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Innovation Blog

Back to the Future II —  Jason Pontin: Futuristic Renewable Energy is Here!

By Shlomo Maital



Jason Pontin is editor and publisher of MIT Technology Review, a magazine that tracks new technologies and has some 2.6 m. readers worldwide.  Here is his take on near-future advances in renewable energy, as presented to the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel annual event, May 5, Tel Aviv:

    “Carbon is the current product of the energy industry.  Heat and light are byproducts.  This will stop.  Each year, 1,366 watts of solar energy strike every squ. meter on the earth.  Yet today solar energy supplies only 1 % of US energy needs.  The largest solar project in the U.S. is Exelon Solar City in Chicago. (Sunny Chicago? Related to the fact it is President Obama’s city, and the project was funded by stimulus package money, or 80% of the total $60 m. cost).  There are 32,292 solar panels, covering 41 acres, generating 10 megawatts, enough for 1,500 homes.  It costs $6/kilowatt to build – far too high to be profitable. All such solar energy programs are heavily subsidized.

    “We need breakthroughs!  Here are five blue-sky energy technologies that could provide such breakthroughs.  They focus on new ways to generate, transport and store solar or nuclear energy:

  • Plasmonic Solar:  These are thin-film solar panels, developed by Harry Atwater at Caltech (California Institute of Technology).  [According to Wikipedia:  Plasmonic solar cells (PSC) are a class of photovoltaic devices that convert light into electricity by using plasmons. PSCs are a type of thin-film SC which are typically 1-2μm thick. They can use substrates which are cheaper than silicon, such as glass, plastic or steel. The biggest problem for thin film solar cells is that they don’t absorb as much light as the current solar cells. ]
  • Artificial photosynthesis [Dan Nocera, MIT]:   Research is being done into finding catalysts that can convert water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to carbohydrates.  This is a way of storing energy, a crucial element of capturing solar power.  Nature does this with ease – it is called photosynthesis.  Inventors are trying to replicate it.  The cobalt catalyst from MIT’s  Dr. Dan Nocera of MIT is  “providing strong results.”
  • Software defined Thermal Solar.  In this technology, towers collect energy from mirrors. The mirrors are costly. Bill Gross (inventor of the original Google ad  interest-related model) is the pioneer of this method; “his eSolar’s proprietary sun-tracking software coordinates the movement of 24,000  1 meter-square mirrors per 1 tower using optical sensors to adjust and calibrate the mirrors in real time. This allows for a high density of reflective material which enables the development of modular concentrating solar thermal (CSP) power plants in 46 megawatt (MW) units on   parcels of land, resulting in a land-to-power ratio of 4 acres (16,000 m2) per 1 megawatt”.  [This implies that 62.5 sq. miles (or a desert area of 8 miles by 8 miles) of reflectors could supply all of Israel’s electricity needs. ]
  • Liquid Batteries:  [Don Sadoway, MIT];  One of the biggest challenges currently facing large-scale solar energy technology is finding an effective way to store the energy, which is essential for using the electricity at night or on cloudy days.  The primitive storage method today is to pump water up a hill during the daylight hours.  In 2009, Sadoway proposed a liquid metal battery that could be used in stationary energy storage systems.   “No one had been able to get their arms around the problem of energy storage on a massive scale for the power grid,” says Sadoway. “We’re literally looking at a battery capable of storing the grid.”
  • Superconducting DC transmission:   [Phil Harris, Tres Amigas].  Thomas Edison once observed that electricity is a way of TRANSPORTING energy, not creating it.  How can solar power be easily and quickly transported? Tres Amigas has the answer.  “The Tres Amigas renewable energy market hub will be a multi-mile, triangular electricity pathway of Superconductor Electricity Pipelines capable of transferring and balancing many gigawatts of renewable power between the three Interconnections.  Similar to highway rotaries used for traffic flow control, multiple power transmission lines from each of the Interconnections will feed power into and out of the Tres Amigas SuperStation through multiple AC/DC converters, each connected by DC superconductor cables.  Tres Amigas, which will be a balancing authority, will help ensure the efficient and reliable flow of power from multiple renewable generation sources in all three power grids to customers across a wide area of the U.S., Canada and Mexico.”
  • And: a sixth, still-distant but amazing dream:  Nathan Myrhvold’s Travelling Wave Reactor:  from wiki: “A traveling-wave reactor, or TWR, is a type of conceptual nuclear reactor that can convert fertile material into fissile fuel as it runs using the process of nuclear transmutation.   Once started, TWR’s reach a state after which they can achieve very high fuel utilization while using no enriched uranium and no reprocessing, instead burning fuel made from depleted uranium, natural uranium, thorium, spent fuel removed from light water reactors, or some combination of these materials.   TWRs could theoretically run, self-sustained, for decades without refueling or removing any used fuel from the reactor.” Former Microsoft guru Myrhvold is putting his own fortune into this, and plans to build a TWR in China.

