Forging Abundance, Engineering the Big Challenges

Forging Abundance, Engineering the Big Challenges

Do you want to devote your life and engineering talents building social websites designed to trick people into giving you their personal data so that your company can sell it and the founder and his friends become billionaires? Or, would you rather do something significant, forging abundance, engineering the big challenge to help people survive and thrive?

I miss spending a week of my Augusts in Austin, Texas. No, not for the 105 deg F outside and 65 deg F inside the convention center. It was for National Instruments’ NI Week user conference. Some of the brightest engineers I knew worked there or were customers and the pursuit of solving big engineering challenges was palpable.

NI now focuses on instrumentation for solving those big challenges. Being out of my normal area of coverage, they don’t contact me anymore. But it’s still a cool company. Infected a little by “big company disease”, but still cool.

I thought about that while reading the latest Abundance Insider Newsletter from Peter Diamandis. This guy is crazy—crazy smart, that is. If you aren’t receiving the newsletter and following him, click here and start getting it. You may not totally agree, but it’ll blow your mind for sure.

Diamandis originated the X Prize to encourage accomplishing big, hairy, audacious ideas.

Here are some examples from the latest newsletter and a bonus thrown in from a podcast.

Renewable Energy

What: Siemens Gamesa is now leveraging the Earth’s surface for a future of energy abundance. The large-scale renewable energy technology manufacturer has just begun operations of what it claims is the world’s first electrothermal energy storage system. Already, Siemens Gamesa has turned a section of volcanic rock into a massive organic battery, capable of storing up to 130 megawatt-hours of energy for a week. The company additionally reports that its electrothermal energy storage system is significantly less expensive than conventional storage solutions. If we can begin to harness organic material for energy storage, how would this influence the modern-day power grid and storage solutions?

Why it’s important: Renewable energy has long been promoted as an alternative solution to fossil fuels and other contemporary sources of energy. However, their oft-cited limitation is that of energy storage. If Siemens Gamesa demonstrates the successful scale-up of its sustainable solution to the storage problem, pervasive implementation of renewable energy sources would become a much more feasible option, and long-term implications would abound. If communities could soon store energy beneath their homes for extended periods of time, how might this influence real estate values and opportunities for expansion? What new microgrid networks and local economies would arise?

City of the Future?

What it is: Long in the works, Sidewalk Labs’ plan to build out a high-tech utopia on Toronto’s waterfront is now out. While still subject to a thorough public vetting process — principally by government-appointed, non-profit partner Waterfront Toronto — the plan outlines an urban model for integrated smart cities of the future. Dubbed “the most innovative district in the world” by Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff, the pitch’s most pioneering components include autonomous vehicle networks, ubiquitous public Wi-Fi, an 89 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, and countless sensors for collection of “urban data” to optimize civil engineering decisions.

Why it’s important: Already, Sidewalk Labs’ comprehensive plan has been projected to help create 44,000 jobs and generate $4.3 billion in annual tax revenue. Sidewalk Labs has additionally stated it will spend $1.3 billion on the project with the aim of spurring $38 billion in private sector investment by 2040. Beyond the targeted district, however, a materialized smart city plan could become an ideal testing ground for next-generation breakthrough technologies and automated ecosystems that provide seamlessly delivered public services and predictive routing.

Human-like Prosthetics

What it is: A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has made extraordinary headway in the field of high-tech prosthetics, creating a bionic arm that functions smoothly without a brain implant. Previous robotic prosthetics required a patient to undergo high-risk, invasive surgery for a brain implant to achieve maximum robotic mobility. This arm, however, bridges the gap between seamless function and non-surgical bionics. In one instance, it was shown capable of following a computer screen cursor in real time without exhibiting the jerky motions and intermittent delays typical of other non-surgical mind-controlled prosthetics.

Why it’s important: This innovation represents a fundamental leap in the age-old mission to enhance the quality of life and autonomy of individuals who have lost a limb. By improving prosthetic quality at significantly diminished risk, non-invasive bionics no longer require patients to risk their health to enjoy long-term use of a high-functioning, mind-controlled limb. As brain-computer interface (BCI) technology continues to surge forward, we are quickly charting the path to a future wherein responsive prosthetics will serve countless uses, from limb replacement to assistive aids in any number of industries and professions.

