Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I believe in Renewable Energy, and here's why

Renewable energy (RE) is a subjective and divisive topic, one that is influenced by many factors, including corruption, greed and purposeful ignorance, scientific and technological advances, and simple entrepreneurial spirit vs. entrenched interests.

Here are some of the reasons that I believe that we will see RE replace old energy by the midpoint of this century:

* It has been estimated that an area 55 miles by 55 miles dedicated to current solar technologies could replace all the electrical generating power of coal and oil (in the US). Or an area 80x80 miles to replace oil, coal and natural gas. (Here in the US we have over 100,000 square miles of desert, so space isn’t a problem)

* Regarding storage technologies (1) for when the sun is down: consider the advances taking place in fuel cells, batteries (LI, redox flow batteries, and 1300-ton battery modules used for grid stabilization), flywheels, compressed air, ultracapacitors and the likelihood that we will also use battery powered vehicles as storage.

* Regarding “getting the power from the solar installation to the people” – consider advances in superconducting wire and other advanced materials which are very likely to enable cheap and efficient transmission of power from where ever it is generated to where ever it is needed.

* Rooftop and local solar: My solar powered home won’t have to worry about darkness; we’ll tap into the battery reserve, as will all rooftop solar installations. A small percentage of our overall use to be sure, but significant none the less.

And as for explicit subsidies: on a per-energy-unit basis, then yes, solar has received more subsidies than fossil fuels in the very recent past. However, on the amount that each of us taxpayers has spent in a recent five-year period, fossil fuels subsidies far exceed solar.

Estimates range: (2)

Coal subsidies = somewhere between $17B and $72B
Solar subsidies = somewhere between $500M and $5B

And let us not forget that coal subsidizes also include intangible (and often purposefully left out) costs for cleaning up the ecosystem, and the public health expenses associated with all of the damage that the mining and use of coal causes. (3)

In my opinion, at the end of the day it all boils down to two simple facts: 1) technological change is on a double exponential growth curve (4) and 2) simple entrepreneurial spirit.

While we certainly need to wean society off finite, dangerous, polluting resources like coal and oil, the earth can and may go to hell in a handbasket. However, I think that entrepreneurial spirit and the certain fact that there is a barrel of money to be made in renewable energy solutions suggests that we will see RE replace old energy by the midpoint of this century. (5)

(1) "Of the ten advanced energy storage technologies, eight have applications in storage for electric power utilities at some level of development, aiming to provide reliable, economic, and energy-efficient power back-up options." Technical Insights Analyst Miriam Nagel

A123 Systems currently sells 2MW to 200MW grid stabilization systems (battery systems). Being used for large-scale energy storage deployment to support wind and solar integration. Small in comparison to the overall needs, but just one of many rapidly improving technologies.

“If investments in the smart grid infrastructure continue, electric vehicles may become ubiquitous — both because of the economic and environmental sense they make for consumers, and because of the vast store of batteries that will be available to grid operators to balance out the intermittency of wind and solar resources.”

“There are several major studies and research showing how the United States could reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. Over the next two decades, the continually rising costs of fossil fuels will make it prohibitive to continue burning them, so we’ll witness the overdue transition to a largely renewable system. Smart grid upgrades will feature two-way communication to consumer appliances, real-time pricing information, more efficient transmission infrastructure, and advanced battery and flywheel technologies to balance the inherent fluctuations of wind and solar resources.”

(2) “What if solar got the same subsidies as coal?” (Oct 21, 2010)

Coal subsidies: The U.S. coal industry enjoyed subsidies of around $17 billion between 2002 and 2008, including tax credits for production of "nonconventional" fuels ($14.1 billion), tax breaks on coal royalties ($986 million), exploration, and development breaks ($342 million), according to a study by the Environmental Law Institute.

Solar and wind subsidies: So far, the government has handed out about $5.4 billion, according to the Energy Department.

(3) Very informative investigative article

(4) “Most long range forecasts of technical feasibility in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future technology because they are based on what I call the “intuitive linear” view of technological progress rather than the “historical exponential view.” To express this another way, it is not the case that we will experience a hundred years of progress in the twenty-first century; rather we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (at today’s rate of progress, that is).” Ray Kurzweil

(5) During the past 11 years, as the editor of the leading nanoscale technologies web portal, I read and posted over 50,000 articles about advanced and frequently mind-blowing technologies. I have closely followed the very rapid progress in our understanding and utilization of the unique properties of the nanoscale (which greatly differ from the properties that we already understand). At the very least, we are headed for a future that not one of us can predict; what we can predict is that we will undoubtedly see old myths about technologies shattered and changes beyond our current level of comprehension.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Carla wants to know

In response to a question posed by one of my oldest and most perceptive friends, I posted what follows to my Facebook profile.

