Trees have been providing energy for humans since before recorded history. Cavemen used fire to release the stored energy in wood to cook food and provide illumination at night. Medieval castles were heated by massive wood-burning fireplaces. Wood burning locomotives helped connect the Atlantic and Pacific by rail in the 19th Century. Today, trees continue to be an important store of energy for humans.Throughout our long history of using trees for energy, the primary means of releasing that energy has been combustion. I was very interested, therefore, to read “Trees, Save Yourselves” in Technology Review. Researchers at MIT, led by Dr. Shuguang Zhang, have hit upon an alternative means of extracting energy from trees without setting them on fire.
By harnessing the pH difference between trees and the soil in which they are rooted, a small amount of electricity can be generated. While this phenomenon has been observed for years, a company is now capitalizing on MIT’s research to power sensor networks in forests. Voltree Power has built a “bioenergy converter” that parasitically harvests metabolic energy from trees.
The available energy is certainly not enough to make a dent in human consumption. However, according to the Technology Review article, enough energy is available to power wireless mesh networks within forests that can transmit data about local temperature and humidity conditions. These networks could be used for agricultural monitoring or early detection of forest fires. Voltree Power is planning to test their so-called Early Wildfire Alert Network (EWAN) beginning in the spring.
The engineers and inventors of the post WWII period turned their attention to advancements in electronics, communication, and entertainment. Breakthrough inventions range from LEGOs and computer gaming to the integrated circuit and Ethernet -- a range of advancements that have little in common except they changed our lives.
Neil Fromer is the executive director of the Resnick Institute, a program for energy and sustainability at the California Institute of Technology, working to develop new ideas and research technologies related to providing a sustainable future. He spoke to us about the severity of the current drought in California and how solar energy can help prevent such situations in the future.
From home enthusiasts to workers on the manufacturing floor, everyone's imagination is captured by the potential of 3D printing. Prototyping, spare parts creation, art delivery, human organ creation, and even mass product production are all being targeted as current and potential uses for the technology.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.