Kevin Costner’s water cleaning machine works well enough for BP.

So here’s a bit of good news in the morass of bad news coming out of the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf. Turns out that BP did test Kevin Costner’s machine that separates oil from water and it appears to work:

BP says Kevin Costner’s water cleaning machine can ‘make a real difference’ | NewsWatch: Energy | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle.

BP’s COO of Exploration and Production, Doug Suttles, said that within the first few hours of testing the machine, the company decided to order 32 of them.

“We tested it in some of the toughest environments we could find and actually what it’s done — it’s quite robust,” Suttle said. “This is real technology with real science behind it and it’s passed all of those tests.”

Suttles said BP has committed to building four deepwater systems. Two of the systems will be barges that have machines on them and two of the systems will be a new design using 280-foot offshore supply vessels.

In total, the systems BP is rigging up will have a processing capacity of 128,000 barrels a day.

“That’s a substantial amount of capacity and can make a real difference to our spill response efforts,” Suttles said.

There’s already a lot of damage done, but better late than never in getting something like this out there where they can prove themselves in a real-world worst-case situation. If they end up helping to any decent degree then they should be made a mandatory part of every oil company’s oil spill response plan.

Which shouldn’t be too difficult considering that they all had the exact same photocopy of the piss-poor BP response plan anyway.

The security chip in that fancy new U.S. Passport? It’s made in Thailand.

The U.S. Government has been pushing what they consider a better passport since August 2007. It contains a contactless smart card in the back cover that contains the same data about you as what is printed in the passport itself. The idea is that this is supposed to make passport forgery impossible for the evil-doers of the world. The official website lists off several potential attacks which the cards are supposedly protected against including skimming, eavesdropping, tracking, and cloning.

Which all sounds really good except that since the cards were introduced a number of hackers and researches have demonstrated that almost of the protections in place can be successfully attacked and compromised with very minimal resources. The Wikipedia entry for biometric passports has the details and links about the attacks if you’re interested. It doesn’t help that not all of the security measures are mandated with things such as Active Authentication and Extended Access Control being optional.

In short, cloning data on a passport is not difficult at all nor is burning it to a blank passport, something that was done back in 2006 before they were even being issued regularly. More difficult is modifying the data as there is a cryptographic hash used to verify the data, but that relies on the scanner reading the passport making use of it (not all do).

You’d think, given all of the above, that the government would at least take steps to make sure the chips aren’t compromised before they’re ever issued. Perhaps, say, ensuring that they’re produced in a highly secure facility someplace within the United States?

Don’t be silly. The chips are currently being made in Thailand and have been for years:

Security of U.S. Passports Called Into Question – ABC News

The U.S. government agency that prints passports has for years failed to resolve persistent concerns about the security risks involved in outsourcing production to foreign factories, a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity has found.

“On a number of levels this is extremely troubling,” said Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security . “Something like that ought to be produced only in the United States, under only the most rigorous security standards.” A report on the outsourcing of U.S. passports to high-risk countries can be seen on World News with Diane Sawyer tonight.

Despite repeated assurances they would move production to the U.S., a key government contractor has continued to assemble an electronic component of the nation’s new, more sophisticated passport in Thailand.

The factory is near the same Bangkok suburb where a notorious terrorist extremist was captured in 2003. There have been bursts of violence in the industrial city, Ayutthaya, as recently as last month.

Both the inspector general at the Government Printing Office and the agency’s own security chief have warned specifically against producing the computer chip assembly in the Thai facility. One internal report obtained by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity warned of a “potential long term risk to the [U.S. government’s] interests.”

All this bullshit talk by the Powers That Be about making things More Secure™ and not only are the chips being used easily cloned for a couple hundred bucks, but the factory that’s producing them is in an unstable area of a foreign country where terrorists are known to operate. The reason this is such a concern is because the U.S. Government, in its infinite wisdom, has made owning one of their fancy e-passports a shortcut past some of the more stringent security procedures  — one official describes it as an EZ-pass — that would otherwise apply to people entering the United States.

