Friday, December 11, 2009

In Energy Innovation, Everything New Is Old Again

From the Wall Street Journal:
Most Alternative Fuel Technologies Have Roots in Long-Ago Discoveries; Scarcity of 'Killer Apps' Slows Progress

As light filled the sky on a recent morning here, a handful of giant mirrored dishes were being prepared to track the sun and ultimately feed solar-generated electricity into the Phoenix area.

High-tech marvels, the solar dishes look like three-story-tall mirrored flowers atop steel stems. But at the heart of each dish is a very old-fashioned invention: a Stirling engine, patented by a Scotsman in 1816, decades before the diesel or internal combustion engine.

The cutting edge of renewable energy is littered with long-established ideas such as the Stirling. From generating power from the wind to harvesting liquid fuel from algae, some of today's most promising new technologies are actually quite old.

Technology often stands on the shoulders of prior discovery. In the energy field in particular, there are precious few killer apps -- ideas that supersede earlier methods. New energy technologies tend to develop slowly and spread at a snail's pace. It takes time and money to accomplish small improvements, and even more of both to spread those improvements across the energy system.

The invention of the gas turbine -- used to power aviation and generate electricity -- is the only true energy breakthrough in the 20th century, says Vaclav Smil, a prolific author on energy topics and professor at the University of Manitoba. "There is nothing new under the sun.">>>MUCH MORE