What do many computers have that most houses don't? A backup power supply. When the electricity fails, backup power can keep a computer going for a few minutes while precious files are stored. Homes are more vulnerable: If the outage lasts very long, as happened this winter when Nor'easters battered the East Coast, the furnace shuts down and ice forms in the goldfish bowl.
General Electric Co.'s Research & Development Center hopes to give that bleak scenario a happier ending with technology that keeps heat flowing after the power fails. The idea is to use the furnace's own heat to generate enough electricity to run the furnace's blower. The electricity comes from a so-called thermocouple in which loops of two different semiconducting alloys generate a current when one end is heated. Lionel M. Levinson, a GE physicist, says the system can generate 300 to 500 watts of power. It could also save $100 a year in electric bills by powering the blower even when there isn't a power failure.
One small problem: Today, the breadbox-size generators cost several thousand dollars. But Levinson hopes mass production can cut that to a few hundred dollars--which might be financed by a surcharge on the monthly gas bill. Rochester Gas & Electric Corp. will begin testing a prototype this fall.