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New alliance could make cable a catalyst for cleaner power

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Dean Kamen is teaming up with telecom to work on commercializing an alternative-energy machine that can run on virtually any type of fuel - from hydrogen, to methane, to beer.

Dean Kamen doesn't think small. He's known to most of the world as the inventor of the Segway, but his idea to revolutionize transportation is peanuts compared to his other successes in the medical devices field, science and engineering education, and water purification technology. And if that sounds eclectic, it's only the beginning of Kamen's far-reaching and ambitious list of projects. The latest is an energy generator that promises cleaner, more flexible and always-available electricity. Kamen already has a prototype version, and he wants to work with the telecommunications industry to make it commercially viable.

At the recent Cable-Tec Expo put on by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, Kamen took the stage with Time Warner Cable Chief Technology Officer Mike LaJoie to announce a new initiative between his company Deka Research and the SCTE. Since power is already on the minds of the telecom industry, Kamen is hoping to partner with cable and phone companies to drive production scale of his electricity generator.

LaJoie is enthusiastic about the idea too. At a reporters' roundtable after the stage address, LaJoie talked about existing generators that sit idle 90 percent of the time. The new solution from Kamen and Deka wouldn't replace electricity delivered from the grid, but it could theoretically supplement it, and cut down on the number of large-scale generators needed to support telecommunications systems.

So what is Kamen's great new invention? It doesn't have a name yet, but Kamen refers to it as a Stirling engine. Stirling engines were introduced in the 19th century, but have had limited practical application since then, largely because of cost issues.

As Kamen describes it, his device is quite simply "your refrigerator running backward." Instead of relying on internal combustion, it uses cyclic compression and expansion of gaseous material, producing heat and power in the process. As an electricity generator alone, the machine isn't cost-effective. However, when you consider the heat and power production together, the equation changes significantly. Selling off the heat from the device can pay for the costs of operation, while electricity is then used as needed.

The advantages are huge. It's alternative energy that's always available, multi-purpose, and able to run on multiple fuels - from hydrogen, to methane, to beer.

Standing in the way of Kamen's dream, however, is the ability to make production of his new machine cheap enough to compete commercially. That's where the telecommunications industry potentially comes in. Neither Kamen, nor LaJoie knows yet how exactly they can work together, but they have some initial ideas, like installing the machines at the bottom of cellular towers, and a plan to keep talking. Today, one of Kamen's machines costs a quarter of a million dollars to build. But in production quantities, Kamen cites a price tag of under ten thousand dollars.

If the new Stirling engine from Deka does make it to commercial production, there are numerous implications beyond telecom. Kamen admits he is already in talks with utility companies as well, where it's possible to imagine using the Deka machine to handle peak demand situations with surgical precision. Even that, however, is not Kamen's ultimate vision. Kamen wants to use Stirling engines to power whole villages in the third world. It's a big idea, but from the man who got the Coca-Cola company to invest in water purification systems for sites in Ghana and other regions, it's one that just might have a future.

Image credits: Photo of power lines courtesy of Peter Kaminski on Flickr; Stirling engine image courtesy of Deka Research

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure