Turn On The Lights – WIF Next Gen Power

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The Future of Power:

New  Sources

of Energy

Listen, fossil fuels have been great. They’ve provided such an abundance of cheap energy over the last century and change that we’ve ridden their wave from horses and muskets all the way to rocket ships and the internet. But there are costs to burning them (you know, like how you also burn the planet). As the cons begin to outweigh the pros, it’s abundantly clear the time of oil and coal is rapidly coming to an end.

The debate over which renewable sources could potentially replace them (and therefore deserve more public investment) has been raging for years now. But solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear (fission) are just the beginning. Turns out one thing we don’t have a shortage of is jaw dropping ideas for energy production that can, with the right resources and public investment, be implemented within our lifetimes. Things like…

8. Nuclear Waste

Nuclear fission reactors have been around forever, currently provide roughly 20% of America’s energy, and will likely be a central component to any climate response plan due to the low greenhouse damage they cause. Contrary to popular belief, they’re also quite safe, as accidents like the infamous Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters are preventable and rare. But there is one problem that isn’t being overblown, and that is the nuclear waste issue.

Current light-water technology surrounds uranium fuel rods with enough water to slow the neutrons and generate a sustainable fission reaction, but only an unacceptably inefficient 5% of the uranium atoms inside the rods can be used before they have to be replaced. The remaining 95% kind of just gets dumped into an ever-growing stockpile (90,000 tons and counting) that we don’t really know what to do with. This is where Fast Reactor technology comes in, which submerges the rods in sodium and can therefore switch those numbers: using 95% of the uranium and only dumping the remaining 5% rather than further contributing to the current mess. If we can muscle our way past the political stigma against nuclear power, this technology has real potential.

7. Nuclear Fusion

Of course, we don’t have to stick with fission at all. At least not long term. Nuclear fusion, in which molecules are combined into a new element using immense heat and pressure, is safer, overwhelmingly more powerful, clean and harmless to the environment, and could provide power in enough abundance to launch mankind into the kind of future only dreamed of on The JetsonsSadly, at this moment it’s not easy to sustain net positive (meaning we get more energy out of the reaction than we have to put in to trigger it) fusion reactions long enough to be commercially viable.

There’s an old adage commenting on the long, long road fusion has already traveled and how far it still has before we start rolling it out: “nuclear fusion is the power source of the future, and always will be.” It’s funny and a bit depressing, given the enormous potential that always seems to be just one breakthrough away. But we know fusion, the Holy Grail of clean energy research, works. We need only look up at the stars, which exist because of fusion. So technically, since none of us would exist without the sun, you do too. 

6. Geothermal Energy

As appealing as fusion and wind are, though, there’s certainly something to be said for an energy source that doesn’t depend on expensive reactor facilities or unreliable weather conditions. Enter geothermal energy: heat pulled straight from beneath the surface of the Earth, where there’s always plenty. Now technically, we’ve been harnessing geothermal energy for over a century by just collecting it from water and steam. But modern geothermal harnessing techniques are limited, both in range of use (even when the technology is mature, it’s mainly used for basic heating and cooling functions) and by geography itself (we have to harness the heat where it is, almost always in tectonically active areas).

However, we’re constantly improving at both getting to the heat and spending less money, effort and time doing it. And in the very near future, expect technologies falling under the umbrella of Enhanced Geothermal Systems, which drill and pour water into ‘hot dry rock’ areas in the earth’s crust in order to turn the currently inaccessible energy stores there into several times more usable, clean energy than fossil fuels currently give us access to, to reshape the energy landscape.

5. Space-Based Solar

The first thing anyone thinks of when they hear the term ‘renewable energy’ is probably solar. Why wouldn’t they? The sun is bombarding the earth with more raw power every second than we’ve ever managed to spend in a year. But the problem was never a lack of it; it’s always been harnessing and storing the stuff. Luckily, solar panels are getting cheaper and better at an alarming clip. But what if we could harness the sun’s energy in space? It’s always there, after all, in waves not filtered and diluted by the fickle atmosphere (which reflects 30% of it back into space anyway).