Oh, but that’s not the best part. No, the cherry-on-top that I just know you’re going to love is the fact that there is absolutely nothing in place to make sure blanks don’t fall into bad guy’s hands:

GPO’s inspector general has warned that the agency lacks even the most basic security plan for ensuring that blank e-Passports — and their highly sought technologies – aren’t stolen by terrorists, foreign spies, counterfeiters and other bad actors as they wind through an unwieldy manufacturing process that spans the globe and includes 60 different suppliers.

This disturbs Rep. John D. Dingell, D.-Mich., who wrote letters to the agency two years ago raising questions about passport production.

“Regrettably, since then, our fears have been realized because the inspector general and other people in charge of security at the government printing office have pointed out that the security is not there,” Dingell told ABC News. “There is no real assurance that the e-passports are safe or secure or are not in danger of being counterfeited or corrupted or used for some nefarious purposes by terrorists or others.”

Feel safer yet? Oh, and there are stolen blanks out there from several different countries including a big heist of U.K. blanks in 2008.

Supposedly, most of the production of the chip has already been moved out of Thailand and officials are pledging to have the last bits moved out by the end of July. Also, as far as anyone is aware, no one has successfully made a forgery of a biometric passport using cloned data and a stolen blank chip. Given the number of vulnerabilities that have already been demonstrated it’s probably only a matter of time before someone figures out how to clone and modify a passport that’ll pass as real.

Sadly, all of the concerns and problems with this system were known by the U.S. back in 2004 having been raised by numerous security and privacy experts. Rather than take the time to address the issues raised they decided to just ignore them instead and pressure everyone else to adopt our flawed standard. That is, after all, the American way.

CNN.com looks at why the web benefits liberals more than conservatives.

Here’s an interesting article I stumbled across today:

Opinion: Why the web benefits liberals more than conservatives – CNN.com

(CNN) — From the micro-donation platform first popularized by Howard Dean in 2003 to the million-strong Barack Obama Facebook page to the huge audience of the Huffington Post, liberals have been the dominant political force on the internet since the digital revolution began.

Now, research out of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society suggests that the reason behind this imbalance may be the liberal belief system itself.

Liberals, the research finds, are oriented toward community activism, employing technology to encourage debate and feature user-generated content. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more comfortable with a commanding leadership and use restrictive policies to combat disorderly speech in online forums.

All of this suggests that the internet may benefit liberals more often than conservatives — at least for now.

Gregory Ferenstein, who wrote the article for CNN.com, goes on to compare The Huffington Post (liberal) blog to Hot Air (conservative). Both are the most popular sites for their target demographics, but the Post’s audience absolutely dwarfs that of Hot Air:

A leading right-wing blog, Hot Air was founded by Michelle Malkin, an author who is known for her support of wartime loyalty oaths and racial profiling as a defense against terrorism. In criticizing Obama’s 2009 address to the United Nations, she said, “he solidified his place in the international view as the great appeaser and the groveler in chief.”

Indeed, Malkin’s hard-line national security views are matched by Hotair’s unusually restrictive comment policy. The site permits comments only by registered users; currently, registration is closed to any new users. The site states, “We may allow as much or as little opportunity for registration as we choose, in our absolute discretion, and we may close particular comment threads or discontinue our general policy of allowing comments at any time.”

By contrast, the left-leaning Huffington Post, the most visited blog on the Internet, has thousands of bloggers and invites active users to become featured authors and comment facilitators.

This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. How many Conservative blogs can you think of that have ridiculously restrictive commenting policies? If you show up and voice a Liberal opinion you’re lucky if it ever gets out of the moderation queue, assuming you can even leave a comment without registering and waiting to be approved beforehand. Now how many Liberal blogs do you know that have a similar policy?

I can’t speak for all Liberal blogs, obviously, but part of the reason I set up SEB was to get my liberal ideas out there where they could potentially change minds and where they could be refined by criticism. I’m willing to have my ideas challenged and I have been known to change my mind after a good debate on a topic. The few Conservative blogs I check in on from time to time seem to want nothing more for their ideas to be accepted without criticism by the people following them.

Of course that’s just my subjective personal experience which is why it’s nice to see someone doing some research to see if it’s true:

Harvard professor Yochai Benkler finds that these differences are representative of the broader political web.

“The left not only chooses more participatory technology, but also uses the available technological tools to maintain more fluid relations between secondary or user-contributed materials and those of primary contributors,” he writes. “The left is more egalitarian in opportunities for speech, more discursive, and more collaborative in managing the sites.”

