Engineering Question #1917

Matt Hiemenz, a 22 year old male from Manitoba asks on February 18, 2004,

Electricity. It powers almost all household appliances as well as the complex electronics we rely on to execute complex programs. I am wondering whether there are any possible substitutes for transporting energy in the form of electricity. Could we have power lines that transport high energy photons or something along this line? 50 years from now will our complex technology remain electronics or might it be powered by something else?

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The answer

John Jones answered on October 7, 2004

We use electricity for two purposes: transporting energy and transporting information. Running complex programs depends on transporting information. It is already possible to make optical computers, and it is not unlikely that these will be more common in fifty years.

Using light to transport power is less likely. Suppose instead of an electric cable, all the power to your house was provided by an optical fibre. For this to work, all your household appliances would need to be light-powered, and I don't know how you'd go about building a light-powered toothbrush, for example. Also, if the optical cable were to break, you would have a multi-kilowatt light beam emerging from the broken end; this would be a dangerous weapon.

Perhaps a more likely alternative to electricity for distributing power might be hydrogen -- imagine the mains cable to your house being replaced by a gas pipe. You burn the hydrogen for cooking and heating. All of your household appliances contain a small hydrogen storage vessel, and a fuel cell. You periodically refill them with hydrogen, the fuel cell converts the hydrogen to electricity and water, and the electricity powers the device.

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