What, me worry?

For equally persuasive reasons, life can make one either an optimist or a pessimist. Even if it’s true that when you’re a pessimist everything always comes out better than you expect, I’m generally on optimism’s side. Regarding energy in particular, I offer some reasons why in a January, 2008 column:

As his motto suggests, Alfred E. Neuman, cartoon icon of Mad, the legendary satirical humor magazine, didn’t sweat much. But unlike fictional dimwits, real people worry a lot.

There seems to be a lot to worry about these days, particularly in the energy department. The drumbeat in the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” popular media is a relentless rhythm of high prices, dire predictions, corporate shenanigans, geopolitical machinations, and technology gone bonkers.

But there are eddies of optimism in the current, so to speak, of current events. One such is a certain magazine devoted to popularizing science. (You’ll never guess the title.) The magazine is as upbeat as the news media is not. And why not? It’s practically a technology party in there. A catalog of what’s new in just one recent issue would optimize anyone’s outlook. For example:

Imagine a solar panel made by coating a metal substrate about the thickness aluminum foil with a layer of “solar absorbing nano-ink” using what is essentially a printing process. Nanosolar, the company that developed the technology, says panels created with this process are about three times as efficient (on a cost per watt basis) as coal. The process does not use silicon, 70% of which is said to be wasted in manufacturing. The ability to print rolls of the material portends a ubiquity for solar panels not previously possible.

A plug-in hybrid automobile concept called the Volt (too bad General Motors passed on naming it the Voltswagen) is a twist on current hybrid thinking, where the electric motor assists the engine. In this case the engine assists the electric motor, the primary propulsion device. GM claims that the car will manage a 40-mile (64-km) round trip on electricity alone and says this will allow 78% of Americans to commute without burning a drop of gasoline. When parked, it can plug in anywhere and fully charge in about six hours.

It may seem like a parlor trick, but a microwave emitter that extracts oil and natural gas from anything made with hydrocarbons is getting serious notice. Frank Pringle, the inventor, has signed a research agreement with Penn State University to conduct research on commercializing its patent-pending microwave technology to extract hydrocarbons from oil shale. Meanwhile, Pringle says the first commercial application of this technology will extract 17 million BTUs worth of energy from ten tons of plastic, vinyl and rubber auto waste (while consuming 956,000 BTUs to run itself), in one hour.

How many of the tech tricks under development out there will achieve commercial success in a free market? It’s hard to say. While the ultimate destination of a lot of gadgeteering seems to be The Sharper Image catalog, the impact of other developments may be much more profound. The point here is not to handicap the race but to observe that a great deal of “energetic” creative thinking is going on. With this much swinging for the fences, there will certainly be a few out-of-the-park home runs.

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