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Sit in the Dark – or Power to the People?

By Jim Bray
April 22, 2008

Which is the better answer to the world's growing energy requirements: feel good gestures or creating new energy sources that can feed our needs?

Being an incurable right wing redneck whacko, I tend to favor finding solutions that actually do something. Feel good gestures such as turning out your lights and sitting in the dark for an hour (as in the recent "Earth Hour") may save us some energy – though media reports said electrical consumption in my city actually went up during Earth Hour – but it doesn't address the real problems of a growing society that requires ever-increasing amounts of electricity in order to power the machines that make our civilization possible.

This is why a recent article in Science Daily caught my eye. According to them, researchers at Boston College and MIT have achieved a major increase in thermoelectric efficiency by using nanotechnology (as opposed to Mork from Ork's "nano nano technology"), which they say could lead to whole new generations of products, from semiconductors and air conditioners to car exhaust systems and solar power thingies that are more efficient and cleaner than what we have today.

As a non-technical person, I got about three paragraphs into the story before my eyes started glazing over from the science, but they appear to be talking about the ability to build tiny little devices (nanostructures) that act as micro-coolers and power generators that, besides being inexpensive, would consume less energy or even capture energy that would be wasted otherwise.

Science Daily says this could be a milestone in harnessing the so-called thermoelectric effect. I'm no scientist, but from what I understand about the thermoelectric effect (discovered, apparently, back in the early 1800's) it refers to materials that generate a significant electrical voltage when heated – or which, if you apply voltage to them, get hotter on one side, and colder on the other.

The fly in the ointment has been that most electrical conductors also conduct heat, which defeats the purpose to a certain extent (unless generating heat is what you want to do!) and which makes the challenge to find and/or create materials and/or methodologies that'll conduct electricity but not the heat.

We want the meat, not the bun!  Er, the power, without the heat!

These current "nano-developments" sounds almost like free energy, which makes me nearly as suspicious as if they had mentioned perpetual motion in the same breath. But imagine even some smaller and obvious opportunities for good:

Cooling systems could be built right into microchips instead of having to use a separate cooling fan like we do now, making computer cases smaller, quieter, and more efficient. And undoubtedly cheaper. That would be good.

And imagine new generations of solar cells that not only convert sunlight to energy, but the sun's heat, too. That would be great!

As a species, we need to decide what the direction of our civilization should be: forward or backward.  Do we continue to reach for the stars (figuratively and literally) growing and developing while at the same time sharing our legacy with a broader spectrum of humanity and passing it on to successive generations? Or do we give up, don sackcloth and ashes and look upon ourselves as the problem and not the potential solution?

If sitting in the dark as during "Earth Hour" is the answer, we might as well go back to living in caves, which I wouldn't be surprised is exactly what some people would prefer us to do – figuratively if not literally. It would certainly keep the masses in their place.

I can't imagine Al Gore giving up his estate for a cave, though.  

I sit firmly and comfortably on the "To infinity and beyond" (to steal a phrase) side of the fence. My ancestors worked hard to build the world I enjoy and it would a slap in their faces to turn my back on all they've done. It would also be really dumb, given humanity's boundless potential.

But if humanity is to move forward, one of our major challenges is to find ways with which we can produce ever greater amounts of clean and efficient energy for all of us, while at the same time moving us beyond the "toys" of humanity's childhood – concepts such as wood burning, coal and/or oil-fired plants, etc.

This includes deciding what to do with our cars. The big buzz these days is about electric and/or hybrid vehicles and "biofuels" such as ethanol as ways to wean ourselves from oil. Fair enough. But hybrids still use gas – and where is the electricity to power our plug-in vehicles going to come from? Will we use really long extension cords plugged into windmills?

Not only that, but what happens to food prices and availability when our corn production is diverted from our dinner tables and into our gas tanks? The answer seems obvious. There's only so much land available for farming – that is, unless global warming creates the opportunity for vast new farms in areas that are arctic tundra today.

Gee, who'd have thought global warming could be a good thing?

On the other hand, I'm willing to bet there'll be people who'd fight the creation of such farmlands just like they protest tapping new oil sources that could help get us over the petroleum hump.

Perhaps these nanotechnology breakthroughs could be used in car engines, which are said to waste most of their fuel's energy as heat, currently, so they could generate electricity instead. Imagine the fossil fuel savings that could provide – helping extend existing oil sources and perhaps buying us time to find workable alternative methods of powering our vehicles.

Alternatives such as tiny nuclear reactors, perhaps? It may sound silly, but Isaac Asimov envisioned such things decades ago in some of his fiction. Many other formerly sci-fi concepts have already come to pass, so why not that one?

Or maybe some brainy person will come up with something we haven't even imagined, but which will revolutionize our lives. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity!

I don't expect this to happen overnight, of course but the potential for the future of the human race seems promising, if not downright astounding.

And maybe we'll be able to leave our lights on in the evenings if we choose to.

Copyright 2008, Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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