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A Quantum Leap for Solar Power?

After two decades of research into alternative energy, engineer Lonnie Johnson has developed an energy-producing device called the JTEC, which could double our current efficiency in converting solar power into electricity. The concept has scientists, research centers, and the US Air Force excited about its potential. One scientist called the JTEC “a very clever way to extract energy from a heat engine … It’s incredibly elegant.” Here's a partial explanation of how it works:
Johnson’s latest JTEC prototype, which looks like a desktop model for a next-generation moonshine still, features two fuel-cell-like stacks, or chambers, filled with hydrogen gas and connected by steel tubes with round pressure gauges. Where a steam engine uses the heat generated by burning coal to create steam pressure and move mechanical elements, the JTEC uses heat (from the sun, for instance) to expand hydrogen atoms in one stack. The expanding atoms, each made up of a proton and an electron, split apart, and the freed electrons travel through an external circuit as electric current, charging a battery or performing some other useful work. Meanwhile the positively charged protons, also known as ions, squeeze through a specially designed proton-exchange membrane (one of the JTEC elements borrowed from fuel cells) and combine with the electrons on the other side, reconstituting the hydrogen, which is compressed and pumped back into the hot stack. As long as heat is supplied, the cycle continues indefinitely.

Besides efficiency, the advantages of such a machine are durability, as it has no moving parts, and the absence of polluting waste products. Lonnie Johnson already made a name for himself as the inventor of the Super Soaker. His biography (included in the article) is almost as fascinating as his latest invention. Link -via Metafilter

(Image credit: Ben Baker/Redux)

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@TimO

It's still a boatload of energy.

Lets take 1/3 of Arizona (just the flat desert parts), and using just 600 W/m^2 (which is around 1.07x10^11 m^2). You get around 8.025x10^10 KWh.

Right now all that energy is just being used into baking rock into sand (well and driving the water cycle, wind currents, and a few other things).

Current Country wide (in the US) production of electricity is around 3.992x10^12 KWh so it's not all that inconceivable to see the value of Solar.

Yes, it needs to get better. Yes it needs to be maintained. Yes it needs to be funded. But the Sun will still be pumping out photons for millions of years after the last drop of petroleum is pumped out of the earth.

Long term, it needs to be moved into orbit. But solar is the only real choice for future power.
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The biggest problem with solar is the limitation of how much power actually arrives on the face of the Earth.

On a GOOD day with no clouds and perfect atmosphere you will only get a maximum of 750watts per square meter. That's total at 100% efficiency (and most solar panels are more like 15-25%)
Any weather and you can start slicing off more watts.
And for every year the panel sits out in the sun/weather it loses more efficiency.

You can quantum leap all you want but you'll never get more power of a solar panel than what falls on the Earth...
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@ zaid:

protons and electrons are both subatomic particles, since they're the constituents of atoms.
But yes, protons are made up of even smaller particles called quarks (no strawberries though I'm afraid).

Anyway, I hope this JTEC thing really works, we need some new ideas! If super-soaker man can do it why can't we? ;)
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There are a few lessons in this story, but the most important one, I think, is that 3/4 of science is salesmanship. It sucks, and it's a sad statement on humanity. If you're a great scientist, but a poor salesman, you're not very likely to succeed. Alternatively, if you're a great salesman and a mediocre scientist, you'll very likely go far in science.
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