The Fate of Humanity

the-futureWelcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.

1. Humanrien:
extinctionDue to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.

One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…

2. Post-Apocalyptic:
post-apocalypticWhether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.

At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.

3. Dog Days:
arcology_lillypadThe world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.

The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.

In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.

No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.

4. Technological Plateau:
computer_chip4Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.

It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.

Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.

Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!

5. The Green Revolution:
MarsGreenhouse2The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.

Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.

This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.

Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…

6. Intrepid Explorers:
spacex-icarus-670Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.

These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.

This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.

One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…

7. Post-Humanity:
artificial-intelligence1Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.

Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.

It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.

Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.

8. Star Children:
nanomachineryEarth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.

Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.

If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…


Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!

Powered by the Sun: Mirrored Solar Dishes

sun_magneticfieldIn the race to develop alternative energy sources, solar power is the undeniable top contender. In addition to being infinitely renewable So much sunlight hits the Earth each day that the world’s entire electricity needs could be met by harvesting only 2% of the solar energy in the Sahara Desert. Of course, this goal has remained elusive due to the problem of costs – both in the manufacture of solar panels and the installation therefor.

But researchers at IBM think they’re one step closer to making solar universally accessible with a low-cost system that can concentrate the sunlight by 2,000 times. The system uses a dish covered in mirrors to aim sunlight in a small area, and which follows the sun throughout the day to catch the most light. Other concentrated solar power systems do the same thing, but a typical system only converts around 20% of the incoming light to usable energy, while this one can convert 80%.

Inline_solardishThis not only ensures a much larger yield, but also makes the energy it harvests cheap. Bruno Michel, the manager for advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research, believes the design could be three-times cheaper than “comparable” systems. Officially, the estimate he provides claim that the cost per kilowatt hour will work out to less than 10 cents, which works out to 0.01 cents per watt (significantly cheaper than the $0.74 per watt of standard solar).

But as he explains, using simple materials also helps:

The reflective material we use for the mirror facets are similar to that of potato chip bags. The reinforced concrete is also similar to what is being used to build bridges around the world. So outside of the receiver, which contains the photovoltaic chips, we are using standard materials.

A few small high-tech parts will be built in Switzerland (where the prototype is currently being produced). but the main parts of the equipment could easily be built locally, wherever it’s being used. It’s especially well-suited for sunny areas that happen to be dry. As the system runs, it can use excess heat that would normally be wasted to desalinate water. Hence, a large installation could provide not only abundant electricity, but clean drinking water for an entire town.

inline-i-solar-02A combined system of this kind could be an incredible boon to economies in parts of the world that are surrounded by deserts, such as North Africa or Mongolia. But given the increasing risk of worldwide droughts caused by Climate Change, it may also become a necessity in the developed world. Here, such dishes could not only provide clean energy that would reduce our carbon footprint, but also process water for agricultural use, thus combating the problem on two fronts.

IBM researchers are currently working with partners at Airlight Energy, ETH-Zurich, and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to finish building a large prototype, which they anticipate will be ready by the end of this summer. After testing, they hope to start production at scale within 18 months. Combined with many, many other plans to make panels cheaper and more effective, we can expect to be seeing countless options for solar appearing in the near future.

And if recent years are any indication, we can expect solar usage to double before the year is out.


News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted

The Future is Here: Wind Drones and Clean Buildings

wind_powerIt’s no secret that wind power is one of main clean forms of energy that is being considered as a viable alternative to coal, oil and gas. But much like solar, tidal and geothermal, the method has some flaws that is preventing it from being adopted in a more widespread fashion. However, as an infinitely renewable source of energy, it likely just a matter of time before technical developments lead to its wholesale use.

The first challenge has to do with size. Currently, wind farms are massive operations, and many designers think they need to continue to get bigger in order to generate the kinds of electricity we currently need. However, a Netherlands-based startup named Ampyx Power is looking in another direction: an airborne wind turbine that they think could capture the same amount of energy as a large operation.

ampyx-power-powerplane-6-topview-1Basically, their design is a small glider plane attached by cable to a generator, which is then deployed into the air and flies in figure eights. As it moves, the glider pulls on the capable, and the generator converts the movement to electricity. Since it isn’t attached to a tower, it can soar nearly 2,000 feet in the air, catching stronger winds that produce about eight times more energy than the lower-altitude breezes that reach a normal wind turbine.

