Researchers at MIT’s chemical engineering lab coated a short piece of yarn made of carbon nanotubes with TNT and lit one end with a laser. It burned like a fuse and demonstrated a new way to generate electricity that produces large amounts of power. Initially, no one understood how it worked, and it was so inefficient that it was little more than a “laboratory curiosity”. The physics behind the phenomenon have now been unravled and the electrical output of the burning process has been improved dramatically. The efficiencies are still low compared to conventional generators. The latest device is a little over 0.1 percent efficiency, whereas conventional generators are 25 to 60 percent efficient. Right now the technology is only useful in special applications where a short burst of power is needed.
These explosive new generators use a phenomenon called a thermopower wave to generate electricity. The conventional way to generate electricity by burning a fuel is to use heat to create expanding gases to drive a turbine or a piston which then drives the generator. In the new nanotube generator, as the fuel burns along the length of the nanotubes, the wave of combustion drive electrons ahead of it, creating an electrical current. It is a much more direct and efficient way to generate electricity, since no pistons or generators are required; less moving parts. Basic physics says that the lower the number of times the energy in a system changes form or is transferred, the more efficient the system is. This technique is very appealing to electric vehicles since it would allow them to have a longer range and refill in minutes like a conventional gasoline car. Liquid fuels still have more energy in them than even the best battery currently available today. Furthermore, the carbon nanotubes are not consumed in the process and can be reused over and over again. Alternatively, this process could be used to supplement the batteries of an electric vehicle when extra power is needed during times of fast acceleration or climbing up an incline. Nevertheless, more development is needed.