Monday 18 March 2013

I saw a video of a great TED talk today by Justin Hall-Topping, ‘Freeing energy from the grid’.


The video, along with my current re-reading for the nth plus 1 time of one of Arthur C. Clarke’s great science fiction novels, ‘Imperial Earth’, reminded me of the expression ‘the future isn’t what it used to be’ – usually attributed to the famous baseball player and manager Yogi Berra. If we look back only twenty years, and certainly when we look back forty years ago, the future and specifically the energy future looked very different to what it looks like now. Official energy forecasts in the UK in the 1980s foretold of a future based on ‘CoNucCo’ – coal, nuclear and conservation, and increasing energy demand. As it turned out energy demand in 2011 was pretty similar to energy demand in 1970, despite very significant growth in real GDP. Coal use has declined but still makes up a significant proportion of power generation and of course the use of gas grew dramatically. It seems as if we serious under-estimated the effects of improved energy efficiency.


Anyway, back to the theme of the future. I am a technological optimist and the presentation by Justin Hall-Topping focused on the fascinating area of nanomaterials for energy. Examples given included materials that are only a few molecules thick but could convert windows into active components that can allow energy into a building or let it out at will (an old idea which is also being worked on using some other technologies), super efficient water filtration systems, and super-efficient storage systems. Friends of mine at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign have developed and are commercializing self-healing materials – itself an amazing technology. Now they have applied them to batteries and have technology that can extend battery life and prevent battery fires (note to Boeing – you should check this out for the 787 problem).


It doesn’t matter whether the specific technologies described in any examples are really viable, that is the nature of new technology development, some will be winners and a lot will be losers (along with their early investors). The point is that world-wide there is an incredible number of new and amazing technologies, many of which will change the world’s energy system and greatly improve energy efficiency, either at the level of individual devices or by completely changing the way we do things. These are the ‘unknown unknowns’ I referred to in an earlier post that will change the future. It is likely that the energy future in twenty years time will look very different to what it looks like now as some of these technologies – particularly in smart and nano-materials – will have emerged and started to be widely applied. I suspect the future vision then won’t include such basic and archaic technologies as combustion based systems of all kinds, nuclear fission, wind turbines and photovoltaics as we know them today. I look forward to seeing that exciting future.

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Dr Steven Fawkes

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