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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Whither R&D

Will we get any juice out of any of the energy research & development efforts going on right now? I can't help but be pessimistic about any potential breakthrough(s) forthcoming. Most people don't realize that the microelectronics revolution has consisted of hundreds of thousands of accumulated advancements concerning fabrication process and computer aided-design improvements. The R&D labs involved in our goal to "faster,cheaper,better" have included corporate, university, government, and your odd garage shop, with or without venture capital backing. Interestingly, apart from their importance in funding and sponsorship, I would rate government labs last in innovation. I wouldn't expect it any other way, insofar as electronics in general has never required "moon mission" type of coordination. Both university and corporate environments could innovate successfully without breaking anyone's bank.

However, I have concern over how effectively R&D will get handled for renewable energy projects. Certainly, we have to depend on government labs to lead on any coordinated mission. They have in the past (i.e. nuclear, solar) and they will in the future. Why? Because, unlike microelectronics and nanotech, the startup-costs and overhead remain too high and returns too risky for any investor to bank on a successful renewable energy program. And also, unlike microelectronics, iterative advancements in energy technology have not reduced our demand in the past and likely will not suppress our demand in the future. I imagine Jevon's paradox has something to do with that.

So BushCo has their own paradox to consider. They must fund government labs as the profiteering oil companies will have no idea how to invest in renewable energy research. (Don't ever consider these petro companies to follow the lead of Toshiba, Sony, Hitachi, IBM, H-P, AT&T, or even Microsoft in developing a useful incremental R&D strategy1). But BushCo will lose even more support from their base -- when they start doling out the funds. Thus the paradox.

Sad to say, but for once university research will have a hard time getting it in gear, obviously not helped by the now chronic funding problems they will relentlessly face. It certainly doesn't help that at one university, press releases state that the economics department doesn't see a problem while some of the scientists feel biofuels contain the answer.


1Apart from better geo-spatial visualization techniques and the related pure extractionist engineering technology.


Update: Albeit a bit weak on energy research, on the medical front the UofM epidemiology center has followed the avian flu spread quite closely.

5 Comments:

Professor Blogger odograph said...

I've made this comment elsewhere (or maybe even here before), but I tihnk there is an important lesson in G. Moore's "Rolls Royce" story:

"Once, he extrapolated that if the car industry followed the same rules of progress [as semi-conductors], cars would get 100,000 miles per gallon, travel at millions of miles per hour and be so cheap that it would cost less to buy a Rolls-Royce than park it downtown for a day."

The missing lesson is the differences in underlying physics. We did not need to break the laws of thermodynamics to make 1 um circuts. We WOULD need to break them to get 100,000 miles per gallon.

My observation is that too many of these "alternative energies" are not all that "alternative" any more! They have actually been persued for decades. The easy gains have already been made. We are very close to thermodynmaic limits.

11:07 AM  
Professor Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

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2:23 PM  
Professor Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

"iterative advancements in energy technology have not reduced our demand in the past and likely will not suppress our demand in the future."

Why?  Supplies were growing and there was no political consensus requiring it to deal with e.g. global warming, so there was no business case for suppressing demand.

Things are going to be a little different now.

"So BushCo has their own paradox to consider. They must fund government labs as the profiteering oil companies will have no idea how to invest in renewable energy research."

Pretty much all of California's non-imported electricity comes from nuclear and natural gas.  A cursory check of natural gas prices at the EIA mentions a figure of 9.39/MMBTU; burned in a gas-turbine plant at 50% efficiency, that's a fuel cost of 6.4¢/kWh.  (I understand that retail prices are running closer to 17¢/kWh.)  Meanwhile, concentrating solar appears to be feasible at 8¢/kWh.  (Following this, with capital cost of $2800/kW, capital at 7%, capacity factor at 25%, and O&M of 2.3¢/kWh I get a rough annual cost of $433/kW peak and 19.8¢/kWh total cost.  When the loans are paid off, that falls to 2.3&ncent;/kWh.  This looks cheaper than daytime electric rates even at today's prices, and if the cost can be brought down to $1100/kW the price of electricity drops to about 9.1¢/kWh including loans.)

It doesn't matter if BushCo. can't figure out what to do; there is enough stuff in the pipeline to keep us going, and people like NASA and Sandia and CalCars are showing how to put it all together.  With some smart leadership we could have breezed through this, but we're going to make it one way or another.

2:24 PM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

-- people like NASA and Sandia and CalCars are showing how to put it all together



You basically made my point. The various NASA sites (JPL, Langley, etc) and Sandia are government labs.

We'll see how far CalCars gets before political infighting and egos get in the way. It would be a first in world history for a consortium like that to succeed.

4:03 PM  
Professor Blogger odograph said...

CalCars is useful for the lesson it shows US politicians, but I don't think they'll act.

I predict (he said fearlessly) that the cars we get will come by way of the Japanese market (Misubishi and Subaru are introducing small pure-electric cars) and not private or public US efforts.

Why? Because with no native oil, Japan does not have the luxury of believing their own BS.

5:17 PM  

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