The basic idea would be to construct enormous solar farms which would collect the sun’s high-energy radiation and use mirrors to deposit the energy into smaller collectors, which would then send it to Earth in the form of microwaves or laser beams. As of right now, this technology is prohibitively expensive. But maybe it won’t be for long. After all, companies like SpaceX are constantly engineering ways to drive down the cost of sending cargo into space, so hopefully we’ll be running out of excuses not to build one of these world-changing (and charging) behemoths in our lifetime.

4. Solar Windows

But you know what? Cool as space solar is, we don’t actually have to go into space to revolutionize solar energy generation (which is already revolutionizing energy itself). Down here on the surface, solar panels are already covering rooftops throughout Europe and desert expanses in the American Southwest, not to mention steadily eating away into fossil fuel dominance. With upcoming quantum dot solar cell technology about to burst onto the scene, which essentially replaces standard silicon with artificial, solar-energy collecting molecules, expect the revolution not just to continue, but to accelerate. 

Before we continue, it’s worth noting that lots of cool but ultimately impractical solar-panel-as-something-else designs (where solar panels replace roads, walls, windows, etc) have been floated lately. The problem always comes down to the fact that solar panels just aren’t advanced enough to double in function. But quantum dot tech may change that. Imagine every window in the world filled with solar harnessing technology that you wouldn’t even be able to see with an electron microscope. So say goodbye to those unsightly panels, because without even looking different, your transparent windows might function as mini power stations in just a few short years.

3. Tidal Power

We already have hydroelectric power, generated by massive dams that use rushing river water to turn energy turbines. It’s powerful, clean stuff and certainly worth continuing to use. But it’s nothing compared to the untapped energy of the ocean’s currents, which, if properly harnessed, could power the planet several times over. Sadly, solar and wind cornered the renewable market early on, and as a result, tidal power is only just now getting reconsidered due to its enormous potential.

Oyster, for example, is essentially a giant hinged flap bolstered to the ocean floor, which swings back and forth with the current and pumps enough resulting energy to the surface to power thousands of homes. There’s also the Terminator turbine, designed by Air Force Academy engineers and inspired by aircraft, which ditches drag technology for wing-like lift, in order to (theoretically) harness an astonishing 99% of available tidal power (as opposed to the standard 50%). And the potential isn’t limited to raw energy generation, either. Perth, Australia just started using a tidal-powered desalination plant that can provide drinking water for more than half a million residents.

2. Hydrogen

Advantage number one: burning Hydrogen produces just about no pollution or greenhouse emissions at all, which is why NASA has been using the stuff to send rockets and shuttles into space for years. Sadly, it’s tough to expand this energy source to a global scale since hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe (by orders of magnitude) isn’t available in large enough quantities where we can actually get it (unless it’s combined with other elements like Oxygen, as is the case with H2O).

But if we could figure this out, maybe by engineering a way to separate hydrogen from the elements of which it’s a part, we could change the world. Luckily, such hydrogen fuel cells, which may very well be the future of transportation, are already being built. Honda is actually planning to demonstrate the power and efficiency of this technology with a new Clarity Fuel Cell car by plugging the vehicle into a house which it will then power (as opposed to electric vehicles, which would draw power from the house). Like all new technology, of course, this will be expansive and unavailable to the public at large for some time. But the potential is real.

1. Biofuel

Like a lot of entries on this list, biofuel itself has been around for ages. Henry Ford actually envisioned his Model T car running on ethanol before cheap oil was found everywhere and captured the energy market instantly. Ethanol, the first generation of biofuel, is making a comeback too, but the fact that it can only be harnessed using the same land and resources as food is problematic (and driving up the cost of food). Generation 2’s switchgrass was floated as an alternative for a while, due to its hardiness and ability to grow like a weed virtually anywhere. But we’d need an amount of land equivalent to Russia and the US combined to grow it in large enough quantities to overtake fossil fuels as the primary power source for cars, so that won’t work.

