Alternative Energy Research Highlighted at Vancouver Engineering Conference

November 18th, 2010 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

I just returned from Vancouver (the one in Canada), where the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has been holding their annual meeting at the Vancouver Convention Center.

I was asked to present one of their keynote talks, so on Tuesday evening I spent about 45 minutes outlining some of the global warming science that the engineers might not heard about from global warming experts like Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was a treat for me to be able to assume the audience actually knew something about thermodynamics, which all mechanical engineers are taught, and which many of them use in their work.

Other than one lady in the audience who interpreted my message as part of a right-wing conspiracy to thwart saving the Earth from evil corporations bent on destroying it (OK, so I’m exaggerating), the audience was largely sympathetic to the outrageous minority view that climate might be able to (gasp!) change all by itself.

Many of these engineers are now working in various aspects of alternative energy research. I was amazed at how much of this kind of work is being done. Even large petroleum companies like Exxon Mobil are heavily invested in this research.

And why shouldn’t they be? Whoever comes up with cost-effective alternative energy sources will make lots of money.

One particularly interesting talk examined various ways of using solar energy. Growing corn for biofuels turns out to be particularly wasteful of both energy and land resources. (And thwarting market forces by subsidizing it ends up killing poor people around the world by creating fictitious demand, which sends world corn prices soaring. Gotta love the good intentions of politicians and environmentalists.)

Growing algae, in contrast, is very efficient. But getting substantial amounts of fuel from algae still has many practical problems to overcome. The speaker said he believed algae-based fuel will end up being a secondary product to algae-based plastics, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, sewage treatment, etc.

How much water is required for various energy generation technologies is also a major practical concern, especially in the western U.S. I was amazed to learn that it takes about 150 gallons of water to produce a single Sunday newspaper!

I wonder how many Sunday newspapers have carried op-eds about the need to conserve water?

I continue to believe that alternative energy technologies will germinate and grow without any governmental interference. Humans need energy for everything we do, and the market will never go away. Let free market forces work.

Fossil fuels will slowly become more expensive as they become scarcer and more difficult to extract, and this is the only mechanism needed to ensure that new energy sources will be developed to take their place. Gifts, gadgets, weather stations, software and here!

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