Her question was posed after watching this video

"Rocky, am I really ignorant and paranoid?

It seems like this technology holds they key to either really, really good stuff for us as a species, or it has the potential for really really bad stuff.

I trust the science and the scientists. I don't trust the Money that controls what's done with the science.

Einstein was a really nice guy. He had no idea his science would be used for war. I don't think any of the Manhattan Project scientists went into it knowing what they were unleashing on the world."

~ Carla Conrad

My answer: A most perspicacious observation, and right on the mark. Occam’s Razor, 21st century style, meaning that you have hit upon the simplest explanation for the potential outcome; like every technological innovation in the past, nanoscale technologies have both the potential for tremendous good and/or tremendous bad. And don’t let my seemingly cavalier use of "tremendous" lull you into a false sense of security; I mean "tremendous" as in "things that have the potential to change everything we think we know about ourselves, while enabling each of us with the power to effect and experience our surroundings in ways heretofore only imagined."

I have been actively and intensely following nanoscale technologies since the early ‘90’s. At the end of the day, my most prescient observation would be that these technologies will have an impact on our global society many times greater than ALL past technological revolutions. Let me put it another way: nanoscale technologies - and the products thereof - will enable far greater change than our discovery, development and use of fire, bronze, iron, steel, electrical power, cars, planes and space travel put together.

Any person, institution or government entity that says "Oh yeah, nanotechnology, we got that handled" is lying their ass off. Equally, any person, institution or government entity that says "Oh yeah, nanotechnology, it’s gonna kill us all in one or more horrible ways" is also lying their ass off. Anyone that fervent usually has a hidden agenda, and one which serves a higher master. You’ll notice I said "usually" – many of my colleagues in the nanospace are humanitarians in the best sense and are talking about and planning for ways in which the good things can be emphasized and the bad minimized or eliminated.

My philosophy is summed up thus:

Nanotechnology will certainly play a pivotal role in our future; now, with the introduction of lighter/stronger materials in the auto, space, and military industries, and later, with the introduction of molecular manufacturing (making items per your specifications, in your own home, for pennies on the dollar of current prices – think "replicator" and you will not be too far off).

Expect to see revolutionary changes in solar, fuel cell and hydrogen storage technologies within the next few years. And expect to see a great deal of interest in and subsequent higher funding of nanotech-enabled sensor technologies for military, homeland security and civilian applications within the next few years. Put another (albeit obvious) way: expect to see cultural tsunamis of a magnitude that rival anything we have thus far experienced.

No informed person doubts that developments at the nanoscale will be significant. We debate the time frame, the magnitude and the possibilities, but not the likelihood for large-scale change. The least-speculative views suggest that we're in for changes of an order that justifies – if not demands – our undivided attention. Will we be ready? (BTW: not kidding, not even the weensiest amount)

OK, off my high horse and back to your previously programmed station…

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Picture of the Day

SiC-SiC Composite
Francois Willaime, CEA/Saclay, France
SEM observation of a mechanical test performed on a SiC-SiC composite.

This wonderful image was selected from the MRS "Science as Art" competition held at recent MRS Spring and Fall Meetings.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Communicating about nanotechnologies

A very nice, short video on emerging nanotechnologies:

And here, a longer video, Titled "Nano, the next dimension"

And here, videos from Johns Hopkins:

I continue to be amazed not only with the rapid advances that we are making in our understanding of nanoscale phenomena but also with our ability to communicate that understanding, as with these videos.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Would You Say?

After a yearlong hiatus, I thought it was about time that I got back on the nano-horse and giddy-yupped into some new thoughts and understandings regarding that tiny little thing we call “nanotechnology.”

As previous readers understand, when I say “nanotechnology” I mean all nanoscale technologies, of which there are thousands today and millions on the technological horizon.

In late 2009, I presented several thought-leaders with the same question that I had asked in years past. “If you had the attention of the entire world, what would you say about nanoscale technologies?”

