Archive for March, 2011

Infrared Photovoltaics Could Solve Energy and Climate

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 Mike Ficco

It may not be possible to overhype new infrared photovoltaic technology. It’s basically a solar cell powered by excess heat. Further developments promise to power cars and factories by cooling the planet.

Albert Einstein was first to describe the photoelectric effect, in 1907.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for this work in 1923.  Briefly, the photoelectric effect occurs when a photon smacks into a substance and frees an electron.  When this happens regularly, an electric current is produced.  All solar cells are based on this phenomenon.  For many years visionaries have projected solar cells as the clean energy source of the future.  It looks like they may be right, but not in the way they expected.

Energy from Heat

Working together, Katzumi Suzuki of the Nipon Engineering Institute and Shrinavas Patel of the Engineering Foundation of Bombay reported in the Journal of Thermodynamic Physics that they created a successful experiment in which they lowered the photon energy needed to create the photoelectric effect to under one electron volt.  Such a low energy corresponds to a photoelectric “threshold frequency” in the infrared part of the spectrum.  In practical terms this means that solar cells made with their patented proprietary process are capable of producing electricity from infrared energy (i.e., heat).

Katzumi and Shrinavas report that today they can only achieve about 11% efficiency, but they hope to boost that to perhaps 18% within the next decade (their paper calculates a theoretical limit of 21.7%).  They are working to manufacture and sell one meter wide rolls of thin, flexible solar cell material of various widths and lengths.  No price has been quoted.

The amount of electricity generated is non-linear with temperature and, with the existing process, generation of electricity cannot be achieved at temperatures below -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  The Journal of Thermodynamic Physics noted that one square meter of material generated in the dark (i.e., no visible light) about 15 Watts at the freezing point and about 60 Watts at room temperature.  This means that a shirt made from this material could power a smartphone indefinitely from your own body heat.  A car covered in this material could drive for nearly 600 miles in an Arizona summer night.

Global Cooling

Perhaps the most important part of this discovery is its potential application in the field of climate change.  There are hints this technology could be used to cool global warming by transferring the surplus heat into charged batteries. Additional details can be found in the just published journal article.

What’s Wrong With Home Security?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011 Mike Ficco

After living in my house for 22 years my illusion of security was shattered.  Three high school kids created a mini-crime spree, breaking into something like a dozen houses in my generally good neighborhood.  With squad cars roaming the streets and police helicopters overhead the group broke into their third house that day – mine.  They were caught but made a general mess of my place and a number of missing items were never recovered.  OK – fine…  Time to close the barn door after the horse escaped.  I need a security system.

Quick research taught me that, something like cell phone hardware and the phone company that provides the service, there is the security hardware and, separately, there is the company that provides the monitoring service.  I called one of the security companies and discussed my needs with an extremely well spoken woman who suggested I schedule an installation.  She offered that I was lucky to have called because they were in the middle of a major promotion.  She waived installation fees and gave me several free sensors.  She introduced me to her manager and made sure I was getting all the discounts available.  Cool, I thought, and was very impressed.

A few days later the installation technician showed up.  He removed his shoes before entering my house – another example of quality employees and good training, I thought.  Things took a negative turn, however, when I understood some equipment needed to be installed at the point where my phone line enters the house.  That was very inconvenient since doing so would require removing a cabinet and cutting into drywall.  The technician explained that the module needed to be installed at the point where the line enters the house and would not work correctly if simply connect to one of my many phone jacks.  Well, said I, that would have been good to know before we scheduled this appointment…

The technician pressed on and suggested an upgraded glass break detector.  He said the one I was to receive for free was not very reliable.  Finally, he suggested we upgrade to the GSM module so we would not need the home phone line to report a problem.  Using the GSM module would circumvent the need to use the home phone line – but unfortunately would add $10 per month in monitoring fees.  I decided to cancel the installation but the technician would hear none of that.  He insisted on putting me down for another appointment to “give me a chance to think about it”.

A couple of days later I called the company to cancel the new appointment.  What a change.  I was magically transported to a used car lot where I found myself apparently talking to a used car salesman – or at least it seemed that way.  They didn’t want to hear about canceling the appointment.  Wasn’t I aware of the crime statistics?  Didn’t I want my family to be safe?  I could have the GSM hardware for free (but NO discount on the monitoring).  On and on this continued and became difficult.  Eventually, I successfully cancelled the appointment.

What was I to do now?  I wanted a security system but didn’t want my wall damaged and didn’t want to pay extra fees.  I thought about the problem…



Isn’t a home security system simply an embedded system with a remote connection?  Haven’t I worked for years on embedded systems that communicate via the Internet?  Don’t I have a perfectly good wireless LAN in my house?  Why can’t the security system just connect to my wireless LAN and handle all communication needs through the Internet?  I walked around my house and made a list of what I actually wanted and started calling security companies.

Oh my!  The world of security companies does not deal well with a customer that specifies what they want.  The business model of most of the companies seems based on some very simple principles:

  • Sell fear
  • Sell the 24 hour monitoring service
  • Avoid discussing details

Maybe I just had some bad luck, but I ran into very deceptive statements and practices.  I eventually DID get a security system and that salesman and the installation technician were very professional.  However, my brief experience in this area tells me the home security industry is well behind the technology curve and desperately needs to be dragged into the future.

The home monitoring companies have an extraordinarily profitable business model and, from a technology perspective, are years behind.  It seems to me the days of this business model are numbered.