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Presidents Message - February 2012

By Mike Dugger

Science Lights the Way 

How emerging technologies continue to remake our world.  

Calendar transitions this time of year usually bring about a commercial focus on technology in the form of new gadgets that consumers can expect to be released soon or were released in time for the holiday gift-giving season. From “big science” experiments to toys, both individuals and organizations are reflecting on the year of developments in science and technology. In keeping with that trend, this issue of TLT includes a focus on new products relevant to tribology and lubrication engineering.

Innovations in science and technology never cease to amaze me and are the driving force behind many of the world’s economies. But what drives innovation? An educated workforce, genuine curiosity about the way things work and the desire for personal success are certainly factors. I like to think that finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems also is a motivator for innovation.

For instance, consider per capita energy usage and the fact that the world’s population is projected to have reached seven billion during the 2011 calendar year. There is no denying a huge disparity in per capita energy usage around the world, and many of these people are more worried about food, water and shelter than energy usage. But even with a non-uniform distribution in usage, the demand for energy stored in the form of fossil fuels will almost certainly increase in the coming years, along with its associated side effects.

Despite being the largest public opinion controversy of our time,1 the science seems irrefutable that future climate change will occur in response to elevated CO2 levels caused by the burning of fossil fuels. New technologies have the potential to reverse this trend while enabling a standard of living something like what we currently enjoy in the industrialized world. In short, if governments (and the people that empower them) can be persuaded to act quickly enough, it may be possible to minimize climate change while keeping some of our modern conveniences like climate-controlled housing, worldwide communications and rapid transportation.

One example of these technologies is described in this month’s feature article by Jean Van Rensselar. Ever heard of the hydraulic car? If the potential described in the article is realized and there continues to be a push for higher-efficiency vehicles, we all will be hearing more about hydraulic cars very soon. Hydraulic hybrid cars may even supplant our current fleet in the decades to come.

Electric hybrids have a significant head start and a growing market share, but serious limitations associated with the strategic rare earth metals used in batteries, charging rate and power harvesting or discharging rates for batteries make electric hybrids inferior to hydraulic hybrids. Furthermore, to paraphrase Dr. Mike Robinson, deputy director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center and keynote speaker at the STLE-ASME International Joint Tribology Conference last October, plug-in electric vehicles can only stop contributing to CO2 emissions when the power plant electricity comes from carbon-free sources.

Of course not all innovations will have the same potential environmental impact that a revolution in personal transportation would. However, the development of many new products is motivated by the same desire to improve performance and make more efficient use of natural resources.

Something to think about when considering the latest developments in science and technology!

Mike Dugger is a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. You can reach him at mtdugge@sandia.gov

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