Why does the space shuttle returning to Earth cause two separate sonic booms?
By Kevin Pitts
April 19, 2012
I heard two talks at the American Physical Society meeting about the energy challenges facing our nation. One by Robert Rosner, former Director of Argonne National Laboratory, the second by Steve Koonin, former Undersecretary of Energy in the Obama administration.
They posted lots of talks from the conference, but unfortunately, they didn’t post these. Much of what Koonin discussed arose from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Technology Report (link).
I can’t do justice to all they discussed. It was fascinating, motivating and alarming. I'm just summarizing a couple of the takeaways.
The challenges are multifaceted. You've probably heard of the technical challenges.associated with energy. Can we develop renewable energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Can we improve battery technology to make electric cars competitive with gasoline driven engines? Can we find large scale storage techniques to that our national energy system is no longer an "on demand" system?
But beyond the technical challenges, there are economic, political and social issues, and all of these issues are global. First of all, worldwide demand for energy is going to continue to grow. The number of new cars sold in the United States has been decreasing for many years, with 5.5 million sold in 2009. China purchases more new cars than the U.S. does and their rate is growing, with an expectation to reach 20 million new cars purchased in a few years! As countries improve their economic standing, they consume more energy. We are players in a world energy market.
And if you subscribe to the idea that gas prices can be quickly reduced by more drilling, Koonin had some sobering statistics. The U.S. currently uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day. Optimistic scenarios say that the US could improve oil production by a million barrels a day in 10 years.
If you look at history, the timescale for major changes in our energy usage (how long did it take us to stop using wood as our primary fuel? How long did it take us to stop using coal as our primary fuel?) change happens over many decades, not a few years. Another example of this is improved automobile design. A new product or innovation in the auto industry takes the better part of 10 years to achieve full market penetration. Then it’s another 15 years (automobile lifespan) before it is fully adopted. So if we decided today that hybrids or electric vehicles were the *only* way to go, it would still take 25 years before everybody was driving one.
Physics has played a role and can continue to play a role. More efficient energy sources could still be a game changer. New techniques to utilize nuclear power, new materials for solar power, innovated energy storage techniques – any of these could potentially be game changers.
But what I learned last night was that, even if you have a game changer, it’s not all rainbows and flowers. It will take time, effort and political will to benefit from it.
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