So in addition to being able to produce more power than a typical wind farm, it costs significantly less than its competitor. The average wind farm weighs about 120 metric tons, while the glider system weighs in at a mere 363 kilograms (800 pounds). And in addition to being cheaper than other renewables, the process may even be cheaper than coal.

wind-power-660As Wolbert Allaart, the startup’s managing director, put it:

We’re replacing tons of steel and concrete. It’s a huge materials reduction, and we can produce the same amount of power. That obviously has an effect on cost as well… The whole reason why we’re doing this is because we think we can get the cost of a kilowatt-hour well below the price of coal.

And Ampyx is hardly alone in developing the technology. In fact, their design is similar to California-based Makani Power’s glider. This company was acquired by Google earlier this year, while Ampyx raised the necessary capital via a crowdfunding campaign. And though there are some differences in the design and methods employed, both companies dream of a day when wind will replace coal and other dirty means.

ampyx-power1Because the planes are so efficient, places that might not have worked for wind power in the past – like forests, where trees catch and redirect the wind – could be a fit for the system, so the market is wide open. And given his country’s growing interest in wind power, Allaart hopes to introduce it to the domestic market very soon:

In Holland, where we’re based, we now have a 4.3 billion Euro subsidy scheme for offshore wind. People are starting to wonder already, if we have a technology being developed in our own country that could provide offshore wind at more or less competitive price with coal, why on Earth are we still subsidizing this so heavily? How fast this grows will depend on political will.

pertamina-energy-tower4site-aerialsomAnother very cool wind-related story comes from Jakarta, where a massive tower is being planned that will be capable of generating all its own power. It’s known as the Pertamina Energy Tower, the proposed headquarters of the Pertamina power company. And while the proposed building will be 99 stories in height, it will also gather all its power from wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

When it comes to its wind operations, the building’s height plays to its advantage. At the top of the building, a funnel captures wind, sucks it inside, and speeds it up to run a series of vertical wind turbines. In this respect, the building operates like a giant, vertical wind tunnel. Solar energy will also be incorporated through panels that will cover the roofs of other buildings on the new campus.

pertamina-energy-tower2energy-ribbonsomBut perhaps the most impressive feat comes in the form of geothermal, a type of energy that’s uniquely suited for Indonesia because it’s a volcanic island chain. Geothermal systems in Indonesia can tap directly into superheated sources of subterranean steam with a single pipe, unlike typical systems that are more complicated and expensive to engineer.

Scott Duncan, the director of Pertamina’s architecture firm – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) – who led the project, describes it this way:

It would essentially provide an unlimited energy source for the tower and campus and could make the tower the world’s first energy-positive supertall building.

pertamina-energy-tower6In addition to meeting this clean-energy trifecta, the design of the tower is focused on saving energy as much generating it. Sun-shading “leaves” on two sides of the building cut glare and shade the brightest sunlight while still keeping the inside of the offices bright enough to avoid most artificial lighting. Instead of power-sucking air conditioners, the building uses water-based radiant cooling systems to keep the temperatures even.

Along with other strategies, the energy-saving design elements mean that the campus – which will include a mosque, a performing arts and exhibition center, and sports facilities along with the office space – can keep energy use low enough that renewable power may be able to cover its entire energy needs. In short, the building could prove to be a model of energy-independence.

pertamina-energy-tower5However, the motivation for this project go beyond the altruistic, and involve a good many practical considerations. For starters, Jakarta still has an unreliable power grid, and if the campus generates its own power, work and play won’t get interrupted. The buildings also won’t have to rely on diesel fuel generators if the city’s power goes down.

The technology is expected to be adopted elsewhere, particularly China where wind power is expanding all the time. Indonesia, despite its easy access to geothermal energy, is not the windiest place in the world. Cities that are strategically located along coastlines or in elevated regions would find the wind tunnel feature that much more useful, reducing their dependence on the other two forms of energy.

shanghai_towerWhat’s more, this building is in many respects what one would call an Arcology, and just happens to be the second one being planned for construction in the world today. The other, un-coincidentally enough, is China’s Shanghai Tower, a building that is one-third green space and a transparent second skin that surrounds the city in a protective air envelope that controls its internal temperature.

And with global energy prices increasing, the sources of easily-accessible oil disappearing, and atmospheric CO2 levels steadily rising, we can expect to see more buildings like these ones going up all around the world. We’re also likely to see more creative and innovative forms of power generation popping up in our backyards. Much like peak oil, centralized grids and dependence on unclean energy is disappearing…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Ampyx Power glider in action:

fastcoexist, (2)

Powered by the Sun: New Film Increases Solar Efficiency

sun_magneticfieldWith every passing year, solar power is getting cheaper and more efficient. And with every development that brings costs down and increases electrical yields, the day that it comes to replace fossil fuels and coal as the primary means of meeting our power needs gets that much closer. And with this latest development, this changeover may be coming sooner than expected.

