Remember the American Space Program ?
Very large sums of public tax money have been ploughed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration over the years, peaking in 1966 :-
OK, it gave us the Moon landings and Teflon (TM), but just recently, I don’t see much in terms of really, really new things.
What’s happened to the innovation ?
Just yesterday I was reminiscing with several older family members.
During the Second World War, my much older family member recollected, a “doodlebug”, a Nazi V-1 unmanned flying bomb, landed near the family home. The air pressure wave caused by the explosion emptied the chimneys of coal soot into the house, and shattered all the windows. It was a miracle no one was hurt.
My other family member recalled how rubble was rapidly colonised by buddleia bushes. “We all thought that it was Hitler’s secret weapon. How could it grow on bomb sites ?”
I asked why people had been so fearful. “Remember it was at the time when nuclear weapons were first being made, when all sorts of things were being discovered. Nylons were news. We didn’t know what the scientists could do…”
People are perhaps less paranoid these days. There hasn’t been a major discovery of a new Energy resource in nearly a 100 years. Yes, I know that new forms of geological hydrocarbons have been uncovered, coal-bed methane, methane clathrates, and so on. But nothing really novel apart from Nuclear Fission and Nuclear Fusion. And we can’t get Nuclear Fusion to work, really.
We have become more clever, collectively-speaking. We have shot satellites into the atmosphere that manage to stay there, monitoring the Earth and enabling telecommunications.
But this new technology is merely tinkering with older forms.
This is what concerns me when I read from the Gospel of Economics, for example, the recent “manifesto” from the UK Government called “The Road to Copenhagen” :-
“The scale of the challenge we face is enormous: to achieve the emissions reductions necessary in time to reach our goal of limiting
temperature increases to no more than 2°C, we need a huge global shift towards low carbon technologies in the next ten years. Yet this is achievable with the right blend of private sector investment and public policy incentives and support. To make this technological revolution happen, we need a new approach to technology cooperation between developed and developing countries. Developing countries have called for the creation of a fund to help pay for the largescale transfer of technologies and patents – intellectual property rights (IPR) – from developed countries. But we do not believe this is the right solution. Low carbon technologies are too many and too varied, they constantly evolve and develop and technology needs vary from place to place. Simply sharing intellectual property will not deal with the initial development challenge, and could even reduce incentives to innovate – and therefore increase costs – as IPR is an incentive for companies to invest in developing technologies. Nor will it support the development of skills and know-how needed to transfer technologies successfully. The UK believes that it is possible to deliver enhanced technology cooperation, whilst both protecting IPR and where appropriate sharing and transferring it. In most cases
innovation is at its greatest when there are strong market incentives and a high level of competition: companies race to be the first to bring new technologies to market. At the same time effective collaboration can bring together the best skills from different companies and help make sure products are tailored to suit different locations. We need to reach an agreement in Copenhagen that capitalises on the benefits of both competition and collaboration, so that technologies are deployed cost-effectively wherever they are needed most.”
Leaving aside the obvious ideological problem with Intellectual Property Rights, which has exercised many people around the world in the fields of food (“Basmati” rice, patented) and medicine (the fight for cheap AIDS drugs), the Big Question is : where and what are these new technologies ?
I don’t see anything new about Nuclear Power or Carbon Capture (and Storage).
“Carbon sequestration has been paying off for Basin Electric Power Cooperative since the late 1990s, when it began selling the greenhouse gas to help with enhanced oil recovery in Canada. For clean coal enthusiasts who want to see carbon capture at power plants as well, it’s a step in the right direction. The carbon dioxide is currently sold by Basin Electric’s subsidiary Dakota Gasification Company as a byproduct of natural gas produced from coal at the Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah. According to Daryl Hill, media relations supervisor with Basin Electric, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant is the nation’s only commercial scale coal gasification plant producing natural gas from coal. A sister plant in South Africa uses the same types of gasifiers but produces liquid fuels like diesel and kerosene. The process used in the gasification plant is called the Lurgi process. Floyd Robb with Basin Electric said it was developed during World War II by the Germans, who had plenty of coal but not as much access to petroleum. “They were developing that process to fuel their war machine,” Robb said. The gasification plant itself grew out of the energy shortage in the 1970s.”
The economists’ view of innovation is that it is a natural response to supply shortages and price changes. But what if it’s got nowhere to go to ? What if we know all we’re ever going to know about Energy sources and the way to harness Energy from those resources ?
