I recently wrote a news story for Materials Today about an electrochemical nanocatalyst that could convert carbon dioxide from aqueous solution into ethanol with a high yield, 63 percent, if I remember rightly...it was a couple of days ago. Subsequently, there was a flurry of other news outlets writing up the same story and talking about converting this troublesome greenhouse gas into a useful fuel substance as sustainable as bioethanol for conversion to biodiesel. The big advantage being that it need not rely on that messy bio stuff and would simultaneously scrub out from the atmosphere some of that climate change culprit too boot.
My own headline for the story was "Spiked carbon dioxide conversion", alluding to the spines of the nano-structured catalyst and the off-center notion of samples or drinks being spiked. What struck me as odd is that in all the other coverage of this marvelous bit of materials science news, I didn't see a single tabloid headline talking about "Greenhouse gas to booze" or anything like that. They were all quite staid in their reporting, albeit hyping the potential for this process to solve all our energy and climate change problems (it won't).
Anyway, I mentioned my mock-tabloid cruising for the boozing type title to the Twitterati and one response from a fellow science geek suggested that in my headline I may have stumbled upon the ultimate way to make hooch, a vodka machine without the still. Moreover, given that the original concept, discovered through serendipity, was being touted as a way to store renewable energy by driving it with electricity from solar or wind, I offered the notion of a solar-powered vodka machine as being a real boon to the hardened boozer. The response was that it would be a useful machine to take camping...
An amusing conversational distraction of the kind many of us have several times a day, either on social media, by the water cooler, the coffee machine, or in the locker room (not so much the latter though), and on the campsite. However, if most of my camping experiences are to go by one would have struggled to make solar powered hooch in any shape or form. Wind power certainly, especially on those camping trips to the North Norfolk coast where the prevailing wind doth blow hard and decent ale and curry may be had aplenty, if one is of a mind to partake. This led me quickly to a question...we have solar power, wind power, tidal and wave power...but...we don't have rain power. Why not?
As a child I built an electronic rain monitor, a simple circuit with an audible alarm that would trip if a droplet of water fell on its sensor and raise a warning on "laundry day", for instance. I could not quite recall whether that device had a piezoelectric crystal or some resistive device to detect the plip, plip, plop of a little April shower. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about piezoelectric materials. Our failsafe camp stove lighter has such a crystal and generates a 4000 degree Celsius spark with a simple squeeze of the fist, sufficient to get the gas lit and the morning kettle boiling for the obligatory camping cuppa. There have also been piezoelectric dance floors in nightclubs that purportedly generated current through the shuffling of feet so that the foot lights beneath get with the beat. There are wearable devices in development that might charge a rechargeable battery through movements too.
Couldn't the pitter patter of the rain on a piezoelectric panel left out in the rain like a cake in Macarthur Park be enough to trickle charge a smart phone or other gadget? It would certainly make weathering a grey and moist campsite easier, provided you're within range of the warden's Wi-Fi antenna.
I suspect that falling droplets of water wouldn't be sufficient to deform the piezoelectric material to generate a useful current. So, instead, you could maybe have a vertical pipe with a funnel at the top and a paddlewheel dynamo at the bottom (there's a crowdfunder project if ever there were one). But, I also recently wrote about remote microsensor devices of the kind that might be used as environmental monitors in a rainforest perhaps, where sunlight does not reach the ground and not even a whisper of a breeze is felt for most of the time, but there is always plenty of rain to keep a micro device powered up, whether there are campers around or not.
When I was telling my wife about this wonderful idea of rainpower she asked whether it would be possible to combine a photovoltaic panel with one that generates a current when water hits it or flows over it, which reminded me, of course, that I'd written briefly about just such a discovery on my Sciencebase blog back in March.
David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".