Book Update, Stealth Mode, and Other Matters

The designated function of this Website of late has been to promote a book I'm writing on residential renewable energy. Most of the book is now completed and more than a month has gone by without a posting. Here, belatedly, is an update.

One of the things I set out to do in writing the book has been to provide some coverage on emerging technologies in the field of sustainable power generation, and to some degree I believe I've failed there, though maybe the failure is not so much mine but the industry's. From my perspective there is a dearth of meaningful innovation in the residential renewable power industry, and, consequently, the renewable energy generation systems of the future are likely to be very similar to those of today with all their limitations. We're not looking at revolution, indeed we're not looking at much evolution from what I can see.

I am investigating one over the horizon technology that genuinely intrigues me, however. A company calling itself Microcontinuum is attempting to produce a new kind of thermoelectric conversion system that represents a radical departure from the existing art and which has the potential for achieving much higher efficiencies than the Seebeck principle converters representing the incumbent technology. Whether that potential will soon be realized is another matter.

The Microcontinuum folks begin with a simple factual observation, namely that radiant heat is a transmission occurring within the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum located above the microwave frequencies and below those of visible light. This is also known as the terahertz region because the frequencies in questions measure in the trillions of cycles per second. Such infrared radiation is, by the way, a major component of sunlight and Microcontinuum device is complementary to ordinary solar cells for the harvesting of sunlight to produce electricity.

Like all electromagnetic energy, energy in the infrared region has two components, one electrical and the other magnetic. Energy is propagated by both magnetic and electrical fields just as is the case with radio waves, or sixty cycle AC from the wall socket for that matter. So why not attempt to capture the magnetic field with an antenna, or more to the point, with a dense array of antennas? Why not indeed, asks Microcontinuum.

What they're doing is printing millions of tiny helical antennas measuring in the micron range on a flexible plastic substrate. The antennas themselves are made of pure elemental gold.

Theoretically the conversion of efficiency of such an arrangement should be over 90% but there are a lot of obstacles to successful execution. Antennas are polarized whereas incident infrared radiation exhibits random polarization and thus most of it will not be captured efficiently. It's possible to achieve circular polarization in an antenna, but that's not what Microcontinuum is doing apparently. But the biggest problem is converting the high frequency AC representing the fluctuating magnetic field in the infrared range into DC that can perform useful work. No one has succeeded in producing a solid state diode in that frequency range that is efficient.

I happen to think that I've hit upon a solution to that problem, but I can't discuss it until I've filed a patent.

Currently Microcontinuum is only making prototypes. According to company spokespersons commercial products are years away.

Stealth Mode

The startup with which I'm associated is now a real corporation and we're proceeding with our development efforts. Last week we got some extremely encouraging results from an experimental technology, but, as they say, we're in stealth mode, so I can't yet report on particulars.

The New World Order

Lots of us expected great things from the Obama Administration with regard to alternative energy programs. Certainly he talked the talk with a degree of credibility that his predecessor never managed to evoke.

But how has such talk translated into action?

The Obama Administration is certainly throwing a lot of money at alternative energy programs, and for startups like ourselves there's the enticing prospect of easy millions with relatively few strings attached. We ourselves have not pursued such funding with much diligence as yet but we plan to do so. As does nearly everyone else in the renewable energy space.

In other respects, however, the Obama Adminstration does not seem particularly forthright or focused. Notwithstanding the presence of Stephen Chu in Obama's cabinet, his Administration has not been advancing any clear vision of how carbon emissions might be radically reduced or how renewable sources might be greatly augmented. There is simply no urgency to Obama's pronouncements on the subject, no sense that he has any real stake in his stated positions. He may have embraced basic policy positions that are encouraging to those of us in the industry but we don't see him investing much political capital in them and, most disconcertingly, we see the larger public discourse focused largely on chimeras such as "death panels" and Kenyan birth certificates. We also see formidable push back on carbon caps emanating from a range of heavy industries, and we see the Administration quietly capitulating to them. It now seems evident that business as usual will continue as long as it possibly can and that policy makers will not seriously contemplate solutions until the public is forced to endure sustained fossil fuel shortfalls and catastrophic environmental damage such as coastal flooding along the Eastern Seaboard.

Of course the problem with delaying the crafting of coherent and far ranging solutions is that the financial crises that will surely accompany the last days off the fossil fuel regime and the coming era of catastrophic climate change will make it extremely difficult to fund the necessary adjustments. It's like someone deciding to plan for his retirement at the age of sixty-three.

But instead of planning for these dire eventualities this Administration seems determined to continue many of the most misguided policies of the Bush Administration, particularly the maintenance of an enormous and costly presence in the Middle East for an indefinite period of time and the continued enlargement of an already inflated military establishment. The likely consequences of continued pursuit of these policies are clearly discernible.

The U.S. will never achieve its objectives of midwifing friendly, prosperous, democratic regimes in the Muslim world because a.) nobody knows how to do it, and b.) the goal arises from the carefully cultivated fantasy that opposition to U.S. presence in the region is confined to a few Islamist "bad guys" and that a vast secular majority who revere the U.S. is being held hostage by those same bad guys. One could go on and on—the routine use of torture and arbitrary detention by the U.S. in a purported attempt to foster the spread of democracy as if torture and arbitrary detention were compatible with democracy, the utter contempt for a rule of law in the occupied lands, and a military strategy whose centerpiece is a policy of assassination based on dubious intelligence. U.S. foreign policy is incoherent to the point of dementia, ruinously expensive, and based on a kind of bizarre realpolitik which is actually sheerest fantasy.

Furthermore, U.S. force projection along the axis of instability girding the Indian Ocean represents an utter refusal to acknowledge that petroleum resources in the region cannot possibly be produced at the current high level in the future and that a policy advocating a massive allocation of national resources to defend them will lead inevitably to a tiger-by-the-tail scenario where eventually the resources are fully depleted but the U.S. cannot withdraw from the region for fear that the enraged survivors will launch retaliatory attacks to avenge a long and brutal occupancy and theft of their resources.

That all this will come to pass is a virtual certainty. And since these policies have been successfully conflated with patriotism by those on the political Right, they can never be willingly abandoned by a President even if the public at large no longer supports them.

So what to do? Dysfunctional states have a way of collapsing rather suddenly. The present sad state of affairs will continue for ever—it's clearly unsustainable—but it will prove extraordinarily difficult to change through rational changes in public policy within the framework of existing institutions.