The answers that I received bring us a step closer to realizing that there continues to be an urgent need for society to pay attention to the mind-boggling rapid growth in our understanding and implementation of nanoscale technologies. Let me put it another way: We are learning more about (and more really important stuff about) why things are different at the nanoscale.

There are maybe a few hundred individuals who understand advanced technologies and can articulate their impact as well as these contributors. (Full disclosure: these folks are long-time, long distance, global-connectivity friends and associates. I seriously respect their individual and collective understanding of and opinions regarding advanced technologies. Mike Treder, Robert A. Freitas Jr. , Neil Gordon, Jack Uldrich and Vic Peña are just some of the world-class minds who you should spend a small part of your time listening to, if you do not do so already.)

From the Futurist

From the futurist we learn that nanoscale technologies are simply another set of new technologies that we need to understand and prepare for. How important are they? They are important on the order of: today and every day that follows, we will be introduced to another of thousands of new products that owe their technological and market leadership to “nanotechnology.” Today and every day that follows we will be confronted by decisions regarding whether or not to allow a nanotech-enabled product into the market; whether or not to pull an existing product from the market because it is simply connected to “nanotech” (or is in fact faulty in some way, thereby tarnishing with the same brush every other nano-enable product). As sure as the day after today is tomorrow, nanotech-enabled products will create a huge stir within society. How well we adapt to those products depends on how much we pay attention, today.

From the Medical Scientist

From the medical scientist we learn that “Medical nanorobotics holds the greatest promise for curing disease and extending the human healthspan.” Cool! Count me in! Nanotech-enabled machines roving around in my body, repairing cellular damage, detecting disease and malfunction, and generally keeping me a fit old son, yeah, count me in. Make me smarter you say?! COUNT ME IN!

From the economists/business men

And from the economists/business men we learn that critically important dollars are not being spent on nanoscale technologies, but are instead being squandered on “business as usual” and politics. Why, oh why, do we sit ineffectively by and watch as our leaders, of both parties, waste our dollars and squander both our future and our grandchildren’s heritage?

We also learn to have a sense of excitement regarding the short- and long-term potential of nanoscale technologies (in spite of our leader’s ineptitude, short-term-gains mindset and back-room dealings).

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. -- Winston Churchill, November 1947

What can we learn from this? Depends on who you are. Average citizens may feel a bit overwhelmed by the exceeding complexity of the science, the enormous potential for societal change, and/or the continued nonsensical meddling in the markets by our elected officials. Scientists, economists, innovators, inventors, investors, and savvy business folk know without a doubt that nano-enabled technologies, followed by the inevitable advanced products, will create massive shock-waves in each of their respective areas. By the way, that means if you can answer “Yes” to “Do you live on Planet Earth?” then count on the fact that the future is going to present us with an increasingly complex and exuberantly abundant supply of new technologies that will change our lifestyles and force us sit up and pay attention.

Of course, that is just my take; the futurist, the medical scientist, and the economists/business men may hit you from a totally divergent p-o-v, and yet I bet we all agree that “May you live in interesting times” never meant as much as it does right here, right now (are you paying attention yet?)

Rocky Rawstern, March 15, 2010

Here are their answers

Mike Treder – Our Future Depends on Us / Technology is Only a Tool

Every technology—no matter how powerful—is never a solution in itself. It is only a tool, to be used by its owners for good or for ill. This is as true for nanotechnology as it was for electricity or for the printing press before it.

We should never fall into the trap of looking for or expecting our technologies to save us. Emerging technologies—whether nanotech or AI or synthetic biology do not emerge into nor from a vacuum. They are always developed within a context of political reality, amidst the daily tussle over regulation, funding, and proper usage. They do not arise fully-grown and pristine, but are hammered out, molded, shaped, and modified through endless discussions in corporate boardrooms and the halls of government.

Thus, the color of our future depends much more on us—that is, on our political practices and choices—than on our technologies.

(c) 2010 Mike Treder

Mike Treder is the managing director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a prolific writer, speaker, and activist with a background in media and communications. He has published dozens of articles and papers and been interviewed numerous times by the media. As an accomplished presenter on the societal implications of emerging technologies, Mr. Treder has addressed conferences and groups around the world, including in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil.

