Every once in a while, a new invention or innovation comes along that completely changes our world. Examples abound: the Internet, the steam engine, the transistor. All of these have transformed our world and defined new eras of civilization.
But what about a world-changing invention or innovation that can take us from a world dependent on fossil fuels to a world powered entirely by renewable clean energy?
Well, this is precisely the question many of the world’s best minds are currently working on, and it makes me cautiously optimistic that a “post-fossil-fuel” era might actually be achieved within my lifetime.
I’m particularly encouraged by the insight researchers are gaining from the study of biological systems. They’re finding a wealth of ideas that can be borrowed from nature and applied to clean energy technology.
A great example is the work being done on vertical-axis wind turbines, which rotate on a vertical pole instead of the horizontal-axis wind turbines most people are familiar with. Believe it or not, the insight leading to innovation in these vertical-axis wind turbines is being gained by studying the behaviour of schools of fish.
In a school of fish, individual fish arrange themselves in a way that minimizes the amount of total energy required for the entire group to move through the water.
But by modelling this schooling behaviour, and applying the modelling to the energy “wakes” generated by individual wind turbines, researchers are figuring out how to place turbines in ways that minimizes the energy interference between them. This insight from nature is allowing researchers to achieve an energy density as much as 10 times greater than in a traditional wind farm.
However there’s really no way to know if vertical-axis wind turbines, or some other yet-unknown invention, will end up becoming the clean energy equivalent of the Internet.
With so much intense effort and brilliance being focused on the quest for renewable clean energy, there is no doubt that a world-changing clean energy innovation will inevitably be found.
And for that reason we can all be hopeful.