Powering Ideas on a Large Scale

In August 1964, author Isaac Asimov wrote a piece in The New York Times, pegged to that summer’s World Fair and imagined what the world would be like in 2014. “The direction in which man is traveling is viewed with buoyant hope, nowhere more so than at the General Electric pavilion,” he wrote.

Fifty years later, in the spirit of Asimov, GE is making our own predictions about what the future will bring. This blog was originally published in GE’s “What’s Next” collection that gathers perspectives from the makers of tomorrow. Follow the series on Medium.

Isaac Asimov predicted “fission-power plants that would supply over half the power needs of humanity.” While we haven’t reached that level of utilizing thermonuclear energy, we are working to make power more portable, pushing efficiencies and energy densities, and increase ease of use. At GE, we are focused on multiple ways of generating reliable sources of power both on and off the grid and creating systems that can be set up and ready to go with minimal infrastructure and operations.

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A great exercise is to spend time thinking about the vast possibilities for making power in the future. Today we are advancing large scale fossil power plants, solar and wind systems, energy storage technologies, and distributed power options. Together these all offer great benefits in making power more reliable and efficient. Even with all these ongoing efforts we need to think beyond the conventional. An intriguing concept is tapping subterranean thermal energy, or geothermal systems. It’s clean, renewable, and has the potential to solve many of the challenges other energy sources create. We know the energy is there, but creating efficient ways to harness the low-quality heat energy and converting it into usable power is difficult.

Geothermal systems are far from new. However, the conventional systems have limited growth potential in the future. Continued investment in geothermal technologies can unlock endless benefits. We would not have to burn fuels, emissions would no longer be a concern, and wastes could be significantly reduced. And the best part is that it’s sustainable: there is enough energy within the core of the Earth to power us for centuries going forward. While wind and solar will continue to be vital sources of renewable energy for us, geothermal is not constrained by weather variations or time-of-day. Of course, harnessing this ideal source of energy comes with its own set challenges and needs lots of technology development.

Another area to extend the thought experiment even further in time is to consider how we move power around. I’m taking a cue from the telecommunications industry here. We used to rely on wires to communicate; now we communicate almost entirely wirelessly. It started with simple text messaging and we now are streaming massive amounts of data through the air. This transition has made both communication and mobility easier. Can we apply the same principles to power mobility? Imagine a time when transmission lines and complex physical infrastructure are no longer necessary for power to reach people. This would be a major breakthrough for the industry and change the lives of millions of people.

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Asimov also predicted power stations in space; while this seems like a far-fetched idea, it touches upon the same concept. If we figured out a way to beam power, wirelessly, from location to location; it wouldn’t matter if the power plant was in the middle of a desert or on another planet! While we wouldn’t immediately begin a project to establish a space power plant, the idea of beaming power is something to consider.

While we don’t have all the answers or even know what will be developed in the future, we have to be forward-thinking. One of the purposes of GE’s Global Research Centers are to investigate and test out ideas that might be far off in the future when it comes to commercialization and beyond the level of comfortable risk for one of our business units.  Our Advanced Technologies organization exists for just this purpose. If an idea has the potential to make a significant positive impact, we want to make sure we’re exploring it. We try to keep our focus on what the world will look like ten years from now, and innovate for that time frame.

Even though a thermonuclear power plant beaming from space is not in our immediate reality, ideas like this drive innovation for our current large-scale problems. The solution lies in the combination of advancing traditional power plants and continuing to propagate renewable energy sources. The challenges we face in powering the world exist on a very large scale. Our ideas and technology have to measure up. Asimov’s imaginative predictions seemed outlandish in 1964, but look where we are now. It’s imperative that we keep dreaming big as we focus on innovating for the future.


2 Comments

  1. M.Bowman

    Thank you for your comments. My thoughts about moving power around were intended to inspire people to think big more so than to suggest using current wireless technology. I’m a firm believer that if we don’t challenge ourselves to think beyond what we know today we will limit ourselves in what we can learn.

  2. JC3

    I certainly agree that we need to think outside the box!

    I share MKS’s concern about possible negative impacts of wireless transmission of energy. However, I assume Mike would agree that the real issue is reducing transmission losses — and that doesn’t necessarily restrict attention to wireless.

    Another very miscellaneous point… While subterranean thermal or geothermal systems would be very clean, I wouldn’t refer to them as renewable. By comparison, oil is probably more renewable — with a really long time-constant.