On August 10, 2009, the finalists for Dwell/Inhabitat‘s Re-Burbia contest were revealed. All of the finalists had invested a substantial amount of time in preparing their submissions. All looked impressive, most were interesting, and some were eminently practical.
However, I can’t even begin to explain how upset I was when I came to the Vehiforce entry. This is nothing more than a perpetual motion machine. All of the energy needs of a suburban home can now be met by installing a machine in each garage that not only keeps a vehicle’s weight bouncing up and down perpetually but actually extracts useful energy from the process.
Are you kidding me? A finalist?
Honestly, I don’t fault the “inventor”. Many people believe they can invent such machines, even famously brilliant people like Leonardo da Vinci. Unfortunately, the second law of thermodynamics prevents such a device. From the smallest atomic particles to the slow rotation of the Milky Way galaxy, no existing matter is capable of circumventing this law. Stephen Hawking even proved that Black Holes (singular gravity entities) follow similar rules. There truly is no such thing as a free lunch.
What made me upset and caused me such anguish is that the contest jury obviously had no scientific oversight, and probably lacked any technical experts. The contest hosts should be absolutely ashamed to allow this project to have progressed this far. The fact it was not killed immediately upon arrival proves that the contest was not judged according to its stated criteria of:
- innovation and creativity
- clarity of design
- usability and practicality of implementation
- quality of solution
I can instantly see that the proposal should have been given a score of zero for criteria 3, 4, & 6. If I were on the panel and it was selected as a finalist I would have withdrawn my name from the jury, I would never allow myself to be associated with such a embarrassment. However, in the parlance of our times this can also be a good opportunity for a “teachable moment”. Allow me to explain what made me so upset, and how everyone can avoid these issues in the future.
Make no mistake that the energy crisis is serious. It will define our future as a species on this planet. We have exhausted much of the easily retrieved energy that our planet had been storing in the form of petroleum. The energy in petroleum came from the same source that all usable energy on earth does – sunlight. Photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, wave power, hydroelectric dams, and photosynthesis all come directly from solar energy. Only nuclear power, geothermal, and certain chemical decompositions at the bottom of the ocean do not involve energy input from the Sun. Any future energy source must come from sunlight (or nuclear fission if you lean that way).
To summarize the relevant laws of thermodynamics:
- Energy can not be created nor destroyed, only shifted from one form to another
- Transferred energy must pay a tax to entropy
Basically, the usefulness of energy degrades as it is used. New, useful energy must come from an outside source (e.g. the sun). Useful energy can not be found in a garage unless someone is storing plutonium.
Once an energy source is found it must be converted to useful work. The most efficient process ever created would almost achieve 100% conversion from one form of work to another. Cars with internal combustion engines achieve about 20%-30% efficiency. They are not now, nor will they ever be a viable solution for our energy needs.
This is important because the source of the energy from a device such as a Vehiforce, if built, would be the car’s engine. The design as drawn would never work. But, as suggested in the comments, it could be reconfigured as a linear system slowly lowering the car from a higher garage level to a lower one. This would be a ridiculously bad idea, however, as you would be wasting a lot of energy.
The car would drive itself up a ramp, stop on the Vehiforce platform, slowly travel downwards recapturing at most 1/3 of the energy used to get it up the ramp to begin with. The rest of the energy would be lost as useless heat out of the tailpipe and the engine. Thus, the Vehiforce would represent one of the most expensive, polluting, and inefficient ways to produce electricity.
As I stated above, our energy crisis is the most serious issue confronting our society right now. To award an important prize to such an idea as this is irresponsible.
What is needed is to break down the barriers of the design world. The innovators must combine forces with the technical experts. Design juries must involve some form of technical oversight to ensure feasibility criteria are met. This will encourage submissions from design teams that are broad based and experienced in design talent as well as technical talent.