Good Vibrations

By Shane Sweet

In February, I received an invite to attend an energy symposium at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute “RPI” in Troy New York.  The event, sponsored and offered by the New York State Center for Future Energy Systems, a.k.a. “CFES,” focused on energy materials, device development and testing, and systems engineering.

At first blush the invitation struck me as more of a utility-leaning event, so I went expecting to be outnumbered 50:1 by utility execs, utility lobbyists, utility engineers. I registered with the intention of keeping tabs on what “the enemy” was up to.   Even the utilities are capable of coming up with a good idea once in a while, and I am not above stealing their ideas for the benefit of our interests.  Turns out, I was the only person in attendance from “our side,” so I did my best to blend in.

Consistent with the old adage about judging a book by its cover, upon my arrival I was clearly off-target as to who I thought my fellow attendees would be.    The crowd was primarily from the technical side of the energy technology development sector, including a very healthy dose of academic types, mostly Ph.D.s, multi-Ph.D.s, engineering and “hard science” masters candidates, a boatload of hardened field deployment experts and other heady types that spoke a techy, geeky dialect that was, after one got over the intimidating nature of it, very entertaining to listen to.

Yes, for the most part, it was tough to follow: OK, OK, I had no idea what they were talking about, so I ask you:  when, was the last time you sat at a buffet lunch table with seven others and the serious lunch banter was not about sports, power tools, golf or cars, but  the “Synthesis of Ordered Nickel-Molybdenum Compounds for Hydrogen Evolution?”

The programs and presentations focused on three avenues, with three sub presentations each:

  • Energy Storage and Fuel Cells
  • Power Electronics, Photovoltaics and Energy Efficiency
  • Renewable Energy Systems and Grid Resiliency

One of the presentations, “Furnace Optimization Using VectorwallTM Static Mixers,” had the crowd on their feet.

Some of my favorite titles include:

  • Salt-reinforced Nanoporous Ceramic/polymer Electrolyte for Lithium Metal Batteries
  • Identification of Successive “Unobservable” Data Attacks in Power Systems via Matrix Decomposition
  • Hexacyanoferrate Films on Transition Metal Surfaces for Energy Storage
  • Block Copolymer Derived Nanostructured Functional Materials for Energy Conversion and Storage Devices
  • Screening of Ternary Nitride Thin Films for Fuel Cell Catalyst Supports

And my hands-down favorite:

  • Vibration Energy Harvesting on HVAC Ducts for Smart Building Applications

The idea here is to use “ambient vibration energy” (read: rattling and shaking) to power sensors that can be used in buildings to drive monitors and controls that control heating, cooling and lighting used in commercial buildings.  Apparently, a lack of power to run the sensor nodes, apparently due to the impracticality and cost to run WIRES (oh, the humanity!), impedes the widespread adoption of so called Building Automation Systems or “BAS.” BAS, I learned, is used to enhance user comfort, improve energy efficiency and reduce operations costs.   

The authors say that HVAC ducts and have “high potential for energy harvesting.” The process uses small accelerometers (like the one in most smartphones, I guess) placed at various points in the HVAC system.   

So, imagine a silicon based electrostatic energy harvester capable of generating power, and eventually use this power to run the low-power sensors and controls that dot the HVAC systems within a building or multiple buildings, and of course, store the power in some manner for later use.

Let’s face it:  we have to get out more.

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