November 11, 2012 – Vol.17 No. 35

INVENTION WANTED: CLEAN EMERGENCY POWER.

by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News

It's one thing to endure a day or more of blowing wind, rain or snow. And it's tragic for the loss of life, should that occur in the storm.

It's another to put up with a week or more without heat, power and transportation. It's dangerous, frustrating and economically costly.

While waiting for the grid to come back on people need some kind of home power device that lies dormant - perhaps years - until pulled from a closet and activated to provide electricity for a few vital items. It should be safe and easy to use, is low cost and has no emissions. It would be an “electricity-in-a-box” solution that could be for one time use or be able to be refueled. Not a complete whole house power supply, but provide enough electricity to add some level of comfort to an otherwise miserable situation.

You must be thinking,”Doesn’t he know about portable gas-powered generators?” Of course, but generators aren’t for everyone. Generators are for those who live in homes with direct access to the outdoors. Live in an apartment or multistory condo? Don’t think about a generator if the power goes out.

What about batteries? Possible, but rechargeable batteries have to used and recharged on a regular basis or they’ll die and not be there when you need them. What about common, disposable, one time use batteries? Answer here: limited shelf life. They’ll self-discharge and be dead just on the day that you need them.

Solar power and batteries combined? Here’s a possibility. But like a gas generator, you need access to an outdoor area to put your panels can soak up some sunlight to recharge your batteries.

There’s another home emergency energy possibility that’s slowly (very slowly) is getting recognition: It’s the use of the battery pack in an electric car or plug-in hybrid to provide emergency home power. It’s already been done and a great idea. However, it requires that the electric vehicle can be parked near your house to make the electrical connection. And, like running out of gas to feed a generator, your electric car battery might also run out or the gas tank in the plug-in hybrid could run dry needing a trip to the filling station. That’s if gas is available and waiting lines for fill-ups are not hours long.

This new invention that’s needed, this device, or this electricity-in-a-box, doesn't have to power everything, but perhaps a refrigerator, a pump (for well water or to prevent flooding) and some lights. A refrigerator needs about 300-400 watts to run. The pump, 400 watts as well. Another 200 watts should be available for a few LED for CFL lights with some power available for smart phone charging. Some kind of preventative electronics to limit the amount of electricity drawn from the device and to allow only one high electricity demand item to run at a time. (i.e. when the pump is running the refrigerator shuts down) also should part of the design.

All sound nearly impossible? Not really. Technologies are available today to build an electricity-in-a-box device.

One technology is a salt water activated battery that is used by the U.S. Coast Guard (and other similar agencies around the globe) to energize marker buoys or aids to navigation. These are one time use batteries (also known as primary batteries) that remain dormant and “dry” until filled with an electrolyte, in this case salt water. So imagine this: a pack of these batteries are stored in a closet within a home. When the power goes out (and looks like it will be out for days) a water and salt solution is added to the cells, power comes up providing electricity for many hours or perhaps days. (The run time of the device is determined by the electricity drawn from it and the unit’s power capacity which, in turn, is determined by the combined surface area of the plates in the battery.)

Another possibility is metal-air technology. This technology is available off the shelf today in the form of hearing aid batteries. A little small to power a house, but it can be scaled up. Like the salt water batteries, the amount of electricity available for use, is a function of the amount of electricity drawn compared with the surface area of the plates in the battery. Also like salt water batteries, something has to be added to the cells to make it work. Instead of salt water, it’s air. Pulling a tab on a zinc-air hearing aid battery lets air in and activates it. They’ll run for about a week on one battery. This possible electricity-in-a-box emergency power solution could also be activated by pulling a tab.

In the not-so-distant past many companies developed metal-air batteries for back-up and standby or recreational power, even for transportation. Most of these companies failed to find markets for the products, and eventually failed themselves.

It seems like there’s an endless string of natural disasters that take down the power grid for days on end. You’d think that at the right price people would love to have an electricity-in-a -box device waiting for these emergencies.

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