It comes from North Carolina State University where researchers have developed a new system for strengthening the connections between stacked solar cells which could allow cells to operate at concentrations of up to 70,000 suns while minimizing wasted energy. This is especially good news seeing as how stacked cells are already an improvement over conventional solar cells.solar_panelStacked solar cells are made up of several cells that are placed one on top of the other, an arrangement that allows up to 45 percent of the absorbed solar energy to be converted into electricity. This is a significant improvement over single-junction solar cells which have a theoretical maximum conversion rate of 33.7 percent, and is made possible by the fact a stack formation prevents heat from being lost between panels.

The team at NCSU discovered that by inserting a very thin film layer of gallium arsenide into the connecting junction of stacked cells, they can eliminate energy loss ever further. The idea was inspired by the fact that cells typically start to break down at the connection junctions once they reach concentrations of 700 suns. With the addition of gallium arsenide in these spots, the connections become stronger, and all without sacrificing absorption.

solar_cell1Dr. Salah Bedair, a professor of electrical engineering at NCSU and senior author of the paper on this research:

Now we have created a connecting junction that loses almost no voltage, even when the stacked solar cell is exposed to 70,000 suns of solar energy. And that is more than sufficient for practical purposes, since concentrating lenses are unlikely to create more than 4,000 or 5,000 suns worth of energy.

At the moment, this technology is geared towards large scale solar power operations. Stacked cells are usually used in conjunction with optical concentration devices, such as Fresnel lenses, and mounted on a dual-axis solar trackers that keep the cell facing the Sun’s rays during daylight. So basically, we’re not likely to be seeing this technology available for local use. But it would be surprising if domestic consumers weren’t likely to benefit from it all the same.

solar_cell_galliumAs Dr. Bedair explained, the adoption of the technology will mean lower costs for the energy industry, and smaller arrays which will mean less land that needs to be set aside for use:

This [system] should reduce overall costs for the energy industry because, rather than creating large, expensive solar cells, you can use much smaller cells that produce just as much electricity by absorbing intensified solar energy from concentrating lenses. And concentrating lenses are relatively inexpensive.

What’s more, gallium arsenide is not exactly cheap to produce at the time. However, with constant refinements being made in industrial production processes, we can expect the cost of these to come down as well. As with everything else with solar power and renewable energy, its only a matter of time…


Powered By The Sun: Visualizing Swanson’s Law

solar_power1For decades, solar power has been dogged by two undeniable problems that have prevented it from replacing fossil fuels as our primary means of energy. The first has to do the cost of producing and installing solar cells, which until recently remained punitively. The second has to do with efficiency, in that conventional photovoltaic cells remained inefficient as far as most cost per watt analyses went. But thanks to a series of developments, solar power has been beating the odds on both fronts and coming down in price.

However, to most people, it was unclear exactly how far it had come down in price. And thanks to a story recently published in The Economist, which comes complete with a helpful infographic, we are now able to see firsthand the progress that’s been made. To call it astounding would be an understatement; and for the keen observer, a certain pattern is certainly discernible.

PPTMooresLawaiIt’s known as the “Swanson Effect” (or Swanson’s Law), a theory that suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. Named after Richard Swanson, the founder of the major American solar-cell manufacturer named SunPower, this law is basically an imitation of Moore’s Law, which states that every 18 months or so, the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves.

What this means, in effect, is that in solar-rich areas of the world, solar power can now compete with gas and coal without the need for clean energy subsidies. As it stands, solar energy still accounts for only  a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity needs. But when you consider that this represents a 86% increase over last year and prices shall continue to drop, you begin to see a very trend in the making.

What this really means is that within a few decades time, alternative energy won’t be so alternative anymore. Alongside such growth made in wind power, tidal harnesses, and piezoelectric bacterias and kinetic energy generators, fossil fuels, natural gas and coal will soon be the “alternatives” to cheap, abundant and renewable energy. Combined with advances being made in carbon capture and electric/hydrogen fuel cell technology, perhaps all will arrive in time to stave off environmental collapse!

Check out the infographic below and let the good news of the “Swanson Effect” inspire you!:


The Future is Here: The (Super) Supercapacitor

supercapacitor_movieLast year, researchers at UCLA made a fantastic, albeit accidental, when a team of scientists led by chemist Richard Kaner devised an efficient method for producing high-quality sheets of graphene. This supermaterial, which won its developers the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a carbon material that is known for its incredible strength and flexibility, which is why it is already being considered for use in electronic devices, solar cells, transparent electrodes, and just about every other futuristic high-tech application.

