Technologies today and tomorrow

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  • International Journal of Hydrosen Energy, Vol. 1, pp. 241-243. Pergamon Press, 1976. Printed in Northern Ireland

    TECHNOLOGIES TODAY AND TOMORROW

    T. OHTA Faculty of Engineering, Yokohama National University,

    Yokohama, Japan

    INTRODUCTION--REFLECTIONS ON HISTORICAL TECHNOLOGIES F~E billion years or more have passed since the Earth's crust cooled and solidified. The destinies of peoples who later inhabited the Earth have been controlled in large measure by the maldistributed resources in the crustal regions. Wars have originated and may still be initiated for reasons of resource maldistribution and the struggle of the peoples and nations for an equitable share of vital resources.

    I would like to review and reflect upon those remarkable technologies and scientific innova- tions which stand out in human history as having first-order significance. The point to be made here is the historically demonstrated need to "drive" innovation constantly in order to relieve human suffering and the constant concern with strife and hostilities among nations.

    "Human Technologies" can be classified into five categories. The first is material-synthesis. Examples are the development of artifidal silk in 1892, staple fiber and artificial fertilizer in 1906, bakelite in 1909, and nylon in 1935. The list goes on today. The second is the expansion of our "living sphere" by way of new modes of communicating and processing information. There was the telephone in 1876, wireless telegraphy across the Atlantic in 1901, television in 1925, communication satellites in the early 1960's and today the wonder of the "supercomputer". The third is the field of medicine where many of man's best innovative efforts are to be found; e.g., the discovery of penicillin in 1929. The fourth field is that of energy cqnversion technology. There was the steam engine in 1760, the electric motor in 1831, the modem rocket beginning in the 1940's, and high-performance gas turbines in the 1950's and later.

    I would like to point out that the energy conversion technologies have exerted very strong influences upon the whole of human society as evidenced by the Industrial Revolution, for example. The so-called energy crisis of the last few years precipitated by events in the Middle East serves as a recent reminder of our dependence upon energy conversion processes. Nuclear- electricity generation is one of the most significant modern developments in energy conversion technology.

    The fifth and last of the "Human Technologies" is military technology. The atomic bomb in 1945 based on nuclear fission, and the hydrogen bomb based on fusion reactions in 1952 are salient developments, along with today's high-performance guided missiles.

    All of these technological develbpments have progressed under an apparent presumption that energy and material resources can be supplied economically and at a pace demanded by constantly accelerating developments, without limit. But these resources, upon which the quality of human life is secured, are both exhaustible as well as maldistributed over the Earth.

    Given that it is necessary for science and technology to produce or synthesize energy-forms and refine materials freely, the question is how to accomplish this using replenishable, widely available resources such as sunshine, water, air and soil. This is the new challenge. Technologies which contribute to meeting this objective could be named "Resource-Levehng" technologies. This signifies the fact that resources are to be employed which are not normally thought of as being resources in many instances, and which do not sutier the maldistribution characteristics, say of oil.

    If such can be effected on an economically acceptable basis, then the problem of maidistributed resources can be very much mitigated.

    ARTIFICIAL ACCELERATION OF NATURAL CYCLES

    Photosynthesis is the process fundamental to all life on the Earth. Plant-roots absorb water from the soil and the chlorophyll splits it into hydrogen and oxygen using solar energy. The oxygen is released to the atmosphere while the hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide

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  • 242 TECHNOLOGIES TODAY AND TOMORROW

    extracted by the plant from the atmosphere producing carbohydrates, the basic substance of plants. /Und, of course, plants provide the food source directly or indirectly for all living organisms.

    When plant material is combusted for energy purposes, or metabolized otherwise, water and carbon dioxide are created and usually released to the atmosphere, thus completing a natural cycle.

    But with more than 4 billion people living on the Earth and demanding a reasonable or high quality of living, we have seen a dramatic scale-up of supporting industrial developments. Often this scale-up proceeds in almost a "run-away" manner. Various adverse effects have accrued which interrupt or counter this natural cycle as described; e.g. environmental pollution.

    More significantly, the consumption of valued resources of traditional kinds, those that are maldistributed as mentioned, produces an unstable supply system. The resulting stresses on the techno-economic operation of many nations, especially highly-developed internationally-fled countries has been dramatic. The resulting impacts on internal affairs and international relation- ships have escalated markedly in recent years.

