Tomorrow is good.
In a weekly column, alternately written by Lucien Engelen, Maarten Steinbuch, Carlo van de Weijer and Daan Kersten, E52 tries to find out what the future will look like. All four contributors are – in addition to their ‘normal’ groundbreaking work – linked to the SingularityU The Netherlands, the organization that focuses on spreading knowledge about technologies that can provide solutions to the problems of our time. This Sunday, it’s Carlo van de Weijer‘s turn.
By Carlo van de Weijer
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Peter Diamandis is one of the founders of Singularity University. He is the author of the book “Abundance”, in which he describes how, in the next twenty to thirty years, we will solve all major problems in the world. As a direct consequence of the exponential growth of our technical ability he foresees that there will be sufficient water, food, education and health care for all of the eleven billion people who will at one day populate our world (no more than that, just listen to the always entertaining Hans Rosling).
And for eleven billion people, there is enough space in the world – they could even be brought together on the island of Texel – be it a little tight.
The basis for this abundance is that free energy will be available in the future, and this I want to elaborate in more depth. To be honest, I’m really surprised that just a few scientists still have doubts about energy being free – or extremely cheap – over a period of several decades. This trend is being linked to solar cells getting cheaper exponentionally, defeating all predictions in a positive way for decades already.
But anyway, just imagine this: energy that’s virtually free right at the source. Perhaps not free at the user side, but in any case not expensive anymore, and the environmental concerns of using energy will fade into the background. There are some typical Dutch problems and opportunities to look at. One problem is that we live rather far from the equator; only about one percent of the world’s population lives closer to one of the poles than we do. Which means there is a lot of difference in solar radiation between the seasons, about a factor 7. So we have to either install seven times more solar cells than would be necessary in the summer – and we even haven’t got enough space for that on the North Sea – or we would have to import electricity. Or look at a combination of several renewable sources.
But this relatively large balance problem also creates an opportunity. Indeed, the energy shifts from a problem of generating to a problem of storage. The free energy will probably be available in the shape of electricity. If you want to store it, batteries are a good option for cars and for the collection of day-night cycles, but for summer-winter cycles and other vehicles such as airplanes, trucks and ships this will not do. Remarkably, nature itself has never chosen for batteries. In nature, you never see any electrochemical storage, but invariably the choice is for energy-containing carbon/hydrogen chains in oils and fats. And I predict that we will also see that in our future energy system. Some think about pure hydrogen, but if we go molecule-tinkering with the abundant energy anyway, I suspect we will continue to build until we find better fuel chains, a kind of artificial petrol or biodiesel. Solar Fuels or synthetic fuels is what they are usually called. At the TU/e we introduced the name Circular Fuels, because all the CO2 molecules that are produced during combustion are captured one on one during the production of the fuel.
This requires much research and a combination of three competencies in which the Netherlands is top level: High Tech, Chemicals and Energy. At the TU/e for example, we look at the use of plasma to upgrade CO2 to CO, which is the essential step in the process, and this already gives promising results. Fact is that the first kilos of renewable fuels have already been produced, and with exponential growth this might expand very fast in the future. At this moment we are still making electricity out of fuel, soon we will make fuel out of electricity, which requires a complete change in thinking.
I wish you all a lot of energy on our way to abundance. We are already very close.
PS: more of Peter Diamandis behind this link, or in this video:
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