The Future of Energy → Washingtons Blog
The Future of Energy - Washingtons Blog

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Future of Energy

There is plenty of energy for everyone.

Sure, I know all about peak oil and the dangers of nuclear energy and the high cost to produce solar and wind energy.

But those things are all trivial compared to the untapped energy sources we have all around us.

That's Hot

For example, heat can be used to generate electricity. This is true not only on the industrial scale, but even on the level of your home faucet. Indeed, inventors have already built home faucet kits which turn the unused heat from your hot water into electricity.

In hot climates, black thermal-electric mats could be installed on roofs to generate electricity.

Heat is a byproduct of other processes, and so nothing special needs to be done to create it. Just about every human activity and many natural processes create heat, so we just have to utilize it.


Another use of a free, wasted byproduct to generate electricity is piezo-electric energy. "Piezo" means pressure. Anything that produces pressure can produce energy.

For example, a train station in Japan installed piezo-electric equipment in the ground, so that the foot traffic of those walking through the train station generates electricity (turnstiles at train, subway and ferry stations, ballparks and amusement parks can also generate electricity).

Similarly, all exercise machines at the gym or at home can be hooked up to produce electricity.

But perhaps the greatest untapped sources of piezo-electric energy are freeways and busy roads. If piezo-electric mats were installed under the busiest sections, the thousands of tons of vehicles passing over each day would generate massive amounts of electricity for the city's use.

Harvesting The Ocean of Energy

We are surrounded by an ocean of energy. While we can see light and feel heat, most electromagnetic energy is beyond our senses.

We are like a starving man who can't see or smell and is surrounded by food, but doesn't know it. We can learn how to cheaply "harvest" the energy that is all around us.


Well, scientists have figured out that solar collection is much more efficient if you focus the sunlight:

And see this.

Similarly, we can build devices that efficiently collect and concentrate other types of electromagnetic energy. Initially, engineers should tinker with Faraday cages - trying by trial and error every conceivable natural and high-tech material - until they figure out how to build collectors which can channel, concentrate and collect useful forms of electromagnetic energy. (Instead of a rectangular shaped Faraday mesh to keep electromagnetic energy out, you can build out shapes to channel energy, like a fountain can channel and collect water - get it?).

The sun produces light and heat, but also various forms of magnetic and other energies. It also produces exotic particles like neutrinos.

At first, we will be only able to collect and use very limited portions of the EM spectrum. Eventually, we will be able to use more and more parts of the spectrum to power our machines directly or through conversion to other types of energy.

One day, virtually every surface will be turned into an energy-production medium. Instead of having discreet energy-producing machines, roofs, exterior walls, sidewalks, roads and many other surfaces will be coated with "smart materials" which convert light, heat, pressure and other inputs into useful energy, which are then collected, stored and distributed as needed.

Hundreds or thousands of years in the future, mankind might even learn how to collect the virtual particles which are constantly popping into and out of existence.

Indeed, one of the world's leading trend forecasters, Gerald Calente, believes that zero point energy or energy generated by neutrinos or other high-tech methods might be stumbled upon fairly soon - and that such a discovery would lift us out of the economic depression. He also says that producing our own energy for our homes and cars (called "micro generation") will become a huge trend in the next couple of decades. See this.

Harvesting The Ocean of Energy

Perhaps the biggest evolution needed in people's thinking - in any area of life - is how we think about energy.

The current paradigm is that energy is produced expensively by governments or large corporations through gigantic projects using enormous amounts of money, materials and manpower. Because energy can only be produced by the big boys, we the people must bow our heads to the powers-that-be. We must pay a lot of our hard-earned money to buy electricity from them, and we can't question the methods or results of their energy production.

Our life will become much better when we begin to understand that energy is all around us - as an ocean of electromagnetic forces and as a byproduct of other processes in the form of heat, pressure, etc. - and all we need do is learn how to harvest it.

Note 1: A better future of plentiful energy will only happen if we loudly demand it from our politicians and other "leaders". If we just sit back and wait for it, the powers-that-be will buy up and suppress all promising technology, to ensure that the models of scarcity and centralized energy production - and thus high prices and concentration of power - prevail.

Note 2: Buckminister Fuller worked for 50 years to show that things can be designed and built efficiently and with little input of energy, materials, money and manpower. Energy engineers must obviously ensure high EROI (energy return on investment, to ensure more energy output than input). However, high energy requirements during the R&D and production phase may be more than compensated for by a long lifetime of energy generation once installed. In other words, it is obviously necessary to look at the entire lifecycle of the technology.

Note 3: Engineers looking for ideas to test need not brainstorm from scratch. For example, you can look at sites like this one for brainstorming from non-scientists on means of generating energy. If you throw out 99 ideas as contrary to the laws of physics or impractical but find one good one, that one idead could be worth its weight in gold.


  1. Everything you mention is possible but I am curious to see the EROI of these devices. If it takes more to build them then they produce then there is a problem. The important thing is to keep the grid hot at all cost. Without it we go back to the stone age. Power production was what I did for a living starting with running a submarine reactor in the 60's .

    The big problem with these new devices is they all will take time to develop into a viable device. That's why we need to build nuke plants to provide base load and wind and solar to deal with peak.

    We need to conserve the fossil fuels we have in the US to handle items that are not handled by any other method at present.

    We need another 100 nuke plants and a processing plant to reprocess fuel and a storage facility to handle the waste we can't process.

    If we don't be prepared to have more air pollution from all the horses we'll have to have to replace trucks, tractors and cars.

