Scientifically speaking, it was a pretty strange scene: In 20-degree weather late last month, a handful of academics were hammering nails into a tree near MIT's Cambridge campus and attaching wires to them. On the other end of those wires was a small sword of copper driven about 2 feet into the frozen earth. In between was a potential revolution in green energy.
''At first we thought it was crazy," said Stella Karavas, marketing director for Canton-based MagCap Engineering. ''Then we went out outside and tested it, and sure enough, it works."
MagCap now thinks it may have found the ultimate in alternative energy. The family-owned electrical components maker says it has found a way to refine a very faint source of electricity found in trees into something that can light a very small light bulb. It is patenting a device that it says can charge a battery from that electricity that, once fully charged, will keep a small light shining forever. And it works -- every time, every tree, Karavas said.
''We are now charging a 2.4-volt nickel/cadmium battery and lighting an LED light," she said, referring to a light emitting diode, an ultra-efficient, low-watt bulb. ''But we want to be able to charge a hybrid car battery with these things. They could also be used for lighting on the sides of highways and paths. There are huge implications for where it could be used."
MagCap has hired Boston patent attorney Jason Mirabito to file the paperwork while the company seeks investors to help turn its green energy into gold. Mirabito said he took the job after meeting Karavas, looking at the product, and reading the research behind it.
''I'm a believer," he said. ''And Stella is not a person that sells snake oil. They have a regular business that they do very well at. This is just something that they came across that they think is pretty spectacular, and so do I."
MagCap has been making electronic components for the likes of NASA, Northrop Grumman, and the Indian government since 1969, Karavas said. It's a small but busy company that needs help if it's to develop the electric tree phenomenon into something more than a neat thing of nature.
However, aside from the patent attorney hired to handle the paperwork, MagCap's device is hard-pressed for believers outside the company. Take University of Massachusetts electrical engineer James Manwell, for example.
Manwell said just about everything has some kind of electrical charge that can easily be found with a volt meter. Producing electricity from that charge is another matter entirely.
''It doesn't strike me as having any merit whatsoever," he said. ''It's the first law of thermo-dynamics: Energy can't be created or destroyed. . . . Over the years, people have invented a lot of perpetual motion machines. Sounds like this is just another one."
Karavas said she understands the skepticism, especially since she can't explain the phenomenon, either.
That's what the academics at MIT were trying to do on that frosty morning.
Sure enough, when the spike and nail were wired together, and MagCap engineer Chris Lagadinos threw a switch, the smallest of lights went on for the shortest of flashes.
After a 90-minute series of tests using aluminum and copper nails attached to other surfaces -- including a chain-link fence and a hot cup of coffee -- it was suggested the electrical current had more to do with the metals involved. The electric tree phenomenon, it was suggested, works just like a very large, very weak battery using the electrical potential between different metals until those metals are used up.
MagCap isn't so sure. Over the past year, it has done all manner of tests, some of which contradict the battery theory, Karavas said.
''There are too many variables here to chalk this up to" a battery, she said. ''We need to rule them all out, and that's why we have engaged experts in academia."
An alternative suggestion came from inventor and self-described tinkerer Gordon Wadle, who discovered the electric tree phenomenon one day in 1996 and brought it to MagCap.
He said he was contemplating lightning and the fact that all that electricity does not just come from the clouds, but also from the ground.
He wondered whether the earth-bound variety could somehow be tapped, and so he drove a metal spike into the earth outside his home in California, hammered a common framing nail into a tree, and connected the two with a voltmeter. To his astonishment, it measured more than 1 volt.
At the time, skeptical friends and experts convinced Wadle that it was just a fluke. But he said that when he tried the same experiment a year ago at his new home in Illinois, he got the same results. Many nails, trees, and spikes later, Wadle is convinced he is on to something.
''I've got maples, oaks, and spruces, and when I test them like this they are all within a 10th of a volt from each other," he said. ''I had my nephew in the Azores go out and test a tree, and he said he's getting 1.2 volts. When you have the same reading coming out of all of these trees, there's got to be something there. You have to believe this is worldwide. This energy is emanating from somewhere."