Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Tiny Turbines
Several years ago, microturbines were the hot new trend in small-scale, local power generation, either for backup power or off-grid applications. They were stealing a march on fuel cells, by being readily available now and by requiring only ordinary and widely-available fuels. These devices are essentially jet engines that have been shrunk to fit in a box the size of a small refrigerator. Now there is news of a new generation of even smaller turbines, built from a silicon chip, and aimed at powering small electronic devices.

It's too early to properly assess this technology and its potential for real-world practicality and reliability, but the implications are fascinating to consider. As with the small fuel cells that will shortly be available to run your cellphone, the goal of these micro-micro turbines (nanoturbines?) is to bypass the power density limitations of batteries by tapping the excellent energy storage of hydrocarbon fuels. Either approach could offer dramatically improved usefulness from handheld devices and laptop computers.

As promising as that seems, I am even more intrigued by the suggestion that clusters of these tiny turbines could potentially power entire homes. It wouldn't be good news for companies like Capstone or Plug Power , if building many little turbines out of silicon turned out to be cheaper than building a single home-sized microturbine or fuel cell.

I don't know if this development will pan out, but I see it as further evidence that we are on the leading edge of a wave of change in energy technology, the likes of which we haven't seen since steam, batteries and internal combustion were all competing to be the dominant power source for automobiles at the beginning of the 20th century. In the next few years we will find out whether it is cheaper to continue to build power plants as industrial-scale construction projects, or to create the same amount of electric generating capacity by mass producing small energy devices. I'd bet on the latter, particularly If the techniques involved are similar to those that have brought down the cost of computing power.

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