Monday, May 08, 2006

Convergence of new technologies

Every once in awhile there is a significant leap in technology. The dawn of the twentieth century dealt with the convergence of many new technologies at once. Electricity became common in homes, the first automobiles appear, and radio is changing the way we communicate. I imagine that sales of oil lamps and horse carriages are also seeing a decline. Will we see this kind of change again? Is it far away? When I was in University, I rented a typewriter from a busy leasing and repair business in town. That business is long gone and I don't think I have seen a typewriter in quite awhile.

I think the next big leap will occur in the energy sector. Not oil, but electricity. The politics of filling your gas tank will make the oil industry a wild card for a few more years, but electricity, now there's an industry that can flourish much more easily.
Recent developments in solar cell technology have seen two important breakthroughs. A lower cost per panel, and a higher electricity output per panel. It seems to be following the model of computers. Every iteration produces a faster and more efficient system while lowering cost.

Solar panels use highly purified silicon in a process called photovoltaics. Silicon is classified as a semiconductor. By itself, silicon is actually a good insulator and resistant to electrical flow, but by "doping" and changing it's properties, it can be forced to accept either a positive or negative charge. When you place a negatively charged plate of silicon over a positively charged plate, an electrical field is produced allowing the flow of electrons. This is electricity. The focus of most research has been to improve the efficiency of translating light into electricity, and doing it using smaller and smaller panels.
There are solar panels under development today that use low cost, low grade silicon as a source for the panels. The interesting part of this research is that the solar energy itself converts the low grade silicon into ultra pure silicon and as the panel ages, it's efficiency goes up. Given the leaps in solar conversion efficiency over the last five years, it is not unreasonable to expect that solar panels may become the "shingle" of choice in 10 to 15 years. The roof area of a typical home will be able to convert enough solar energy to run everything in your house----for free.

This technology leap is inevitable. What will happen to us as a society, as an economy? Will going wireless now mean that the power lines strung all over the planet will slowly disappear? Are we getting too emotional over issues such as nuclear and coal power plants? Maybe they will just go away like the horse and carriage. If every building has the capacity to generate its' own electricity, it is only reasonable to assume that technology for storing energy will also advance. Necessity is the mother of invention. How will the economics of energy independence affect society? How do you tax consumption? Recharging your hybrid at home will really mean something when it doesn't cost you anything.
Will the political landscape of the world change when energy is taken off the table? There are so many unknowns. I have a feeling that a convergence of technologies is just around the corner. When the President of the United States starts promoting alternative energy a few days before a drop in gas prices, something is in the air. Solar energy is on a collision course with fossil fuels. Cheaper energy sources always win. In the early days of the 20th century, there were people in their 30's and 40's with vivid memories of a world lit by gaslight and streets full of horse buggies. 30 and 40 year olds today remember typewriters and a world without Internet.
I wonder what it will be like to look out on the horizon and not see power lines? Hang on, I think we're going to leap again.

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