Treder co-founded the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) in 2002 and served as its executive director for six years. CRN promotes public awareness and education about the implications of molecular manufacturing, with the aim of creating and implementing wise, comprehensive, and balanced plans for global management of the technology. Treder currently sits on the Board of Advisors for CRN.

In addition to his work with the IEET, Mike Treder is a consultant to the Millennium Project of the American Council for the United Nations University, serves on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Lifeboat Foundation, is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, a consultant to the Future Technologies Advisory Group, and a member of the World Future Society.


Robert A. Freitas Jr. – Molecular Manufacturing and Medical Nanorobotics

The ultimate tool of nanomedicine is the medical nanorobot – a robot the size of a bacterium, composed of molecule-size parts somewhat resembling macroscale gears, bearings, and ratchets. Like a regular robot, a nanorobot may be made of many thousands of mechanical parts, such as bearings and gears, composed of strong diamond-like material. A nanorobot will have motors to make things move, and perhaps manipulator arms or mechanical legs for mobility. It will have a power supply for energy, sensors to guide its actions, and an onboard computer to control its behavior. Medical nanorobotics holds the greatest promise for curing disease and extending the human healthspan.

To build medical nanorobots, we need to create a new technology called molecular manufacturing. Molecular manufacturing is the production of complex atomically precise structures using positionally controlled fabrication and assembly of nanoparts inside a nanofactory. We’ve published the first description of a complete set of tools and positionally controlled reactions that should enable building small bits of perfect diamond crystal, based on extensive analysis and quantum chemistry simulations of a large number of potential tooltips and reaction sequences.

Ralph Merkle and I founded the Nanofactory Collaboration to coordinate a combined experimental and theoretical R&D program to design and build the first working diamondoid nanofactory. This long-term effort is developing the initial technology of positionally controlled mechanosynthesis of diamondoid structures using engineered tooltips and simple molecular feedstock. One of our international colleagues is undertaking direct experiments to build and validate several of our proposed mechanosynthesis tooltips.

(c) 2010 Robert A. Freitas Jr.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., J.D., published the first detailed technical design study of a medical nanorobot ever published in a peer-reviewed mainstream biomedical journal and is the author of Nanomedicine, the first book-length technical discussion of the medical applications of nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics. Volume I was published in October 1999 by Landes Bioscience while Freitas was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (IMM) in Palo Alto, California. Freitas published Volume IIA in October 2003 with Landes Bioscience while serving as a Research Scientist at Zyvex Corp., a nanotechnology company headquartered in Richardson, Texas during 2000-2004. Freitas is now completing Nanomedicine Volumes IIB and III and is also consulting on diamond mechanosynthesis, molecular assembler design, and nanofactory implementation as Senior Research Fellow at IMM. He won the 2009 Feynman Prize in nanotechnology for theory, the 2007 Foresight Prize in Communication, and the 2006 Guardian Award from Lifeboat Foundation.


Neil Gordon – 2009 was a bad year for nanotechnology

The financial demise of long established nanotechnology companies such as Nanogen, Evident Technologies, Luna Innovations, and NanoDynamics may be an expected fall-out of the economic downturn. However, the real impact of the financial crisis to nanotechnology is more pronounced.

Technology ventures need funding to develop and commercialize new products. Greater investments are required for advanced offerings employing nanotechnology because of the long time horizon for adopting nanotech into end user products or processes. Not only do nano-enabled products offer the potential for better, faster, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly applications, they also bring high tech R&D and manufacturing jobs that will be in demand for decades to come. So with unprecedented government stimulus spending one might expect a boom time for nanotech companies on the cusp of commercialization.

However, what we are seeing is completely different. Money is being used:

- to reward financiers for bad investment decisions instead of infusing capital to early stage ventures and Series A venture capitalists.
- to create government programs that will increase the cost of health care instead of new technologies for lowering the cost of health care.
- for preventing the spread of a flu strain that killed less than 10% of the infected people from a typical seasonal flu rather than funding new technologies for treating more virulent diseases
- for deploying under-effective counter-terrorism activities instead of new surveillance technologies for the early detection of explosives, illegal drugs, infected people, toxic food, and contaminated water
- to finance bankrupt automobile companies to manufacture the same cars that caused the bankruptcies rather than funding disruptive production and performance innovations that will be competitive against low cost cars from China and India.
- for middlemen to manage and extract fees from carbon cap-and-trade schemes rather acquiring prototypes employing breakthrough energy technologies

So where does nanotechnology stand at the end of 2009? Apparently at the bottom of the 2009 priority list. 2010 appears to be an equally disappointing year.

