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Power to the people

At the moment, we use electricity to charge our smartphones the night before to stay in touch with colleagues and friends the next day. But what if mobile devices like cellphones can recharge themselves? According to HARY KOLAR of IBM, this may become a reality.

Electricity is an important part of the modern world. Although human beings have only harnessed its considerable power for two centuries we have already tightly woven it into the fabric our society, relying on electrical charge and currents to carry out even the most basic functions.

This dependence has shackled us to our electrical infrastructure. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a suburban home or office block which isn’t connected to a broader electrical grid.

In the same way, we all need plug points and outlets to stay in touch with the external world. Our smartphones, tablet PCs and notebooks may be battery powered, but every device inevitably requires electricity to recharge that reserve.

What if this wasn’t the case? What if mobile devices could replenish themselves using the power we generate by walking?

Anything that moves has the potential to create energy. In the next five years, advances in renewable energy technology could make it possible for us to draw on power generated by everything from our running shoes to the ocean’s waves.

Referred to as ‚parasitic power collection’, the science behind kinetic energy generation is particularly relevant in today’s environmentally aware social environment.

Although this holds opportunities for application in our daily lives, be it from running or collecting the energy produced by riding a bicycle, IBM scientists are casting their sights towards the power of the ocean.

Wave energy and tidal energy are collected from the ocean in different ways. Most wave energy converters float on the surface of the water and use various designs to generate electricity.

The tidal energy converters typically sit on the sea floor and are completely submerged. They look like large turbines or propellers that spin with the incoming and outgoing tides. Tidal energy is quite predictable due to the periodic nature of the tides, while wave energy requires more complicated modelling to predict characteristics over time.

Although this technology is currently available, scientists need to understand how it may affect the environment before implementing it on a broad scale. For example, the devices that collect and convert wave and tidal energy produce underwater noise which can affect marine life.

In order to appreciate the risks associated with widespread tidal energy generation, IBM is working with The Sustainable Energy Authority in Ireland to use real-time streaming analytics which monitor the noise and track its potential impact on the environment.

Although clean, renewable energy is the primary objective, the power of the ocean may also hold significant economic benefits.

High-wave energy conditions exist in many areas around the world and could have real value for coastal countries like Ireland, which has one of the largest concentrations of wave energy in the world, yet had to import about 86 percent of its energy (mostly fossil fuels) in 2010.

This may hold significant future potential for emerging markets such as South Africa, which has an expansive coastline of its own.

Kinetic power generation is a new and exciting way of addressing a global need for electricity. By committing significant resources to its development, IBM is paving the way towards a smarter future which places emphasis on understanding the environmental impact of new technology before implementing it.


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