It wasn’t like a light bulb suddenly went on and Phuong Tran discovered how to implement a new type of renewable energy on land. It took months of calculations, tests, parts and failures before the light bulb literally lit up. That’s when Tran, an electrical engineering major, knew he had come up with potentially ground-breaking technology.
Tran began developing his invention while doing an internship with Seatrec, a company that focuses on harvesting energy from the ocean. The company had discovered that renewable electricity harvested from the ocean could provide critical power for ocean research and exploration efforts. Using technology developed and patented at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Seatrec built a thermal battery that extracts energy from the ocean’s temperature differences and converts it to stored electrical energy.
Tran took that technology and redesigned it to work on land, using ambient temperature changes in the land and air. He said his sustainable device can produce enough pressure with just a 10-degree Celsius fluctuation to supply energy in places that don’t receive a lot of sun.
To put that into perspective, Tran explained that nuclear reactors need to be heated up to 1,000 degrees Celsius before it will produce energy. He also pointed out that thermal energy is not solar energy.
“Right now, we are not competing with solar because solar efficiency still is high,” Tran said. “But in regions where solar is not applicable, like in Seattle where it only gets five days of sun or places like St. Petersburg, Russia, they are in a region where they have these things called ‘white nights’ and in the winter, it's still dark at 11 a.m. and the sunlight is not really even.”
Tran said his energy device could also be used at out-of-the-way places like campsites because it doesn’t need maintenance. For now, though, the biggest thing it has powered is a smart phone and a light bulb.
“All I had to do was show that it produced enough pressure and I could control the pressure,” he said.
Tran, an international student from Vietnam, said his fascination with renewable energy first started with his love of Tesla cars. The high-end automobile company produced the first electric sports car in 2008 and specializes in lithium-ion battery energy storage.
That led him to study engineering at Cal State Long Beach. He will graduate in December and already has a handful of job offers.