By contrast, Hot Air’s prohibitive policies, and Malkin’s support of strong leadership, seem consistent with Benkler’s conclusion that the right is more “hierarchical” in its approach.

[…] Republicans tend to see a “limited participatory role” for citizens, Dalton writes in his book “The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics.”

One of the things that always amuses me when Conservatives criticize Liberals is how often they accuse us of doing what they tend to do themselves. We’re trying to “restrict freedoms” and “dictate to others” and “force things down the American public’s throats” which is all stuff the Conservatives like to do.

Take the Public Option that used to be in the Health Care Reform package that was passed awhile back. Conservatives accused the Obama administration of a “government takeover of healthcare” when what was being offered was the freedom to choose something other than a private insurance company driven by profits. There was nothing in the legislation that said the private companies couldn’t go on offering insurance. It wasn’t the fabled “single payer system” the Republicans kept trying to claim it was. Didn’t matter, it was an unAmerican thing, as far as the Conservatives were concerned, to offer a government backed plan that would provide coverage to everyone who needed it. What could be more egalitarian than providing health care to everyone? Who didn’t want that kind of freedom and fairness? The Conservatives.

The article goes on to point out that the surprise victory of Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate Race happened in part because Brown pretty much emulated everything Obama did on the Web. While that worked once, it goes on to say that it’s unlikely that Conservatives will suddenly adopt that approach:

The conservative philosophy of ironclad loyalty to a singular message does have decided advantages. In Congress, strong party loyalty has allowed Republicans to vote as a bloc, giving them formidable strength despite their minority status.

However, the internet is less predictable. And, from what we have observed from the short life of the web, opening one’s site to the capricious innovations of grass-roots users can be enormously beneficial but hard to control.

Conservatives may one day embrace the participatory web en masse. However, the very structure of the internet as a decentralized grouping of communities may never appeal to the large portion of right-wingers who prefer military-style hierarchies and commanding leaders.

And, as years go by without a conservative social-media pioneer or a top-ranked website, it looks as though the internet has already chosen a side.

In short, the web benefits Liberals more than Conservatives because the web is Liberal by its very nature and just look how successful that approach has been for it. Had it been more Conservative in nature I doubt it would ever have been the phenomena it has turned out to be.

At the very least you can be damn sure that a site like SEB would never have been allowed on a Conservative internet.

Wired’s Mathew Honan experiments with Location-Aware software.

One of the features of the newer iPhone’s and Google Android based cellphones allow the phone, and any applications you’re running on it, to determine where you are to varying degrees of precision. Using a combination of cell towers (500 meters), Wi-Fi (30 meters), and GPS (10 meters) and various software packages that make use of that info you can literally broadcast your whereabouts to the whole world pretty much continuously. 

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, both good and bad, and has attracted a growing group of people practicing a Location-Aware Lifestyle. Wired magazine’s Mathew Honan decided to try spending a few weeks living the lifestyle to see what it was like:

The location-aware future—good, bad, and sleazy—is here. Thanks to the iPhone 3G and, to a lesser extent, Google’s Android phone, millions of people are now walking around with a gizmo in their pocket that not only knows where they are but also plugs into the Internet to share that info, merge it with online databases, and find out what—and who—is in the immediate vicinity. That old saw about how someday you’ll walk past a Starbucks and your phone will receive a digital coupon for half off on a Frappuccino? Yeah, that can happen now.

Simply put, location changes everything. This one input—our coordinates—has the potential to change all the outputs. Where we shop, who we talk to, what we read, what we search for, where we go—they all change once we merge location and the Web.

I wanted to know more about this new frontier, so I became a geo-guinea pig. My plan: Load every cool and interesting location-aware program I could find onto my iPhone and use them as often as possible. For a few weeks, whenever I arrived at a new place, I would announce it through multiple social geoapps. When going for a run, bike ride, or drive, I would record my trajectory and publish it online. I would let digital applications help me decide where to work, play, and eat. And I would seek out new people based on nothing but their proximity to me at any given moment. I would be totally open, exposing my location to the world just to see where it took me. I even added an Eye-Fi Wi-Fi card to my PowerShot digital camera so that all my photos could be geotagged and uploaded to the Web. I would become the most location-aware person on the Internets!

