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Photos: Six unusual power sources

Introducing dung power and the solar bikini...
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By Gemma Simpson, Contributor on
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1 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

Introducing dung power and the solar bikini...

Scientists are coming up with novel ways to power gadgets - including using body heat and even dung.

For example US researchers have developed a way to power electronic gadgets automatically when their owners wander into their home or office - without the need for cumbersome cables or chargers.

The "WiTricity" device - the term coined by the team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to describe the wireless power phenomenon - uses magnetic fields to remotely power the gadgets.

Speaking in November 2006, Marin Soljacic, assistant professor of physics at MIT, told silicon.com the device would work in a similar way to wi-fi, with a plug-in device in the home or office providing a signal to recharge all types of gadgets.

A working prototype has recently been developed by the team at MIT (both pictured above), which can light a 60-watt bulb using a power source two metres away and with no physical connections between the source and the appliance.

Photo credit: Aristeidis Karalis

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2 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

German scientists have produced thermo-generators (pictured) that use human body heat to generate power and could be used to run mobile devices in future.

The thermo-generators use the difference between the body's surface temperature and the surrounding temperature to produce electrical energy using semiconductor elements.

Currently it is "not realistic" to try to power a mobile phone using the thermo-generators, said Peter Spies, group manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, because the energy from the human body is too low compared with ambient temperatures - so not enough power is produced.

However, Spies is hopeful the technology's efficiency will improve, making thermo-generators for mobile devices a future possibility.

Photo credit: Fraunhofer Institute

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3 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

Data centres are infamous for gobbling up plenty of power, so IT consultancy Comtec Enterprises is using hydrogen fuel cells - developed by APC - as a back-up power supply for its data centres.

The fuel cell converts the chemical energy produced by mixing hydrogen and oxygen from the air to churn out the electrical energy needed to power the servers with three 10kW cells.

The fuel cells are supplied with hydrogen from stored and pressurised bottles via the pictured tubes. These pipes also extract water produced by the cells.

Photo credit: Tim Ferguson

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4 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

A team of MIT students has come up with a way of using animal dung to power gadgets such as mobile phones.

BioVolt - the team responsible for the poo power - has taken the concept of using biomass to generate electricity and shrunk it to fit inside a handheld device which could be used to charge mobiles.

The prototype device uses organisms to digest biomass - such as animal dung - and convert it to electricity and water in a specialised fuel cell.

Pictured are the BioVolt team with two biofuel cell prototypes.

Photo credit: MIT

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5 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

A Japanese railway company has come up with a novel way to help power its stations - using energy from passengers' footsteps.

The East Japan Railway Company has been trialling piezoelectric elements - which can generate electricity when pressure or a vibration is applied to the element - within its stations.

When the piezoelectric elements are put on the floor in stations with large numbers of passengers it could be possible to store and then use a relatively large amount of electric power to supplement the stations' main supply.

Pictured is the step-tech in Tokyo station - with a board presented to the right telling passengers how much power their feet have produced.

Photo credit: Japan Railways Group, New York Office

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6 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

It may not look like the most comfortable of energy sources but the solar bikini can produce enough power to recharge gadgets such as the iPod via an attached USB connector.

The solar bikini's designer, Andrew Schneider, told silicon.com the idea hatched during a class at New York University, where he was completing a Master's degree.

Schneider said: "I leaned over to my friend [and] I jokingly said that I was going to make a solar bikini that cools a six-pack of beer. We laughed, and I didn't think about it until halfway through the semester when I realised that I might actually be able to do it."

The bikini (pictured) consists of 40 flexible photovoltaic panels all sewn together with conductive thread. Each handcrafted suit costs between $750 and $2,000 and produces a five-volt output.

The only drawback is the solar-bikini-clad wearer can't go for a quick dip in the pool to cool off as the device cannot be submerged in water.

Photo credit: Andrew Schneider

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7 of 7 Gemma Simpson/ZDNET

Fancy a pop at designing your own power source? The US Department of Defense Research and Engineering is offering punters a $1m prize for coming up with a wearable power system for service personnel.

Applicants must be able to demonstrate a wearable electric power system prototype which operates continuously for 96 hours, has a total weight of 4kg or less, attaches to a piece of clothing and can provide up to 200-watts of electrical power.

Photo credit: The US Department of Defence Research and Engineering

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