But what about algae? Its natural oil content is over 50%, it’s not food, and doesn’t require fields or fresh water to grow. Instead, the remaining parts of the plant can be converted into gas and electricity and fertilizer to grow more algae in small labs. This one’s no brainer, folks.


Turn On The Lights

WIF Next Gen Power

Fly Me to the Moon – WIF Aviation

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Incredible Commercial

Aircraft We Might

See in the Future

Obviously any article dealing with ‘future’ anything is largely speculation. This is doubly true in an industry that, despite seeing plenty of technological breakthroughs over the years, hasn’t really changed much in all that time because major overhauls are rarely worth the cost to implement. Regardless of what type of engine or propulsion system the aircraft has, you check your bags, get screened, stand in line, sit in crowded coach seats with a TV, round window, fold out tray and peanuts, or you get a little more legroom and champagne in first class. Airlines are airlines, is the point, and they have been for decades.

But that hasn’t stopped people from dreaming bigger, developing better and faster ways to travel via air. And with the age of fossil fuels coming to an end, who’s to say some of these ideas won’t finally see the light of day when aircraft designs are overhauled? We’ve collected a handful of the coolest ever commercial airline trends of the future. So lock your tray in the upright position and let’s take off.

7. Electric Air

It’s probably not too surprising that very few of the ideas that’ll grace this list, or any similar one, will revolve around burning fossil fuels. Why would they? Burning gas and coal is effective but dirty and archaic, and the world is sprinting towards renewable, clean energy sources. And if electric cars are making a splash, there’s no reason to expect we won’t be seeing electric planes in the hopefully not too distant future.

Small electric motors, like those featured on NASA’s X-57 prototype, will allow even a large aircraft’s propulsion to be distributed across the structure of the plane. Not only does this minimize the impact of a potential engine failure, but reduced operational costs and noise levels will greatly expand the ability of aircraft to travel near places of business and residence. That might sound like a nice enough, but ultimately small, improvement over the airline status quo. But in reality, it could transform commercial air travel from what are essentially flying passenger ships to modest air taxis, transporting goods and people nearly to the doorstep of their destination.

6. Biofuel Planes

As is the case with cars, ships, trains, or any transportation, really, electric aircraft propulsion isn’t the only option we’ve got to combat greenhouse-emitting fossil fuel dependency. Furthermore, given the decades-long service life of most passenger jets and various other frustrating factors, it’ll be two to three decades before we’re able to fully transition away from gas powered planes and onto something more environmentally sustainable, even if we started building electric ones exclusively starting tomorrow.

While we wait for that change, though, and get our ducks in a row, replacing fossil fuels with biofuels (special combustible crops, or algae) would reduce airline carbon emissions by 35-85%. It’s still important to keep in mind that biofuel cost parity with current fossil fuel sources is still a decade or more out. But like we said, that’s roughly half the time it’ll take (at least) to transition fully to electric power, and you can’t hammer away at prohibitive costs while sitting around complaining about them. The planet can’t wait forever for us to take its health seriously, so more green airplane tech is a noble goal to aim for.

5. Automation

Here’s another trend we’re seeing everywhere: the replacement of humans with machines. The military realized a while back that sending robots to the battlefield is infinitely better than putting boots on the ground, and now we have missile-launching, remote piloted drones doing the work of jet fighter pilots. Commercial airline pilots aren’t exactly in much danger, but then again, neither are cashiers, lawyers, truck drivers, delivery men, shelf stockers or even hospital orderlies, all of whom are in danger of losing their jobs to an algorithm that doesn’t even know it exists but can still perform better, cheaper and longer than even the best human for the same job.

There’s no reason to think that if automated cars are rapidly approaching, we won’t see equivalent when it comes to air travel. As travel increases, so too will the demand for pilots (the current global 200,000 is roughly about a third of what experts predict we’ll need in the next two decades). Facing such looming personnel shortages, a new system that requires no training, sick days or paychecks looks appealing indeed.

