Skip to content

How a 1% Gain in Fossil Fuel Efficiency Could Rival Renewables

One billion people have little or no access to electricity; even more have limited access, or have service which is unreliable. Hertz Foundation Fellow Dr. Max Mankin has a plan to solve this.
Power generator steam turbine during repair. (Shutterstock)

Today, one billion people have little or no access to electricity. Even more have limited access, or have service which is unreliable. This is due partly to the legacy technology which continues to power the world, namely large steam turbines powered by the burning of fossil fuels. 

Energy entrepreneur and Hertz Foundation Fellow Dr. Max Mankin wants to solve this issue. By innovating new solutions to current technology, Mankin has a plan to bring at-scale improvements to energy efficiency. Dr. Mankin is the cofounder of Modern Electron, a company dedicated to creating cheap, localized, and reliable electricity by means of ultra thin, scalable, nano-generators.

“Think about how you got to work this morning or the last time you flew on an airplane.  In both of these cases you used a combustion engine or a mechanical engine that provided thrust. It turns out about 85 percent of the electricity that people use in the world is generated on the same principle using devices called steam turbines. The general idea is that you burn some fuel and you boil water.  You use the resulting steam to turn a giant fan blade.  The problem is these fan blades are incredibly large and incredibly expensive.  They’re usually about the size of a building and they cost a couple billion dollars to put in. They don’t scale down well to say an application where you want power in your backpack or when you want to be off the grid such as in a data center for when the grid goes out or you lose power from the central power plant.

Our vision is to make power generation using fossil fuels a lot more efficient.  And even a one percent increase in the efficiency of power generation using fossil fuels will equal the entire contribution from all of the solar panels deployed across the world.”

Dr. Mankin and his company devote their time to developing small modules that would use heat to move electrons. If successful, their proposed idea for electric power generation would be more efficient, portable, and accessible then the large generators that are currently used. They see scale as one of the key problems with the current model of electricity production today. A problem that must be solved in the name of progress.

“One of the major problems with combustion engines or mechanical engines in general is their size.  They’re very large and correspondingly expensive.  They don’t scale down well. These devices that we’re building are alternatives to mechanical engines because they scale down to arbitrary sizes and correspondingly their cost scales down with them.  So you can deploy them at small scales for backpacks—and households—medium scales for backup power for buildings or data centers, or at large scale for grid scale distributed generation to someday replace central power plants.”

This technology, if successful, would make it possible to provide electric power to people without the need for a large, centralized, power grid and the massive amounts of energy, money, and infrastructure that requires.

Is the world about to be powered by wafer thin modules? Is Nanotechnology going to replace the 19th century model of electric power we still, oddly, use? As the scope of nanotechnology continues to expand, and thinkers like Dr. Mankin, who want to make big changes to the world by working at the tiniest of scales, continue to make great progress, the chances seem ever more likely.

The concept of nanotechnology is as popular as it is fascinating, really small stuff being altered to have massive, incredible effects on the macro world. Events and materials that span only 1/1000th the width of a human hair changing the way everyday objects and substances function. The interesting applicationsof this field of technologyhave been described byBigThink before. Those applications cover a vast range, from even smaller computer chips to bits of silver in your socks to help reduce foot odor; from medicine that saves your life to better moisturizers.

While Dr. Mankin has confidence that his company will succeed in revolutionizing electricity production, and that nanotech is great. He warns that it isn’t valuable for its own sake. Ask the people who went broke trying that idea.

“Nanotechnologies initially were employed for the sake of being nanotechnologies.This didn’t really work and a whole bunch of companies tried this. It sort of failed.  But now nanotechnology has found its way into everything.  Your computer chips contain nanoscale circuits that perform a billion operations per second trying to figure out where your next appointment is, who you just sent an email to or sending yourself a selfie with you and your cat.  And all of that depends on nanotechnology.  On the sort of biological side nanotechnology is making its way into medicine.  Nanoparticles are used to selectively treat tumors that would be very difficult to treat any other way.  So now that people are taking these really exotic and really unique materials with exciting new properties and deploying them into new types of applications they’re making a dent in the way that people build technology.”


Up Next