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If you like Paul MacCready's story, you might also like:
Ray Kurzweil,
Robert Langer,
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Paul MacCready
Paul MacCready
Profile of Paul MacCready Biography of Paul MacCready Interview with Paul MacCready Paul MacCready Photo Gallery

Paul MacCready Interview (page: 5 / 5)

Engineer of the Century

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  Paul MacCready

Many people have looked at solar power as such a promising technology. Why haven't we done more with it?

Paul MacCready: The biggest reason why we haven't done more with all sorts of alternative energies is that the existing energies we have are so wonderful. Oil is so relatively inexpensive. Not when you look at all its real costs, but in some ways it is. And natural gas is good. And nuclear power plants you already have are relatively inexpensive. Hydropower is pretty good. But we don't really have more nuclear power -- there are a lot of troubles with it -- and you can't get much more hydro power, so those are limited. Coal has a lot of trouble associated with it, but these are all somewhat inexpensive. All the economically viable alternatives were worked on for economic reasons in the past. Now, when you try and find some new thing that maybe doesn't have as much pollution, or is replenishable so you're never going to run out, you find that it is not as cheap as these others that are more limited in their future and have some negatives on pollution, about them. Unfortunately, all the things people have tried are more expensive. Solar cells were very expensive and have steadily come down in price. In the best circumstances, they can almost compete with certain of the oil burning power plants. Wind power is the same. It's been expensive, and we had subsidies for it.

When you took the solar power efforts you'd made in the air and took them to the ground, were there any major difference that you had to compensate for? Was there something that was fundamentally different about doing it on the ground than in the air?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo

Paul MacCready: Nothing fundamentally different. The Sunraycer is a very aerodynamic vehicle, made with airplane composite construction techniques. Its very lightweight tubular structure and solar cells were rather similar. It has an electric motor and so on. But still, it had a very different purpose, so we did a very different design. That project when General Motors heard about the solar-powered race across Australia. They thought this would be fun to enter, because they had recently acquired Hughes Aircraft, which makes solar cells. They thought a challenge like this would help the outside world appreciate that they were high technology, GM and Hughes. It was an interesting challenge for their engineers, and they wanted to get back into competition more, and they thought it would be especially good for education. The vehicle would be of interest to youngsters, kind of like dinosaurs, but would get young people turned on to engineering and science. So maybe more of the best and brightest would become scientists and engineers, instead of lawyers and MBA's, which maybe the world doesn't need more of. They wanted to do it, but didn't really know if they could.

We were able to get a lot of things going in parallel, and have a very quick project, because we knew the various aspects that had to go into it. There were only eight months from the start of the project to the race, but we were able to handle it and even have 4,000 miles of testing on the car before it started the race, to be sure of its reliability.

That car, while it demonstrated some of the benefits of solar power and its applications, as did solar-powered aircraft, sounds like it was more of a scientific curiosity than something that really had widespread application and potential.

Paul MacCready: Yes. I don't think there's any reason to have solar-powered cars in the future. That car did have a small battery in it, but it started with the battery filled, and finished the project with the battery. Still, it was able to use the battery when there were clouds in the later afternoon.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
So, if you have a battery-powered car, it doesn't hurt to put on solar cells, you get a little help. But a real solar-powered car doesn't make much sense. But this was a nice stepping stone that got a lot of people thinking about it. If not for the great success of the Sunraycer, we probably would not have the Impact car project, which a battery-powered car with no solar cells.

We led the Impact development team for General Motors. It's a small, jazzy-looking, two-person car, but its got almost 900 pounds of battery in it. Regular lanacid cells, but carefully tailored to the purposes of this vehicle. In ordinary use, you would plug it into the wall socket when you get home at night, and the battery would be fully charged the next morning. If you want to plug it into a higher power circuit, you can charge it much more quickly than that. Once charged, it can accelerate from zero to 60 in eight seconds. We limit it electronically to 75 miles an hour, but it would go way over 100 if you wanted it to. We don't know any reason for it to. The range, in either the urban cycle or the highway cycle starts at 120 miles, but when the battery gets a little worn down, you may not be able to get quite as much. If you want to use the air conditioner a lot, you won't go as far. But for most commuting tasks, that's enough to handle things.

In terms of timing, it works out perfectly, because the time of day when power demand drops off is exactly when you would be charging your car.

Paul MacCready: Yes. But if you do a long trip in the middle of the day, you could recharge while you're having lunch and get a bit more distance. In the long run, I think we'll see cars like the electric Impact, with a little auxiliary power unit which converts chemical energy -- gasoline, hydrogen, compressed natural gas, propane, whatever -- to electricity by a little reciprocating engine, or a gas turbine or fuel cell. There are a lot of different candidate devices being looked at now. You can operate fully electric some of the time, but if you really want to go to Phoenix from Los Angeles, you generate your electricity on board, but you do it with great efficiency, because the engine that's generating electricity only has to operate one power setting, one rpm, and it can convert the fuel very efficiently to electricity, and do it with very low air pollution.