4. Tailless “Flying Wings”

This basic design is hardly new (think the SR-71 Blackbird), but it never got off the ground as far as commercial useable when it was first introduced, largely because it featured amphitheater-style seating in which passengers would sit in long rows rather than columns which allowed for easier movement. Imagine having to use the bathroom when you’ve got 25 people on either side of you… “Excuse me. Pardon me. I’m so sorry. Don’t go back to sleep, I’ll be back in a minute. Pardon me, sorry.” But that’s fixable if you put your mind to it.

Now imagine the vast majority of aircraft passengers having no windows in such a design. Now that could be an issue, because the lack of visual references would result in dizziness and sickness. As if most commercial jets aren’t unpleasant enough. But with new electric engineering, the possibilities to replace the drab interior of an airliner with advanced screens are endless. You could project just about anything onto them. The easiest thing would be to simply let folks see what’s just outside. Imagine being surrounded by clouds during a flight, rather than having to observe them through a tiny window. That might seem unnecessary and pointlessly expensive, but tailless planes would eliminate the need for currently required elevators, rudders and, well, tails, all of which strangle maneuverability and add significant, fuel-burning drag.

3. Supersonic Travel

Speed. It’s the one, seemingly basic arena of commercial flight that’s gone backwards in recent decades, rather than forwards. The hook-nosed Concorde aircraft allowed for supersonic passenger jet travel as far back as the 1970s (its maiden flight was 1969), after all. But ballooning costs, frequent malfunctions and the unacceptability of sonic booms over metro areas forced airlines to mothball these and similar craft indefinitely. But not everyone gave up the dream.

Recognizing that costs are as much to blame for the lack of Jetsons-level society as inadequate technology, Silicon Valley startup Boom Supersonic has been working tirelessly to reintroduce faster-than-sound commercial air travel at lower costs. Other projects with similar ambitions are popping up, too, such as the still under development Aerion AS2. But even those quite literally deafeningly fast planes would be snacking on the dust of DLR’s suborbital hypersonic SpaceLiner, which could take you (at speeds in excess of Mach 25) from London to Sydney in an hour and a half. The availability of such rapid travel would revolutionize the planet in ways that are difficult to imagine.

2. Revolutionized Interiors

Not all airline-changing ideas have to do with aerodynamics, fuel efficiency or propulsion systems. One area that’s been in desperate need of overhaul for decades is the cramped, groan-inducing interiors of nearly every commercial passenger jet. There’s som variation in accommodations, but not much. Most are riffs on the same one or two lane design that stuffs miserable commuters shoulder to shoulder with about a half-inch of legroom and a bag of dry peanuts.

Luckily, Hamburg Aviation’s Crystal Cabin Awards aim to award anyone – please, anyone – who can design the next generation of airborne commuter comfort. The link above has no shortage of eye popping ideas. There’s Airbus’s winning submission, featuring spacious seating and an app that lets commuters order food, communicate with the crew and set lighting and temperature for their seats. AerQ also had a game changing idea, to do away with the class barriers that separate first and economy class seating and only serve to increase the claustrophobic conditions of spending several hours in a giant metal tube. Aident went in another direction entirely and straight up added a bed to the economy section. The ideas are out there, airlines. Assuming any of you survive the Covid-19 crisis, think about implementing one or two of them. For the sake of our knees and sanity.

1. Privatized Space Flight

Don’t expect to be on the moon in the next few years unless you’re already working for NASA. But in little but steady increments, private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are beginning to take the reigns of space flight from government funded giants the world over. Cost, of course, is and always has been the main issue. But only by diligently swinging away at those barriers can they ever be reduced. Right now, the cost of lifting cargo into orbit is plummeting. Again, it won’t be at levels where we can expect to head to the star port for a Thursday afternoon business meeting on a space station for quite some time. But it’s on exactly the trajectory we want it to be on.

