Sometimes, amidst the endless struggle to come up with totally new ways to solve old problems and eek out a slice of market share, clever engineers pause, look around, and realise that with just a few small tweaks the tools we already have can be used in new ways.
Take, for example, Dr. Charles Perry and colleagues at Middle Tennessee State University, who developed a relatively inexpensive kit to transform any existing car into a plug-in electric hybrid. From the press release:
team saw gas mileage increase anywhere from 50 to 100 percent on a 1994 Honda station wagon retrofitted with their laboratory prototype plug-in hybrid capability. This is a wheel-hub motor, plug in hybrid kit.
A battery in the trunk and small electric motors mounted to the car’s rear wheels supplement the existing gas engine, giving a huge boost to efficiency. According to the release, “the team have reached the proof of concept stage to prove feasibility, and with enough funding they can deliver proof of product.” The kit would go for three to five thousand dollars. For comparison, a brand new base model 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid costs around $8,000 more than a normal base model Civic.
In a parallel development, consider the recent news from U.S. Department of Energy’s researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who claim to have found a way to use external magnetic fields to make any old semiconductor useable as a photovoltaic cell for collecting solar energy. The lab says that the technology,
opens the door to the use of plentiful, relatively inexpensive semiconductors, such as the promising metal oxides, sulfides and phosphides, that have been considered unsuitable for solar cells because it is so difficult to tailor their properties by chemical means.
Project lead Alex Zettl added,
Our technology allows us to sidestep the difficulty in chemically tailoring many earth abundant, non-toxic semiconductors and instead tailor these materials simply by applying an electric field.
Sometimes, a new application can be just as important as a whole new invention.
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