Sunday, February 1, 2015

Perpetual Heat-Energy Cycle: An Un-packaged View of Life

Our world depends on heat-energy cycle to run itself. Without heat power cannot be produced and without power heat cannot be generated. Yet, so much of heat that is generated in our industrial, office and residential lives goes wasted into the atmosphere. While so much is going on in the fields of renewable energy and recycling, there are more sources of material heat that are wasted than are utilized. Packaging is one example.

Packaging, flatter to discard

Among the various factors of energy efficiency, packaging has received rather lower level of attention. From a protection and aesthetics point of view, packaging has no doubt received attention to withstand different types of transportation or to cater to multiple discerning eyes. From individualized blister packs for pharmaceuticals to customized elegance packs for cosmetics, packaging has evolved as a fusion of technology and art. Packaging has become an important aspect of enhancing shelf life and securing brand recall, as a consequence. For some products such as food products, packaging is an important source of product and consumer information. It is not, therefore, surprising that packaging has become a specialized discipline.

There is yet another more fundamental packaging that has received attention as a different fusion of technology and art. This is nothing but the covers between which the basic products are locked or sealed. Most products are sealed in one or more of geometrical shapes, the most common being a cube or a hyper-rectangle, apart from a prism, cylinder or cone. Although complex industrial products are difficult to describe in such structured shapes, they are held together under shapes that variously mimic structured geometric shapes. One of the most extravagant cover design has been that of a transistor radio or cathode ray tube computer monitor in which the operating internals occupied less than a quarter of the boxed space. In amazing contrast, today’s cell phones represent increasing levels of cover to cover efficiency.

Usage efficiency

Despite its importance, pack is the first component of a product system that is discarded. Depending upon the product, nature and the stage of use, the usage efficiency of a pack varies from 100 to zero. A fruit drink tetra pack is an example of the decline over use, and ultimate discard. A milk sachet, on the other hand, gets discarded immediately after it is opened for use of milk. The box that covers a laptop gets discarded immediately after the product is opened. The box that covers a jewel may never get discarded at all. Clearly, the moment the need for protection ceases the package gets discarded. Over a period, if one billion products are used, one billion primary containers and more than one billion secondary and tertiary packs get discarded. The more paper, cardboard and plastic is used in the world the more is the level of waste.

While this is understandable, and probably inevitable, the product itself varies between 25 and 50 percent in terms of usage efficiency. In any product, what is not seen (the back and edges of the product) is wasted space while what supports the installation reflects passive yet essential usage. The slimmer the product, the lesser is the wastage on edge but the back remains as wasted as ever. Obviously, it must make technical, economic and market sense to try to use the whole of product. It would be wasteful to devise ways to achieve wraparound efficiency of products at costs higher than that of the wasted space. The product-pack conundrum would continue to evolve to satisfy the consumer but little is being thought of about packs as sources of energy.

Edging forward

Technology geeks would have noticed a product released by Samsung a few months ago, called Galaxy Note Edge. It has a display which is curved to the right as a single unit with the right strip displaying key information and notifications as well as health monitor, and leaving the main screen uncluttered for full display. Soon, the left side may also be edged forward to incorporate additional information and operating fundamentals. As much as the dual screen laptops and the transformer models, this edge design is a small but important signal that designers are finally warming up to the fact there is so much space in the products that could be put to beneficial use. As the pricing of Edge product indicates, the innovative design with additional manufacturing complexity and hence additional cost.

If edges are ready to be innovated would the back panels be far behind? Future phones may feature front and back displays with the back displays being dedicated for semi-dynamic special uses such as listing of important telephone numbers, health monitor history or news scans. Even accessories such as phone covers, and phone chargers could come with additional functionalities. A mouse may not just remain as a mouse. From the palm that holds the mouse, a range of health and emotional information may be fed to the computer and scrolled along the display screen. The basic driver of the edge-forward principle is that no surface of a product can be just passive; it is an opportunity for technological innovation and customer satisfaction. Taking technology forward, would packs and products be designed to support a perpetual heat-energy cycle?

