Friday, September 12, 2008


X-Prize Alternative Energy Forum at MIT

On Wednesday, I went to the X Prize Alternative Energy Forum at MIT to hear Ray Kurzweil, George Church, and Saul Griffith present on "What I Would Advise the Next President" with respect to alternative energy policy. After the discussion, a $25,000 X-Prize was announced for making a 2 minute YouTube video with your "Crazy Green Idea."

Videos and slides of the presentation will be posted on the X-Prize blog-site soon.

Dr. Kurzweil presented the law of accelerating returns and demonstrated that solar power is a similar technology. He presented an interesting argument that when technologies becoming "information technologies" they switch from a process of linear growth one of geometric growth. Linear technological process is usually the result of trial and error (hypothesize and test) whereas a geometric information technology growth is fueled by simulation and process optimization. He observes that nanotechnology and genetics are pushing medicine into the realm of "information technology" in the same way that advanced material processes and software simulation and optimizations have enabled Moore's law.

Dr. Kurzweil suggested that at current growth rates, solar power technology will cross a critical economic boundary (making it not just feasible, but pragmatic) in 5 years that will trigger massive solar power adoption electricity generation. I think that accelerated returns are largely demand-driven: sale quantities drive down marginal costs and provides capital for research and improved manufacturing infrastructure so that even lower cost items can further increase sale quantities in a feedback loop.

George Church discussed biofuels and that the problem of transporting and storing electricity needs to be considered in addition simply generating it. The benefits of biofuels is the energy per weight capacity of combustible chemical storage an order of magnitde higher than solid state capacitors or chemical electric batteries. Thus despite the lower percentage yield in transforming sunlight into stored power, biofuels make more sense in applications like airplane fuel or automobiles where weight is a primary factor of efficiency.

Dr. Griffith made an important point that "economic practicality" is not the same thing as "technically necessary." His presentation was focused on the technical scale of the problem: In order to practically generate enough electricity to supply humanity we would have to fill an area the size of Wyoming with Solar panels. Transforming the area of Wyoming into a solar farm would require a 1000 square meters a second for 8 years (Google for Wyoming Area to get 97818). He also mentioned that the practical energy plan needs to consider that manufacturing and distributing a solar panel can consume several months of the output that it generates. For example: it is not energetically practical to manufacture small wind turbine.

After the talks X-Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis announced a $25,000 prize for presenting your "Crazy Green Idea" on YouTube. My crazy green idea is to develop a green-power von Neumann machine that is capable of forging a copy of itself and providing power from the sun: a fresnel lens solar forge that is capable of making fresnel lenses for solar forges... A fully green power self-replicator will reduce the environmental impact of developing green power systems and enable low-cost geometric expansion.

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