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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Butterflies, Bunnies and Unicorns

One of my all time favorite attractions at Disney is the Carousel of Progress.  It is a very entertaining celebration of entrepreneurial achievement.  There IS a “great big beautiful tomorrow”.  However, behind every one of those “modern” conveniences is a story of imagination, failure, struggle and frustration before there was an invention or product,

Innovation is messy.  There is a price to pay for the advancement of technology in the pursuit of a better way doing things.  Technology that works in a laboratory is not necessarily ready for prime time.  Sometimes it needs “real world” testing.  This is especially true of how we power our life, specifically transportation.

A case has been made against fossil and nuclear generated energy.  It is essentially an issue of safety.  Is it safe for the environment?  Is it safe for people living near power plants?  Ok, what’s the practical alternative?  Reddy Kilowatt cannot do his work if there is no viable and acceptable power generation and distribution system. 
In addition to the aesthetics, wind has its own set of environmental problems.  Some are deforestation, erosion and deaths of substantial numbers of birds of prey.  Solar power is promising, but not yet practical.  Solar panels are expensive, need continual maintenance and/or replacement and are at best 40% efficient.  This compares with up to 60% for natural gas power plants.  Hydroelectric is unpopular and has limited growth potential.  Geothermal and tidal is also possible for very limited locations.

For obvious reasons of portability, energy for the transportation system is an even tougher issue.  Liquefied natural gas (fossil fuel) shows promise for surface transportation, particularly commercial vehicles.  Electrically powered vehicles, however, face two major challenges, power availability and storage.  No matter what type of battery is in a vehicle, it must be charged from some other generation source (see above).  Energy comes from the fuel in the tank, not the tank itself.  A battery is as useless as an empty gas tank until you until you fill it up.

Recent events with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have brought to the forefront the limitations of high efficiency lithium ion batteries.  The future of electric automobiles is stalled until these limitations are overcome.  Although a major disruption for Boeing and the airlines, solution of the 787 battery issues will do far more for electric cars than it will for airplanes. 

The 787 can achieve most of its efficiency without lithium batteries.  They were chosen to help achieve the aggressive weight saving target that Boeing set for the Dreamliner.  Since there is no current alternative to jet fuel for airliners, efficiency must come from other places.  Specifically, it comes from increased engine performance and decreased aircraft weight.  Battery powered automobiles however, whether hybrid or fully electric, rely on safe, lightweight, and powerful batteries.  These batteries are mandatory, not just desirable.  If these batteries are deemed unsafe, the already anemic electric cars business is in serious trouble. 

Real technological advancement is difficult, messy and sometimes dangerous.  It includes huge financial investment, very smart people, research, failure, perseverance, and most of all patience.  It would be wonderful if it were as simple to realize a good idea, as it is to think of it.  Doing more with less (energy, human resources, side effects, environmental impacts, safety risks, etc.) is very difficult.  It’s not all butterflies, bunnies and unicorns.

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