March 13, 2008

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That’s hot
Your next gizmo could be run by heat
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If the universe keeps expanding, the physicists say, it will go out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but rather a prolonged sigh.

As stars die and galaxies drift farther and farther apart, energy will disperse and the whole deal will eventually end up as a fairly uniform hunk of space, with sparse matter floating around and the temperature hovering just a few degrees above absolute zero. They call this ultimate state “heat death.”

As any elementary physics student can tell you, energy is never truly lost, but it is converted into other forms. When we here on Earth make electricity, or do just about any kind of work, even our most efficient systems “lose” a lot of energy in the form of giving off heat. Anyone who actually uses a laptop on their lap knows that.

What if that heat could be harnessed, turned back into useful work? Our piddly planet might not be able to postpone the universe’s heat death by much, but we can at least get a few more watts for ourselves with some ingenuity. Enter the gadgets.

• DORmino mouse: The problem with wireless mice is that they need electricity to work. All mice do, but you don’t really notice the requirement because you usually have that nice cable hooking you up. With the wireless variety, you either have to throw some batteries in there or charge the thing every now and then. A few designers from Singapore have come up with a concept mouse that uses a laptop’s heat to power itself. The real magic is in a mousepad that sucks up all the heat and stores it in silicon nanowires. The mouse and pad both contain induction coils, so the movement of the mouse itself takes the stored heat energy and converts it into electricity.

• Nanowire cell phone charger: Silicon nanowires, what? Yeah, they U.S. Department of Energy recently released findings about a new way of etching tiny wires on silicon wafers, so-called “rough” nanowires because they stand vertically on the surface of those wafers. Even the researchers involved said they weren’t sure why, but the rough wires ended up being about 100 times more efficient for converting heat into electricity than previous silicon semiconductors. The technology is scalable to very large or very small devices, so to make the research accessible to laymen, the report speculated that our clothing could be laced with silicon nanowires to charge our cell phones, music players and other toys.

• Stirling engine chip cooler: Skipping over electricity entirely, the motherboard maker MSI has shown off a heatsink and fan combo that convert heat from a chip to mechanical energy, cooling that very same chip. It uses a tiny, adorable version of a Stirling Engine, which uses temperature differences to expand a gas and run a piston. In MSI’s case, the piston in turn runs a fan, which blows air through a heatsink sucking up the heat from the same chip that powers the engine. So far, they only have it running on fairly cool integrated circuits, not main processors that get really hot.

Admittedly, none of these gadgets are available for sale quite yet. For now, you’ll have to stick to cooking hamburgers on your engine block.