(c) 2010 Neil Gordon

Neil is the CEO of Early Warning, a NASA spin-off company and co-inventor of the world’s first inline diagnostic nano-biosensor that automatically detects pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites in water in under 3 hours. He was previously the President of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, and head of a nanotechnology consulting practice at Sygertech where he was involved in over 20 nanotechnology projects over the last 10 years.



Jack Uldrich – The impact of nanotechnology is going to be huge

To those who don't believe nanotechnology will change the world in the near future just because it hasn't accomplished much in the last 20 years, consider this little quiz: If a single lily pad began doubling on a pond on the first day of June and doubled each day thereafter until the entire pond was covered by the end of the month, on Day 20 what percentage of the pond would be covered with lily pads?

The answer is one-tenth of one percent. That's right, .1%! What happens over the next 10 days is a little short of amazing -- the entire pond gets covered. Such is the nature of exponential growth.

Now, advances in nanotechnology aren't quite experiencing exponential growth but they are close and over the course of the next decade nanotechnology's impact on material sciences, medicine, and energy are -- like the lily pads' spread over pond in the last few days -- going to be extraordinary."

(c) 2010 Jack Uldrich
Follow Jack at

Vic Peña – The future is here and achievable!

About five years ago, I responded to a similar question. Like this. At that time I was firmly convinced that we had reached an historic milestone in the evolution of science, namely the foundation for the research and development of nanoscale technologies. I still have this conviction. In fact, I am more enthusiastic of the possibilities open to the human experience through nanoscale technologies. “The future is here and achievable.”

The future is here. We are achieving it (especially during the last decade) by accelerating, building, and evolving the principles upon which nanoscale technologies research and development thrive. We have created myriad nano-applications for development and commercialization not generally known or available in the past. We have brought the future to the present and are progressing towards greater achievement.

At the same time, we can say we are not the yet. Achievement in nanoscale technologies is an evolutionary process integrating all disciplines of science. And, we recognize that nanoscale achievement is critically dependent on education and funding. In the United States, the National Nanotechnology Initiative is at the forefront in promoting these. Admittedly, these are subject to the vagaries of societal and economic factors, but consider the advances made in nanoscale technologies.

Imagine what is achievable in our now and present future.

So, what do I say about nanoscale technologies? The future is here and achievable!

(c) 2010 Vic Peña

Co-Founder, nanoTITAN, Inc. (now shuttered)
Former Member, President’s Council of Advisers in Science and Technology (PCAST), Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group (NTAG)
Former Chairman, Nanotechnology Committee, Northern Virginia Technology Council
Former Member Nanotechnology Advisory Committee, The Virginia House of Delegates
Founding Member Initiative for Nanotechnology in Virginia

In closing

I would like to close with the response from Ray Kurzweil from the previous Q&A. Why am I closing with this quote? Because it best illustrates the immediacy of the need for us to start paying attention (with graphs and charts and things that even I can understand!). (1)

When we have full molecular manufacturing, we will be able to create any physical products we need from information files just as we can create music, movies, and books from pure information today. In about twenty years, the original goals of communism ("from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs") will be achieved not through forced collectivism but through the information technologies of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

When will we have full molecular manufacturing? About 10 years after people stop laughing about the difficulty of building the first nanofactory. Let me put it another way: sometime within the next 15 years, possibly a lot sooner. Does that give us enough time to prepare? Certainly, but only if we start now.

May you live in interesting times!

Rocky Rawstern


From the previous Q & A:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Issues and Strategies for Marketing “Nano Inside”

Nanotechnology-based products that address large consumer markets are increasingly being launched. Management at companies making and selling such products must decide how to market those products. In particular, companies must decide whether their marketing campaigns should emphasize the nanoscale components or materials inside of the products. In this article, Patti Hill analyzes the issues associated with a “nano inside” marketing campaign. She provides examples of successful marketing campaigns such as the Intel Inside® Program, highlights the challenges associated with a “nano inside” marketing campaign, and makes recommendations for companies seeking to market nanotech-based products.

A very well considered article from one of today's leading PR minds.

In an earlier post, I told you about my small contribution of background info to Patti Hill's article, at this LINK.