Energy from cash: The power of money

April 13th, 2012

Published on The Economist, April 12, 2012.

HIGH-SPEED currency trading uses oodles of computing power to exploit short-lived price differences in international foreign-exchange markets. Jonathon Keats proposes an alternative: exploit the electrical differences between currencies to power a low-speed computer. In an exhibit which opens on April 12th at the Rockefeller Centre in New York Mr Keats, a concept artist (or, as he likes to call himself, an experimental philosopher), introduces the notion “electro-chemical arbitrage”. An engineer might call it a battery … //

… An American cent is 95% zinc with a copper coating. The Chinese fen (nominally worth about one-sixth of a cent), meanwhile, is coated in aluminium. Crucially for Mr Keats’s project, copper and aluminium react at different rates with a salt solution. So by placing the Chinese and American pecuniary electrodes in a petri dish filled with brine, and stringing together a handful of such mini-cells (see picture), he could conjure up a potential difference as high as 18.7 volts. That is enough to power three handheld calculators.

The coins will not last for ever: the chemical reactions leave them corroded and depleted (which is why all chemical batteries run out of juice after a while). Still, they should be more than enough to crunch some simple sums. That initial order, from Jon Tolson, of Tolson Capital Management, a financial services firm in San Francisco, is to add 5 and 17. Mr Keats is running that first calculation free of charge, “in the interest of attracting a larger data-processing contract”. Good luck with that. (full text).


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