Thursday, December 20, 2007


Ok, I admit that the title above is more than a little cutsie; this post is inspired by yesterday's comment contretemps between myself, Stephen Gordon and Phil Bowermaster over at The Speculist (see the comments here). What this post is not is a restatement of yesterday's events. Rather, I wish to attempt to contrast what I consider to be "solutions" derived from outdated technology with my personal vision of what is actually (by and large, for the most part) available to variably well-heeled consumers this upcoming year.

Since it is my blog, I'll start with an example I posted on last week, this Toshiba quick recharge battery. As part of my speculation, I said the following:

Toshiba executives are certain to be aware that virtually the first "customers" to buy whichever product utilizes their new battery technology will be other battery manufacturers seeking to reverse engineer it. Having an investment agreement in place with as many potential customers as possible before that inevitably occurs will work to extend Toshiba's market advantage. For potential retail customers like myself, those corporations that do invest in this battery technology for their markets will be pressing for as rapid a development curve as practicable so as to not keep such substantial amounts of capital unproductive. This means an earlier availability of products using this battery technology then would be possible for Toshiba to achieve on it's own.

There is a tendency on most people's part not to fully take into consideration the time frames often necessary for change to be accomplished. On the individual level this is often a result of our personal lack of specific knowledge as to the complexity of the operation required to achieve the change. This is often compounded by our allowing our personal desire for the resulting product to overshadow the necessarily adversarial nature that characterises any new association, particularly when such a venture involves substantial sums of money.

Which explains my closing statement:

If I start saving with the new year, I ought to have a reasonable percentage of the purchase price for an all-electric vehicle in the 2.5 years I expect will be required for this new battery tech to begin retail product sales. And then only if this tech scales as well as Toshiba seems confidant it will. No way to tell about that aspect of the corporation from this remove.

It isn't that I lack trust or suffer from excess conspiracy fears; as it happens, I do have some experience of how long it takes to construct an assembly line. Additionally, I have no way to tell how rapidly, or even if, this particular innovation will scale to batteries having the load demand capacity necessary for powering a general purpose motor vehicle. That said, Toshiba specifically makes mention of auto battery applications and it is on that that I base my contention regarding Toshiba's corporate reputation being put at risk - not an action a company seeking extensive financial and other partnership agreements would casually call into question, since it is that same reputation that will have considerable influence over the terms of any offers ultimately submitted.

I don't study strategy because I like war, you know.

Sticking with battery technology for a moment more, I direct you attention to this recent news release from Stanford University regarding their newly developed nanowire battery.

... is considering formation of a company or an agreement with a battery manufacturer. Manufacturing the nanowire batteries would require "one or two different steps, but the process can certainly be scaled up," he added. "It's a well understood process."

Do you suppose Toshiba might be one of those making this inventor's holiday an especially busy one this year?

Enough on energy storage devices for now, how do we power them up in the first place?

Well, there is this possibility by way of a questionably reliable source, paint-on solar panels. Which doesn't actually involve the consumer painting anything.

While many photovoltaic start-up companies are concentrating on increasing the efficiency with which their systems convert sunlight, Nanosolar has focused on lowering the manufacturing cost. Its process is akin to a large printing press, rather than the usual semiconductor manufacturing techniques that deposit thin films on silicon wafers.

These guys seem to have settled on the more traditional format of growing their business as their established customer base will finance rather then making a number of licensing deals with other manufacturers. This will likely have the short-term effect of denying rapid expansion into additional consumer markets (the company can only finance so much production capacity at any given moment), but a product that produces energy at a lower cost then it can be produced burning coal will have a large impact with individual consumers eventual demands upon national energy distribution grids.

Which brings me back to my starting point. I believe that efforts to "improve" internal combustion engines or grid-oriented power supply expansions are misdirected and counter-productive. Technology that serves individual consumer's needs at the point of service (your home or your business) is wide open for development and has the added benefits of no distribution infrastructure costs to the provider and no distribution infrastructure interruptions of service to the consumer, your classic win-win situation. Transportation that permits the consumer to control the source of re-supply is equally open to development. And, more to the point, are becoming commercially available now.

