Courtesy Courtesy ksoScientists from the Berkeley Lab have developed a way to generate electricity from viruses! Their method is based on the piezoelectric properties of the virus, M13 bacteriophage. Piezoelectricity is the charge that accumulates in certain solids when a mechanical stress is applied to them (squeezing, pressing, pushing, tapping, etc.) The scientists realized that the M13 virus would be a great candidate for their research because it replicates extremely rapidly (no supply problems here), it’s harmless to humans (always a good thing), and it assembles itself into well-organized films (think chopsticks in a box). It was these films that they layered and sandwiched between gold-plated electrodes to create their nearly paper-thin generator. When this postage stamp-sized generator was tapped, it created enough electricity to flash a “1” on a liquid crystal screen.
The potential here is that someday we could put these super-thin generators in any number of places, and harness electricity by doing normal, everyday tasks like walking or closing doors. I propose putting them in the shoes of marathon runners and then have cell phone charging stations along the route. Nothing is more maddening than waiting all day in the rain to get an action shot of your runner, only to find that your battery has since died by the time your slow-poke reaches the finish line. There’s always next year.
The Science Museum's neighbor, the Xcel Energy High Bridge power plant, will be undergoing a significant construction project in the coming months. As part of a larger project called Metro Emissions Reduction Project (MERP) Xcel Energy has started working on a $1 billion program that will reduce emissions from three metro area plants (the High Bridge Plant being one) and increase power generating capacity.
The High Bridge power plant is being converted from a coal burning plant to a combined-cycle natural gas plant. Combined power plants generate electricity from two sources - a gas turbine generator that is powered by natural gas and a steam turbine generator that is powered by the heat exhaust from the gas turbine generator. This use of the gas to essentially power two different types of generators is a more efficient use of resources than the coal burning power plant. As a result of this change, air emissions from the High Bridge power plant will be significantly reduced. Sulfur dioxide emissions will be reduced 99.7%, nitrogen oxide 96.9% and particulate matter 91.5%, while mercury pollution will be completely eliminated.
My first thought after hearing this (and after having to put gas in my car and heat my home the past few months) was that switching to natural gas is not a very economical situation given current gas prices. However, Xcel says that:
Although natural gas prices have increased, this conversion makes sense for the long term. The gas market is subject to short-term volatility, but the plants will operate for another 30 years so it's the long-term projections that are most important.
If you are in the downtown area in the coming weeks you may hear construction noise from the site as the nearly 1,200 steel pilings for the new power plant are driven into the ground for the new plant's footings. Testing of the new power plant will begin around September 2007 and run through March 2008. The plant is expected to begin commercial operation in May 2008, and demolition of the old plant will start shortly thereafter.
For more information visit Xcel Energy's web pages on the conversion.