Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nikola Tesla's Renewable Energy Vision

We should have listened to Nikola Tesla when we had the chance.

At the height of his popularity as the key inventor who pioneered commercial electricity, Tesla cautioned the world of the inefficiencies of burning substances to generate energy, especially coal, the predominate fuel source of the day.

Not only did the burning process waste most the potential energy of coal, Nikola Tesla argued, but it was a nonrenewable resource that we would eventually run out of. The same arguments could easily be made about oil.

“Whatever our resources of primary energy may be in the future,” Tesla wrote in Century Magazine in 1900, “we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material.”

Tesla reminded us that a windmill is one of the most efficient energy devices ever devised, and suspected we’d eventually be able to harness the sun’s rays in an efficient way. He also advocated utilizing the heat “in the earth, the water, or the air.”

He proposed, essentially, geothermal energy plants, one capturing the heat of the earth, the other floating on the ocean, using the temperature differential between the surface water temperature and the deeper water temperatures to drive turbines to generate electricity.

One of Tesla’s designs for a floating geothermal plant was published in the pages of the New York Times, complete with pictures and diagrams, in the 1930s. But by the 1930s, oil was being found all over the world in such quantities and with such relatively little output of energy that no one cared much about producing power in other ways.

It wasn’t until the oil shortage in the 1970s that people started taking a serious look at alternative ways of producing energy on a large scale.

Who was Nikola Tesla?

Today, on the 154th anniversary of Tesla's birth, you could ask Europeans who Nikola Tesla was and their eyes will light up as they comment on his remarkable inventions. Over 100 years ago, Nikola Tesla proved the energy establishment wrong by creating something the establishment believed was impossible: a motor driven by alternating current.

Ask most Americans, however, who Tesla was, and you’ll often get a blank stare. Recently, Tesla has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in visibility, thanks to David Bowie’s portrayal of a highly fictionalized version of him in the film “The Prestige,” as well as through the Tesla Motors company, which markets an ultra-sexy fully electric sports car.

Why do we know so much about Tesla’s contemporaries, such as Edison or Marconi, but so little of Tesla? Tesla’s story is, after all, the quintessential rags to riches story.

As a child, Tesla, a Serb in Croatia, saw a picture of Niagara Falls that gave birth to a passion he would never lose. He vowed to be the first to harness of the power of Niagara Falls, to turn all that natural motion into a way to generate energy.

As a youth, he imagined a simple waterwheel turned by the falls. But as he studied electrical engineering, he realized more efficient ways of using the power of the river to generate electricity by passing water over turbines.

Tesla’s turbines were unique, in that they had no grooves or ridges. They were smooth, so they wore well and had no edges to wear down or break off.
When Tesla first came to America, ironically, he worked for Thomas Edison.

Tesla tried immediately to sell Edison on the notion of using alternating current to generate electricity, but Edison was opposed, claiming it was both too dangerous, due to the high voltages produced, and too difficult to capture.

Those who had tried found motors running forwards and then backwards, making energy capture impractical at best. Tesla wasn’t ready to argue this point, and let it go, for the moment, even though in his head he already knew the solution, having figured it out some years earlier.

Instead, Tesla said he could at least improve the efficiency of Edison’s motor. Edison had told Tesla, essentially, that there’d be several thousand in it for him if he made the improvement. But when Tesla did, and tried to collect, Edison said Tesla didn’t understand the American sense of humor.

Tesla, his pride wounded, quit, and struck out on his own.

In the mid 1880s, a buzz arose in the electrical community when it was learned that Tesla had developed and patented a working alternating current motor. Tesla was pressed into speaking before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia College to explain and demonstrate his motor.

The lecture brought Tesla instant fame, and, ultimately, a very serious business partner: George Westinghouse. Westinghouse, himself an inventor, believed, unlike Thomas Edison, that the future of electricity depended on alternating current, not direct current, and moved to purchase the rights to Tesla’s patents.

