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Emerging Micropower Technologies

March 1, 2001


Douglas Clement Senior Writer
Emerging Micropower Technologies

Fuel cells

When oxygen is combined with hydrogen, the products are water and electricity. Fuel cells exploit this chemical reaction, pulling oxygen from the air and hydrogen from a fuel source such as natural gas. Used by NASA for generating power in space, fuel cells are now being developed for both stationary use and mobile applications (cars, camping).


Software-synchronized networks of micropower generators.


Small-scale turbines that generate electricity by spinning a magnet inside a coil at extremely high speeds. Fueled by a variety of gases. Less efficient than fuel cells, but cheaper; efficiencies are higher if microturbine waste heat can also be used on-site (a process called "cogeneration").


Also known as solar cells, photovoltaics convert sunlight to electricity. Costs are high but the fuel is free, and maintenance costs are low.

Reciprocating engines

Refined versions of internal combustion engines provide more efficient output and lower emissions. Currently lower cost, but higher emissions and higher maintenance needs than other emerging micropower technologies.

Super-capacitors and flywheels

Short-term storage devices for electricity to smooth transitions on and off the grid.

Wind turbines

Wind turbines are often deployed in large "farm" arrays, but can also be installed on-site in single-user micropower applications.
See January 2001 fedgazette.

For more information:

Electric Power Research Institute
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
Worldwatch Paper #151: Micropower: The Next Electrical Era

Douglas Clement
Senior Writer

Douglas Clement was a managing editor at the Minneapolis Fed, where he wrote about research conducted by economists and other scholars associated with the Minneapolis Fed and interviewed prominent economists.