11 August, 2005

Energy research ideas

A friend of mine has a chance to participate in a discussion with MIT faculty on what sort of energy-related research MIT should be doing. What helpful ideas from the bleg-o-spore?


While I'm very rah rah about true alternate, renewable energy like wind and solar and (ooh, dare we dream?) fusion, I think there are some less extreme things that we might be able to implement faster to close the gap. So, for example, if I'm not mistaken a given molecule of of methane is about 5 or 6 times worse than that same carbon atom in a molecule of carbon dioxide as far as global warming goes. (wikipedia article, correct for weight difference. ) We don't normally worry about methane b/c there's a lot less of it in terms of volume and the notion of creating more carbon dioxide seems counterintuitive. Nevertheless I think technology for efficiently harvesting methane from sewage and animal waste could make a significant difference while we wait for something truly amazing.

Ways of making it easier to be efficient and conserve are also good. That may just boil down to simple informatics and gadgetry.  

Posted by Saheli

I like our 5-person bleg-o-sphere! Like Dan said in response to another post, there is a lot of "fat" in our use of fossil fuels that can be trimmed without pain. There are several ways MIT could contribute a lot to this.

One they are already doing -- their urban planning program is very good at teaching how to build dense, walkable neighborhoods.

There are also a lot of trips people make by solo vehicle that they'd rather make with someone else but they're too scared to hitchhike or to pick up hitchhikers. If the same amount of ingenuity went into a hitchhiking scheme as has already gone into carsharing, that could possibly go somewhere. The system would combine background checks, pick-up-points, and some high-tech method of alerting people to the fact that you want a ride or have one to offer -- very Hitchhikers Guide, yes?

The key is that we have some very efficient machines but we use them very inefficiently. A Honda Prius -- or a bicycle for that matter -- is wasted on sprawl. A high-efficiency electrical system carrying power to rental flats is wasted if the landlord can't be bothered to insulate (b/c tenants pay the energy bill). In short, we need massive demand-side management. The research is less technical and more political, economic, and sociological. Marketing, for that matter.

Or they could try to capture the energy of the earth's angular momentum -- its spin -- because if they ended up slowing it down a little, we'd have more hours in the day which would suit me fine. 

Posted by hedgehog

I don't have anything incredibly new or fascinating: as Hedgehog says, demand-side management is the easiest win, regardless of how sexy the research is (start by asking these folks ). Energy efficiency in all manner of industrial design, non-PV solar power plants like This this installation I read about on slashdot. Equipment/software for pushing use of electricity to times when the grid (or off-grid generator) has spare capacity. 

Posted by Dan

I agree with hedgehog. I think the problem is primarily political/sociological with an added dimension of current structural problems with historical roots (like the short concrete overpasses on the parkways in New York that were, allegedly, specifically constructed to keep buses from ever traveling on the highways).

This energy thing is rapidly veering in the direction of a zero sum game. 

Posted by Saurav

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