Light the touchpaper and stand well back, because we're about to... make sustainable electricity? That's the idea according to a researcher from MIT, whose vision for future power generation involves a healthy dose of TNT.
It's about four years since Michael Strano first created a yarn from carbon nanotubes and coated it in TNT. When he lit the end — using a laser, naturally — it burned hard and bright, but in a controlled way. Potentially, it was a new way to create electricity, but it was woefully inefficient.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Stano has not only worked out the underlying physics of how and why his creation burns the way it does, but also made it more efficient. Like, 10,000 times more efficient. And, according to Technology Review, he's also "charted a path for continued rapid improvements". How does it work? Technology Review explains:
The new generators exploit a phenomenon that Strano calls a thermopower wave. The conventional way to generate electricity by burning a fuel is to use heat to cause expanding gases to drive a turbine or a piston. In Strano's system, as the fuel burns along the length of his nanotubes, the wave of combustion drives electrons ahead of it, creating an electrical current. It's a much more direct and efficient way to generate electricity, since no turbines or conventional generators are required.
He reckons that the technology has a future in portable power generators. You quite literally light the thing and — BOOM! — instant energy. The power's delivered in such a way that it needs to head straight into something that either uses it or stores it, but the generators could help charge electric vehicles or, if they're miniaturized, juice your phone in the blink of an eye.
The snag? Of course there's a snag. While he's ramped up efficiencies by a factor of 10,000, that still only produces an absolute efficiency of 0.1 per cent; most generators manage 25 to 60. So, there's a little way to go before his TNT electricity hits the mainstream — but when it does, it could well be dynamite. [Technology Review]