Tag: "MIT"

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Science Future: Egregious Energy

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction has upon each other.

Egregious Energy

Power. Electricity. Energy. It has fueled the technological evolution of humankind for years. We harness it, generate it, and distribute it in a multitude of ways. We use magnetic, photovoltaic and piezoelectric materials to harness generated power, chemicals and minerals to store and distribute, and technology to convert it back into useful force, like television and space travel.

© Copyright Keith Evans and licensed Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Escape Pod 303 Leech Run by Scott W. Baker, we were presented with an idea of how humanity might further control energy: Leeching it directly into our own bodies. Obviously this is a fantastical idea. Or is it? A research paper at the University of Massachusetts Medical School released back in June talks about a protein found in human eye, that when implanted into fruit flies, allows them to sense the magnetic fields, similar to migrating birds. Humans produce these proteins, suggesting that, as a race, we may already have or will develop some sort of conscious magnetic sense. From there is it only a few genetic steps (admittedly long ones) to allowing us to directly control, or leech, energy from the environment around us. This could lead to problems.

After all technology is likely to continue to grow in fast spurts. Researchers at MIT have been analyzing ways to predict which technologies might grow quickly. Similar to how computer processing units have scaled over the last few decades, knowing how quickly some other type of technology might improve could have vast repercussions both for investors as well as society. Regardless of what technology is developed, it will need to be powered in some fashion.

That is why battery research is still ongoing. Researchers at Imperial College London, the Swedish Institute of Composites, and Volvo are developing materials that can both act as the lightweight structural frame for vehicles as well as act as batteries to help power those vehicles. The applications for this type of discovery would be near limitless. Spaceships whose electrical systems are the walls themselves come to mind. The lighter a space craft, the easier it is to get into (and more importantly out of) a gravity well like a planet.

The problem is, if humanity develops power leeching abilities like in Scott Baker’s story, it is easy to see why such people could be seen as threats. In environments where technology is the only thing keeping us alive, a person who could simply leech all the power away from that technology would have tremendous control. In Leech Run, the captain of the space craft is very careful to keep his leech passengers away from electronic parts of the ship, and fears for his life when one of them escapes.

Copyright ladyada, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)The answer, it would seem, would be some way to possible neutralize their leeching abilities. Perhaps the future version of this technology: vascular turbines. Vascular turbines are similar to hydroelectric generators being developed at the University of Bern and the Bern University of Applied Sciences except they are small enough to be implantable inside the human cardiovascular system. The intent is to power devices like pacemakers without batteries but instead use the flow of a person’s own blood to generate the power needed. An improved inject-able version might be given to human power leeches as a way to force them to make use of their powers on the turbines, rather than other technology around them.

Science fiction, of course, is not a perfect predictor. Humans may never become power leeches in the same sense of the ones we found in Leech Run but as a race we’ll continue to leech and use power to fuel our future technologies. Science fiction will, in turn, continue to think up uses for all this power that improving technologies are helping us to harvest.

The higher your energy level, the more efficient your body. The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results.Tony Robbins

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Science Future: Portable Power

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Portable Power

Mobile and ubiquitous computing is one of the hot spots of commercial research and it has been slowly invading our science fiction for years. Almost every one can refer to at least one person, if not themselves, who carries the internet around in their pocket and nearly every space faring race seems to have easy access to huge databases of information just by saying or thinking the word “Computer”.  Today, most lunch-break trivia arguments can be settled, if not very quickly, before the bill has arrived. That is until the battery runs out. Even to the most casual user of digital devices, occasionally having to disconnect ourselves from our external memory and constant updates, to let our little glowing boxes recharge, causes anguish.

Batteries by Tomblois (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)What would help alleviate this pain and suffering? Maybe if it didn’t take so long to recharge a battery. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found a way to use nanomaterials to recreate battery cathodes at a nano-scale that can charge up to 100 times faster than current commercial batteries but still power your netbook just fine. It helps explain why we never really see our protagonists pulling out their hyperspace coms and cursing that they forgot to leave it on the charger over night.

You still need to get power from somewhere, however, and some scientists at MIT have delved into biotechnology and developed an artificial leaf that will absorb a gallon of water and bright sunlight and produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing country for an entire day. The leaf works by simulating a form of photosynthesis, where in it breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen and then uses those two elements to produce electricity. Imagine spaceships sailing through the solar system covered in artificial leaves that not only power our ships but also camouflage them in case they fly through a space forest.

If you’re not big into the flora fashion, Doctors at GeorgeTech have created one of the first commercially viable nanogenerators. That is to say they’ve created a flexible chip about the a quarter of the size of a stamp that generates electricity through simple movement. It does this by taking advantage of a nanowire property known as piezoelectric, or the ability to generate electrical fields when mechanically strained. Research suggests that five of these chips can output the same amount of power as a AA battery. Combined with the batteries above, this means that joggers and outdoor enthusiasts never have to worry about being disconnected from the internet ever again! Not a lot science fiction authors saw that one coming.
Bzzt

So does this mean that the lack of plugs, chargers, and batteries in our science fiction has been author oversight or author foresight? Science fiction likes it technological gadgets from laser rifles to portable shield generators to omni-tools but rarely do we see a person of the future angry over forgetting to charge their light sword. Ubiquitous energy seems to be the theme of the future and it’s fiction. But the issue of power has many reprocussions. Science is bringing us a future of full of miniaturized safe energy to help power our increasingly mobile lifestyles in a decreasingly large world. This might lead to stories that focus on the dehumanization, re-humanization, or even digitalization of human society. Either way power will always be an important part of science fiction even if most of science fiction chooses to ignore it.