Total Pageviews

Sunday, June 7, 2015


Exactly a month ago I posted on THE STATE OF ENERGY STORAGE.  Elon Musk was featured, and I promised to return to this subject.  In the meantime, I have researched Musk, and wondered why he selected space investments and electric cars as his two primary enterprises.  I see no near term hope for the commercialization of space and don't think electric cars will succeed.  I have written at least a dozen articles comprehensively analyzing these two areas, which you can find in The Huffington Post and Saving Planet Earth and Humanity.  Needless to say, this is Sunday, and much of the following involves tongue firmly in cheek.

So let me compare myself with Elon Musk.  First of all, he is worth $13.3 billion and is #100 on the Forbes billionaires list.  I live a virtual hand to mouth existence, so he has me there.

He was born in South Africa and gained American citizenship in 2002.  I was born in Honolulu and, I think, have always been a citizen.  I was 19 years old when Hawaii became a state.  However, I  just noticed that American Samoans born in that U.S. territory were just denied citizenship.

He earned two degrees (physics and economics) from the University of Pennsylvania, and went on to spend a few days as a graduate student at Stanford.  I at least got my chemical engineering degree from that institution.  A point for me, for I also have a PhD, which he doesn't have.

I spent most of my professional career at the University of Hawaii.  I credit myself with my teams for gaining perhaps $100 million in federal support for research.  Musk?  What about $4.9 billion, just from Uncle Sam!

He has been divorced three times (second wife, Talulah Riley, who he twice divorced, below), while my one and only wife passed away nearly six years ago.  If there is a moral court, surely, I must have an advantage here.

He has won an incredible number of major awards, while my list is modest.  At least I've published five books, and he has none to his credit.  Overall, by current standards of success, Musk resoundingly trounces me, so why am I bothering to make this comparison?  I'm at some t-ball level, while he is in the major leagues.

Frankly, I am curious as to why our views on outer space and electric cars can differ so much.  I am not totally air headed on these subjects because I have worked for NASA at their Ames Research Center on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and my research institute at the University of Hawaii at one time had the largest Department of Energy electric car program in the nation.

About his creation of SpaceX to colonize Mars, that is is so beyond the pale, that I'm totally mystified how an obviously talented mind can be so far into supreme fantasy.  His expectation is that in 2035 there will be thousands of rockets regularly taking a million individuals to Mars.  Amazingly enough, this is not exactly a wishful thought, for he might have as many as 5000 people employed and the company is valued at $12 billion.   Keep in mind that looking back in time a quarter century to the early nineties, nothing particularly monumental has happened in space during this period.  I suspect much of this has to do with the fact that the Soviet Union expired in 1991 and there is no reason anymore to bother with expensive space ventures.  Clearly, like many growing up with the Apollo Project, he has a romantic vision of that vast unknown.  So, someone close to him should mention that the relevance of space evaporated when the Cold War ended.

Yes, of course, Humanity will someday investigate our Galaxy and beyond.  But with all the priorities facing Planet Earth and Humanity today, any serious attempt at exploration must be at least a millennium away.  It takes light, traveling at 186 miles/second--that's 7.5 times around the world--100,000 years just to cross our Milky Way Galaxy.  The modern form of us, Homo sapiens, only appeared 100,000 years ago.

Tesla Motors will survive for a while by producing a few expensive EVs for rich people.  His $5 billion lithium battery gigafactory in Nevada and second one planned for Japan will serve as a helpful bridge to a possible future.  However, he uses Panasonics patents.  If he had a better battery his people invented, then, maybe it would make sense to take this step.

While the lithium battery could be enhanced with graphene and nanotechnology, and others like the aluminum-air battery (one reason I went to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 70's was to pursue this option)  or organic flow battery (left, Michael Aziz at Harvard) have now and then showed promise, it is possible that some version of the lithium battery will remain dominant for a long time to come.  And the U.S. has no commanding patents in this field and no lithium on our lands.

Now if Musk's researchers can perfect a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for vehicles and capture all the commercial patents, then I would be lot more optimistic about the future of Tesla.  Storage volume and weight compared, a fuel cell car should be able to go two to three times further than one powered by any battery.   While hydrogen will be too expensive as the fuel, the only liquid fuel cell with any efficiency will use methanol, and bio-methanol produced much more cheaply than ethanol from biomass has a lot to offer.  There already is a working DMFC, but the Toshiba micro version (right) is only for portable applications.  The U.S. Department of Energy was largely prevented by the farm lobby to do much with the DMFC because the priority fuel was ethanol.

There was a more recent announcement about a powerwall for home use, but all reviews show that the system from Tesla will be too expensive.  Even Forbes reported:  Why Tesla's Powerwall Is Just Another Toy For Rich Green People.  Batteries would make solar/wind electricity a lot more prominent, but the current and expected technologies are not ready for prime time.

I should add that the #2 non-fiction book on the New York Times bestseller list is Elon Musk.  There must be a dozen books about him, but the popular version is by Ashlee Vance.  The kindle edition sells for $12.  According to the NYT:

Since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, only one Silicon Valley titan seems to carry a similar air of dark mystique. This would be Elon Musk, currently the C.E.O. of the rocket company SpaceX as well as the electric-car company Tesla Motors. The 43-year-old Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, the largest American solar power installation company.

Thus, Elon Musk is rich and famous.  People admire his success.  His efforts to develop cleaner transport and storage options are commendable, in fact, laudatory.  But I suggest that he could have chosen a more progressive path.  For one, a colony on Mars is way too premature.  He is too far ahead of his time on this adventure.  I can think blue sky because I am a professor.  But he is an entrepreneur.  The next economy frontier is not outer space, but the ocean around us.

There is today no billionaire with a futuristic ocean legacy.  Elon Musk would be ideal as the face and spirit of the Blue Revolution.  Just one percent of the $150 billion International Space Station could result by the Year 2020 in the Pacific International Ocean Station (although I prefer Pacific Ocean International Station, or POI-Station), a floating research and industrial park to develop marine biomass plantations and next generation fisheries, remediate climate warming, prevent the formation of hurricanes and produce a cornucopia of other sustainable products in harmony with the marine environment.  For details:

  • The Ultimate Ocean Ranch

  • Blue Revolution

  • Finally, here is a 20-minute presentation I made  on the above subject to The Seasteading Institute in San Francisco.

    David Block of the Florida Solar Energy Center sent me a link to Musk's latest shareholder gathering.  Interesting reading, but, certainly, naively far-fetched about his Mars dreams.


    Hurricane Blanca is beginning to weaken, and will make landfall over Baja tomorrow as a tropical storm.

    The first tropical cyclone of the season popped out in the Indian Ocean, and current projections show strengthening into a cyclone, then a path right into the Gulf of Oman, which should affect oil shipments:


    No comments: