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July 2009

July 22, 2009

Engineer This!

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Turn those ideas into reality! So there’s an energy crisis... I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me they’re in a "crisis" state, it usually involves 911, paramedics, attorneys or counselors.  Somehow I don’t get the same feeling about our energy "crisis" when I’m driving to work and I’m stuck in traffic, or when I’m flying a "red eye" home from the west coast and I’m looking out the window at thousands of square miles of street lights blazing.

A crisis is upon us, but we seem to be going about our normal lives not really worried about unplugging that phone charger or adjusting the HVAC to save some energy.  Let me propose a future that could be only a few years away and without changing behavior could produce a true crisis. Here’s the scenario:

It’s 2015 and both China and India’s economy is booming again.  People who had never owned a motor scooter now are buying the latest Tata Motors Nano and other sub-subcompacts - and at over 60 miles per gallon, economical to own since gasoline is now $5.50US per gallon in the US and over $15.00US per gallon everywhere else.  There are now over 1 billion vehicles in operation worldwide and the oil consuming nations do not have the capacity to refine crude oil into gasoline and diesel fuel driving the cost through the roof. 

This high cost has rippled into everyday life driving the price of other fuel sources such as natural gas to new highs.  Modern gas burning power plants are now paying excessive prices for supply and passing that onto consumers driving the price of a kilowatt-hour to over $0.35.  Monthly electric bills that used to be in the $150 per month range are now over $400 and cities are turning off their street and building lights to conserve power. The world is now in an energy crisis...

This scenario is not too far fetched if you consider that the US has not built a new oil refinery since 1976... If people start migrating to electric vehicles which need to be plugged into the grid, increased demand will be placed on power plants once again driving up cost.  It is simple economics... when the demand of a commodity increases driving the supply lower, the price goes up. 

So here’s my call to action for our next generation of engineers about to enter the work force (or those already in it) - Do something about it! There are several key technologies that still need to be developed, and those that succeed will not only be heroes of our age (the carbon age), but will surely reap the financial  benefits as well.  Below, in order, find my list of areas that need to be developed and commercialized to reduce our energy consumption.

1. Inexpensive, safe and reliable electrical energy storage. This could include a new generation of batteries, but better still... a solid state device such as a mega-capacitor that never wears out.  Battery technology has not evolved much since the 1950... abundant energy storage can drive the adoption of electric vehicles and energy harvesting (e.g. solar).
2. Smarter Everything.  If everyday stuff had more brains and could communicate with a common protocol (language) to everything else (scary Matrix-esque thought...), our "stuff’" could work together to conserve energy.  Examples could include smart appliances and equipment (that know the price of energy and act accordingly), smarter cars (that know the price of fuel and tolls, shortest distances, driver’s habits, etc), smarter power grids that can communicate to consumers what’s going on, street lights that dim when no motion is detected in the area and more. Even coffee makers that only brew one cup made to order by reading an RF ID tag on the bottom of a user’s mug would save energy (not to mention coffee - I want one of those, by the way...).
3. Better use of existing technology.  For example, laser printers that fuse the toner using high power LEDs instead of an old fashioned quartz tube that must heat a roller (and keep it heated even when no one is printing anything...). I see power savings (and waste) everywhere I look.  Take a look around and get inspired.
4. More efficient systems.  For example, the basic heat pump air conditioning or refrigeration system hasn’t evolved much in 50 years (other than coolant material changes which actually hurt efficiency).  The basic system uses the gas / liquid phase changes to absorb heat and then pump it somewhere else.  Not much life left here.  How about using endothermic magneto-caloric material such as gadolinium (or other composite materials) in a strong magnetic field to cool your fridge or house.  The Brits are working on just such a design for a solid state refrigerator. Hey, isn’t that the same nation that gave us the guts of our microwave ovens? They invented the high-power cavity magnetron in the early 1940s.

So you probably get my point.  Humans are driven by environmental pressures. If there’s not enough water at our watering hole, then let’s move to a new one.  But let’s not wait until the hole has gone dry, the vegetation has died and all of the water buffalo have moved on to other places to say, "Hey, we should move to another watering hole."  Let’s be a bit more proactive. Till next time...