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Harvesting power from the sun – new invention promises to tranform the solar power business


Engineer, ex NASA scientist and inventor Lonnie Johnson has created a device called the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (or JTEC), which promises to convert heat into electricity at twice the efficiency of current systems. The device –  early prototype above –  uses no moving parts, and works by splitting hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons, thereby producing electric power.


It sounds simple, but it’s taken the American inventor decades to perfect the basic technology, and he’s now running out of funds, despite widespread approval from those scientists who have examined the idea up close. So how much potential does it have? Well the hope is that the JTEC system will convert solar energy with an efficiency rate of 60%, which is double that of conventional solar systems and competitive in cost terms with coal. If that’s true, then it is genuinely revolutionary.

What is really quite poignant, is the fact that someone with as much scientific credibility as Mr Johnson still finds it necessary to wander around cap in hand for funding, when money is wasted every day on many more speculative technologies. The web page for his research company has even resorted to installing a Paypal donation button for the public to use to help the research, which is just bizarre.


Anyway, let’s see what happens. As with many of these exciting new technologies, the proof of the pudding will come when it gets closer to commercialisation, and the actual costs of production start to come into focus. If it’s too expensive to make, it could be back to the drawing board.

 Like Paul Werbos, Littau initially feared that the device sounded too good to be true, but he and several other PARC scientists set up elaborate three-dimensional computer models to analyze fluidics and heat-flow behavior in the JTEC under various conditions, and they came away from those experiments, he says, “really impressed.” Littau, like Werbos, is now a convert. The JTEC, he says, is “a very clever way to extract energy from a heat engine … It’s incredibly elegant.”

Nigel is the managing editor of the Red Ferret, as well as a freelance columnist for the Sunday Times newspaper in London. Loves tech and fancies himself as a bit of a futurist, but then don’t we all?

Nigel – who has written posts on The Red Ferret Journal.

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