Experiencing Technical Difficulties (resonant) wrote,
Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Product idea: Heat pipe thermoelectric generators

This is not really a commercial product - it's more for isolated power generation for cold coastal areas.

Take a long, sturdy metal pipe. Weld a cap over both ends, leaving only a small hole. Squirt in a bit of alcohol. The boiling point of fluids (such as alcohol) drops when the air pressure drops. Hook a vacuum pump to the hole, and suck out the air until the pressure in the pipe is so low that the alcohol will boil at the freezing point of water. Then seal the hole.

Toss the pipe into a lake or ocean. It will float on its side. Add weights to one end so the pipe will stand vertically in the water, with half its length sticking up into the air. The pipe is now a spar buoy. This is a very stable platform suitable for mounting scientific instruments.


In winter, when ice starts forming on the ocean or lake, the top of the pipe will get colder than the freezing point of water. Droplets of alcohol will form on the inside of the top end of the pipe, and will drip down to the bottom end of the pipe. The bottom of the pipe will be in relatively warm water, which will warm the alcohol droplets until they boil. A steady trickle of liquid alcohol will stream down the inside of the pipe, and a steady gust of alcohol fumes will waft upwards through the pipe. The entire length of the pipe will stay at the freezing point of water, no matter how cold the air gets above the water's surface. This is a heat pipe.


Now, take thin sheets of several dissimilar metals and weld them together into a sandwich. This will make a thermoelectric generator. Thermoelectric generators use temperature differences to make electricity, with no noise or moving parts. They're not very efficient, but are great for when you need a zero-maintenance power source. Stick this metal sandwich on top of the spar buoy. Stick big metal fins on top of the metal sandwich. The cold winter wind will chill the top of the sandwich, while the buoy will warm the bottom of the sandwich. This will generate a small amount of electricity.


You can then use this electricity to power any scientific monitoring equipment mounted on the buoy. This would be useful for long-term monitoring of arctic sea ice drift patterns, local weather conditions, and acoustic signatures of sea life and ship/submarine propellers. The buoy could constantly transmit its location and telemetry without worrying about exhausting its batteries.

You could anchor thousands of these in deep water near a small community, run wires down the anchor cables and along the sea bottom to the shore, and provide a modest amount of electricity. Areas with heavy sea ice wouldn't be good for anchored buoys (the ice would either crush a tethered pipe, or else rip its anchor and wiring off the sea floor). That rules out some more isolated communities most dependent on flown-in generator fuel, such as ᑲᖏᖅᑐᒑᐱᒃ. Communities with sheltered bays or freshwater lakes would be more suitable - perhaps ᖃᒪᓂᑦᑐᐊ, or (further south), Moosonee or Attawapiskat.
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