Monday, October 5, 2015

graphene and radical new energy technology

Another engineer on a discussion group anchored in Silicon Valley  asked -- is graphene humanity's hope?

My reply:

That may sound a bit strong for a mere material, the first of a family of materials -- but maybe I did not say enough about how important it might be.

FIrst, an analogy to the brain. For some purposes, the brain fully "sees" the world only at a computing speed of 4 hertz, the classic "theta" rhythm.
(The "movie screen of the brain," the thalamus, sends in visual images at an effective rate of 8 hertz, but emotional evaluation in the limbic system basically doubles the processing time.)  But the synapses from one neuron to the next take only 3 milliseconds or so -- which suggests a speed of 300 Hertz. So for some purposes, the brain operates at 4 hertz or slower (consider the speed of making moves in chess), but for others it operates at 300 hertz or so.

In the same way... your old PC from ten years ago had a speed of about 2 or 3 gigahertz GHZ for normal operation. Graphene seems to have the potential to change that to maybe 20 to 30 gigahertz, for the normal kind of operations we use in clocking computers. But at a very basic level, switching speeds on the order of 300 GHZ now seem possible, not only with graphene but with a few other competing new materials.  That's not just a matter of speeding up PCs. It also opens the door to new families of technology... but with the new conservative reorganization of science it becomes ever more dangerous to talk about them. That's so important to energy technology and other technology in the US that I should explain why I am worried. 

The new political problems in Washington remind me of a time years ago, under George W, when DOE was largely under the control of the oil industry but other agencies were more independent. At a time when most serious people agreed we needed action on climate change, but many people felt the cost was too high under existing technology, I pushed the idea that we should have a crash effort to develop the new technology which would allow us to cut CO2 WITHOUT a big increase in the cost of energy services (like miles driven by cars). I visited key places like the Senate Energy Committee with that message -- and did not realize at the time how much difference it made that I invited a couple of friends to come with me, one high up at the time in GM and one in the United Nations University. And also that the legislative director of that committee happened to have a son who was best friends with my own son that time in a local middle school!

A major new $300 million per year effort was announced by the administration... the Climate Change Technology Program CCTP... but they didn't immediately listen to the warnings that incorporating it into the traditional structure and corporate culture of DOE would screw things up.

And so, CCTP was assigned at first just to DOE -- but they decided to create an interagency working group for CCTP as the predicted problems started to emerge. I was the NSF member of that working group in the crucial early stages -- but the majority of members were still DOE people.

I will remember forever the pain and bafflement on the face of a DOE research program leader, who spoke for the other technical leaders:
"What in the world are they looking for here? They ask for a listng of new technology opportunities, to go in new directions, and then they add the requirement that it must be something we already tested and proved out for ten years. They are like that cat in Alice in Wonderland, who puts up a sign saying to go 'that way,' and points in opposite directions at the same time." THe new directions came from on high, but the ten years stuff... well, Lamar Smith has lately put a lot of that kind of constraint into the system (with encouragement from backers higher up), but in those days it was DOE corporate culture. CCTG did a noble job of trying to put out a menu of new options, analogous in a way to the menu which the new DOE offered to Jimmy Carter in the early days of Project Independence (which a close friend of mine worked on). But then, DOE higher-ups converted that into a budgetary plan, which ... understandably did not raise much enthusiasm in the more innovative Congress of that time... and that was the end of that.  The next stage was that Republican Congressman whose staff I worked with, Roscoe Bartlett, helped pioneer a new version, ARPA-E, which, for all its failings, was a major step forwards.    But the bad guys got Bartlett in the past few years, just as they got a lot of people, and there are rumblings that ARPA-E might even be abolished. (Yes, it has had some failings, but that's another matter.)

In my personal opinion, 300 GHZ switching is one of the key enabling technologies which might well take the US to levels most people do not even imagine as yet, if we had the institutional capacity to take advantage of it. As it is, it may be more likely to happen in other nations.

Equally important may be new directions in using nonlinear electro-optic crystals. Anyone who understands the real-world basics of modern quantum optics knows about nonlinear crystals (like "BBO" or "chi-3 and chi-4"). Lots of exciting new things could be done with them, too. But some wild new results were reported at Princeton this past May, using a kind of nonlinear crystal which MIXES electric force and light. With that combination, a guy named Alfred from Konstanz was able to measure electric current fluctuations down at a femtosecond level. (If I am not too sleepy this morning... I believe one femtosecond maps to 1000 GHZ.) 
At that level, he measured a vacuum energy density of 10 watts per cc, which equates to 10 megawatts per cubic meter of free space.  That's a lot of energy. Based on my own view of the proper way to model the relevant kinds of circuits, supported by the limited experiments which have been done so far this year in one of the world's three labs which has actually produced triple entanglement... I do believe it should be possible to extract such energy, but only if we develop the required enabling technologies and expose our models to empirical test in a way which has become ever less fashionable in the local area.

There is an underlying heresy here -- that time is just another dimension, and that we should not confuse local statistics with underlying laws of nature. People do not yet respect or appreciate Einstein or Schwinger as much as they should, in my view; in a way, they are like Copernicus, who was well known but was unable to shake off the power of the Dark Ages by himself in one century. I hope humans are still alive after one more century unrolls. If we hide in a fearful hole, we probably won't be. 

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