Thursday, January 3, 2008

The New Age of Light

It's official. The new age of light has begun. They are voting in Iowa now to determine who might be the illuminator in chief. How they lead us through a perilous time in which energy will again be an even more pernicious root cause of international conflicts will have an impact upon our global survival.

Why a new age of light? Well, for one thing, the price of oil hit $100 a barrel on futures exchanges, as I predicted. The age of cheap hydrocarbon energy is unofficially over. We need to turn to renewable sources to save what we can of our energy-driven culture.

Here's another sobering fact: Prof. Jared Diamond reported yesterday in the New York Times that developing countries use 32 times more resources than emerging economies like China and India. Should they want to achieve our level of consumption and waste, it will clearly destroy the planet. So we have to change. And I'm not even talking about global warming.

Congress started us on the path by mandating a phase-out of the energy-wasting incandescent light bulb. Sorry Mr. Edison, it had to go. It throws off way too much of its energy in the form of heat and uses up too many electrons for the light it produces. In four years, it will pretty much go the way of eight-track tape players and betamax video recorders. The future isn't necessarily in compact fluorescent bulbs, however. They contain mercury, and few places will recycle them for that reason. The future lies in LEDs and nanotechnology.

Let's start with LEDs. They last some 50,000 hours, compared with 1,000 for Edison-style bulbs and 6,000 for CFLs. Better yet, they contain non-toxic materials. Further advances in nanotechnology will allow us to integrate solar-cell technology directly into building surfaces and windows.

Why not not create a south-facing wall unit with an imbedded device to generate electrons and thermal energy? One of the many engineering problems we face is to use electricity sparingly and put the sun to work more efficiently.

If we were able to put up an antenna in outer space and capture the billions of volts of electricity just coming from the solar wind -- and be able to transmit it efficiently to an earth station -- that would be a major accomplishment. I'm not smoking something funny on this idea: Nicola Tesla, the father of alternating current, had this idea more than 100 years ago in several forms.

We need to think outside of the proverbial light bulb that cartoon characters had when they had an idea. How can we generate power without burning fossil fuels? How can we take the heat that is soaked up by our earth, waters, homes, buildings, appliances and physical plants and re-use it or store it for future use? It all takes some imagination and application. The solutions will be bigger than an entire moon program. If we do this right, we won't need to explore other planets to live on. We'll be able to live on the one we already have.

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