Other advances have been made towards reusable rockets (as opposed to long-existing and current models where we have to dump the spent boosters into the ocean), and in low cost resupply runs to keep in-orbit craft fully stocked for the long haul. Investor seeding and government co tracts are currently the only way to keep the private space-minded giants funded. But hopefully sooner than we think, rich benefactors will be the first private passengers beyond the planets atmosphere. Their money will make further developments easier to reach, which will in turn drive down costs even more.


Fly Me to the Moon

WIF Aviation

Whiz Kids – Science Edition

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Whiz Kids

10 Amazing Scientists (Who Happen to Be Teenagers)

More and more teenagers are making scientific breakthroughs. From cancer diagnostics and treatments to renewable energy and advancements in biodegradability, these teen researchers will make you ashamed of your science fair baking soda volcano.


10. Jack Andraka

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Jack Andraka created a biosensor for pancreatic cancer that he alleges is 168 times faster, 26,667 times less expensive and 400 times more sensitive than current diagnostic technology. He used carbon nanotubes, bound them to antibodies for the cancer biomarker mesothelin. and put all of this onto a strip of filter paper. This gave him a sensor that could detect pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. He was only 15.

His research made waves because of the abysmally low survival rate of pancreatic cancerand the innovative method he used. He secured a patent lawyer after winning the Grand Prize at the 2012 Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), and started his own company, Andraka LLC, in December 2012. He’s the youngest person to have spoken in front of the Royal Society of Medicine, and he’s met the President.

9. Sara Volz

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Sara Volz performed experiments in which she selectively bred algae based on their oil output for the purpose of making them more commercially viable as biofuel. This research is especially relevant as the world continues to search for a way to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. She won the top prize of $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search. Her dedication to the project is clear from the fact that, as she needed to check on the algae regularly, she kept them in a makeshift lab under her bed and slept on their light cycle.

8. Elana Simon

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Elana Simon was diagnosed with fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer, when she was twelve years old. Instead of letting it get her down, at the age of fifteen she worked with her surgeon and a friend to appeal for tumor samples from other patients, and performed a study on the genetics of this cancer.

Elana, her father and her surgeon worked in Rockefeller University and with the New York Genome Centre. They sequenced the genomes of the tumor samples, compared them to normal cells and other kinds of cancer, and found a mutation in the fibrolamellar samples. The end of one gene joined the back of the next, creating a protein called a chimera. Further research needs to be done, but Elana co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal Scienceon her work. She spoke to President Obama about her research at the 2014 White House Science Fair, received the Junior Champion Cancer Research Award from the American Association of Cancer Research and plans to study computer science at Harvard.

7. Daniel Burd

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Daniel Burd is working on a solution to the problem of the slow decomposition of plastic bags. Plastic normally takes a long time to decompose (estimates vary, but go up to thousands of years), but this high school junior managed to do it in three months.

He reasoned that plastic does eventually degrade, so there must be a reason. That reason, he guessed, was bacteria. In a preliminary experiment, he buried plastic bags with dirt and yeast, and found that they did decompose faster. He then performed tests to isolate the bacteria responsible and found that these two strains were most effective for decomposing the polyethylene. 43% of the plastic had degraded within six weeks, an incredible record.

He thinks the rest would be gone in three months. His solution doesn’t pollute either; it onlyleaks water and trace amounts of carbon dioxide. He claims it’s industrially scalable and could easily be applied elsewhere.

6. Eesha Khare

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Eesha Khare built a super-capacitor that can charge an LED in twenty seconds. Her small device can last through 10,000 charge cycles, as opposed to the standard 1,000. It’s built using nano-structures, making it more environmentally friendly than normal batteries and allowing her devices to hold more energy per unit volume. The device can also fold and bend easily.

There has been much talk of using this technology in phone and car batteries, but this could still be quite far off because of the big difference in energy usage between phones and LEDs. However, charging an LED that fast remains a terrific advancement. She’s the 2013 runner-up in the Intel ISEF and won a $50,000 prize, while publications from Business Insider toTime have echoed the girl’s enthusiasm for the device’s practical applications.

