n a conference room table in Stockholm lie a 9 volt battery, some electric cables, three light bulbs attached to a wooden plank and a few shiny metal boxes that contain the device. The inventor of the ground-breaking energy-producing device, South American Antônio Gonçalves Barros, is not on site as he claims to have been robbed of his passport. Instead, he has had to send his two Swedish representatives, Bo and Lars, to demonstrate his invention to Vattenfall’s experts. Bo is a retired engineer who worked at the Swedish company Sandvik for several years but now represents Barros. Lars is a patent examiner.
The visitors’ cards hang tidily over their ties. Lars checks the device one last time. It is supposed to concentrate and collect cosmic radiation and convert it into electricity. There is a battery wired to the device, but it is clear that it cannot power the lamps alone. If they light up, the invention works and a new chapter in the history of technology would be written within Vattenfall’s walls once again.
“Well,” says Lars, and pulls his hand through his grey hair, “I guess it is time then”. He adjusts his glasses. Then he connects the cables.
Across the table, Mikael Nordlander from Vattenfall’s R&D department stands and watches in silence. His arms are crossed over his chest.
“Several other companies had declined to carry out the demonstration, among them a large Finnish corporation that was concerned about the radiation. But we were pretty sure about what we were doing,” Nordlander tells us when we meet a few weeks later.
Garage inventors and small technology companies
Mikael Nordlander speaks with a firm gaze and a steady voice. He tells us about the people behind all the ideas that he and others at R&D assess. Nordlander leads a group of engineers that investigate solutions for the future energy system – the assessment of inventions from outside the company is somewhat of a side business. Between ten and forty proposals are handed in each year, most of which are quickly dismissed. All inventors are informed about the reason why their ideas will not work or are not fit for Vattenfall.
“We have to look at all these inventions with an open mind and make a reasonable effort to understand them. We are always afraid that we might miss something significant. It would be unforgivable if we failed to follow up on a brilliant idea that landed on my desk. After all, in many people’s eyes, we are still the ‘people’s energy company’, and the least we can do is to give detailed and helpful answers.”
Everyone from garage inventors to small technology companies turns to Vattenfall with ideas and inventions in the energy sector. Many believe that Vattenfall still develops and manufactures devices, infrastructure and power plants.
“We have a long history of successful product development,” Nordlander says. “The three-point seatbelt used in cars is one such example, another one is the heat pump. And the seatbelt has saved more than a million lives and the Swedish heat pump business has a turnover of several billion Swedish kronor.”
Many of the proposed ideas relate to devices. Some of them work just fine but are of no commercial interest to Vattenfall. In such cases, Nordlander and his colleagues try to offer advice as to whom the inventors might approach. Vattenfall may buy the devices at a later stage.
“That could, for example, be the case with equipment for wind power plants exposed to harsh offshore environments. Right now we are investigating an engine with paraffin wax that alternates between melting and hardening. By using lukewarm water it creates a movement that can be used to generate electricity. I have seen it work in a demo and the costs seem reasonable but it is hard for us to find a business case for it.”
A series of successful ideas
A wind direction spinner anemometer developed by researcher Troels Friis Pedersen at Denmarks Technical University proved to be a successful idea that passed through Nordlander’s team. After evaluating the invention, Vattenfall invested in Romo Wind, the company now licensed to manufacture the product.
“The anemometer is fitted to the nose cone instead of behind the rotor blades as was customary. As the wind behind the turbine is affected by turbulence from the rotors, the new device measures the wind direction more accurately. And it costs only a fraction of the losses that would result if the turbine were slightly askew.”
Nordlander takes a small plastic bottle out of his pocket. Inside are some ten round black rods. He holds the bottle up between his thumb and index finger; it rattles as he turns it. The rods are black pellets made of biomass, refined to resemble hard coal. These rods can then be co-fired with ordinary coal in power plants.
“This is the first specimen to be sent to us. We developed the technology further together with the company that sent in the idea and carried out the first successful full-scale co-firing trials in the world. That was 2011, just over a year before the biomass projects were discontinued. It worked in technical terms, but the price of carbon dioxide and coal never rose to the levels required to assure profitability.”
A magnetic funnel
It was last autumn that Nordlander was contacted by Bo who wanted to discuss Barros’ invention. The idea was innovative and concerned an unexploited source of energy, namely muons. These are a type of cosmic radiation, like the photons that drive solar energy. About one muon falls onto an area the size of a fingernail every second. And although the energy of each muon is not a lot, it is there all the time, a property that many other renewable energy sources lack.
Now Barros claimed to have constructed a kind of magnetic funnel that would concentrate the precipitation from an area of 50 square kilometres onto a single point.
“That would produce quite a lot of energy,” Nordlander says. “Of course I was sceptical about whether it would be possible to control cosmic radiation with the aid of a small desktop device. Also, a rough calculation showed that the energy from the incident radiation of muons corresponds approximately to the output of Forsmark 1, one of Vattenfall’s nuclear power plants in Sweden. But that is for the whole earth, so even if the technology were to work against all expectations, it would never be able to meet any large energy demand.”
So how did the demonstration of Barros’ magnetic funnel go? Well, the device was
switched on and the lamps failed to light up. The representatives claimed the lamps had lit up during three earlier demonstrations, but Nordlander was doubtful.
“If they had lit up, then we might have continued the project rather than turning it down. But when I inspected one of the boxes, which was supposed to be a voltage converter, I found a hidden black component with a label stating ‘batteria’. That explained why the converter, which is normally just a couple of centimetres long, was really big and weighed almost two kilograms; the hidden extra battery had been sneaked in to run the lamps.”
Nordlander did not have the heart to tell the two gentlemen that Barros had fooled them with the extra battery and that it could explain why the device might have worked in the past. Instead, he gave them a thorough physical explanation as to why this invention never could produce the amounts of energy needed to become useful. “Afterwards they told me that they had showed the invention to a number of big corporations in the Nordic countries. They said that we had carried out by far the most competent assessment. And that’s a reputation we are happy to have.”
Even if it means spending time on ideas that lead to nothing, Nordlander does not feel that meetings like this are a waste of time. “Before, there was more room for Vattenfall employees to come up with these more or less crazy ideas,” he says. “Now, we only invest in ideas if we can predict sustainable future business cases. But when our core business gets less profitable the need to think outside the box increases. Then it is good to get extra inspiration from free thinkers in the outside world, even if it means that we get some ideas that are, really, too good to be true.”