Good Vibrations: the Power in Pandemonium

The modern world needs to shut up.

Every weekday I walk to work along one of my city’s streets, and I’ve given up trying to listen to my mp3 player. I mouth frustrated obscenities at the roaring cars and replay scenes from I Am Legend in my head. I wish they would just stop. Yet it’s this wearisome racket that could help meet our future energy demands.

Question – what is noise? Energy, in the form of waves of pressure? No, that’s sound. Defining noise requires that damning, planet-ruining word “useless.” Unwanted, irritating and seemingly unavoidable, as a by-product of everything mechanical we are beholden to. We make the skies roar, the ground tremble, and we drown out the rhythms of the natural world until the biophony (of which we are a part) is in total confusion. It’s the human race’s noisy, angsty teenage years, and we’re turning it up to 11.

How can we fix this? “Stop at source” seems logical, but we live in a world so attuned to noise that electric car manufacturers are forced to add artificial engine sounds for safety reasons. So what do we do instead? We hide from it, soundproofing ourselves into happy ignorance or diverting it so it’s somebody else’s problem. Fingers in ears, lalalalala.

Luckily, there are signs it’s just a phase we’re going through.

The next generation of acoustic engineers are working hard to turn this acoustic nuisance into a power source. Enter the SONEA, a 7kg box you stick on your noisiest outside wall. Every single decibel of vibrating air smacking into it will generate 30 Watts of power (or so the designers claim) – just enough to keep the average CFL burning.  But just think what an array of them will do. An array facing the main runway at Heathrow Airport, or slung under a bridge on North America’s busiest highway. Even if the technology falls short right now, the potential is staggering.

But we’re not done. Why not help solve the fuel crisis as well? As New Scientist reports, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered a way to turn noise into an electrical charge that can break up water into oxygen and hydrogen. At 18% efficiency it’s a step up from existing piezoelectric (pressure-generated electric) technology – and it creates hydrogen fuel from water, or “a free lunch” in the words of the team’s lead researcher.

Just how far away are we from sound-harvesting architecture? Concept designs are already tweeting their way across the Internet, such as the Urban Transducer skyscraper with its frequency-tuning panels that hunt down the noisiest Hertz. Are we seeing the start of a whole new form of alternative energy gathering? Imagine a production line of energy collectors, with acoustic technology transforming the eco-friendly whump-whump of a wind turbine into even more juice.

It all sounds good from where I’m standing – with my fingers in my ears.

Images: nrbelex and Yanko Design.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.