Passively Generating Power Day And Night Takes The Right Parts

A thermoelectric generator (TEG) can turn a temperature difference into electricity, and while temperature differentials abound in our environment, it’s been difficult to harness them into practical and stable sources of power. But researchers in China have succeeded in creating a TEG that can passively and continuously generate power, even across shifting environmental conditions. It’s not a lot of power, but that it’s continuous is significant, and it could be enough for remote sensors or similar devices.

Historically, passive TEGs have used ambient air as the “hot” side and some form of high-emissivity heat sink — usually involving exotic materials and processes — as the “cold” side. These devices work, but fail to reliably produce uninterrupted voltage because shifting environmental conditions have too great of an effect on how well the radiative cooling emitter (RCE) can function.

The black disk (UBSA) heats the bottom while the grey square (RCE) radiates heat away, ensuring a workable temperature differential across a variety of conditions.

Here is what has changed: since a TEG works on temperature difference between the hot and cold sides, researchers improved performance by attaching an ultra-broadband solar absorber (UBSA) to the hot side, and an RCE to the cold side. The UBSA is very good at absorbing radiation (like sunlight) and turning it into heat, and the RCE is very good at radiating heat away. Together, this ensures enough of temperature difference for the TEG to function in bright sunlight, cloudy sunlight, clear nighttime, and everything in between.

As mentioned, it’s not a lot of power (we’re talking millivolts) but the ability to passively and constantly produce across shifting environmental conditions is something new. And as a bonus, the researchers even found a novel way to create both UBSA and RCE using non-exotic materials and processes. The research paper with additional details is available here.

The ability to deliver uninterrupted power — even in tiny amounts — is a compelling goal. A few years ago we encountered a (much larger) device from a team at MIT that also aimed to turn environmental temperature fluctuations into a trickle of constant power. Their “Thermal Resonator” worked by storing heat in phase-change materials that would slowly move heat across a TEG, effectively generating continuously by stretching temperature changes out over time.

Breakers for the system on a DIN rail, with markings like 48V and 24V and 12V and so on on the bottom, and two hefty devices of some kind on the bottom, probably MPTT controllers, with hefty wires running from them.

Low-Voltage DC Network Build Incited By Solar Panels

Nowadays, some people in Europe worry about energy prices climbing, and even if all the related problems disappear overnight, we’ll no doubt be seeing some amounts of price increase. As a hacker, you’re in a good position to evaluate the energy consuming devices at your home, and maybe even do something about them. Well, [Peter] put some solar panels on his roof, but couldn’t quite figure out a decent way to legally tie them into the public grid or at least his flat’s 220V network. Naturally, a good solution was to create an independent low-voltage DC network in parallel and put a bunch of devices on it instead!

He went with 48V, since it’s a voltage that’s high enough to be efficient, easy to get equipment like DC-DCs for, safe when it comes to legal matters concerned, and overall compatible with his solar panel setup. Since then, he’s been putting devices like laptops, chargers and lamps onto the DC rail instead of having them be plugged in, and his home infrastructure, which includes a rack full of Raspberry Pi boards, has been quite content running 24/7 from the 48V rail. There’s a backup PSU from regular AC in case of overcast weather, and in case of grid power failures, two hefty LiFePO4 accumulators will run all the 48V-connected appliances for up to two and a half days.

The setup has produced and consumed 115kWh within the first two months – a hefty contribution to a hacker’s energy independence project, and there’s enough specifics in the blog post for all your inspiration needs. This project is a reminder that low-voltage DC network projects are a decent choice on a local scale – we’ve seen quite viable proof-of-concept projects done at hackercamps, but you can just build a small DC UPS if you’re only looking to dip your feet in. Perhaps, soon we’ll figure out a wall socket for such networks, too.

MIT Extracts Power From Temperature Fluctuations

As a civilization, we are proficient with the “boil water, make steam” method of turning various heat sources into power we feed our infrastructure. Away from that, we can use solar panels. But what if direct sunlight is not available either? A team at MIT demonstrated how to extract power from daily temperature swings.

Running on temperature difference between day and night is arguably a very indirect form of solar energy. It could work in shaded areas where solar panels would not. But lacking a time machine, or an equally improbable portal to the other side of the planet, how did they bring thermal gradient between day and night together?

This team called their invention a “thermal resonator”: an assembly of materials tuned to work over a specific range of time and temperature. When successful, the device output temperature is out-of-phase with its input: cold in one section while the other is hot, and vice versa. Energy can then be harvested from the temperature differential via “conventional thermoelectrics”.

Power output of the initial prototype is modest. Given a 10 degree Celsius daily swing in temperature, it could produce 1.3 milliwatt at maximum potential of 350 millivolt. While the Hackaday coin-cell challenge participants and other pioneers of low-power electronics could probably do something interesting, the rest of us will have to wait for thermal resonator designs to evolve and improve on its way out of the lab.

[via Engadget]

That Decentralised Low Voltage Local DC Power Grid, How Did It Do?

Early on in the year, Hackaday published one of its short daily pieces about plans from the people behind for a low voltage DC power grid slated for the summer’s SHACamp 2017 hacker camp in the Netherlands. At the time when it was being written in the chill of a Northern Hemisphere January the event seemed so far away, but as the summer fades away along with the deep tan many SHACamp attendees gained in the Dutch sunlight it’s worth going back and revisiting the project. Did they manage it, and how did they do? This isn’t really part of our coverage of SHACamp itself, merely an incidental story that happens to have the hacker camp as its theatre.  Continue reading “That Decentralised Low Voltage Local DC Power Grid, How Did It Do?”

A Bold Experiment In A Decentralised Low Voltage Local DC Power Grid

January, for many of us in the Northern Hemisphere, can be a depressing month. It’s cold or wet depending where you live, the days are still a bit short, and the summer still seems an awfully long way away. You console yourself by booking a ticket to a hacker camp, but the seven months or so you’ll have to wait seems interminable.

If you want an interesting project to look forward to, take a look at [Benadski]’s idea for a decentralised low voltage local DC power grid for the upcoming SHA 2017 hacker camp in the Netherlands. The idea is to create a network that is both safe and open for hacking, allowing those with an interest in personal power generation to both have an available low-voltage power source and share their surplus power with other attendees.

The voltage is quoted as being 42V DC +/- 15%, which keeps it safely under the 50V limit set by the European Low Voltage Directive. Individuals can request a single 4A connection to the system, and villages can have a pair of 16A connections, which should supply enough for most needs. Users will need to provide their own inverters to connect their 5V or 12V appliances, fortunately a market served by numerous modules from your favourite Far Eastern sales portal.

This project will never be the solution to all power distribution needs, but to be fair that is probably not the intention. It does however provide a platform for experimentation, collaboration, and data gathering for those interested in the field, and since it is intended to make an appearance at future hacker camps there should be the opportunity for all that built up expertise to make it better over time.

We’ve touched on this subject before here at Hackaday, with our look at the availability of standard low voltage DC domestic connectors.

Wind turbine image: Glogger (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.