People, particularly younger folks, already put out a lot of information about themselves on the Internet. I’m guilty of this myself with this blog. Not only do I have my real name on it, but there’s a fairly detailed history of the major ups and downs of my life over the past seven years in the archives. Everything from my best friend being needlessly killed by a traffic cop and how I dealt with the loss to my eventual downsizing from Ford Motor Company and the long struggle to get back on my feet. My politics and religious outlook are extensively documented as is the general area that I live in. SEB is the number one search result on Google when you type in “Les Jenkins” followed by some poor bastard who shares my name that works at Colorado One Mortgage.

For all that I put on SEB there are some folks who put me to shame particularly on sites like Facebook and MySpace. You may recall a few months back an entry I wrote about a woman who had been emailing me about her “psychic visions” of my future. I mentioned in a comment that I was able to track down where she lives (to a specific street address), how big a house she owns, how much she bought it for, how many pets she has, what musical instrument she’s trying to teach herself to play, what books shes been reading, her daughter and son-in-law’s name, where they lived, when their wedding was supposed to happen, and a whole host of other personal info with nothing more than her email and IP address. That’s pretty impressive, but even that pales to what some folks make available and then when you add location-awareness into the mix you make it all that much more immediate. Which could have its downside:

The trouble started right away. While my wife and I were sipping stouts at our neighborhood pub in San Francisco (37.770401 °N, 122.445154 °W), I casually mentioned my plan. Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to announce to everyone that you’re leaving town without me, are you? A lot of weirdos follow you online.”

Sorry, weirdos—I love you, but she has a point. Because of my work, many people—most of them strangers—track my various Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, and blog feeds. And it’s true; I was going to be gone for a week on business. Did I really want to tell the world that I was out of town? It wasn’t just leaving my wife home alone that concerned me. Because the card in my camera automatically added location data to my photos, anyone who cared to look at my Flickr page could see my computers, my spendy bicycle, and my large flatscreen TV all pinpointed on an online photo map. Hell, with a few clicks you could get driving directions right to my place—and with a few more you could get black gloves and a lock pick delivered to your home.

To test whether I was being paranoid, I ran a little experiment. On a sunny Saturday, I spotted a woman in Golden Gate Park taking a photo with a 3G iPhone. Because iPhones embed geodata into photos that users upload to Flickr or Picasa, iPhone shots can be automatically placed on a map. At home I searched the Flickr map, and score—a shot from today. I clicked through to the user’s photostream and determined it was the woman I had seen earlier. After adjusting the settings so that only her shots appeared on the map, I saw a cluster of images in one location. Clicking on them revealed photos of an apartment interior—a bedroom, a kitchen, a filthy living room. Now I know where she lives.

Think about that for a moment. Her being in an apartment would make any attempts at larceny a bit more difficult, but what if she lived in a single family home in a suburb? Take the geo-location data on the pictures and look it up in Google Maps—yes you can use latitude and longitude in Google Maps—drop down to Street View and you could even see what the house looks like so long as Google has been through that neighborhood.  Above and beyond simply showing folks where to go to score a nice flat screen TV, this could also potentially be used to allow people to find you anywhere you happen to be making it a boon for potential rapists, stalkers, and plain old crazy people. Those, of course, are worst-case scenarios so let’s not dwell on them too much. Instead just consider how creepy it is that Honan was able to pick a perfect stranger out in a park and with just a little effort peer at the filthy living room in her apartment.

The technology is not without its upside though. Honan talks in the article about how it actually made him more social as friends who had seen he’d be in their area would turn up to hang out for a few minutes and touch base. Additionally some of the tools he was using allowed him to learn more about the area he was in, find the cheapest gas prices, and discover new places to eat he’d never realized were there before. And it’s not as though you have to make use of the tools that expose your precise location every second of the day. The whole article is worth a read if for no other reason than to educate yourself on what’s possible. Right now you have to put some work into setting yourself up to be so exposed, but developers are working to make doing stuff like that easier all the time so it may not be too long before you could set yourself up to broadcast your location constantly without realizing it.

It never hurts to be well-informed.

Has the web just gotten even less anonymous?

