Solar energy technology is enjoying its day in the sun with the advent of innovations from flexible photovoltaic (PV) materials to thermal power plants that concentrate the sun’s heat to drive turbines. But even the best system converts only about 30 percent of received solar energy into electricity—making solar more expensive than burning coal or oil. That will change if Lonnie Johnson’s invention works. The Atlanta-based independent inventor of the Super Soaker squirt gun (a true technological milestone) says he can achieve a conversion efficiency rate that tops 60 percent with a new solid-state heat engine. It represents a breakthrough new way to turn heat into power.
Johnson, a nuclear engineer who holds more than 100 patents, calls his invention the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Conversion System, or JTEC for short. This is not PV technology, in which semiconducting silicon converts light into electricity. And unlike a Stirling engine, in which pistons are powered by the expansion and compression of a contained gas, there are no moving parts in the JTEC. It’s sort of like a fuel cell: JTEC circulates hydrogen between two membrane-electrode assemblies (MEA). Unlike a fuel cell, however, JTEC is a closed system. No external hydrogen source. No oxygen input. No wastewater output. Other than a jolt of electricity that acts like the ignition spark in an internal-combustion engine, the only input is heat.
Here’s how it works: One MEA stack is coupled to a high- temperature heat source (such as solar heat concentrated by mirrors), and the other to a low-temperature heat sink (ambient air). The low-temperature stack acts as the compressor stage while the high-temperature stack functions as the power stage. Once the cycle is started by the electrical jolt, the resulting pressure differential produces voltage across each of the MEA stacks. The higher voltage at the high-temperature stack forces the low-temperature stack to pump hydrogen from low pressure to high pressure, maintaining the pressure differential. Meanwhile hydrogen passing through the high-temperature stack generates power. Read