Repurpose your Chem E (or other) Degree For Greater Good

In an interview on TechNation with Moira Gunn, Neil Kumar, CEO of Bridge Bio and a Chem E , talked of reflecting when he was in school that the traditional industries that employed Chem Es were on the decline—Oil & Gas and Plastics. So he looked around and focused on biopharma. He noted that many of the startups in that market were engineers with a Chem E background. His company has developed a new model for addressing genetically-driven diseases affecting a small number of patients.

Conclusion

Is it time to start thinking bigger about the contribution you can make to society (and yourself and family)? Instrumentation, control, automation, data—these are all technologies and skills that can lead to a better life than trapping people on their smart phones in an app that sucks you dry.

Power Grid Storage Standards

Power Grid Storage Standards

MESA Power Grid Storage StandardsNew power generation technologies will only optimize when high capacity storage becomes reality. You never know when or where you might learn about advances.

Consider this example of always remaining open toward gaining new knowledge and contacts. My wife and I were at breakfast in a Napa Valley Bed and Breakfast on vacation last September. We began a conversation with another couple about our age regarding which winery tours might be best.

The man asked me what I did. “Write about industrial technology and applications.” You might be interested in this, he replied. Turns out he was an electrical power utility general manager and had become involved with a standards initiative–MESA. No, not the MESA (MES Association) that I’m involved with. This one develops standards for connecting to energy storage. This area holds immense importance for the future of the power grid.

Storage Standards Association

So he shared some contact information and connected me with the association. I’ve  talked with people there and am sharing some information from the Website to introduce this important initiative. Expect more in the future.

(All of this information comes from the Website.)

Why MESA?

Grid-connected energy storage promises large potential benefits. And yet, before  safe, affordable energy storage can deliver on its promise, electric utility customers and their suppliers must solve significant problems. Many of these problems boil down to lack of standardization.

Standards are required for any technology to be deployed at scale. The personal computer industry grew from few to millions of units per year, while dramatically improving price-performance, based on standards for its software and hardware components. Like other industries, the energy storage industry needs to organize for scale, based on a cohesive industry vision and technology standards.

MESA Standards clear barriers to growth in energy storage. By making standard connections between components possible, MESA frees utilities and vendors to focus on delivering more cost-effective electricity to more people.

Today’s Problem

Current utility-grade energy storage systems (ESS) are project-specific, one-off solutions, built using proprietary components that are not modular or interoperable. Connecting these proprietary systems with key utility control software such as SCADA platforms is cumbersome and time-consuming.

Before an ESS can function, the batteries, power converters, and software that make up the ESS must be intelligently “plugged into” each other and the electrical system. Then the ESS as a whole must be intelligently plugged into the utility’s existing information and operations technology. Without established standards, components and systems offer their own proprietary connectors, and the process of plugging them together must be repeated for each new project.

Time, Money, Safety

Connecting the proprietary pieces can result in a motley collection of custom interfaces, or “kludges,” designed to address vendor-specific hardware. Creating such systems is a complex process that comes with its own heavy baggage:

  • High project costs, and decreased reliability and safety.
  • Component vendors tempted to stretch their expertise and offer a complete ESS solution, losing focus on their own core competency. Instead of developing innovative, best-of-breed components—such as a better, cheaper battery—these vendors simply re-invent yet another proprietary wheel.
  • One-off, proprietary solutions that are inflexible, not easily scaled, and have limited operational control. The utility customer becomes dependent on a single ESS supplier, with few options to upgrade, expand or re-purpose their energy storage investment.

Despite willing buyers (electric utilities) and willing sellers (battery, power converter, and software suppliers), market growth is limited. Significant opportunities – for example, the potential for broad deployment of standardized ESS configurations at many utility substations – are beyond the industry’s reach in its current form.

To fully enable broad deployment of grid-connected storage, and grow the market for all, standards are required to address these limitations.

The MESA Solution

Modular Energy Storage Architecture (MESA) is an open, non-proprietary set of specifications and standards developed by an industry consortium of electric utilities and technology suppliers. Through standardization, MESA accelerates interoperability, scalability, safety, quality, availability, and affordability in energy storage components and systems.

Key MESA Goals:

  • Standardize communications and connections, which will accelerate interoperability and scalability.
  • Give electric utilities more choice by enabling multi-vendor, component-based ESS.
  • Reduce project-specific engineering costs, enabling a more robust energy storage market.
  • Enable technology suppliers to focus on their core competency, facilitating quality, safety, and cost-effectiveness.
  • Reduce training costs and improve safety for field staff through standardized procedures for safety and efficiency.