Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Young eco-inventors of the future

Daniel Asturias and Isaac Harwell. Photo Daniel Asturias
Young people all over the world are drawing on maths and sciences to come up with ideas for renewable energy

By Helena Merriman
BBC News

There is an old Icelandic saying - necessity teaches a naked woman to spin - which could be applied to the way inventors are rising to the challenge of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Many of the ideas around green energy are being generated by young people, and the BBC's World Today programme spoke to a few of these eco-inventors.

Under the sea

Daniel Asturias and Isaac Harwell are hoping that their invention could revolutionise energy production.

At 18 and 19 respectively, their project started as a hobby.


Their concept is to convert thermal energy from the naturally occurring heat flow found underwater at hydrothermal vents into electrical energy.

Hydrothermal vents are found near volcanic sites on the sea floor, where water heated by volcanic activity under the seabed rushes out.

Juan de Fuca Rdge - an underwater volcanic mountain range stretching 300 miles along the coast of Oregon and Washington - is the perfect testbed.

Their idea is to position a series of motionless thermal generators (MoTGens) over the hydrothermal vents, so that the temperature difference from the hydrothermal fluid on the hot side to the sea water on the cold side will create a massive heat flux.

A part of this would then be converted to electric energy - essentially working like a fridge in reverse.

A massive underwater power line could then be used to carry the electrical power back to where it could be used on land.

"Any ocean that has hydrothermal activity - which most of them do of some sort - would be able to house one of these," Mr Asturias told the BBC World Service.

The inventors are convinced that carrying this power to land can be made cost-effective.

They point to similar projects, including NorNed, involving the installation of a 580km long submarine high?voltage cable which will interconnect the Dutch and Norwegian electricity grids.

Artistic rendition of what the MoTGen would look like. Photo: Isaac Harwell
The MoTGen is a heat engine which would be placed two km under water

They say that in terms of energy production, one MoTGen team would provide the same amount of energy as about two or three nuclear power plants, but without the radiation hazard.

This scale, they argue, is the unique selling point of their invention.

"Lots of renewable energy sources are very high output but the problem is the inconsistency," says Mr Asturias.

"For example wind turbines work very well if the wind is blowing, and the same is true of solar panels and sun.

The good thing about this is that the stream is more or less constant - it will produce the same amount of power regardless of the time of day."

They have now begun talks with various companies and are looking for money to fund the development of the mathematical models behind their invention.

Mushroom magic

Eben Bayer's inspiration for his 'green' alternative to polystyrene came from growing up on a farm in Vermont in America.

Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre. Evocative Design
Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre hope their invention will replace polystyrene

"I was inspired by seeing mushrooms, or mycelium roots, actually holding or gluing the forest floor together," he told the BBC World Service.

"Then I took a class where we were tasked with developing a new green insulation and my eureka moment was combining the concept of using mushroom roots to hold the forest floor together, to use it as a glue in an industrial process."

Along with classmate Gavin McIntyre, Mr Bayer started experimenting with mushrooms, to see whether they could form a type of glue.

They grew mushrooms under their beds in the dark, testing how they behaved when added to different agricultural waste products, such as rice, buckwheat hulls or cotton burrs.

They found that the new material assembled itself and grew in the dark in a few days.

It was also very strong, with one cubic inch of mushroom roots holding around six to seven miles of mycelium fibres.

Having discovered that these mushroom roots could be used like this, they went on to create a material called Greensulate, which they hope could eventually replace the petrochemical-based expanded polystyrene, currently used to make rigid board insulation for roofs and walls.

EcoCradle is grown in the dark with no petrochemical inputs

The problem with polystyrene is that it is not biodegradable and takes up large amounts of landfill space where it can last for thousands of years.

"Greensulate is stronger, it is about the same price, gives you the same thermal performance but has none of the environmental downsides," says Mr Bayer.

The pair say that it requires no energy to produce, can be reused, leaves no waste and can be turned into compost.

They are now using the same technology to create EcoCradle packaging and the team has just built their first factory to start production.

'They laughed at me'

Many of the people around the world who are inventing new green technologies have had educational institutions or grants behind them.

But William Kamkwamba had none of those advantages.

Growing up in Malawi, he had to leave school when he was fourteen because his family could no longer afford the school fees.

Undeterred, he started visiting a library to find books that could fuel his passion for science.

He could not read English very well, so instead he concentrated on pictures and diagrams.

William Kamkwamba on his windmill (TED/Tom Rielly)
The windmill device was soon powering his family's mud brick compound

His eureka moment was seeing a picture of a windmill.

"Inside the book they said a windmill could pump water and generate electricity," he told the BBC World Service.

"So in my mind I said it is important for me to build this."

But he did not have the right materials.

So, like other inventors, he took his inspiration from the world around him.

"I didn't have any money to buy materials, so I went to a junk yard and I found a tractor fan, a shock absorber which I used for the windmill shaft, and pipes too.

"People laughed at me and thought I was going crazy. They said it was strange to them as they didn't know what a windmill was."

He says it was only after he showed them how they could charge their mobile phone from his windmill that people understood what he had done and stopped thinking he was mad.

While Mr Kamkwanba has become something of a celebrity, and now speaks at conferences around the world, his ambitions remain tied to Malawi.

"I am trying to help bring low cost power to rural areas in Malawi or other parts of Africa," he says.

"And I'm now trying to teach young people at universities in different areas to build windmills by themselves so they have a chance to access electricity."

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