With Scavenged Power And Data Furnaces, Finding Energy In Waste

Not all inventions need to involve new discoveries. Two new projects–one which draws power from the air, one which uses heat from servers–show that we can hack our way out of wasteful systems.

wireless antenna


Fresh research from a couple of different quarters suggests that waste isn’t really waste, and that innovators don’t need to discover new materials or unknown principles in order to innovate.

Georgia Tech engineering professor Manos Tentzeris has found a way to use inkjet printers to spray power-harvesting antenna arrays onto inexpensive, flexible substrates like polymer sheets or even paper to scavenge power from radio transmissions in order to furnish energy to sensors, microprocessors, and other low-powered devices. Like passive RFID tags, the technology makes use of the minuscule amounts of power contained in radio waves; unlike RFID, Tentzeris’ system harvests power from across the broadcast spectrum, rather than being confined to a narrow frequency band. Now anything can be a source of a power, albeit a tiny amount.

Then, there’s this: Microsoft research suggests
the possibility of “data furnaces,” small server packages of consisting
of tens or hundreds of processors engineered to plug into existing HVAC
to contribute their excess thermal energy to the heating of air
and water in the home
. Such data furnaces might offer a low-cost
heating solution while making information networks more efficient,
scattering processing power broadly about the network rather than
concentrating it in server farms with elephantine carbon footprints.

Neither of these projects consist of remarkable discoveries in computer or materials science–no new superfluids or nanoparticles are uncovered here, no new algorithms that predict markets or teach our tools to speak. Indeed, both projects employ tested technologies and well-known principles in their design and implementation. But this is precisely what’s interesting about them.

First, they’re hacks–tentative, scientifically stable, and carefully controlled hacks, but hacks nonetheless, synthesizing existing tools and phenomena in unexpected, efficient, and elegant ways. Second, they’re about the end of waste. In the industrial age, producers were encouraged to waste whatever could be wasted; waste was subsidized and even celebrated as the royal route to convenience and price. Perhaps too late, however, we realized that the way of waste is not sustainable. Nature, by contrast, wastes nothing–rather than the blind watchmaker, we might do well to call nature the blind hacker, because hacking is what evolution does. And now by slow steps we’re learning that our tools can copy nature not only by learning to run and to fly, but also by mimicking the subtle and efficient thermodynamic systems that have nourished life on this planet for billions of years. Such are the sort of hacks we’ll learn to live with.


About the author

Author of Library: an Unquiet History; cofounder of; writer about history, language, technology, and culture for a host of publications in print and online. His short story collection, The Sovereignties of Invention, will appear this Fall under the Red Lemondade imprint.