Given the fact that the previous method of producing graphene sheets (peeling it with scotch tape) was not practical, the development of the new production process was already good news. However, something even more impressive happened when Maher El-Kady, a researcher in Kaner’s lab, wired a small square of their high quality carbon sheets to a lightbulb.

supercapacitor1After showing it to Dr. Kaner, the team quickly realized they had stumbled onto a supercapacitor material – a high-storage battery that also boasts a very fast recharge rate – that boasted a greater energy storage capacity than anything currently on the market. Naturally, their imaginations were fired, and their discovery has been spreading like wildfire through the engineering and scientific community.

The immediate benefit of batteries that use this new material are obvious. Imagine if you will having a PDA, tablet, or other mobile device that can be charged within a matter of seconds instead of hours. With batteries so quick to charge and able to store an abundant supply of volts, watts, or amperes, the entire market of consumer electronics would be revolutionized.

electric_carBut looking ahead, even greater applications become clear. Imagine electric cars that only need a few minute to recharge, thus making the gasoline engine all but obsolete. And graphene-based batteries could be making an impact when it comes to the even greater issue of energy storage with regards to solar and other renewable energy sources.

In the year since they made their discovery, the researchers report that El-Kady’s original fabrication process can be made even more efficient. The original process involved placing a solution of graphite oxide on a plastic surface and then subjecting it to lasers to oxigenate and turn the solution into graphene. A year ago, the team could produce only a few sheets at a time, but now have a scalable method which could very quickly lead to manufacturing and wide-scale technological implementation.

solar_array1As it stands, an electric car with a recharge rate of a few minutes is still several years away. But Dr. Kaner and his team expect that graphene supercapacitors batteries will be finding their way into the consumer world much sooner than anyone originally expected.  According to Kaner, his lab is already courting partners in industry, so keep your eyes pealed!

Combined with the new technologies of lithium-ion and nanofabricated batteries, we could be looking at a possible solution to the worlds energy problem right here. What’s more, it could be the solution that makes solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy feasible, efficient, and profitable enough that they will finally supplant fossil fuels and coal as the main source of energy production worldwide.

Only time will tell… And be sure to check out the video of Dr. Kaner and El-Kady showing off the process that led to this discovery:


Powered by the Sun: Microbead Solar Cells

solar3Despite how far solar cells have come in recent years, issues like production and installation costs have remained an ongoing obstacle to their full scale adoption. But as they say, obstacles are meant to be overcome, and can often produce very interesting solutions. For example, peel and stick solar panels that can be manufactured by a 3D printer are one option. Another is the recent creation of a solar cell as thin as a strand of hair. And as it happens, a third has just been unveiled.

This latest one comes to us from the University of Oslo, where researchers have come up with a way to produce silicon solar cells that are twenty times thinner than commercial solar cells. Typically, solar cells are fashioned out of 200-micrometer-thick (0.2mm) wafers of silicon, which given their average rate of power generation works out to about five grams of silicon per watt of solar power. Combined with all the silicon wasted in the production process, this makes for a very inefficient process.

Solar-Wafer-Solar-CellsOne way around this is to reduce the thickness of solar wafers, but this presents its own problems. As the wafer gets thinner, more light passes straight through the silicon, dramatically reducing the amount of electricity produced by the photovoltaic effect. Blue light, which has a short wavelength, can be absorbed by a very thin solar cell; but red light, which has longer wavelengths, can only be captured by thicker wafers.

Enter into this the breakthrough created by the Oslo researchers. Using a revolutionary technique involving microbeads – tiny plastic spheres that create an almost perfect periodic pattern on the silicon. Apparently, these beads force the sunlight to “move sideways,” ensuring a more uniform and powerful rate of absorption. Another trick is to dot the backs of each cell with asymmetric microindentations,which can trap even more solar energy.

solar_beadsUsing these techniques, silicon wafers can be created that measure a mere 10 micrometers in thickness but can do the job of a 200 micrometer cell. By using 95% less silicon, the cost of production drops considerably, which will reduce the cost of solar power installations and – more importantly – increase profits. With current production methods and costs, the profit margin associated with solar power is pretty negligible.

This latter aspect is especially important as far as commercial production comes into play. If we are to expect industries to adopt solar power for their energy needs, it has to be worth their while. At the moment, the Oslo researchers are in talks with industrial partners to investigate whether these methods can be scaled up to industrial production. But given the nature of their work, they seem quite confident that their technology could come to the market within five to seven years.

