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In the Energy-Efficiency Lab with Cockroaches ... Seriously

By Lee Hamilton - Research Associate

Have you ever been mired in the details of an energy-efficiency project during your career? If so, you may have found it tedious and overwhelming (aka not fun)—whether it was setting reduction targets, vetting new technologies for your DSM portfolio, or simply verifying claimed savings.

This is very disappointing to me because I find efficiency projects to be a lot of fun. There’s just something about implementing a new technology or process that gets this nerd’s engineer’s blood pumping. And, if I can do these things successfully—i.e., maintain the same level of performance by using less energy—then I will bore everyone I see about it for days.

That’s what energy efficiency is to me: fun, exciting, pioneering—and hopefully successful. So in that vein, I’d like to present a couple of creative approaches to saving energy that I’ve come across lately where the innovators are clearly having more fun with energy efficiency than most.

  • Phantom load plug ejector: I’m not gonna lie, this thing hits on every geeky fiber in my body. The PumPing Tap is a spring-loaded wall socket that physically ejects plugs attached to phantom, or vampire, loads. I mean, what else do I need to say? How awesome is that?!? These people have built a socket so that it not only determines when an appliance is off and still drawing power, but it also spits the plug out. AMAZING! I’ll bet anyone a million bucks the researchers behind this spent an entire day seeing how far they could eject a plug, because that’s exactly what I would do. I can’t really see this product having mass-market success, because obviously no one wants to keep plugging all of their stuff back in. However, they get a gold star for coming up with a creative way to reduce phantom loads while also (unavoidably) educating consumers about phantom loads.
  • Fuel cell cockroaches: Yep, you read that right. Scientists at Case Western Reserve University have found a way to harness electricity created by cockroaches’ metabolic system—the short explanation is cockroaches release electrons while converting sugars to food. Researchers have found they can capture this energy by inserting a wire into the cockroaches. Don’t worry, though; cockroaches’ biological makeup means a small puncture like this doesn’t hurt them. The energy captured is small, but it validates the science-fiction-ish theory of using insects to carry and power small electronic equipment. A practical application would be using a cockroach to test radiation levels by placing a sensor on its back and releasing it into a toxic area too dangerous for humans. A much cooler application, however, would be placing some kind of microphone/transmitter on a cockroach’s back and using it to spy on Cobra Commander, or any other fictional villain from my childhood that I’m convinced exists.

I can just see a bunch of researchers sitting around a lab table, some with broken glasses taped together, others with lab coats and “ironic” t-shirts underneath them, giggling hysterically at these concepts. And you know what? Kudos to them. After all, isn’t this the kind of innovation and—dare I say it—the outside-the-box thinking that we’re always craving in this industry? Well, maybe they’ve taken it too far, but what’s wrong with a little fun in the lab, right?


I laughed till my phantom load plug ejector popped out. Really entertaining.

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