We’ve covered some pretty wild, futuristic fuel options at Autos Cheat Sheet since I first started back in March of this year. Everything from lightning-powered electric vehicles and micro-algae refineries, to corn cob hydrogen cars and water-based diesel engines have gotten their time in the limelight. It’s an exciting time to be alive, as an infinite number of alternative fuel possibilities come to the forefront with even more waiting in the shadows.
Things just got a lot weirder, too: Researchers at Columbia University have reportedly discovered a way to power engines and generators via the power of… evaporation? Yeah. Scientists have concocted a way to harness evaporation so that it can get miniature automobiles running. Notice the emphasis on the word miniature; these little guys aren’t much bigger than your typical Hot Wheels toy, and yet they carry inside them far more than meets the eye.
It may not sound impressive, but testing experiments like this on a small scale is a fantastic way for researchers to save big bucks, all while still proving that their design is effectively working. Once this revolutionary idea has been proven to consistently produce power, scientists can slowly scale the project up to the point where it is giving juice to things like go-carts, small generators, and motorbikes. Large-scale vehicles, like planes, trains, and automobiles will be the final step, with the biggest hurdle being that this technology may prove to be unable to power something as big and heavy as a compact crossover.
People once balked at the idea of the world being round, then said that man would never fly, nor walk on the moon, yet history continues to prove otherwise. So who knows, maybe energy-efficient, environmentally-conscientious cars will one day be powered by something as abundant as water evaporation. Nevertheless, focusing on what ifs and maybes is not going to get us anywhere, and our best bet for putting this unusual approach to energy in motion is by not focusing on the engines in the cars themselves, but on the ways in which they are being “refueled.”
This whole concept came to the forefront earlier this year when Nature Communications reported that Columbia University associate professor, Ozgur Sahin, and his team of energy-exploring scientists, discovered that when certain bacterial spores absorb water they expand, and then shrink as they dry out. This may sound like nothing more than what happens to a simple sponge, but as the video seen here illustrates, this process is very similar to muscle movement, and once you have billions of these spores working in tandem with one another, vigorously absorbing and expelling the moisture in the air, you have an energy source that is as abundant as it is unorthodox.
To prove that this wasn’t just some harebrained scheme, the team built a pair of “evaporation engines” to harness their new-found force, and while they may not be putting down the numbers of the Hellcat Challenger I drove a while back, or the torque of that Tundra TRD-PRO, proving that this design actually works is good enough at this point.
Sahin’s first design is a surprisingly simple one: A set of shutters first lift as the spores expand along their plastic “bungee cords,” forcing the chamber to extend, thus expelling the wet air before resetting, and serving as a crucial discovery in the move toward water conservation. The second design is the one that would be more automotive applicable, where a rotating “paddle wheel” of dozens of spore strips spin, and as one side dries, the other absorbs, churning forward as long as there is water to be had. As the spores constantly expand and compress, the engine spins faster, further increasing the amount of energy being produced, which can then either be harnessed or stored for utilization at a later date.
While the thought of having a massive paddle wheel for an engine sounds laughable, the genetic manipulation of “super spores” is a strong possibility with this kind of breakthrough — much like how the computers and cell phones of yesteryear are ludicrously over-sized by today’s standards, it’s just a matter of time until Sahin and his team find a way to put concentrated, steroid-laden spores to work, tirelessly spurring our engines forward as we top-off our tanks with water instead of fossil fuels.
But before we all go bonkers over the idea of how much “spore-power” the next generation of Hellcat is going to get, lets look at the more immediate, and far more feasible option in the video: More people than ever before are buying plug-in hybrids, and while not burning fossil fuels on the regular is a very noble gesture, that coal plant upwind from you sure burns a lot hotter when everyone in the neighborhood plugs in around the same time when they get home.
This discovery would eliminate the need for a grid as long as there was water present, and as surely as a spinning wheel can power a generator, so too can electricity be created from this abundant resource. Power outage in your area? No problem. Both your car and home run on spore-power, so keep those rain barrels full guys, one day you’re going to need them!