Researchers at the University of Buffalo have created a mathematical framework describing ways we could tap the energy surging through every movement of every tree and rock into the power we need to drive data centers commuter vehicles and smartphones.
"Junk" energy is all around us in the movement trees in the wind, vibrations in a road filled with cars and the noise of jet engines roaring as they push a jet down the runway.
While each of those involve types of kinetic energy there has not, until now, been any way to capture it or turn it into forms of power we can use for our own purposes.
Electric cars may be able to recover some energy by converting heat from the brakes for energy, but not efficiently enough to extend the lenght of time between recharges. And they don't capture either the heat, vibration or air turbulence resulting from the heat and activity they create simply by moving.
A team of physicists and mathematicians at the University of Buffalo has developed a mathematical framework to do essentially that. They have modeled ways to predict in detail the ways objects can that communicate kinetic energy (motion) from one to another through physical contact.
They haven't come up with practical ways to let you cut your electricity bill by generating nano-ergs of electricity ever time you walk up a set of flexy, noisy stairs.
They have figured out that the kind of energy that moves in a straight line through a series of connected objects can be redirected by changing the shape of the objects.
Think about those desk toys with five or seven pinballs hanging by threads from a small A-frame. Raise two on one end, let them drop to strike the others, and two pinballs pop out the far side. The force you created moves in a straight line from one object to another until it hits one it can move with its remaining energy. Two pinballs bounce out from the far side.
Now change the shape of one of the pinballs from a sphere to something that looks like a football wearing a life preserver (or some other shape that can be accurately predicted using a new mathematical model). Now when you swing the pinballs, the force goes through two of them, then bounces the odd-shaped one sideways, hitting a different line of pinballs and sending the rest of the energy in that direction.
That should allow engineers to design chains of connected objects that can slow the energy wave of a single impact (or a rapid series of them caused by a vibrating road or other surface) and redirect in a circle to drive a turbine that works using torque instead of push, or in any other direction, for any other purpose at all.
"We could have chips that take energy from road vibrations, runway noise from airports -- energy that we are not able to make use of very well -- and convert it into pulses, packets of electrical energy, that become useful power," according to lead author Surajit Sen, who published a paper describing the experiment in Physical Review E in June.
And all that heat that comes off big server racks with the ultra-dense server layouts that make it even harder to keep the place cool or pay for the electricity to do it?
Convert heat to motion, motion to motion in a different direction, redirected motion to an electricity generator and you recover a substantial portion of the money and energy you spent to run the big racks in the first place, never mind the cost of cooling them.
Unfortunately, it's not a solution your local VAR will be delivering any time soon.
Sen's work maps out how the phenomenon would work and maps the formulas describing how to repurpose "junk" energy into the real thing.
The problem is that right now there's nothing to the concept other than the math.
But it's good math.
"Mathematically, it's correct," Sen said. "We have proven it."