Friday, November 22, 2019

Concentrating Solar: The right first step toward zero cost energy

Nearly zero cost energy is a real possibility for humans living in close proximity to a large fusion device with billions of years of fuel left. However, the immediate need to push away from fossil fuels has led to massive investments into inefficient alternatives such as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. Both of these have inherent limitations and in the absence of hitherto unknown materials, these technologies could never reach the required efficiencies to be useful. This is another reminder that a focus on incremental innovation is not the right approach to solve big problems. Recent news (1) that concentrating solar with an array of reflectors driven by Artificial Intelligence could generate temperatures exceeding 1000 degrees is welcome news. Although initial applications could be industrial, power production cannot be too far behind.

On the other hand, room temperature superconductivity, something engineers have been dreaming about for many decades is yet to materialize. Just like photovoltaic cells, the focus here has been incremental. Because of this, we are not too far from where we were a few decades ago. A few 10s of Kelvin higher temperature, albeit interesting scientifically, has no real practical implications. Rather than nourishing this toward room temperature slowly, engineers should throw out the templates they are working on and start with the requirement of finding superconductivity at room temperature, nothing less.

With efficient harvesting of heat through well designed concentrating solar devices moving toward central power production, it is imperative that we make advances in superconductivity as the transmission and distribution of power will become more important in the future. If concentrating solar wins, we will have to shelve all the contemporary inefficient and costly attempts for distributed power production.

Incrementalism is not a good approach to solve big problems.

(1) https://www.businessinsider.com/solar-power-heliogen-bill-gates-2019-11

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