Rubbing Along – The Secret of Power

In the last 40 years we have more than doubled the amount of energy we use.[1] In the last 95 years petrol consumption in the US has risen by more than 1200%.[2]

We have long since lived in an age of energy dependency. People power very few things and almost everything we need to do: work, travel, build and entertain ourselves is now reliant on energy generation. Even the simple act of writing is now largely computer based and reliant on electricity.

The future of energy generation and supply is one of those fundamental forces that will shape our societies.

In search of what that future will be, I went to see both one of the most important men in the global industry and someone who at the moment – few will have heard of – but may be hearing more about in the future.

I began on the South Bank of the Thames in London at the headquarters of one of the most influential energy companies in the world to speak to their boss. I had come to Shell headquarters to meet the chief executive Ben van Beurden.

In a very open and honest conversation he talked about the failure of the industry to get engaged with the energy debate. He also believes society does not recognise the role that energy plays. He thinks that the global industry has now to invest $2 trillion a year or £150m every 2 hours to try and create an energy system to fuel the 21st century.

In a world in which, he says, energy demand will double in the first half of this century he claims we can’t image the scale of innovation that will be needed to safely fuel the energy hungry planet.

Well imaging the future is what the Horizons series is all about – so we took that challenge from one of the biggest names in the global energy business and went to see how it is being answered by a professor in China who few outside his specialised area will have heard of, but who is working to create a technology which might go some way to the re-imagining being called for by Ben van Beurden.

In the regularly smog filled capital of China, I went to Chinese Academy of Science to meet Professor Zhong Lin Wang.

He and his team are working on a form of electricity generation called Tribo Electricity. The word comes from the Greek word Tribein meaning To Rub.

Sitting in his laboratory he wanted to show me how he could create electricity. He showed me a piece of copper and a piece of plastic and rubbed them together. Nothing at all happened. In the grand scheme of scientific demonstrations it didn’t rank very highly. Or so I thought at first.

Although I wasn’t able to see anything – something dramatic had happened. At a microscopic level, the pure action of rubbing these two materials together had caused electrons to pass from one to the other. It has also caused a positive and a negative charge. The action of running them together and pulling them apart had created the tiniest electric current.

This Nano electricity generation wasn’t in itself going to change the world but what if we all wore generating materials in our clothes – of if our shoes hitting the streets or shopping mall walkways, could create a small charge. The millions of feet that pound city street or shopping centres would suddenly create quite significant bits of electricity. One square meter of his material, he said, would be enough to power an oven to cook my dinner.

His team of students showed me how you could generate electricity by imbedding the materials in a computer mouse – so every time I clicked I created electricity. They imbedded them in doormats and perhaps more significantly, showed how you could create huge amounts of energy by putting floating balls in the sea and generate power every time the waves bounced the balls off each other.

Professor Wang claimed a 200km by 100km stretch of sea would be enough to generate the same electricity as created by the controversial 3 Gorges Dam in china.

The professor believes this is exactly the sort of innovation that could change the world. You haven’t heard of it yet, he said, but he’s only been working on the project for 4 years and is still trying to persuade the government and investors that this has potential. This energy revolution, he says, is only just beginning.

[1] Source: IEA – Key World Energy Statistics, as per 2014. Source in Wikipedia.

[2] US Energy Information Administration at



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2 responses to “Rubbing Along – The Secret of Power

  1. marilyn schroder

    What an intriguing prospect. Have any commercial companies picked it up?

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