According to this video (and this article), there are now services that can pinpoint exactly where a Google search is coming from, down to the exact address. While many of us have known that the search terms we enter in search engines aren’t exactly secret, there has always been the assumption (correctly?) that who is searching for something remains secret. Or at least wasn’t going to be shared with just anyone. Apparently, even that isn’t true anymore.

The ramifications are pretty significant. If you live in a house and not a big apartment building, your identity is pretty easy game with such a tool. Getting embarrassed by more or less targeted advertising (“We found from your searches that you are interested in naked teenagers wearing rabbit ears? Do WE have a deal for YOU!”) is almost the least worry (though if I got a call from the home business woman in the video clip, I’d be furious at having my privacy invaded, rather than show an interest in her stuff!) But there’s even worse possibilities – what if somebody finds our that you are looking for legal advice, or something similarly crucial to be kept private? Information about an illness, or depression for example?

At the moment, the searches seem to only allow tracking back from websites -> via search terms -> to the orignator of the query. But how long until the direction is reversible? Do we all have to become hackers and hide behind sophisticated software just to browse in peace?

Best. “Doctor Who.” Episode. Ever.

A bunch of kids, with some help from Dad no doubt, film their own episode of Doctor Who versus the Daleks complete with music and appropriately low-budget special effects. It is a six minute and forty-three second tour de force:

The thing that makes this so cool to me is I can remember desperately wanting a film, and later a video, camera as a kid so I could make my own movies. My brother actually had a silent Super 8MM film camera that I used a couple of times to make small movies with, one of which was my own episode of the Mr. Bill Show of which I was a big fan*. I spent hours trying to figure out cheap ways of doing the special effects I’d need for my up and coming Space Epic, building ships out of Styrofoam, putting together model kits and so on, all for naught as in the end I didn’t have access to a camera with enough running time to do what I wanted to do. Nothing I did manage to put together comes close to what these kids have got up on YouTube. It’s a testament to how far technology has come in both ease of use and price that these kids put together a complete film that’s easily as entertaining as anything on prime time American television, if not more so.  The fact that millions of people around the world are also able to view it, whereas most of my attempts were barely watched by my own family, is also pretty amazing. Wish we had had this kind of stuff when I was a kid.

Found over at Boing Boing.

*I actually dressed up as Mr. Bill for Halloween one year. No one had a clue who the fuck I was supposed to be.

Looking for info on HDTVs.

I apologize that my blog posting has been lighter than usual lately. It’s not so much that I’ve been overly busy as much as it’s the simple fact that I’ve not found much that inspires me to write about it. So I’ve been putting up entries like this one where I pick your guy’s brains for stuff I want to learn about.

In this case it’s HDTV sets. There’s no big rush on this, but I want to know where you guys go to learn more about HDTV and what are the suggested specs one should look for when shopping for one. Anne, Courtney and I will be moving out of the in-laws place and back into an apartment sometime around the end of June or start of July after Courtney graduates from high school and one of the things we’ll eventually need is a new TV set seeing as our old one died just before we moved in here. Back then I asked for some advice as well, but it’s been two years since then and a lot has changed.

My questions run along the lines of should we go LCD or Plasma? Is there really a huge difference between 720P and 1080P that I should spend the extra bucks to get the latter? That kind of stuff. It’ll probably be some time before we get around to buying a TV, which means we’ll have to make do with the old 15 inch Sony TV/Monitor I got way back in 1988 with my Amiga 2000 as a TV set for awhile, but I figure now is the time to start educating myself so I’ll have a clue of what to shop for when the holiday sales season rolls around. If you’ve got some favorite websites with HDTV info then be sure to include links to them in your comments.

Coming soon: Depositing checks with your scanner.

We already do the majority of my banking electronically. From the direct depositing of my paycheck to online bill paying we’re already pretty wired, but every now and then we still have to stop by a branch location to deposit a paper check I’ve gotten from someone. Now word has it that I might be able to just use my scanner instead:

Soon you will be able to deposit checks by scanning them at home and sending them electronically to your bank. No need to visit a branch or even an ATM.

This is possible because of the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, passed in 2003, which allows banks to exchange electronic images of checks. Already about half of all checks are scanned by businesses or the banks they are deposited into and not shipped in bags back to the banks on which they were drawn.