Government efforts to "stimulate" markets via income redistribution schemes always result in added costs to consumers, usually quite in addition to the direct expense of providing the income to be redistributed in the first place. Markets require a certain amount of outside regulation to inhibit their propensity to seek short-term gain at long-term consumer expense; that said, the less government direct involvement in market development the better, generally speaking.

Looking for something more robust and less susceptible to weather degradation? Consider the varied potentialities permitted the United Nuclear Hydrogen Fuel System. A careful reading of the website literature shows that the storage mechanism relys on the chemical bonding of hydrogen elements to a particular combination of other elements, so no pressure or freezing temperatures are involved in it's distribution or storage. The power required to separate the hydrogen from it's normal chemical bond to oxygen is generated by the solar panels provided with the system, so no added burden to the national grid or expense to the customer need be involved (other than the construction and eventual disposal costs, of course). And, the conversion process results in a flex-fuel vehicle that can still run on traditional formulations of gasoline as well. Want this product? Contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission and tell them to stop aiding and abetting terrorist supporting countries (No, don't actually do that; see the linked website as to why the CPSC is involved at all).

{I know, I know; I just finished ranting against improving internal combustion engine vehicles and the very next thing I do is promote just such a scheme - again. Whadda 'ya gonna do? I like the concept. The whole solo-inventor-against-the-world thing doesn't hurt either. I'm a sucker for the underdog; sue me.}

Want true energy independence (well, several decades worth, at least)? Here you go: Toshiba Micro Reactor. Given that this particular device will power about 6 to 8* houses for 30-odd years, I suspect some sort of group purchase would be in order.

Anybody want to bet that there isn't a housing developer out there somewhere already planning his next construction project, featuring houses that include a lifetime supply of water and power as part of the purchase price? I can't wait for the NIMBY morons to realise this actually involves their own back yards. Well, somewhere within the sub-division anyway. The resulting moral dilemma arising from their archetypal conflict of interest may actually cause a serious die off of humanity all up and down the western coastal regions of the United States ...

Sorry, I lost my train of thought for a moment. Where was I?

Oh yes, I hope that all of this makes clear that my objection to ethanol/methanol/bio-diesel/etc doesn't really arise from the technologies themselves (the ethical questions they raise deserve consideration on their own merits), but from the resources their artificially forced development denies to other technology's development. True, these obviously are beginning to make their way to marketability, but at what ancillary cost to us all?

So, there you have it. Stephen? Phil? Here's your chance; give it you're best shot, I can take it. :)

EDITED to correct my having confused Kw with KwH. No excuse Sir.


Phil Bowermaster said...

Don't get me wrong. I love the idea of hydrogen. Ultimately, I think we'll have the hydrogen economy, but we won't call it that. We'll just call it nuclear fusion.

These are all intriguing ideas. I think methanol/ethanol/biodiesel is a good idea because it depends on only moderate changes to the current infrastructure, but brings tremendous benefits via the free market. But I could certainly be persuaded that we could skip that step in favor of something more exciting...if something more exciting could be introduced more or less as easily.

I love the portable nuke idea. Got to get me one of those!


odograph said...

Available now, but at what dollar cost?

I think Honda/Toyota hybrids hit the sweet spot for battery size, but even there we saw a "cost" backlash.

The average new car in America sells for $27-28K. Honda/Toyota come in under that with their hybrids. Vendors of current-tech hydrogen cars and stronger hybrids mumble about price and then offer us a lease.

That's always a bad sign.

To repeat my closing from Speculist, I think efficiency is the answer, but it seems human (or American) nature to turn over every "alt energy" stone before accepting that.

Will Brown said...


I agree that efficency (in the strictly engineering meaning) is a desirable quality. Two points; process efficiency has an inherient physiological limit that limits efficiency to only so much refinement as well as the more ephemeral "practical limit" determined by the cost of a given refinement vs the "value" it adds. Added to that is the resources question; would the resources spent achieving a refinement have provided more value in an alternate application? This is why markets are ultimately more successful then programatic efforts, they answer this and other questions as a function of their operation.

I think efforts to market to individual self-reliance are a relatively untapped energy market and thus offer greater possibilities for exponential development. The practical benefit from doing so is that each sale offers that increment of reduction upon the future demand to be placed upon our existing energy infrastructure.