Where is the spectacle in earth-friendly technology?
August 9, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

The sophisticated engineering, delicate structure and graceful flight of solar-powered aircraft is a beautiful vision in efficiency. A formation of fighter jets makes the very skies thunder and the ground shake, exciting in its power. This dichotomy is everywhere, especially machine racing sports. So where can environmentalists and energy efficiency enthusiasts get the excitement of power without the indulgence of excessive wastefulness? And where can people who love seeing jaw-dropping power get fired up by green technology without having to develop an appreciation for boring economy?

I know that electric race cars will eventually easily outperform the most powerful gasoline cars, but not for many years yet.
In the meantime (or in the much-nearer-future), where do the seemingly contradictory streams cross, where displays of power are also displays of energy efficiency? Where greenies and muscle gearheads can both get excited?
Where an open ended exciting challenge that pushes the envelope of what we can do, is not always met by sacrificing how we do it, and thus producing contenders that are environmentally beautiful as well as awesome?

Energy efficiency, almost by definition precludes spectacle, but it is the way the world is moving, so where canwe find (or create) the raw exhilarating spectacle of energy efficiency?
posted by -harlequin- to Technology (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How about sailboat racing?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 3:20 PM on August 9, 2010

I had never thought about this, but I think you're really on to something here. My guess is that you're right that the definition precludes spectacle, but, if these two can somehow be combined, that would go a really long way in motivating the public.

Great question, and I'm dying to read the replies! (Apologies I had nothing real to add.)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:29 PM on August 9, 2010

Yeah, sailing was my first thought. Tell me this is not at least 100x as exciting as some old cars driving around on pavement.

Also, surfing, mountain climbing, base jumping, hang gliding, windsurfing, (with or without hydrofoil), etc, etc.

I think there are plenty of things that involve a lot of exciting speed and energy that don't involve fossil fuels. You just have to recognize that the idea of "exciting" is not inseparable from "noisy stinking engine".
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:49 PM on August 9, 2010

Sorry, that's probably not exactly what you were looking for actually. I'll rest with this: the Tesla Roadster.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:51 PM on August 9, 2010

Where greenies and muscle gearheads can both get excited?

You are way, way too early for this to be a reality any time soon, I'm afraid. Even Blazecock's erroneously entitled (at the time) 'F1 goes hybrid' link produced a big fat nothing in the end. Certainly from a car perspective, there is zero that withstands even a cursory inspection in terms of green credentials although the progress is starting:

Race built Diesels producing horrifically good fuel consumption are starting to be unbeatable on the track now, and are gaining development momentum. This will push a serious improvement in diesel tech in the next few years, I suspect. Le Mans (and Le mans style) racing cars of this ilk are getting big development budgets (although diesel racing cars have been around for years in various forms). This is still only one or two manufacturers in a petrol burning field, though.

The linked electric bikes are also starting to attract funding to get serious development. There are electric drag racers and road racers that have been competing for a while now. Again, though, these are one or to examples in otherwise conventional motor sport. There is no green racing series (in anything other than marketing speak).

Your best bet to find truly environmentally based sports like this would be the ones that use the environment to move - which takes you back to wind powered sports (again, linked above). Solar is not at all efficient as yet, so sailing in its various forms is a great start. The America's Cup boats, in particular, have some hugely impressive engineering behind them and go an awful long way on no fuel consumption at all.
posted by Brockles at 4:00 PM on August 9, 2010

I've been looking for something like this; one of my hobbies is racing and it's always dismaying to see a field of cars burning gas, waiting to run and belching smoke when they floor it.

I know it's a small amount compared to all the old cars but it still bugs me.

For myself, I'd love to do a hybrid Lotus 7. Great chassis, lots of room for engine and bits, and starts light.

Also, a friend linked me the DP1e, which ran on Laguna Seca.
posted by caphector at 4:04 PM on August 9, 2010

I think Salvor Hardin is on the right track. So much of what we associate with 'power' is actually wasted energy - a hot, loud, firey engine is wasting energy on heat, noise and light. A more efficient, powerful engine would be colder, quieter, and dimmer.

My thought was skydiving or downhill BMX, which both have significant speed and risk, yet don't require anything other than gravity (apart from the lift to the top).
posted by twirlypen at 4:07 PM on August 9, 2010

Response by poster: The thing is, sailboat racing does look pretty boring compared to the spectacle of jetboat racing on a braided river. At least, that was my view as a kid, Now as an adult, I've gained a deep appreciation for the sailboat, but it's that learned and acquired-taste appreciation of efficiency and tactics that I'd like to not be necessary.

I guess we could call that the Kid-test. Maybe it's a useful indicator?

Thinking in another direction, water thundering out the overspill chute at a giant hydroelectic dam has some spectacle. Certainly more than smoke belching out of a coal plant.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:13 PM on August 9, 2010

Isle of Man TTX GP? In its infancy, the races are currently more about power management than pure power as of yet.

The America's Cup
is pretty powermad.

I live on a twisty road and often see Teslas zipping by. Seeing them in the wild helps me realize it's not the technology that not up to snuff, it's just the market penetration. And my wife wants one. (But the Tesla is too short for me and the seat doesn't go back, so waaaahhhh.)
posted by lothar at 4:15 PM on August 9, 2010

In the same vein as a hydroelectric dam, I think solar concentrators are pretty awe-inspiring. It's quiet, but a stunning amount of power in the form of light is streaming through the air and converging on that tower.

Not sure if that passes the kid test though.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:17 PM on August 9, 2010

Look at this. Now look at this.

If you make some reasonable assumptions about the geometry of the system and some less reasonable assumptions about insolation, you can use nothing more than high school physics to show that if I were to drop a hot dog off the top of the PS10 tower through the beam path, it'd be cooked by the time it hit the ground.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:33 PM on August 9, 2010

Sailboat racing is the most excitement (thrills, occasional terror) you can have under 15 mph.
posted by sammyo at 5:03 PM on August 9, 2010

It hasn't happened yet (and pessimists think it never will) but laser-induced fusion (LIF) would be a spectacular yet very green source of energy. Although it probably wouldn't produce an adrenaline rush, gearheads can revel in a tour of the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. As with most Big Science programs, the engineering involved is pretty badass, even if they never manage to make LIF a commercially viable power source.
posted by Quietgal at 6:52 PM on August 9, 2010

Here's an ugly hydrogen powered car that doesn't appear to go very fast but does sound pretty good. I don't think hydrogen is the future, but it can be produced with renewable energy and you can build a race car that burns it.
posted by knave at 8:22 PM on August 9, 2010

I'm not sure if it is a spectacle in and of itself, but Porsche just announced the first Hybrid Supercar. It'll have over 700hp (engine & electric motors combined) and get over 75mpg.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 10:07 PM on August 9, 2010

Sailboats don't do it for you? Then I've got three "renewable" words for you: ALCOHOL FUNNY CARS!!!!

Sunday, SUNDAY, SUNDAY! That's right (nearly) all the excitement of nitromethane dragsters, with (theoretically at least) an environmentally friendly alcohol fuel source!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:51 AM on August 10, 2010

Fabian Cancellera for the win, obviously!
posted by Chuckles at 10:50 PM on August 11, 2010

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