Chances are that Louis Michaud is one of very few people who spend their days trying to make tornadoes. A year ago, the retired petrochemical engineer put together what looked a bit like a high-tech kiddie swimming pool. Only rather than splashes, this pool tends to generate twisters about as high as the garage.
Michaud is shopping this prototype around to energy companies, hoping to get funding to build a tornado pool the size of a sports arena. The plan is to use warm air expelled by, say, the cooling system of a nuclear power plant, to create tornadoes that stretch up to 9 miles high, spinning turbines to generate electricity. Michaud figures that such a tornado could generate as much power as a nuclear plant, though he allows that his idea is "the type of thing that's outside the norm."
But as the nation hunts for ways to reduce both pollution and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, outside the norm is exactly where many entrepreneurs are poking for inspiration. With prices for traditional fuels still riding high, it's more economically feasible to pursue potential energy sources that might otherwise appear to be "way out there," from algae and huge kites to lightning bolts.
The demand is clear: Sales of energy generated from alternative sources, including corn-based ethanol, solar panels, and fuel cells, rose 37.5 percent in 2006, according to Clean Edge, an industry consultancy. That trend could accelerate, based on predictions by some that the nation is heading for a fuel shortage over the next decade. Recently, the North American Electric Reliability Council, a utility industry organization, predicted a shortfall by 2015. "We are moving from a mono culture," reliant on just a few traditional fuels like oil and coal, "to a diverse range of energy sources," says Ron Pernik, co-founder of Clean Edge. "There's room for new players."
True, many of the kookier-sounding concepts are still in deep development within large corporations, universities, and, of course, the garage. In August, Sony (SNE) announced advances on a biobattery that produces power from a sugary solution, but won't discuss any potential timing for commercial availability yet. Universities are pumping out ideas that might never appear in their present, theoretical form. Recently, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture students proposed capturing energy from the footsteps of crowds by installing special floors near popular sightseeing spots where tourists stampede daily.
But projects that are further along are finding serious investors. The research firm New Energy Finance estimates that venture capital and private equity investments in clean energy from will grow at an annual compound rate of 17 percent through 2013. One company with a quirky idea that got funded is LiveFuels, which is trying to generate biofuel from algae grown in pools. Because algae grows superfast, it can produce many times more oil per acre than corn or other crops seen as potential fuels. In May, LiveFuels received $10 million in funding from individuals including David Gelbaum, who has backed environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club.
Other energy entrepreneurs, such as Finavera Renewables, have turned to the stock market for help funding their unorthodox ideas. Finavera, which listed on Toronto Venture Exchange earlier in the year, unveiled a giant $2 million buoy designed to harvest wave power. The AquaBuOY 2.0, which is being tested off the coast of Newport, Ore., looks like a circular yellow platform that's 15 feet across.
As it bobs in the waves, a 70-foot shaft hidden underneath moves up and down, generating power. Because water is denser than air, the friction produces more energy. Finavera's buoys can occupy half the space of a wind farm while producing just as much power, says CEO Jason Bak. The company hopes to commercialize the technology by 2010. "We are on target to generate a whole new industry," Bak says.
Other concepts have drawn government grants. Prometheus Energy, which has designed a process for extracting liquid natural gas from landfill waste, received a $600,000 grant last year from the Energy Dept. to build a refueling station in Sacramento. The company is building a plant at a local landfill that would produce 9,000 gallons of natural gas a day.
And, of course, there are plenty of ideas that have yet to win any backing. One company named KiteShip is proposing to use massive kites to reduce the amount of fuel used by freighters and other big commercial ships. There is some proof behind this concept, at least with smaller boats: KiteShip has long made kites to help power yachts. The company once created a 4,500-square-foot kite to speed a racing yacht in Australia.
Now executives say they're in talks with four shipping companies to build a $2 million, 13,000-square-foot kite to help haul ships as large as 400 feet long. KiteShip estimates the wind power from that kite would allow a typical commercial ship to cut fuel costs by 10 percent to 20 percent without sacrificing speed. For an average ship, that would translate into $400,000 in savings per year, figures Dave Culp, president of KiteShip and a longtime professional yacht designer. "The economic viability wasn't there until recently," he says. "Fuel was very cheap."
Steve LeRoy, an inventor based in DeKalb, Ill., has also taken a cue from a common force of nature. LeRoy has developed a device that generates lightning to harvest energy from the electrical discharge. The prototype, derived from the coiled transformer developed by physicist Nikola Tesla more than a century ago, can create lightning bolts three feet in length and as loud as a gun shot. Each little bolt only generates enough electricity to illuminate a 60-watt lightbulb for 20 minutes. But a full-scale system, LeRoy believes, could power 30,000 homes for a day with just one lightning bolt. That's not that surprising, considering that an average Midwest thunderstorm releases enough electrical energy to power the entire U.S. for 20 minutes. "If you've ever seen a tree hit by lightning, [you know] it's energy for the taking," LeRoy says.
Likewise, though algae and giant kites may sound like far-fetched solutions to a national energy crisis, it wasn't so long ago that corn was mostly for dinner.