    It is apparent that the ultimate remedy to the basic problems we now face in this regard is to develop those technologies which, in essence, accelerate the natural cycles. For example, we must learn to produce hydrogen from water using solar energy processes. We might also fix atmospheric carbon, but at the present stage of consideration, hydrogen production seems more fundamental. Here is an illustration of "Resource-Leveling" technologies since both water and sunshine are abundant and well-distributed resources.

    To be more specific, the strong sunlight falling upon the tropical zone must be used to split seawater to produce hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is a dean, eflident fuel which can be used, for example, to power aircraft. It is also an important, even basic, chemical intermediary for the production of fertilizers and commodities of high market value. Thus the energy, the water and the food (both indirectly via fertilizers and perhaps even directly through the cultivation of microbes) can all be provided by this system.

    PLAN OF OCEAN RAFT SYSTEM FOR HYDROGEN ECONOMY (PORSHE) In order to ultimately realize this concept, we in Japan have started a grand project which we

    call "PORSHE", for Plan of Ocean Raft System for Hydrogen Economy. The PORSHE will utilize the tropical sea zone, perhaps in the general area centred about 8 degrees South and 138 degrees West in the mid-Pacific ocean where cloud cover appears to be minimum.

    It is fitting to note that in the tropical seas, "excess" solar energy results in, among other phenomena, the typhoons and hurricanes which wreak so much havoc. So the energies available are enormous, and PORSHE will convert these natural forces to dean hydrogen fuel for use in other regions where there is a demand for energy.

    The rafts or floating platforms comprising PORSHE shall also be equipped with means other than just for hydrogen production, such as mineral extraction from seawater. Even uranium extraction processes from the sea is within the realm of possibility. Any co-products which can be produced in parallel with hydrogen energy will, in effect, reduce the cost of the latter. Hydrogen may thus become as inexpensive as petroleum. Its availability in abundance will not only directly benefit the using systems, as well as providing obvious environmental benefits, but it will als0 make possible large scale recycling of materials for reuse, such as aluminlum production from scrap.

    Hydrogen will play an important role in carbon-fixing. From methane as a substitute natural gas, to more complex hydrocarbon and carbohydrate, and other products from chemical processing, major carbon-fixing enterprises can be envisioned.

    INVESTMENTS FROM THE PETROLEUM ECONOMY The development of PORSHE and other examples of resource-leveling technologies will

    clearly demand immense financial investments. Nevertheless, these investments must be made ultimately.

    I would like to put forward several ideas in connection with the investment aspects of the subject. Energy prices today have three important factors. The first is the price of the resource; the second is the cost in both capital and operating terms of transporting, storing and processing

  • TOKIO OHTA 243

    or converting the resource; and the third comprises the net expense associated with environmental protection. If these cost components are represented as X(i), Y(i) and Z(i), respectively, for an energy type denoted by " i" such as petroleum, nuclear energy, etc., then the total cost is C(i) = X(i) + Y(i) + Z(i).

    In view of the trends for all of the cost components of energy as being one of sharp escalation, it would seem reasonable to attempt to exact some revenues from the commerce in energy materials as investment assistance to develop energy systems which qualify as "resource-leveling" in eventual contribution. For example, additional costs might be levied in the environmental protection aspects of using petroleum, Z (petroleum).

    Another approach would be to place additional levies on devices and systems now in use which provide for low conversion efficiency in energy use. Electric residential heating, considering the net resource-to-end-use conversion efficiency,, would appear to be a candidate in this connection. With serious inquiry into energy conservation potential in all facets of our society, we are likely to find many such areas where efficiency can be stepped up. The additional charges would act as a stimulus in this regard, as well as produce revenues to be applied to such potentially important projects as PORSHE.

    Dr. Kissinger recently proposed a floor-price system to be applied to crude oil being imported. The intent here is obviously to provide economic protection for the development of U.S. domestic energy resources such as oil shale and coal. Similarly new explorations for oil and gas in the North Sea would profit from such a pricing scheme.

    What does this signify for Japan? In my view, the Japanese responses to Dr. Kissinger's proposals were "cool". A representative

    opinion expressed was that of Foreign Minister Mr. K. Miyazawa, who commented that he would not approve such a policy on the basis that Japan had no major energy resources. He added that the objective of protecting the development of new technologies in the energy field was unrelated, and should be separately handled.

    However, I would like to differ from this viewpoint. How can new energy technologies be developed, with their major investment requirements, in the face of "acceptable" present costs of petroleum? Instead, I would like to strongly advise the Japanese Cabinet to take a more farsighted position with respect to energy-policy. Japan should be the first country to actually realize the resource-leveling technologies which I have attempted to describe herein.