Tesla had been well on his way to becoming a millionaire when Westinghouse came to him at one point with difficult news. The Westinghouse company was so deep in financial trouble that if Tesla did not relinquish his royalty payments, the Westinghouse company could go under.

Tesla ripped up his contract, saying that Westinghouse believed in him when no one else would, and that the Westinghouse company must survive in order to bring alternating current to the world.

The Falls

As the 1800s were drawing to a close, Niagara Falls was in the forefront of every electrical magnate’s mind. An international group had formed to examine proposals for how best to harness the power of the falls.

Tesla, still clinging to his childhood belief that he would be the first, teamed with Westinghouse to design a plant. Edison, backed financially by J. P. Morgan, proposed a direct current scheme.

The big disadvantage of such a scheme was that direct current didn’t hold up well over transmission. Edison’s plan would have required power stations about a mile apart. Alternating current, on the other hand, could be sent many miles across wires.

You’d think this would have been an easy decision. But as we saw more recently in the VHS-Betamax competition, the best idea doesn’t always win.

Edison launched an all-out campaign to discredit alternating current. He electrocuted first dogs, then horses, and ultimately an elephant on stage in front of audiences to show how dangerous alternating current was.

Edison even pushed for the development of the first electric chair using alternating current to execute humans. Its initial use was, not coincidentally, in Buffalo, just up the river from Niagara Falls.

Westinghouse and Tesla fought back via a different venue: the World’s Fair in Chicago, also known as the Columbian Exposition of 1893. (It was supposed to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1892, but the fair ended up opening a year late.)

Edison’s company had merged into General Electric, which fought mightily to get the contract to power the fair. Westinghouse, on the other hand, was in financial difficulty, and could not bid on the fair.

But when a tiny local Chicago firm entered a bid that would cost the fair only a fraction of what General Electric was asking, Westinghouse said he would back the small shop, and together, they won the contract for the Fair.

Edison was upset, and tried to block Westinghouse by denying the Fair permission to use his light bulb, as it was still under patent to him. So Westinghouse went out and invented a different kind of light bulb, one that used two filaments, not one, to light the bulb.

The Fair was known as the “White City” due to a budget shortfall which required all buildings to be coated at the last minute with a white plaster-like material. The fortunate accident made the buildings look like classical Greek temples.

President Grover Cleveland pressed a lever to light the Fair on opening night, and the sight was so beautiful that reporters noted men threw hats in the air and women wept openly at the sight. The White City was the first all-electric city anywhere on the planet.

The Niagara Falls commission members were very impressed, and ultimately chose to go forward with an alternating current plan, due in no small part to its successful use at the Fair.

Wireless Energy

The one thing, however, that Edison and Morgan won was the concession to carry the generated power away from the falls. This angered Tesla on a number of levels, not the least of which was the fact that he had become obsessed with the notion that there should be a way to transfer energy wirelessly.

He’d already sent signals wirelessly, in a demonstration that caused the Supreme Court to later rule that Tesla, not Marconi, was the father of radio. But sending power was different than sending a signal.

Still, Tesla had been struck from childhood by the sight of the sky sending power to the ground in the form of lightning. If nature could do it, could not man, as well?

Tesla was offered the use of unlimited power by a friend if he moved to Colorado Springs. So Tesla left New York and set up a lab not far from Pike’s Peak. There, Tesla reportedly found a way to transmit energy wirelessly across a distance of several yards, from a device inside his lab to a small set of light bulbs outside the lab.

Read the rest of my article over at ConsortiumNews.com.

2 Comments:

Blogger Xarlem said...

Great article!
I have just posted a full length video documentary about Tesla on my blog that your readers may find to be of interest.

It's at:
http://successquest1.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/the-missing-se…f-nikola-tesla/

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Site and info, I love to see there are other people interested in this man's amazing work!

Here is a link for anyone looking for Nikola Tesla's Patents or How to Build a Tesla Coil.

http://how-to-build-nikola-tesla-coil-patents.info

10:25 AM  

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