What will be the future energy needs of our cities? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the world averages an energy increase of 1.5 quadrillion BTUs annually. That number is much higher in developing regions and especially in non-OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.
Although it is impossible to accurately predict exact energy needs, one thing is for sure—energy will be both massive and critical for the future of any major city.
So how can city administrators help prepare for the energy needs of the future? Let’s look to Hollywood for inspiration. Some of their ideas may surprise you. Here are four alternate power sources that every city planner should be thinking about.
Human Energy: THE MATRIX (1999)
In the groundbreaking sci-fi film, The Matrix (1999), sentient machines have defeated the human race and now rule the planet. Powering this mechanical army are massive human “farms” capable of harvesting our body heat and bioelectrical energy.
Maybe the machines were on to something. Eighty percent of our bodies’ power is given off as heat. Even a sleeping human generates as much as 100 to 120 watts of energy. This is enough energy to power most popular electronics—if it could be harnessed.
While no one is proposing installing outlets in the back of our heads just yet, clever engineers are experimenting with ways that the human body can help generate power. As far back as 1998, Japanese manufacturer Seiko experimented with a watch, the Seiko Thermic, that operated almost entirely off energy derived from body heat. Though the model was only available for a short while, it was a true pioneer in the field of thermal energy.
In addition to body heat, everyday human movement can generate power. Pannekoekstraat, a dance club in the Netherlands, has a sustainable dance floor that converts the kinetic energy of people dancing into electrical power. Energy Floors, the Dutch company behind the innovative dance floor, also creates energy generating surfaces for high traffic pedestrian walkways as well as paved motorways.
Installing piezo-electric materials, that produce electricity when they are put under pressure in high traffic areas, is a clever way to match supply with demand. For example, venues like sports stadiums only need large amounts of power when large amounts of people visit them. Energy generating floors would supply increased amounts of power based on increased amounts of visitors.
Screams and Laughs: MONSTERS INC. (2001)
In the Pixar film Monsters Inc. (2001), monsters live in a world powered by human screams. A “scarer” would enter children’s bedrooms and collect their screams for energy. As we find out later in the film, human laughs are also an effective energy source, even surpassing the power of screams.
Does powering the cities of tomorrow with screams and laughs sound outlandish? Well it is actually not all that far-fetched. Researchers in Japan and Germany have managed to convert sound waves into electromagnetic energy. The process involves trapping a magnetic “spin current” between metal layers. Once captured, three layers of metal pick up the sound waves where the reverse Spin Hall Effect transforms them into an electrical voltage.
Imagine installing sound-to-energy converting devices in noisy city locations like bars, busy streets, or stadiums. Everything from car horns, concerts, or restaurant chatter could be contributing energy to our power grids.
Beer and Bananas: BACK TO THE FUTURE II (1989)
In Back to the Future, Part II (1989), Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is just getting reoriented to life in 1985 after Back to the Future, Part I, when Doc Brown returns in the time-traveling DeLorean. While Doc explains to Marty why they urgently need to go “back to the future” he begins rummaging through trashcans. What is Doc Brown in search of? Fuel! Doc is able to scrounge around and find a few banana peels and what is left of a beer can. He quickly dumps them into the DeLorean’s “Mr. Fusion” fuel tank and takes off. Those simple household waste items were all that was required to power a time machine.
Deriving fuel from biological waste—biowaste—is hardly a new idea. While we have yet to create technology capable of turning banana peels specifically into fuel, there is a close alternative. Scientists have been able to create something called cellulosic ethanol. Cellulose is a fiber found in leaves, stems, branches, etc, and can be broken down by enzymes into fermentable sugars that are then heated and turned into gas that can later be converted into biofuel.
While the process is easy enough to explain, it remains quite expensive, hindering it from being popular commercially. The U.S. has set a goal to make cellulosic ethanol a competitively-priced gas alternative and eventually displace gasoline use by 30 percent by the year 2030.
Waste is one thing that cities never have a shortage of. Just imagine the possibilities for cities able to convert their waste into energy?
Unobtanium: AVATAR (2009)
In the award-winning James Cameron film, Avatar (2009), humans explore the universe looking for valuable materials, including an ore called Unobtanium that holds the key to human space exploration and survival—and is worth $20 million a kilo.
“Unobtanium”, a highly valuable mineral found on the moon Pandora, is a term used to describe a difficult or unobtainable resource. We have plenty of Unobtanium-like energy sources right here on Earth. Instead of journeying to distant planets, we can just look to our oceans. Scientists in Japan have been researching ways to gather gas from methane hydrates 1,000 feet below the ocean seabed. If we can reach them, these methane hydrates have the potential to generate over 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, each. By comparison, U.S. shale reserves contain only approximately 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Just harnessing a handful of these hydrates has the potential to power not just our future cities, but nations as well.
As technology advances, previously unobtainable energy resources, like suboceanic methane hydrates, may all of a sudden come within our reach.
Which energy source do you think is the most interesting? Tweet about it at #BigScreen.