Sometimes an idea is so brilliantly simple that you wonder why it took so long to come up with it. Why didn’t we think of it sooner? For years I’ve been pondering ways to use potential energy as a storage medium for solar and wind power as a means to provide energy during peak-need instead of during peak-production, because one of the big problems with solar and wind energy is that it often produces the most energy exactly when the grid doesn’t need it. The disparity can actually cause problems.
Batteries seem like a logical solution because we know them so well when it comes to storing electricity. Charge a battery and take your power from it when you need it. It works fine in small scale, say in your own home. But in large scale, like solar or wind farm size, there just aren’t enough batteries in the world and it’d cost a ridiculous amount to try.
Which brought me to the next logical step. If you had a water source, sure, you could have big hydrogen tanks fueled by electrolysis that power fuel cells when the grid needs it. Should be simple enough, if technical. But still expensive. And potentially explosive. Besides, no hydrogen tank can really trap hydrogen well, so you’re going to lose what you store if you don’t use it quickly. Downtime could be disastrous. Not to mention what is the efficiency in general?
In theory though any time-shifting of the power produced would be more beneficial than trying to produce power when no one needs it and producing nothing when everyone turns on their lights.
But is there a better way yet? That brought me to the next obvious idea, hydro-electric dams. If you have a water source (lake, ocean, river, whatever) and you have the space for it, then you could theoretically design a hybrid pump/generator that stores energy in the form of gravity, by moving water uphill during peak production time, and letting those same water pumps in turn produce electricity from the stored water during peak demand time. Maybe the next windmill is also a water tower so that it can store its own energy in the form of potential energy/gravity for use during a better time? Still not likely to be the most efficient design in the world, but gravity as a battery is something we’ve been doing for a long time in other forms. We just didn’t really think about it.
Then I had to wonder, what about water-starved locations? Not many deserts can afford to waste that much water, but that’s where so much sun and space are. Well, then what about sand? Or other forms of earth? Once more, in theory, would it really be all that difficult to build sand/dirt towers instead of water towers?
But strangely, in all of this pondering, I missed the obvious. As have a great many people. I missed the usefulness of applying the same concept to a different scale.
Funny enough, some Brits found their own way to this very solution when approaching a completely different problem.
Enter Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves, co-inventors of the GravityLight. Their goal was to invent a lamp for developing countries where power grids are unreliable or non-existent. Many people in these places commonly use kerosene lamps and such, generally requiring a certain cost to fuel, as well as potentially fouling air and impacting health, especially when used in small domiciles. They wanted a “green” and cheap solution. The kind modern society should be able to engineer to help raise the standard of living for everyone. Something I’ll always applaud.
The initial idea for their light was to use solar power and a battery. We’ve got plenty of those lighting up gardens already, really. But the cost and practicality weren’t ideal, especially as batteries wear out and are full of nasty chemicals, costing money to replace a well as creating their own potential health problems if chemicals of batteries discarded hit the water supplies. And that’s when the brilliant notion came to light: Ditch batteries. Use gravity!
So they tossed the solar panels and batteries and instead created a novel concept whereby a sack of dirt or rocks is lifted up to a hanging GravityLight and over the course of a half-hour the generator turned by the descent of mass provides power to the LED in the GravityLight. And when the power runs out, just lift the bag of rocks back up and start the process all over again. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. It works any time.
They’ve even put in a bypass to the LED to allow you to hook up your own wires to run a radio, charge a cellphone, or do whatever else you can think of.
Frankly, their GravityLight is ingenious.
And better, they’re trying hard to get the price down as much as they can. Their target is to be able to mass-produce the GravityLight for less than $5 so that developing nations can afford them, especially as once they can end their reliance upon fuels for lights, the savings really start to add up.
You can help fund their GravityLight project on Indiegogo. They’re trying to fund the project up to producing 1000 units to gift free-of-charge to villagers in Africa and India for their first serious round of user testing. They hope to gain valuable information on usage and further changes to meet other needs from that testing before they get to the full mass-production stage. It’s hard not to applaud that kind of gumption.
But as I watch Doomsday Preppers on TV, I also can’t miss the obvious potential there as well. Not just the fringe group of preppers, but honestly campers in general as well as emergency plans for various businesses. It even makes me wonder if you could replace the gravity bag component with a wound spring turned by a crank. Or even turned by the generator (hybrid motor) for emergency lighting in buildings. I wonder if you could scale it up for a UPS that has a potential energy battery instead of a chemical one. This is one of those shining moments of breakthrough that could affect all sorts of future invention. Gentlemen, I salute you! Who needs nasty chemical batteries when we can store potential energy instead? Gravity. It’s not just a wonderful thing, it’s the law.