  2. Grey Tiger,

    I fear I agree with you, but like fiat currency exponential banking, printing money out of nothing; and living in denial about the exponential function (zimbabwe economics) consequences; the same applies to energy. ENERGY RETURN ON ENERGY INVESTED ain't a concept many wish to understand; they think that if a barrel of oil two miles underground: GREAT; they don't think about whether it requires 3 or 4 barrels to get that barell -- is the type of business sense that the banks that play credit default swaps play!

    All stems from a refusal to look at the deeper picture: don't want to confront the end of cheap oil energy civilisation:

    I hope I am wrong; I sure do; but I suspect not. I suspect Dmitry hit the nail on the head (2005):

    The U.S. is desperately dependent on the availability of cheap, plentiful oil and natural gas, and addicted to economic growth. Once oil and gas become expensive (as they already have) and in ever-shorter supply (a matter of one or two years at most), economic growth will stop, and the U.S. economy will collapse.

    The lack of attention paid to the subject over the decades resulted not from ignorance, but from denial: although the basic theory that is used to model and predict resource depletion has been well understood since the 1960s, most people prefer to remain in denial.

    What tends to collapse rather suddenly is the economy. Economies, too, are known to collapse, and do so with far greater regularity than civilizations. An economy does not collapse into a black hole from which no light can escape. Instead, something else happens: society begins to spontaneously reconfigure itself, establish new relationships, and evolve new rules, in order to find a point of equilibrium at a lower rate of resource expenditure.

    Note that the exercise carries a high human cost: without an economy, many people suddenly find themselves as helpless as newborn babes. Many of them die, sooner than they would otherwise: some would call this a “die-off.” There is a part of the population that is most vulnerable: the young, the old, and the infirm; the foolish and the suicidal. There is also another part of the population that can survive indefinitely on insects and tree bark. Most people fall somewhere in between.

    Now that a lot of the predictions are coming true more or less on schedule, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the steady climb of energy prices and the dire warnings from energy experts of every stripe, outright denial is being gradually replaced with subtler forms of denial, which center around avoiding any serious, down-to-earth discussion of the likely actual consequences of peak oil, and of the ways one might cope with them.

    Instead, there is much discussion of policy: what “we” should do. The “we” in question is presumably some embodiment of the great American Can-Do Spirit: a brilliantly organized consortium of government agencies, leading universities and research centers, and major corporations, all working together toward the goal of providing plentiful, clean, environmentally safe energy, to fuel another century of economic expansion. Welcome to the sideshow at the end of the universe!

    One often hears that “We could get this done, if only we wanted to.” Most often one hears this from non-specialists, sometimes from economists, and hardly ever from scientists or engineers. A few back-of-the-envelope calculations are generally enough to suggest otherwise, but here logic runs up against faith in the Goddess of Technology: that she will provide. On her altar are assembled various ritualistic objects used to summon the Can-Do Spirit: a photovoltaic cell, a fuel cell, a vial of ethanol, and a vial of bio-diesel. Off to the side of the altar is a Pandora’s box packed with coal, tar sand, oceanic hydrates, and plutonium: if the Goddess gets angry, it’s curtains for life on Earth.

    But let us look beyond mere faith, and focus on something slightly more rational instead. This “we,” this highly organized, high-powered problem-solving entity, is quickly running out of energy, and once it does, it will not be so high-powered any more. I would like to humbly suggest that any long-term plan it attempts to undertake is doomed, simply because crisis conditions will make long-term planning, along with large, ambitious projects, impossible. Thus, I would suggest against waiting around for some miracle device to put under the hood of every SUV and in the basement of every McMansion, so that all can live happily ever after in this suburban dream, which is looking more and more like a nightmare in any case.

    The next circle of denial revolves around what must inevitably come to pass if the Goddess of Technology were to fail us: a series of wars over ever more scarce resources. Paul Roberts, who is very well informed on the subject of peak oil, has this to say: “what desperate states have always done when resources turn scarce… [is] fight for them.” [, 11/12 2004] Let us not argue that this has never happened, but did it ever amount to anything more than a futile gesture of desperation? Wars take resources, and, when resources are already scarce, fighting wars over resources becomes a lethal exercise in futility. Those with more resources would be expected to win. I am not arguing that wars over resources will not occur. I am suggesting that they will be futile, and that victory in these conflicts will be barely distinguishable from defeat.
    Surviving Peak Oil & Economic Collapse, by Dmirty Orlove

  3. In researching EROI of various power sources one thing hit me. For some devices with low EROI building them might still make sense in that it takes a high input of things to build them but thereafter they provide a constant source of power. Since EROI is an input output formula subject to each interpretation they seldom should be the bottom line. For instance nuke plant EROI wander all over the place generally depending whether your for or against them.

  4. grey tiger, you will be dead before your , or my children start dealing the the cost, the toxic waste from your hundred nuke plants, or maybe it will be our deformed grandchildren that have to clean up that mess...
    not a pretty imagination and a rotten EROI

  5. I can't think of a Naval Reactor that has had a problem and that's from running one for ten years and following them for 60 years. Three Mile Island is the only US reactor that had a problem and she did not break containment. Chernoble a different story but a very shitty reactor. The simple fact is you cannot keep the grid hot with conventional or alternate fuels in the foreseeable future we need a stop gap source and nuke is all I see out there if you got more let's talk about it.

  6. Too much seismic activity heating up to even think about nuke plants. Here is something for a small step everyone can take right now. I believe in taking responsibility. (able to respond) Steven Jones designed a solar oven project before he left BYU. It is really cheap, seriously easy and works perfectly if you get a little sun. Just throw one together, stash it in a closet and if and when the grid goes down, you can boil water for safe drinking, as well as cook stuff. We are probably going to have to be somewhat self sufficient with backups until more complex energy strategies are in place.

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