Heat converters

Passive spaces can be used for displays in certain classes of products. In such products or others which generate heat they are also used as heat sinks or passive heat exchangers that spread the heat generated in the operation of the product into the atmosphere. From computers and cell phones to air conditioners and machine tools, heat sinks are an essential component of all mechanical, electrical and electronic which use or develop kinetic energy. This, however, represents, one of the most uncontrolled and wasteful dissipation of energy. Reverting our preamble, the larger surface area provides for greater efficiency of heat sink while leading to waste of more material and space. Miniaturization makes the principle of operation of heat sink more challenging.

While technology has developed a lot, technology to convert heat from a range of day to day heat generating sources, from devices and equipment in shop floors, offices and homes into usable energy is yet to be mastered. While thermoelectric devices and solid state materials have been used to achieve this, a universally applicable and simple to use technology is yet to be developed. Thermo-galvanic technology is being attempted by MIT and Stanford researchers. Other researches are working on nanotechnology to convert heat directly into electricity. However, most promising developments are still in laboratory stage and need new breakthroughs to become commercially usable.

Power accumulators

The key to capturing all of the waste energy from devices and equipment in factories, homes and offices lies in the development of reverse batteries which can be connected to the heat generating sources and converting the heat energy into storable electricity. The time is ripe for widening the concept of rechargeable batteries, as essential energy accumulators at homes, offices and factories. They should be available in multiple storage capacities and should be capable of connecting to laptops, computers, televisions, fitness equipment, machine tools, stoves, and any other device that generates kinetic energy. The power accumulators at the flick of the switch should be able to provide electricity to devices.

Rechargeable batteries have been in vogue for decades. Conventional rechargeable batteries take power or charge from electricity. The power accumulators being talked of here require the technology to convert heat directly into electricity. As discussed in the previous section, the technology is in the making and would see commercial light sooner than later. Also, conventional batteries need to be developed with casing that is water and dust proof and can be installed in the open, to be exposed to and accept solar energy. The key is to develop right-sized rechargeable batteries that can be connected to all heat sources in a typical factory, office and home, from diesel generator set or a boiler, computer or air conditioner and kitchen stove to tube light. In fact, as technology, such heat and power accumulators should come as original equipment accessories.  

Incinerators and converters

Reverting to the opening part, billions of products being consumed by the billion plus population of India generate more than billions of packaging materials. The amount of newspapers, magazines, packaging paper, card  boards and other packing materials generate millions of tonnes of garbage that is either mixed up with wet wastage and is rendered unfit for recycling or just wasted through random dumping or burning. If each neighborhood has an incinerator to which burnable material is channeled daily, there would be great potential to generate heat based power in all communities. The ultimate solution is to have a home based, commercially viable incinerator solution.

Rural areas as opposed to urban areas provide an even greater opportunity to convert dry waste, wet waste or even mixed waste into heat and power or flakes and compost. These outputs can be appropriately integrated with the agrarian and farm lifestyles that are more flexible and open, relative to urban systems and structures. There are available as technologies but need to be commercialized with continued technological developments on one hand and fiscal incentives on the other. The key, of course, is a mind-set change that encourages tackling waste at source, rather than collect waste and make it an unmanageable collection, distribution and conversion problem.  
An anti-waste mind-set

The mind-set change must focus on unpacking simple products at the point of sale, once the product is purchased. This would represent the best way to deliver products and preserve packs for centralized recycling or power generation. Agencies which install large equipment in homes, offices or factories must take back the packaging materials. Similarly, a home, office or a factory must have its own incinerator or waste converter cum power generator. Wherever heat exists there should be a heat sink. A perpetual heat-energy cycle needs an un-packed view of life!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on February 1, 2015   


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing with us such a useful information!

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