Biomimetic file 141: Evaporation Powered Engines

How small outcomes can be exploited to become large outputs

TOP HUMIDITYImage source: Joe Turner Lin. Evaporation* is a type of vaporization of a liquid that occurs from the surface of a liquid into a gaseous phase that is not saturated with the evaporating substance. The other type of vaporization is boiling, which is characterized by bubbles of saturated vapor forming in the liquid phase.

Highlight: “researchers have developed the first ever engines driven by evaporation…they created what they’re calling “hygroscopy driven artificial muscles,” or HYDRAs, using bacterial spores that shrink and swell as the humidity changes. Within the spores, water is confined in tiny cavities, and humidity triggers pressure changes. Using HYDRAs, the team created two kinds of devices—a floating, piston-driven engine and a rotary engine—that can help generate electricity from evaporation.”

Insight: Evaporation* is a powerful force omnipresent in our world and it has remained virtually untapped! While evaporation occurs everywhere on Earth it is strongest in hot locations which would be favored deployment sites. Despite the fast rise of certain renewables, especially solar Photo-voltaic, there is a need for an energy mix and this new solution could be a good addition as part of a global de-carbonification process. The element of scale is important in future energy needs; while energy production from evaporation may seem unproductive compared to modern gas fired Powerplants, the potential relies on two fronts with low cost and large scale deployment which in term could provide significant amounts of decentralized energy. The technology behind this latest innovation is a good case study of biomimicry whereby engineering and biological principals are combined to come up with a functioning mechanism. The key to future innovations will require a multidisciplinary approach using natural along with engineered systems..

The above points can be applied to business strategy: while most models are based on a small but high output principle (e.g. local market size but high profit margin), we increasingly live in a flat world (an analogy for the fact that the planet and its systems are becoming more and more interconnected) which makes a new type of business model based on small output but large outcomes feasible…

Lets illustrate the above point with the following tale taking place in a near future, roughly 10 years from now: a small town in the middle of the United States runs 100% on an expensive but efficient coal fired Powerplant on a 20 ha land in the inner suburbs which generates 450MW of power.  Mike, the mayor of the town prouds himself of having created 300 jobs in his plant and another 600 jobs in the nearby coal mine. On the other end 3 miles away another similar sized town with an ecological conscious mayor, John, is trying a different model to take over from their own aging coal fired plant and has decided to power his town 100% on solar photovoltaic energy (The two which are actually friends have  secretly made a bet on which model will come out most successful). The location  happens to be prone to solar energy generation due to its high sun exposure, flat grounds and dry air. John’s town quickly moves-on to re-develop nearly 10 square miles of surrounding desert land with solar panels purchased in bulk at a very favorable price. While the output per panel is relatively small, in the end, the system combined (9 million panels) generates more than 500 MW, enough to power 160,000 homes. The project has created over 4000 jobs, its operational cost is comparatively low and the air quality is now much better not to mention the media sensation interested in this small town initiative. A deal made with a new generation battery manufacturer allows the town to effectively store the energy and operate at night. While 5 years ago the solar farm would have cost 4 times the price of the coal fired plant, with the price of panels having dropped significantly the entire project was about the same price (800m) to build (this is why this projection takes place in a near not so far away future as in today’s market it would cost more to build the solar farm!). Thereafter, every time John and Mike meet up for a beer at the middle road pub, John reminds Mike of the story and asks him “so when are you following my model?” to which he replies “it’s already decided John, you won,  solar is the new coal and I am now convinced!” (that is just me being optimistic)…

The answer to the title of this post is clear: in order to turn small outputs into large outcomes the parameter to play on is the element of scale. Increasingly low cost large scale systems will take over small scale high cost installations…

Are you planning a new development? If so, perhaps explore the two above models, crash in the numbers and come up with your own conclusions, based on the situation, on which model is the most feasible and economical in the long run…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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