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Technologies That Will Change the World
john posted in memes, technologies on October 10th, 2008
Sometimes when the criminal antics in Washington and Wall St. are too much to bear, you just have to make a list of optimistic things. Some people may want to list how many ways love changes the world, but I go for bits of technology.
examples of the kind of thing I mean:
Switch from whale oil to petroleum
Aniline dye and the synthetic chemical industry
Packet switched computer networks
Telegraph and so on…
Past successes look obvious from the future, but it is inherent in the nature of disruptive technologies that the really important ones solve problems that aren’t obvious at all. So by this measure whatever is not on this list could be a real whiz-bang idea. But I’ll plunge forward anyway, heedless of the cost.
With the looming greenhouse gas crisis, and massive over-population, energy ideas top the list. But some think that water and good agricultural dirt may be the scarcest resources in the future.
Cheap and efficient solar cells. Solar roofing, thin flexible films, solar paints and printing. Current glass-mounted cells cost roughly $700 for 100W, which is too much to pay back even with $0.15/kwh grid power. Many researchers are working on the problem, and new announcements come weekly. For example catalytic breakup of H2O.
The low-tech route: cheap parabolic solar and MIT group builds a low-cost reflector to generate steam.
infra-red solar power Useful for both daytime, and nighttime, plus waste heat recovery.
Everybody’s favorite, fusion power:
Imagine multi-megawatt generators without pollution. Commercial success is still decades away, though the Europeans and the Brits are spending on research.
Small energy harvesting:
Various schemes have been proposed for reclaiming small amounts of waste energy. Just as hybrid vehicles recover some motive energy from braking, we could recover energy from waste heat at air conditioners, auto engines, sun-heated paving. Medical researchers are proposing to generate electricity from body chemistry, and from movement. More radical are the self-powered sensors that harvest enough energy from their environment to forgo batteries.
The grand pattern for harvesting solar energy is photosynthesis. An understanding of how it works could lead to genetic manipulation, and creations of more efficient bio-fuels.
Small scale wind power without tall towers:
Efficient wind turbines need to be well above rooflines and trees. This is a problem for residential generation. Some have proposed tethered kites and blimps. Windbelt. There are pilot projects that use harmonic vibration in wires to make small amounts of power. These do not require complex turbines or towers, and so may be useful in the third world.
Clean, sustainable bio-fuels:
Bio-fuels are already being made from all manner of organic materials, from sewage and manure, to algae, to waste agricultural products, crops, even coal. The problem is that none of these processes are truly carbon-neutral and most have other negative side-effects like disruption in agricultural markets.
Craig Ventner has announced that he will produce carbon-negative fuel from genetically-engineered bacteria that feed on CO2.
Efficient hydrogen storage:
Hydrogen is extremely clean, and good for fuel cells, even internal combustion engines, but it is devilishly difficult to store. Current technologies use extreme pressure, liquification or chemical matrices, none of which are suitable for cars. Some work is being done with ammonia and catalyzed water, as liquid fuels are ideal for transportation.
Efficient hydrogen production:
Hydrogen is extremely common, but bound up in compounds which are expensive to break down. Researchers are working on various biologic methods of producing hydrogen, similar to those for methane and the alcohols. This gets into artificial photosynthesis, where the bio-fuel research is also headed.
Here is a very interesting development.
Cheap powerful batteries:
Today’s Lithium batteries today are expensive, and extremely awkward to make into usable packs for electric cars. Researchers are working on nanotech methods of improving the weight, cost, and maintenance, though the power density may not go up much. And today’s power density isn’t high enough for gasoline-like range at low weights.
Low power lighting
Low power lighting has been with us since the 1980’s, but in the form of compact flourescents that use mercury and have an awkward package. LEDs are reaching the same efficiency, their price is coming down, and they are wondefully small and long-lived. For instance, Toshiba makes white LEDs at about 51 lumens per watt (a 100 w oldfashioned lamp is 17 lumens per watt) and is comparable with CFLs and even with the best gas discharge lights like automotive HID.
Cree may be even better.
You can argue that much of the quest for new materials is just the flip side of the quest for cheaper energy. After all, the problem with current materials is that they are too heavy or they require too much energy to mine, process, or machine. But Nanotechnologists may also claim that they are making materials that do things that couldn’t be done at all before. There are two basic patterns for new materials: lighter-stronger-cheaper-less corrosion, and chemically or electrically active.
