by Ghost of John Brown
W.C Fields once said "It's morally wrong to allow a sucker to keep his money". Perhaps it's the logic that has encouraged environmental companies such as Solyndra to take money from the Federal government; they know a sucker when they see one. When most inventors have a really cool idea, they seek out venture capitalists. Unless your name is Mother Teresa, you like to make money. If an inventor has an idea worth something, there will be plenty of people willing to give you plenty of greenbacks to pursue your idea because they see a payback in the future. If your idea is not necessarily all that worthwhile, you might want to seek out the Federal government because they obviously aren't all that concerned about profit margins.
As readers of my columns have discovered, I'm a geek; a point that I freely admit to. My favorite reading material is Popular Science. The most recent edition is about the 100 greatest innovations of the year - must read material for geeks. One of the items that caught my attention was an "opposed-piston, opposed-cylinder" internal combustion engine. The fascinating thing about the engine and the company is that is called "Ecomotors". Click here to read about the engine.
A former Volkswagen engineer started looking at the cylinder head for their engine and thought to himself, "there's got to be a better way". Instead of putting a head on an engine, he came up with a design that put another piston on the other side instead of just a hunk of metal. The results are an engine that claims that it will get 100 MPG. Sorry for the short explanation, you'll have to go to the website for videos and a better explanation.
There is a difference in approach. I'm looking for an economically viable program, and if the environment is helped in the process, that's an added benefit. Most environmentalists are looking for a way to save the planet, and if it is economically viable program, then that's an added benefit. If we have a thousand programs that are un-viable from an economic perspective, then at some point, we won't have the money to support them. If we have a thousand economically viable programs, then we'll have more money laying around to clean up the planet.
As opposed to Solyndra, Ecomotors didn't seek out the Federal government for support. They went to venture capitalists and they are now marching towards a viable engine. The engine, if it pans out to be true, will get double the energy production per fuel consumption of most engines. Think about that for just a second. Not to sound too trite about it, but if all engines were magically replaced by such technology, we could cut our automotive fuel consumption in half, which would effectively ween us from foreign oil.
All of that without government help.
There are other breakthroughs in the Popular Science magazine: A liver function testing device that is literally "printed" onto a piece of paper in wax that costs about 1 cent per test which will help patients get more frequent information about the state of their liver. A wristband that will constantly check your physical condition and alert you to your health at a cost of $100. The list goes on and on. Most all of them come without any government interaction or spending.
Compare that to Solyndra. Solyndra's technology is essentially pretty pedestrian in comparison. Take photovoltaic strips and put them in a tube so they don't have to be tilted. OK, I get it. Nice idea, but not really a breakthrough. For this, they got half a billion dollars - primarily for manufacturing ramp up.
Solar power is NOT commercially viable.......yet. According to an industry benchmark, solar energy is at about 15 cents per kilowatt hour for an industrial application in sunny climates, 20 cents for a commercial application and almost 30 cents per kilowatt hour for a residential installation. If you are in cloudy location....say like Chicago, the cost per kilowatt hour is generally double that. Compare that to gas-fired power plants at about 4 cents per kilowatt hour and 5 cents per kilowatt hour for a coal power plant. Until the cost per kilowatt hour for solar becomes competitive, throwing lots of money at manufacturing low efficiency systems is a fools errand.
There are some promising application on the horizon. Some researchers are testing and developing systems that promise double and triple the efficiency of current systems. Researchers at MIT are looking at microantennas that are made of carbon nanotubes. Other researchers are looking at different chemical compounds. If those research efforts pan out, which I'm confident that they will some day, then solar becomes viable and won't need government support. Venture capitalists will smell the money and leap into action.
I still believe in the future of fusion reactors. Although we are most likely several decades away from a commercially viable fusion reactor installation, the impact of a limitless energy source are incredible.
Basic scientific research is vital, not crony capitalism. Take the $500 million that Solyndra was given and put that into research efforts for solar, fusion and other forms of energy and I guarantee that we will be much farther along that we will be by building a manufacturing plant that will crank out non-viable components such as the ones that Solyndra put out.
Basic scientific research should be focused on enhancing the economy. I've written before about closing down Fermilab, which I still stand by. The reason is that I see no commercial application and see no enhancement to the economy from it. Investing in medical research, computers and robotics, more efficient energy delivery, materials research, etc. have the potential for future economic gains. Fermilab doesn't.
Better yet, we need to encourage the private sector to pursue research and development. If private investors cough up $23million for Ecomotors like they have, they are anticipating a payoff down the road. The lure of promising profits will do more to encourage the efficient use of time than 20 government regulators will.
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