Innovation Blog

Back to the Future:   “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”

By Shlomo Maital


Doc’s Back to the Future DELOREAN car


              Marty McFly: Doc, we better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to 88 (mph).

             Dr. Emmett Brown: Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

     In the hit movie Back to the Future (1985), Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes back to the future with Doc and sees flying taxis, 3D ads (a shark), and many other inventions. Some have come true. Some have not.  President Ronald Reagan adopted Doc Brown’s statement about roads. 

  At the annual event of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, titled  Back to the Future 2015, held today, May 5, several farsighted experts gave their vision of the near-term future. Here are excerpts of what they said:

   The first speaker was Zeev Efrat, CEO, Frost & Sullivan (Israel branch), a global business  consulting firm.  He identified four key megatrends that experts defined a decade ago, in 2000:  Emerging China; the Internet explosion; Information Revolution; and Outsourcing.  All powerfully affected the decade 2000-2009.   The megatrends that will dominate the near-term future, according to Efrat, are:

* urbanization: A megacity is a city with over 10 m. people; a mega-region has over 15 m. people;  By 2025, half of all megacities will be in developing countries.  Life in cities will be dominated by an integration of smart+energy+plan.  Smart: ICT will be everywhere in cities, making them ‘smart’ (traffic management, power management, etc.).  Energy will be green. And planning will be highly sophisticated. Some 40 global mega-cities will be “smart”, in this sense, by 2020; over half of them will be in Europe and in North America.

* convergence:  In the late 1970’s, MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte identified three converging industries: entertainment, publishing, computers.  Now Efrat identifies another three converging industries:  Energy, IT and automation.  This convergence will lead to a wave of mergers, as companies seek to build competencies in all three disparate technologies. 

* social trends: Gen Y.   There will be growing personalization of all goods and services.  Generation Y, the dominant generation, will seek goods that cater to values, beliefs, interest and lifestyle.  This generation, aged 15-34, will dominate – there will be 2.56 b. people in this age bracket, out of a total global population of 7.56 b. people by 2020, and 61 per cent, six of every 10, will be from Asia!  The middle class will also dominate.  By 2020  52 percent of the global 7.56 b. population will be defined as ‘middle class’. 

    Some other trends Efrat identified, in only 20 minutes!:

  • Technology: some 900 satellites will be launched in 2011-20. 
  • World War III will be an information cyberwar; it has already begun.
  • 2020 will be a virtual world, where reality and virtual unite; this will feature in shopping, surgery (practice), entertainment, business conferences, and others. The interface between real and virtual will be highly fluid.
  •  Innovation to zero: There will be zero waste, with 100% recycling, and no emissions, in cars, factories, homes.
  • E-mobility: 40 m. electric vehicles will be sold worldwide in 2020 (in one year), 30 m. cars and 10 m. two-wheelers.  The related industry will have new components: new OEM’s, along with utilities, integrators, charging stations, govt. and battery manufacturers.  Commercial vehicles will also become E-mobile, with 300,000 such vehicles by 2020. 
  • From illness to wellness:  Focus shifts from curing illness to preserving wellness. Without this trend, health costs will soar by 2050 to 20-30 per cent of GDP (13 per cent already in the U.S.).  The theme becomes: Live well, stay health.  From fat to fit.

    Innovators, identify the megatrend that excites and energizes you.  Then, identify a micro need (a well-defined group with an unmet need) within this megatrend. Finally, build your innovation around it. 

      In the next blog, I will report on another speaker, Jason Portin (editor and publisher of MIT Technology Review), who reviewed startling futuristic developments in the realm of renewable energy.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
May 2011
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