Stay tuned for more installments in the PBTS series!


Powered by the Sun: Solar-Powered Reactors

solar2Welcome back to another installment in PBTS! Today’s news item is a rather interesting one, and it comes to us from the University of Delaware where researcher Erik Koepf has come up with an interest twist on solar power. In most cases, scientists think to use cells that can absorb photons and use them to generate a flow of electrons. But in Koepf’s case, sunlight is used in a different way; namely, as a means of creating alternative fuels.

Basically, the concept for Koepft’s new solar-powered reactor revolves around the idea of getting directly to the hydrogen that is found in conventional fuels, i.e. coal and fossil fuels. While they are decent enough energy sources, they do not burn clean, due to the extensive impurities they carry and by-products they create. If it were possible to remove the essential hydrogen from them, we would have a clean burning and efficient energy supply without the hassle of pollution.

Nuclear MOX plant : recycling nuclear waste : Submerged Spent Fuel Elements with Blue GlowAnd that’s where the solar reactor comes in. As the name suggests, the reactor relies on the Sun’s energy, which it then uses to split water molecules to get at their hydrogen atoms. This is done by exposing a zinc oxide powder on a ceramic surface to massive amounts of focused sunlight. From there, a thermochemical reaction happens that splits water apart into oxygen and hydrogen.

Though it may sound complicated, the sheer beauty of this concept lies in that fact that it uses the Sun’s infinite energy to do the heavy lifting and accomplish atom smashing. No particle accelerators, no nuclear fusion or fission; and best of all, no pollution! Since the process creates no emissions or Greenhouse gases, this is perhaps one of the most environmentally friendly energy concepts to date.

But of course, the project has some additional requirement which fall under the heading, “additional parts sold separately”. For one, the reactor needs to get seriously hot – between 1750° to 1950° Celsius (3182° to 3542° Fahrenheit) – before it can get to the work of splitting water molecules. For this, a focusing mirror that is roughly 13 square meters, flawlessly flat and 98% reflective is needed.

solarpowergeNo much mirror existed when Koepf and Michael Giuliano (his research associate) got started, so they had to develop their own. In addition, that mirror needs to focus the solar energy it collects onto a tiny six centimeter circle that has to be precisely aimed. If the light is just a millimeter or two off to one side, the entire reactor could be damaged. In essence, the system is simple and ingenious, but also temperamental and very fragile.

What’s more, just how efficient it is remains to be seen. While the first tests were successful in creating small amounts of hydrogen, the  the real test will take place next month when the duo present their reactor in Zurich, Switzerland, where it will be running at full power for the very first time. Naturally, expectations are high, but it is too soon to tell if this represents the future or a failed attempt at viable alternative power.


Powered by the Sun: Solar Powered Clothing

solar1Imagine threads that would turn the wearer into a walking power source. That’s the concept behind a new type of fiber-optic solar cell developed by John Badding of Penn State University. Announced back in December of 2012, this development could very well lead to the creation of full-body solar cells that you wear, providing you with an ample amount of renewable electricity that you could could carry with you everywhere you go.

Similar in appearance to most fiber-optic cables made from flexible glass fibers, these new solar cells are thinner than the average human hair and could conceivably be woven into clothing. Whereas you conventional solar cell exists only in two-dimensions and can only absorb energy when facing the sun, this 3D cross-section of silicon infused fiber are capable of absorbing light from any direction.

flexible-solar-cell-625x418Already, John Badding and his research team have received interest from the United States military about creating clothing that can act as a wearable power source for soldiers while they’re in the field. In addition, like peel and stick solar panels, we can expect commercial applications for satchels, like the kind used to house laptops. Forget the power cable, now you can charge your battery pack just by setting it in the sun.

And given the upsurge in wearable tattoos and implantable medical devices, these fibers could also prove useful in clothing to ensure a steady supply of power that they could draw from. Hell, I can picture “solar shirts” that have a special recharging pocket where you can place your MP3 player, smartphone, tablet, or any other electronic device once the battery runs down.

Solar-Panels-625x418Naturally, all of this is still in the research and development stage of things. John Badding and his team have yet to aggregate the single strands into a piece of woven material, meaning it is still speculative as to whether or not they will be able to withstand the stress faced by regular clothing without breaking down. Nevertheless, the material is still a significant advancement for solar energy, with the new cells presenting many possibilities for remote energy use and accessibility.

And I for one am still excited about the emergence of fabric that generates electricity. Not only is it a surefire and sophisticated way of reducing our carbon footprint, it’s science fiction gold!