Fiserv, the big transaction services company, has announced new software that will enable banks to let home users deposit checks by scanning them. It already has a similar service for small and medium businesses. USAA, the financial services company that serves the military, has offered deposits through scanners for two years, but the idea has not yet caught on.

The time is right for such a service, said Rodney Springhetti, a Fiserv vice president of business development. The technology has been debugged through several years of working with businesses, and meanwhile consumers increasingly have scanners at home, largely in the form of all-in-one printer units.

I didn’t know that USAA already supported scanning your checks and that gives a bit more weight to considering using them for our credit union, we already get our automobile insurance through USAA and had been talking about switching to their credit union offering. How is it that I can be a USAA member when I’ve never been in the armed forces? Turns out my wife is eligible because of her father having served in the military. Technically my biological father did as well, but seeing as he’s been dead for 35 years I doubt I’d still qualify through him.

The idea of being able to deposit a check using my scanner is very attractive indeed. I’m sure it would be of help to folks like my parents who are getting older and thus more limited in their mobility and who still use credit unions with branches over an hour away from where they currently live. Still I can see where concerns about fraud would be high with this method and the industry sees it as well:

Fraud, of course, is an issue. Where there are scanners, of course, there may be Photoshop. And a scanner can’t detect all the anti-fraud features now built into paper checks, such as special stock and watermarks. Banking groups are developing new anti-fraud technologies that can be detected by scanners, but these have not been widely deployed. Unlike credit cards, which have strict federal anti-fraud rules, each bank sets its own policies for check fraud.

Still, Mr. Springhetti, said there are ways to combat fraud. Fiserv and others do have software meant to analyze images for signs of fakery. And there are other models that look for suspicious patterns of behavior that may indicate fraud.

What do you guys think? Good idea or massive opportunity for free money to the unscrupulous?

City of Ann Arbor, MI switches to LED lighting.

I live not far from Ann Arbor, it’s only about a 20 minute drive away, so it’s pretty cool to see them getting some attention for their efforts to switch all public lighting to LED bulbs:

The city strung its holiday cheer with about 114,000 LED lights and plans to convert all of its downtown public lighting starting with more than 1,000 LED streetlights. The effort is aligned with other North American cities like Raleigh, N.C., and Toronto, which have both started similar energy-saving efforts.

When Ann Arbor reaches its ambitious goal, city officials expect to see energy use for public lighting cut in half and a reduction of 2,425 tons CO2 annually. The city also expects a short payback of 3.8 years on its investment, which was funded in part with a $630,000 grant from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

A pilot program on one city block with 25 LED lights helped bring the LED idea from theory to application with three years of research on how the technology saves the city about 50% on energy and maintenance costs. Based on their research, Ann Arbor city officials project an annual savings of over $100,000 on just the first 1,000 retrofits alone. The city plans to complete the conversion to LED over the next two years.

Hopefully more cities will be making the switch soon.

Guy who invented the Super Soaker has a new high efficiency solar power cell.

One of the problems with solar power has been the relatively low efficiency of the solar cells which keeps the cost of generating any reasonable amount of electricity from the sun rather high. The best of the solar power plants manage around 40% efficiency at this point, but Lonnie Johnson (inventor of the Super Soaker) has developed a new type of solar cell that could be up to 60% efficient:

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.

“It’s like a conventional heat engine,” explains Paul Werbos, program director at the National Science Foundation, which has provided funding for JTEC. “It still uses temperature differences to create pressure gradients. Only instead of using those pressure gradients to move an axle or wheel, he’s using them to force ions through a membrane. It’s a totally new way of generating electricity from heat.”

If this invention works as it’s expected to it’ll be a major jump forward in solar power generation. Above and beyond that, however, is the potential to use this sort of collector for more than just solar heat:

This engine, Johnson says, can operate on tiny scales, or generate megawatts of power. If it proves feasible, drastically reducing the cost of solar power would only be a start. JTEC could potentially harvest waste heat from internal combustion engines and combustion turbines, perhaps even the human body. And no moving parts means no friction and fewer mechanical failures.

No word on how soon they hope to put this to the test or how far away a practical application might be if it works, but hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later.