Sustainable Inventions – Power of the Elements
Author: Jana Bronsch-Chassard
Created through careful observation, ingenuity or simply coincidence: These sustainable inventions have shaped the development of humanity itself.
The First Windmills
It was monstrous giants that pitiful knight Don Quixote wanted to slay. In the end, these giants turned out to be mere windmills. Author Miguel de Cervantes’ story from 1605 has become a monument in literary history. Yet, at the time, windmills were not even that new. The first was built in Europe in 1180. Turning the clock back even further, we find evidence of them in Babylon. Records suggest that there was a type of organ as early as 1750 BCE here, which was set in motion by a small wind wheel.
State-of-the-Art Wind Turbines
In Germany alone, there are almost 30,000 wind turbines. Together they have a capacity of more than 56,000 megawatts. But even faster, better and more efficient is possible: The Haliade-X 12 MW giant wind turbine generates 45 percent more electricity than any other offshore wind turbine. This enables just one to supply a whole town of 16,000 households with electricity for a year. The 260-meter-high prototype, which was erected in Fall 2019 in the port of Rotterdam, is expected to be put into operation in 2020. Unlike older facilities, modern wind power installations can store energy when it is not needed. Sustainability isn’t just about which source the energy is generated from
Wind Power for Shipping
Ships transport almost 90 percent of global freight. Approximately 13 percent of global sulfur oxide emissions and 15 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions are generated by ocean liners. From 2020, however, ships will be limited to using fuels with a maximum sulfur content of 0.5 percent, a considerable reduction on the previous 3.5 percent. The prospect of using wind as a power source is therefore once again in the spotlight. Rotor sail technology relies on the Magnus effect for thrust. The cylinder, several meters high, is mounted on deck and uses airflow for rotation. This creates thrust, giving a ship additional forward impetus. The rotor therefore serves as an auxiliary drive. An alternative would be a spinnaker sail, stretched in front of the ship and pulling it forward in the correct wind conditions.
Contrary to the long-held belief that the wheel was invented in around 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia, there is now evidence to suggest that earthen wagons were moving on wheels in Europe’s Black Sea region in the first half of the fourth millennium BCE. A conceivable source of inspiration may have been the potter’s wheel, whose earliest forms can be dated to an age of at least 6,000 years. Nevertheless, researchers’ opinions on the invention and dissemination of the wheel are diverse. But one thing is certain: The combination of wheel and wagon – the first technical revolution – has changed the life of mankind like hardly any other innovation.
Today serving young children as a learning aid before progressing to a ‘real’ bike, the ‘running machine,’ or ‘Laufmaschine’ in its original German, arrived on the scene in 1817 and represented an expensive trend for noblemen and -women. Later renamed the dandy horse or draisienne – after inventor Karl Freiherr von Drais – these vehicles still lacked the critical element: a mechanical pedal crank drive. More developed steeds, equipped with this technology, were introduced in the 1860s and were referred to as velocipedes. Around a decade later, these were followed by the Penny Farthing – with ever-increasing front wheel sizes for higher speeds – and after another decade, the low-wheeler or safety bike was introduced. This is considered a prototype of the bicycle as we know it today.
The intuitive problem-solving skills and extraordinary engineering talents of Briton Richard Trevithick can be thanked for the invention of the steam locomotive. At just 19, he worked as an engineer on several ore mines in Cornwall. In the early years of the 19th century, he tinkered away on a steam locomotive, until in 1804 the world’s first steam locomotive pulled a load of 10 tons of iron and 70 men along a 16-kilometer tramway. A lack of investors and the fragile nature of cast iron rails prevented the technology from breaking through. Another Briton, Engineer George Stephenson was the first to achieve this feat. He improved the rail technology, and in September 1825, the world’s first railway line was opened between the English cities of Stockton-on-Tess and Darlington.
The Inventor Archimedes, born in 280 BCE, was already using the heating power of the sun – even for military applications. He discovered that by focusing the sun’s rays with the aid of concave mirrors, such enormous heat could be created that enemy ships would be set alight. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) proved in a 2009 experiment that this method of attack is not just a myth, but a legitimate technique. In 1767, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure built the forerunner to today’s solar collectors by covering a black-bottomed wooden box with a pane of glass. In 1909, William J. Bailey patented a system that forms the basis for the design of solar water heaters in use today. Only during the 1970s oil crisis was the development of solar water heating and heating support picked up again and advanced.
The discovery of photovoltaics is not just to be thanked for pocket calculators and parking ticket machines, but also most spacecraft. In 1839, physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photoelectric effect. An explanation, however, was only provided by Albert Einstein in 1905, netting him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. The first technical application for photovoltaics came about in 1955 in supplying power for telephone repeater stations. In 1958, the first satellite was equipped with solar cells and sent into orbit. In the early 1980s, the first solar power plant came online in California.
For most of human history, the sun was the only source of light. But Man strove to bring light into otherwise dark caves and homes – first with campfires, then pine torches, oil and tallow lamps, through to candles to gas lamps. It was not until 1879 that the age of electric lighting began. Thomas Alva Edison ‘invented’ the light bulb by bringing German Watchmaker Johann Heinrich Goebel’s 1854 invention to technical maturity. However, since the invention of the incandescent lamp, no other light source has revolutionized the market as lastingly as the LED (Light Emitting Diode). Although the light yield of the early light emitting diodes was between 1 and 20 lumens per watt of electrical power, by 2013 this had already risen to around 80 to 120 lumens per watt. The story of the LED began in 1907 with Englishman Henry Joseph Round. He discovered that inorganic substances can glow under an electrical current. In 1962, the first red LED came on the market and marked the birth of industrially manufactured LEDs. Shuji Nakamura developed the first light-emitting, commercially successful blue LED in Japan in 1993, which gained him the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics.
First Water Wheels
Around 5,000 years ago, people in Mesopotamia and China developed bucket wheels with scoops made of bamboo or clay. This was both an innovation and a milestone – for the first time, hydropower was being used efficiently. Through the application of mechanics, water was drawn from the rivers to irrigate surrounding fields. Ancient Greece also saw engineers develop water wheels and the first pumps, in order to pump water from deep below up to the surface. Some time later, it became possible to convert the rotational movement, so that water wheels became the most commonly used drive wheels for mills or grindstones.
Modern Hydropower Stations
Through pipes and tunnels, water from rivers or lakes is channeled into the hydroelectric power plant. Gradient plays a decisive role here – the greater the gradient, the higher the energy with which the water meets the turbines. These are then set in motion and drive generators. The resulting mechanical energy is converted into electricity. With a nominal performance of 22.5 Gigawatts, the Three Gorges Dam in China is the largest hydroelectric power plant on Earth. According to Chinese news agency Xinhua, 49 million metric tons of coal would need to be burnt to match the amount of electricity that this gigantic power plant generated in 2014 alone.
Emission-Free Power Plants
Water is not only used to generate energy, but also as an effective energy storage medium. Researchers at the University of Graz want to use this property in the development of emission-free power plants. In these power plants, water would fulfill a number of roles: The water would not only drive turbines, but also be brought to the desired temperature and serve as a transport medium for district heating, routed directly to the end consumer. The pump storage technology, district heating storage and district cooling technology are all combined with one other.