So, what do we expect to see in the way of new developments in the next fifty years? It’s hard to make any exact predictions, because human nature is unpredictable. We have a way of altering the course of beneficial innovations and discoveries because of the sudden lack of interest, or because the desire for instant profits gets in the way. One proof of that is space exploration. If the United States kept up with the ambition it first displayed during the race for the moon, then we would likely be working on the surface of Mars right now. And, recently our nation again showed its lack of interest in space by ending the only manned space effort we had – the Space Shuttle. We are certainly a country of abrupt fits of startups and cancellations. Don’t linger too long on an idea, because it will get lost in the shuffle for fast and easy profits.
Using reference materials, I will attempt to predict what the next fifty years of advancement in energy production and transportation will be like. Those two areas are the most important in our society because we are mobile and most everything requires man-made power to run. This prediction does not take into account the aforementioned human peculiarities getting in the way of progress. The majority of what becomes mainstream must alleviate to some degree the unfathomable amount of resources our species requires in order to live in our modern world. I will start with power production.
Humanity is currently in a race against its insatiable appetite for energy consumption. We need to come up with an alternative to filthy fossil fuels for power production. One of the most promising technologies, nuclear power, is not new, but is continuously being improved upon because it can pose a danger without further safeguards. I feel that, with ongoing studies into new ways to squeeze the atom for power, we will see an increase in the use of that tiny particle in the next fifty years. Cold fusion, which was first discovered in 1957 by Luis Alvarez, could prove to be a feasible method of merging atoms, as opposed to splitting them in fission reactions. (Muller, 2010, p. 192) Research will continue on fusion. Among other things, it would also remove the need to deal with radioactive materials, which are the by-product of fission and a dangerous source of pollutants.
Another form of energy production would come directly from the ultimate source of fusion – the sun. Our neighborhood star produces much untapped potential, and it is amazing how much goes unused each minute of every day. In recent years, Boeing has developed solar cells which are much more efficient in producing electricity than they were in the past. At one time the best technology could only average about a 10% conversion of sunlight into electrical power. But, with ongoing research, Boeing has created solar cells which are 41% efficient, with 45% coming soon. (Muller, 2010, p. 395) Through advancement such as this, I see solar cells, along with previously the mentioned fusion power, as being the main sources of electrical production in the next fifty years. They are both clean, and the prime sources of raw material are readily available throughout and above the earth.
Transportation is the next main area which I see being revolutionized in the future. The gasoline and diesel engines have been with us too long and are great contributors to pollution. The levels of efficiency by burning fuels to provide power to get us around are very low (10-30%). Most of this is lost in heat. (Muller, 2010, p. 59) Recent discoveries in nanotechnology could help to capture some of that heat and convert into electricity to charge batteries, but that does not alleviate the burning of fossil fuels. (Neal) Hybrids, which use a combination of a liquid-fueled engine and a battery powered motor, are becoming very popular with the general public. But, again, we are using oil to provide some of that power.
Batteries seem like the best alternative to burning fuels. I believe it will impact the transportation sector in a major way within the next fifty years. Advanced research by Altair Nanotechnologies using lithium-ion electrodes as the material in their batteries shows great promise. In the past, lithium-ion batteries had problems with overheating and some exploding. However, nanotechnology is providing solutions to overcome those complications, making battery power safer and cheaper, and prove to be a real alternative to fossil fuels. With a range of over 250 miles per charge, the only hindrance to the widespread use of battery-powered transportation is the lack of charging stations, which can be resolved through incentives. (Bullis)
In the end, it will be up to us to fund further studies into fusion, solar cells and battery power. Those three technologies can lead us into a cleaner and more sustainable future if we care enough to press on with them. Sometimes, human nature gets into its own way with an attitude of not being concerned about a problem unless the threat is immediate. We cannot afford to be that way if we want an environment which we will be proud to pass along to future generations.
Bullis, K. (2006, March 24). The lithium-ion car. Retrieved from http://www.technologyreview.com/business/16624/page1/
Muller, R. A. (2010). Physics and technology for future presidents. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Neal, K. (2012, February 22). Power Felt gives a charge. Retrieved from http://news.wfu.edu/2012/02/22/power-felt-gives-a-charge/