device also has the potential for recreational use.

Other ideas for harnessing power from humans have also included a human powered workout gym. Architect Mitchell Joachim and Personal Trainer Douglas Joachim came up with the idea of ‘RiverGym’. This concept combines exercising with sustainability by channeling the kinetic energy generated from the movements of the gym equipment.

Although the popularity of human generated electricity is increasing, wind and solar are still the main focus of scientists. However, recent inventions go further than your average wind turbine or solar panel.

Solar panel. Source: Wikimedia commons

Perhaps most extraordinary is the ‘Buoyant Air Turbine’ (or BAT) created by Altaeros Energies. This airborne wind turbine uses an inflatable shell filled with helium to float 1,000 to 2,000 feet above ground. Here winds are eight times stronger and more consistent than a usual tower level (around 100 to 300 feet). BAT is designed to withstand winds of more than 100mph and unaffected by rain or snow.

The device is now in the stage of the making the prototype a commercial product. It’s looking to provide energy for military bases and industrial cites, as well as rural communities in Hawaii, India, Brazil, Northern Canada and Australia.

‘a startup company… is developing transparent photovoltaic glass’

Solar energy has also undertaken interesting developments in recent years. ‘Polysolar’, a Cambridge-based startup, is developing transparent photovoltaic glass (basically glass that extracts the suns energy like a solar panel). This glass is designed for buildings, greenhouses and canopies. Despite a hefty price tag (250 pounds a square metre) it’s already in use in parts of the UK including bus shelters in central London.

There is no denying that significant amounts of green energy have the potential to be amassed from humans or the environment. However, few forms of renewable energy match the potential for inexhaustible and unlimited supply of energy as ‘Fusion Power’.

Sounding like something from a sci-fi movie, fusion power is potentially superior to any other energy source that we know of. It works by fusing together two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, in a ‘tokamak’ device that contains and controls the energy created from the reaction.

Plasma from a typical spherical tokamak. Source: Wikimedia Commons

To give a sense of scale, this has the potential to release nearly four million times more energy than the burning of coal, oil or gas. As of today the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) hopes to be the first commercial fusion power station. It is being built in France and is set for completion in 2027.

The race to be the next biggest thing in renewable energy continues. The future looks promising in the world of renewables, with new inventions and technologies being created every year. If anything it should give hope that humans have the capacity to tackle climate change and that action is being taken to create a fossil fuel free world.

Written by Paul Brown


Want to hear more about different energy sources? Check out ‘Nuclear power: for or against’

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