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Electrical tree: Energy for free


March 07, 2006

SOUTH DENNIS, Mass. - Power plants and wind farms, move over - tree power has arrived. A Massachusetts firm has developed a power-generating system that draws electricity from an abundant, eminently renewable and virtually free source: trees.

MagCap Engineering, of Canton, Mass. - a custom designer and manufacturer of magnetics for the broadcast, telecommunications, microwave, defense and energy industries - has filed for a patent for the "alternative electric-power generating system," in collaboration with its inventor, Gordon Wadle.

The electrical energy generated by trees is not of the magnitude to supply the electrical grids that power cities and towns, but sufficient for a wide variety of uses, such as charging batteries for any type of vehicle (including hybrids and electric cars) and producing household power through an alternate-current converter.

While Wadle came up with the concept of harnessing trees for electrical energy - using a tree as a positive terminal and the earth as a negative terminal - Chris Lagadinos, MagCap's president, developed the circuitry that converts the energy into usable power.

I spoke with Lagadinos, and he explained that the system, in its most simplistic form, consists of a metal rod embedded in a tree; a grounding rod driven into the ground; and the connecting circuitry that filters and boosts the power output sufficiently for practical use. Lagadinos said that the electricity as it comes from the tree is useless, because it is unstable and fluctuates; the circuitry filters and stabilizes it.

Wadle asserts that the system has the potential to provide "an unlimited supply of constant clean energy, without relying on fossil fuels, a power-generating plant complex, or an elaborate transmission network."

Lagadinos told me that his company has been successful in producing about two volts of electricity - enough to charge a nickel-cadmium battery powering a light-emitting diode (LED) - but he is hoping to "achieve 12 volts, with up to one amp of power, sometime this year. This will take about six taps into a tree."

Surprisingly, MagCap has found that no matter how many taps are inserted, each produces the same amount of energy. Also, the size of the tree doesn't seem to matter.

Even more surprising, although conventional wisdom would expect the tree to draw much of its energy through photosynthesis (via its leaves), the voltage output actually increases in winter, after the leaves have fallen.

Lagadinos said that some other uses of his system include LED signs, landscape lighting, security lighting, park and hiking-trail lighting, surveillance or sensor equipment, traffic lights, street lights, and - because the system could draw power from the environment in remote areas - military applications. The system would be of special use in any location that lies beyond the hard-wired grid.

As a former physics teacher, I find that the scheme reminds me of Nikolai Tesla's plan to send electrical wireless communications through the earth, instead of the atmosphere. Tesla, one of our most brilliant inventors and electrical innovators, has often been called "the master of lightning" and "a man out of time," but in this instance he failed. Similarly, some may be skeptical of Lagadinos's scheme.

Jim Manwell, director of the Renewable Energy Resource Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts, said: "I would need to see proof before I believed it."

Dwayne Berger, manager of the renewable-energy and climate-change group at the Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources, said: "It sounds too good to be true, but I'm interested in seeing what they're able to come up with."

I asked Lagadinos what he plans as proof of concept. He said that the full charging of a 12-volt battery, with an output of one-half to one amp, will be a beginning.

With America's appalling shortage of clean, renewable energy, and much of our imported oil going to powering our automobiles, perhaps we can look forward to the day when our hybrid and electrical automobiles are fueled at the end of our driveway - plugged into a tree.

"Fill 'er up, and keep the sap off the windshield, please."


Solon Economou is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times,
retired Army officer and professional engineer.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service,

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