Energy Innovation: Snails and Griddies

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Ask most people to describe vanguard energy technology, and they’ll name LED lights, certain forms of solar energy and new electric storage methods. But how about this – generating energy from a living body?

The Journal of the American Chemical Society is reporting a “real-life scientific tail of the first electrified snail.” Researchers have placed a fuel cell in a snail that generates energy using sugar naturally produced by the snail’s body.

Consider it the ultimate in distributed generation. The AMC sees potential for the tiny electrical devices “perhaps for future spy cameras, eavesdropping microphones and other electronics.”

The researchers induced a current in the living snail by inserting into its shell two electrodes made of carbon nanotubes. They coated the electrodes with enzymes to foster a chemical reaction. One pulled electrons from glucose in the snail’s body and another used those electrons to turn oxygen molecules into water. Researchers found that the enzymes generated electricity again and again in the snail, which lived for months with the implanted fuel cell.

Others have implanted electricity-producing biofuels in various animals, such as rats and rabbits, but only partially. This was the first time researchers generated electricity for an extended period of time without harming the animal, according to the journal.

“The snail with the implanted biofuel cell will be able to operate in a natural environment, producing sustainable electrical micropower for activating various bioelectronic devices,” the authors were quoted as saying.

At this point, it’s hard to say where this research will lead – whether it will prove quirky or profound. But it does underscore the diverse innovation that surrounds electric power, an industry that for its first 100 years saw little technological change. Industry insiders used to say Thomas Edison would find the electric light bulb virtually unchanged if he were reborn. That’s getting more difficult to assert.

Griddie Awards

With all this change, comes the need to educate consumers, especially if they must modify their behavior in some way. What good are electric snails if no one wants to use them?

That gets to the second topic of this week’s blog: Griddies. These are awards to be issued by the Association of Demand Response and Smart Grid at its annual meeting in Washington, DC, June 26-28, 2012. The association started the contest this year in recognition of the need by the power industry to engage consumers in the new smart grid technologies. Rather than issuing a call for papers, it sent out a “Call for Creative,” seeking inspiring examples of work by marketing and communications departments, non-profit advocacy groups, technology companies, creative agencies, public relations firms, and professionals

The finalists are on the organization’s website and there is some truly consumer-catching work. In one of my favorites, this one from Reliant Energy, a rapper named Mega Watt shows us all of the smart energy devices in his mansion digs. He tells us he’s keeping it “real time” and sings part of his song “Power Strip.” In another that I liked, Green Mountain Power offers line-drawn cartoon that explains the significance of smart grid in a clear, appealing and succinct way. Another by Reliant Energy has an amusing talking plug that asks questions online about energy and provides rewards to those that get them right.

These are just as few of the finalists. Take a look through at the list on the ADS website if you want to be amused and impressed at how far the once dull electric power industry has come. The ADS plans to put the finalists up for a “town meeting vote’ at its gathering in June. Check back.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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