Well, there was the proposed “Hydrogen Economy”. Where’s that now ? And cold fusion. Well, that is still a joke in many circles…
Most economists now realise that Carbon Emissions cause “externalised costs” to the Environment. They apply their same methods to every form of pollution : attempt to price it out of existence.
But what happens if we can’t innovate our way out of the Carbon pricing pincer ? No amount of “competition” can break the Laws of Physics. And we are so depdendent on Fossil Fuels…
My view is that we know all we need to know about Energy, we just need to apply it. Yes, there will be some efficiency gained with new machines, and there will be price advantages with reconfiguring designs, but the technology will remain the same.
You know, harness the wind (various devices); harness the power of the waves and tides; harness the power of the sun. Energy Conservation. Break the back of Energy Demand increases…
There’s really no point in spending spiralling sums of money on Research and Development. Demanding public money for technological development is the logic of corporate interest lobbying.
The large corporates want to stay in business : continued profit-making in constrained economic times. Management people know a gravy train when they smell one.
From “The Road…” : “In most cases innovation is at its greatest when there are strong market incentives and a high level of competition: companies race to be the first to bring new technologies to market.”
That could read something like this, if you’re being honest about the limitations of “innovation” and the progress of “technology” : “In most cases marketing spin is at its greatest when there are strong signals of public funding and a high level of corporate lobbying: companies race to be the first to bring new sources of financial return to their shareholders“.
Here’s an example of the baby steps that are being heralded in technology. Cheap solar photovoltaics : it’s not quite there yet, but will it ever be ?
“Inexpensive Solar Cells: Low-cost Solution Processing Method Developed For CIGS-based Solar Cells : ScienceDaily (July 11, 2009) — Though the solar industry today predominately produces solar panels made from crystalline silicon, they remain relatively expensive to make. New players in the solar industry have instead been looking at panels that can harvest energy with CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) or CIGS-related materials. CIGS panels have a high efficiency potential, may be cheaper to produce and would use less raw materials than silicon solar panels. But unfortunately, manufacturing of CIGS panels on a commercial scale has thus far proven to be difficult. Recently researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a low-cost solution processing method for CIGS-based solar cells that could provide an answer to the manufacturing issue. In a new study to be published in the journal Thin Solid Films on July 7, Yang Yang, a professor in the school’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and his research team show how they have developed a low-cost solution processing method for their copper-indium-diselenide solar cells which have the potential to be produced on a large scale. “This CIGS-based material can demonstrate very high efficiency,” said William Hou, a graduate student on Yang’s team and first author of the study. “People have already demonstrated efficiency levels of up to 20 percent, but the current processing method is costly. Ultimately the cost of fabricating the product makes it difficult to be competitive with current grid prices. However, with the solution process that we recently developed, we can inherently reach the same efficiency levels and bring the cost of manufacturing down quite significantly.” The copper-indium-diselenide thin-film solar cell developed by Yang’s team achieved 7.5 percent efficiency in the published study but has in a short amount of time already improved to 9.13 percent in the lab. “We started this process 16 months ago from ground zero. We spent three to four months getting the material to reach 1 percent and today it’s around 9 percent. That is about an average increase of 1 percent every two months,” said Yang, also a member of the California NanoSystems Institute, where some of the work is being done…”
“Breakthrough Reported on Low-Cost Alternative to Silicon Solar Cells : By KATIE HOWELL of Greenwire : Published: July 8, 2009 : Solar cells could be produced from materials other than silicon under a breakthrough that scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, say could dramatically reduce the price of solar technologies. Solar companies have been searching for some time for materials that are more efficient, cheaper to produce and use fewer raw materials than silicon. But tests of copper, indium, gallium, selenide (CIGS) or related materials have failed so far to produce a winner . “People have already demonstrated efficiency levels of up to 20 percent, but the current processing method is costly,” said William Hou, an engineering graduate student at UCLA, in a statement. “Ultimately the cost of fabricating the product makes it difficult to be competitive with current grid prices.” Hou and his colleagues report in this week’s Thin Solid Films the development of a low-cost processing method for solar cells made from copper, indium and diselenide. Those cells, they say, will have the potential to be produced on a large scale for a number of applications, including placement on backpacks or clothing. “With the solution process that we recently developed, we can inherently reach the same [20 percent] efficiency levels and bring the cost of manufacturing down quite significantly ,” Hou said. So far, the researchers have achieved 9.13 percent efficiency over the 16-month project, but they are optimistic that they will reach their goal of 15 percent or 20 percent efficiency.”