Electrical wiring is almost exclusively copper. It is expensive and environmentally unclean in production, prone to corrosion, heavy, and inelastic. A cheap, elastic, conductive alternative could save money and weight in all kinds of machines.
High temperature superconductors:
(see cheap wiring)
Transmission wires for the electrical grid that have little to no resistance at room temperature.
An agricultural mulch that generates electricity from sunlight to power irrigation pumps, and controls moisture loss, rain penetration, insects, and diseases.
Composites to substitute for aluminum and steel, with less weight, more elasticity, more corrosion resistance, lower manufacturing costs, Carbon fiber and its relatives already hit some of these points, but it is inelastic and very expensive as a material and in the manufacturing process. Amory Lovin’s Rocky Mountain Institute has been developing a carbon-reinforced plastic that can be mass-produced.
Here’s a patent.
Spider silk is famously the strongest fiber known. It is also bio-degradable. Various genetic engineering and nanotech approaches are being used to copy or duplicate it in industrial form. Tensile strength is one of the most important qualities in hundreds of products, from tires to structural composites to cables and ropes, so success here will make all manner of light, strong products available.
Water purification and desalinization:
The third world especially will need small, cheap, low-energy ways to clean water for drinking and irrigation. Global warming changes are accelerating damage done by over-pumping and polluting.
Farming without soil degradation:
The Romans knew how to do it, but failed to execute. So too the Mayans and virtually every other agricultural civilization. Soil is produced naturally from rock, but the process is much slower than the erosion cuased by bad tillage, and the ecologic depletion caused by hyper-cultivating monocultures.
The harder problems in robotics - machine vision, autonomy, voice recognition and speech synthesis are finally yielding to sustained research. ( see jawfish ) The first widespread use of mobile robots is in the military, where the cost equation is very favorable. Surely just as cheap IEDs defeat expensive Humvees in Iraq, there will be a tidal wave of cheap, disposable, attack robots used against expensive complex and human targets. I can’t see any good coming out of this prospect, but I can see disruptive change.
But civilian robotics could restore some manufacturing to first-world countries, making supply-chains shorter, and re-invigorating the economy. But don’t expect a good house-cleaning bot any time soon.
There may be more innovation coming in health and medicine than all the other fields listed combined, and so I’ll just focus an a couple that might have very-wide reaching effects.
Suddenly, teams of biologists, physicists, doctors, and engineers are building an empirical science of the how the brain works. While the anecdotal guesses of Freud are long behind us, understanding of even the most basic brain traits is a long way ahead. At least we know and agree that we still don’t understand very much, but we do know some things about brain performance. It’s not unreasonable to think that great advances in brain-drugs and brain-training are possible, leading to greater happiness and intelligence, however unmeasurable. Simply learning to control our metabolism to keep neurons strong and fat low would be a huge boon in the developed world. The dark side is also always there, though, development of these drugs will also target addiction pathways and abuse.
Long range birth control:
Pure Speculation Department- if the political will existed, use of cheap, long lasting implantable birth control would be a huge boon. We seem so close to this, and yet we still can’t have programs that pay girls to avoid pregnancy.
Who’s holding up the train?
What’s stopping all this innovation? In some cases nothing, for instance, the cost of petroleum is now high enough to create a bio-fuel industry. Lack of capital and researchers may hinder many projects, though venture capital is finding its way into many of these ideas because the commercial prospects are huge.
But there are many technical solutions that require infrastructure changes, or market regulation, or temporary subsidy. There are many powerful entrenched Luddites who deny the science of global warming out of ignorance or for political ends. American governmental capital has been re-routed into war in the oil-fields for more than five years, and now into the Wall St. bail-out. Many solutions require global cooperation, which is increasingly difficult across the developed vs developing vs undeveloped divides. In short, while our mechanical and chemical and computing skills increase every year, our human skills and institutions barely change. And the very worst of all the human problems, over-population, is not up for discussion in the fastest-growing parts of the world.
Over-population is like a rising flood that will eventually negate the ability of third-world countries to develop, and will continue to plague first-world countries with intractable immigration issues.
So the technology that is going nowhere is human-management. We don’t seem to be much better at making group decisions based on rationality than we were as cavemen or even chimps. And our innate aggression has been outrun by our technical ability to make weapons. The coming robot revolution in the military may make that dilemma even worse.