5. Marc Roberge

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Marc Roberge discovered a way to neutralize anthrax in an envelope, and it’s deceptively simple — ironing. He destroyed the  bacteria by ironing the envelope for five minutes at a high temperature. Obviously, he couldn’t use real anthrax, but he got a substitute commonly used by scientists, bacillus subtilis. This substitute also happens to be more resistant to heat than anthrax, which adds strength to his findings. He says he got the idea from a conversation with his father, a medical toxicologist for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

His research was published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology in June 2006. Incidentally, ironing letters doesn’t blur ink or make them open up too early. The paper’s unashamedly punny title is ‘Bacillus spores in the mail: “Ironing” out the anthrax problem.’

4. Taylor Wilson

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Taylor Wilson was the youngest person on Earth to achieve nuclear fusion. His goal didn’t come out of nowhere; at eleven years old he was inspired by Shel Silverstein’s book The Radioactive Boy Scout, a novel in which a kid tries and fails to build a nuclear reactor.

Taylor thought he could do better. This, coupled with his passion for the radioactive elements of the Periodic Table, led him to conduct a “survey of everyday radioactive materials” for his school science fair. He procured a Geiger counter from a friend and went around on weekends looking for radioactivity. But this was small-scale stuff compared to what happened next.

Long story short, he wanted to build a small nuclear reactor. His family moved across the country and he enrolled in a school for profoundly gifted students. To make a working nuclear reactor, he’d need to focus 100,000 volts of energy to fuse atoms together, in a vacuum stronger than space. And he did it at the age of fourteen. He took his project to Intel ISEF and joined Eesha Khare on this list as a runner-up, this time in 2011. He also received a Thiel Fellowship, which gave him $100,000 to skip college and work on his own research.

3. Easton LaChappelle

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Easton LaChappelle built a functional prosthetic arm and hand that’s much cheaper than current models, thanks to his use of inexpensive 3D printing and open source technology. He had been working on a Lego arm for some time when he met a seven-year-old girl whose prosthetic arm had cost a staggering $80,000 and decided to work on the problem. His creation works better than a standard prosthesis, is stronger than a normal human arm and should retail for only $400.

LaChappelle’s worked in a NASA Robonaut team investigating how astronauts can controlspace robots from earth. He;s also won prizes at Intel ISEF but prefers to work away on his own. He hopes his device will be light enough and function well enough for everyday use by those in need of prosthetics.

2. Brittany Wenger

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Brittany Wenger developed a computer program for better diagnosis of breast cancer — her program detected 99% of malignant breast tumors. She had experimented with artificial intelligence and neural networks in the seventh grade after teaching herself to code, and when her cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer she put it into practice. She wanted to encourage the use of a less invasive diagnostic technique, namely fine needle aspirates. Doctors generally don’t use them because they’re so often inconclusive, and she set out to change that.

Her program identifies visual patterns associated with breast cancer and screens based on that. It also learns from its mistakes and continuously gets more accurate. She’s also developed a program to diagnose leukemia. Her breast cancer program is being tested intwo American hospitals, she won the Google Science Fair with the project, and yes, she met the President. She was also listed in Time’s 30 Under 30.

1. Shree Bose

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Shree studied the chemotherapy drug cisplatin, which works by damaging DNA until repair is impossible and the cells make themselves explode (sometimes science can be pretty hardcore). Unfortunately, cancer cells often develop a resistance to cisplatin, making the treatment useless. She investigated a protein called AMPK and its effects on cell resistance to cisplatin, and her research could help fight ovarian cancer by combating drug resistance andmaintaining cisplatin’s effectiveness as a chemotherapy drug.   Shree says that the enzyme might be playing a role in making cancer cells resistant. She won the overall prize in the 2011 Google Science Fair.

 

Whiz Kids – Science Edition