So you could have a gasoline engine to fuel the batteries, which then fuel the car. But the advantage is, you wouldn't have the deceleration and acceleration that is so wasteful of energy.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: There are a lot of advantages. In city traffic, where you are putting on the brakes all the time, you're just throwing away energy. But with an electric car, you get that energy back, because they use regenerative braking. Instead of heating the brake linings, you shove electricity back into the battery. Now one big feature of the electric car is that the battery is such a poor source of energy compared to gasoline. You only get one percent as much energy out of a lanacid cell system as you get out of the same weight of gasoline. It is a factor-of-100 hit you're taking. The only reason it works is because you make the vehicle superbly efficient. That's why it hasn't been done before. It took the concept of efficiency honed through the human-powered airplanes and the Sunraycer to get the efficiency that makes the Impact feasible. Once you've done that, you can apply that efficiency to other vehicles, even gasoline vehicles, and consume much less gasoline. If you wanted to use compressed natural gas now, you'd need a big, heavy tank. But if you don't need as much energy, you can get by on a little tank. Efficiency has all sorts of advantages in making things feasible and cutting down pollution.

Are we about to make a major technological shift, in the way we get from here to there? Are we looking at a vastly different future than our recent past?

Paul MacCready: In a while, gasoline is going to be very expensive. I don't when, but its a vanishing resource, and its sources are tangled up with some very unfortunate political, military problems. In the United States, we are going to run out of our supply fairly soon, we are going to be completely dependent on others. We are probably going to start recognizing the real costs of it, not just what it costs to ship it here and put it in your car. It's going to be expensive, and we are not going to be using it in cars after a while. Certainly your grandchildren aren't going to be driving cars using gasoline. What they are going to be using on airliners, I don't know. I don't know a really practical substitute. But there are a lot of substitutes you can make for surface transportation. Surface transportation problems are all mingled with traffic problems too. There are technological solutions to get by on less energy and put out less pollution. I don't know the technological problems to handle the traffic. Too many people and not enough world. I think telecommunications are going to get much greater use as time goes on because travel, as in the Los Angeles area, is just going to be so awkward.

If you were talking to someone who is now starting in college, trying to figure out what area to go into, where the horizons of science will be, where the fascinating challenges will be, where would you point them?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: I'd probably go into education. I wouldn't have said that years ago, but there are such huge things you can do in education. So much is done so poorly. Not because there aren't dedicated people, but a lot of new ideas are emerging and they are hard to inject into a system with a lot of inertia. Right now, teachers don't get much respect or much money. I think that's going to change as they get recognized as being so important. It's a very satisfying job. I think teaching, especially to youngsters in second grade, seventh grade, fifth grade, around that, is of absolute tremendous importance. These are the brightest minds. They haven't been beaten down by being narrowed, and they are open to all sorts of things. If you can help the opening process, that's very good.

The other subject to get into is the human mind, the most potent thing in the world. There is nothing more important. Soon, from your computer terminal, you will be able to access almost any book, any drawing, anything around the world. You will be able, through telecommunications, to talk to anybody, anyplace. You will be able to talk their language through little translators. Anybody, anyplace. It's beyond the comprehension of people who are around now, but we may be able to couple your brain to a computer, not by voice, sound, or punching buttons, but by things implanted in your brain. It's conceivable. Even the definition of what's a human is going to get more fuzzy. Computers are now sort of insidiously taking over and becoming more our masters than our servants, more than we realize. I happen to think that the surviving intelligent life form on Earth is going to be silicon-based, not carbon-based. Computers are going to take over. They are going to be brighter than people in the not-too-distant future. We will be pets for a while, after that... I don't know.

I know that you have expressed a great concern about the balance between technology and nature. Have we addressed that, or is there something more?

Paul MacCready: Man has basically won the war against nature. That's the bad news. We may wish he hadn't.

If you were a galactic explorer, coming from some distant galaxy, and you looked in at the earth, and tried to write it up and characterize. "What are humans? What are they like?" The easiest analogy that you have is a cancer. A cancer just grows like that. From the standpoint of the cancer, it's great. More cancer cells all the time. From the standpoint of the other cells that they are crowding out, it's the pits. And of course, after a while, they kill their host, which is bad for the cancer cells as well as the other cells. And that's what we are on the road to.

I know you're skeptical about technology, but do you really see this danger in the not-too-distant future that this process is going to start unfolding, and....

Paul MacCready: Man has become God. We used to think we were just this little thing, at the mercy of circumstances, lightning, the big world, whatever. Now, we can control things. We can wipe out all the other species. We can do genetic engineering and create new species, and just do things that were beyond comprehension before, and turn the world into whatever we want. I don't think humans have the brains, the wisdom, to be very good at this, because that's not the way they were brought up. They've got all these huge tools, but they're like a two year-old with a .45 automatic, who doesn't know what to do with it. What you'd like is not to have as many automatics around, and get that two year-old a little brighter.

But it's not inevitable. Man is an awfully bright creature, with a lot of creativity, and a strong interest in survival. So things may work out. There are a lot of serious efforts, like the Biosphere II project in Arizona. It was a very exciting experiment.

I alternate between pessimism and optimism, and I've found the best pessimism summary comes from the great philosopher, Woody Allen, who said, "Civilization is at a crossroads. One road leads to misery and devastation, the other to total destruction. We must choose wisely." And there is a lot more to that statement than you might think.

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Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure and a privilege.

Thank you.

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This page last revised on Jul 16, 2010 16:26 EST
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