Back in 1990, inventor Lonnie Johnson (pictured) revolutionized America's suburbs when the first Super Soaker was sold. Now, Johnson could be ready to deliver another gift to the masses: an energy converter that could double the efficiency of solar power, and make it a truly viable source of renewable energy.
Called the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (or JTEC), the device could make solar power rival the kind of output we enjoy from a long-established source like coal, as long as there is heat to keep things going.
From the Atlantic:
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.
The amount of energy we're able to squeeze out of renewable sources such as solar or wind power is one of the biggest obstacles to having them installed everywhere. Johnson's JTEC may sound like a humble leg up, but Paul Werbos, director of the National Science Foundation, says "It has a darn good chance of being the best thing on Earth." Werbos awarded Johnson and his team $75,000 back in 2006 to pursue the research, and with any luck — as in, hoping the steps between invention and realized product doesn't slow things down — we won't have to wait too long before the JTEC device becomes a reality and shakes up the solar world.