November 04, 2002
The Next 50 Years Is A Long Time In Technology

Why, when thinking about technology, does Martin Hoffert think that 50 years is not a long time?

There is no current alternative to fossil fuels that would maintain world economic growth while generating fewer environmental toxins, the team found.

"We don't have those energy sources off the shelf right now, but we have some time to develop them," the report's lead author, Martin Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University in New York City, told United Press International.

"We have about 50 years. However, 50 years is not a long time."

Given the rate at which biotech and electronics tech are advancing the next 50 years is an extremely long time for technological advances. 50 years from now we will have computers that are many orders of magnitude faster than the computers of today. Those computers will be able to simulate all manner of physical processes and simulation experiments will turn out all sorts of ways to make photovoltaic cells, fuel cells, materials for wind catching propellers for wind power, and for countless other energy-related technologies. We will have complete control of DNA and will be able to make new species of plants and single cell organisms that would make for better biomass energy generators. As an example of where future biotech advances can make a big difference consider how gene tweaking will allow improvements on the already promising prospects for using algae to generate hydrogen fuel:

The breakthrough, Melis said, was discovering what he calls a "molecular switch." This is a process by which the cell's usual photosynthetic apparatus can be turned off at will, and the cell can be directed to use stored energy with hydrogen as the byproduct. "The switch is actually very simple to activate," Melis said. "It depends on the absence of an essential element, sulfur, from the micro alga growth medium." The absence of sulfur stops photosynthesis and thus halts the cell's internal production of oxygen. Without oxygen from any source, the anaerobic cells are not able to burn stored fuel in the usual way, through metabolic respiration. In order to survive, they are forced to activate the alternative metabolic pathway, which generates the hydrogen and may be universal in many types of algae. "They're utilizing stored compounds and bleeding hydrogen just to survive," Melis said. "It's probably an ancient strategy that the organism developed to live in sulfur-poor anaerobic conditions." He said the alga culture couldn’t live forever when it is switched over to hydrogen production, but that it can manage for a considerable period of time without negative effects.

The folks at Melis Energy are working to improve the yields of naturally occurring algae. But imagine what bioengineering of the DNA of algae will make possible to accomplish in 10 or 20 years. Algae will be optimizeable for energy generation tasks. Also, nanotechnological advances will allow fabrication of materials we can only dream about today. The onus to justify their pessimistic viewpoints belongs on the people who do not believe that photovoltaics, fuel cells, and biomass will be cost effective in 30 or 40 years.

Why is it that some people think that only a large scale international coordination of efforts by governments can solve large scale problems?

"What our research clearly shows is that scientific innovation can only reverse this trend if we adopt an aggressive, global strategy for developing alternative fuel sources that can produce up to three times the amount of power we use today," New York University physicist Martin Hoffert said.

Scientific innovations will reverse the trend even if governments do not get involved in funding alternative energy research. Could government money accelerate the process? Only if the government restricts its involvement to basic research and if it stays clear of picking particular technologies to be winners. If it picks the wrong ones and that intimidates private funders from pursuing competitors it is even possible that government involvement could slow the rate of progress. But the development of new energy sources is a process that is going to happen anyhow.

They drag out the proposal to build solar arrays in space to then beam energy down here.

Is it feasible to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of energy? A new study concludes that it could be done with enough “political will” and what the lead researcher described as a global effort pursued with the same urgency as the Apollo space program. Europe is showing that will, recently embarking on a massive investment program in hydrogen and fuel cells. But the researchers didn’t see a similar push in the United States.

For space enthusiasts that is a fun proposal. But wouldn't it make more sense to spend a small fraction of that amount ot money to just develop processes that will lower the cost of making solar panels?

Policy discussions ought to be restricted to how much to give university basic researchers to work on basic related science problems.

Joel Darmstadter, an energy researcher at Resources for the Future, an energy think tank, said the study by Hoffert and others is a useful review of the technical status of the world's alternate energy systems. The study, he said, could prompt policy discussions because it gives an evaluation of what is possible to replace fossil fuels.

But Darmstadter said the study failed to draw a clear picture of which of the alternative systems should have the highest priority and bases some of the discussion on ``far out and highly speculative'' technologies, such as the power satellite.

If governments wanted to increase funding to basic physics and chemistry reseachers who are trying to understand the qualities of photovoltaic materials then I think the rate of advance could be accelerated. Ditto for scientists who are investigatng how to do nanotech manipulations with materials or biological scientists who are studying how chloroplasts do photosynthesis. But if governments fund production line construction or other types of decisions that are best left to business then I have serious doubts about the ability of governments to increase the rate of progress.

You can find my previous energy technology posts here.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 November 04 04:25 PM  Energy Tech

errick jackson said at August 6, 2003 12:10 PM:

will we live longer in the future

ehis said at September 13, 2005 1:04 PM:

In 500 words or less write about what you think will happen with technology over the next 50 years.

InformationPile said at November 30, 2007 4:05 AM:

This is an excellent overview of what may happen in the next 50 years. I believe there will be a revolution in health technology. I am still waiting for action to be taken in poor African countries where people are suffering from horrible diseases which we do not hear about often as these diseases are not found in western world.

We must succeed over death ans prolong the life of humans. Abundant food and water must be made available with the help of technology. Communication should be a snap from any continent in the world. Faster travel should be possible. I would like to take a vacation to the moon by 2030. Is it possible?

Will the energy needs of man be fulfilled? I hope we may be able to tap into the fusion reaction energy within a couple of decades. In 50 years, portable fusion reactors would revolutionize the planet.

Let us see if such stuff can really happen.

Gauhar Kachchhi

anonymous said at December 14, 2009 6:25 AM:


Good bye and god bless

$hadowhood said at August 26, 2010 5:01 AM:

Help! Help! We're all going to die!

starfarer said at September 1, 2010 9:04 AM:

I predict that there will be an enormous 'dronewar' out of which will come a great unification of survivors who will form a pact and develop a universal human genome which will be sent out into the cosmos to establish itself elsewhere.
The Earth has been a shameful waste . . . . Leave animals in dirty, overcrowded conditions and confined spaces they fight and die from disease . . . . The saddest thing is that our bodies and emotions are far too primitive to evolve further, maybe we are just flawed clever apes.

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