What are the up-and-coming, major, legitimate environmentally-friendly breakthroughs?
May 6, 2011 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of doing a major career change, and I'm interested in up-and-coming environmental technologies. I'm having a hard time separating the facts from the hype. Help me figure out what the next great field of green technology is!

As part of my obligatory mid-20's mini-life-crisis, I've decided that I want to pursue making the world a better place. I've got a soft spot for environmental issues, and thinking about how much of an impact clean energy could have has got me excited to pursue it. The problem is that there's so much information out there about 'green' technologies, and not all of it is accurate. Most of my internet searching finds nothing but greenwashing.

I'm not as interested in "let's take things and make them better"; I'm looking for something more like "let's create a new technology that fundamentally changes things". My Bachelor's degree is in software, but I'm not afraid to go back to school to learn something else. I'm targeting research or bleeding-edge technology; I'm not looking to learn to install solar panels or convert engines to cooking oil, for example.

So, MeFites with knowledge of these things, what's the next big thing? Is Thorium energy a legitimate thing? Fuel cells? Hydrogen cars? Tidal power? Which companies are doing research aimed at clean energy? How do I find them, contact them, ask what they need, and get myself in a position to help? Is it more likely to find something big at a large well-funded company or a starry-eyed startup?

All information is much appreciated, thanks!
posted by Dilligas to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
given your background in software, consider working on smart energy grids.

if you want to go back to school, i'd consider synthetic biology or nuclear engineering.
posted by paradroid at 8:19 PM on May 6, 2011

I'm not as interested in "let's take things and make them better"

I've heard from several different experts in energy policy that efficiency programs provide far and away the most bang per buck. I bet you'd have an easier time finding options if you expanded your search to include this sort of program. Probably have an easier time separating "greenwashing" from genuinely useful projects, too.

More positively, I would recommend having lunch with someone who actually works in the industries you're considering. It will give you a better sense of what skills they're looking for, and it will also be a good chance for you to detect sketchiness before committing to a new career.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:53 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rooftop solar:
1) The cost of solar energy is dropping rapidly due to a variety of recent innovations (e.g. concentrating photovoltaics, thin films, etc.) and should be approaching parity with fossil fuel energy relatively soon (especially if/when there is a cabon tax)
2) Recent innovations in financing rooftop solar installations allow homeowners and commercial building owners to effectively lease their solar system instead of having to invest the full cost of installation up front
3) Rooftop solar is more "green" than building solar power plants because we already have a ton of rooftop space that can be utilized to generate energy instead of ripping up a bunch of natural habitat to build a big power plant
4) Homes and commercial buildings are already on the grid, thus eliminating the "not in my backyard" local government obstructionism to running big power lines from new power plants to end users (this NIMBYism is one of the main obstacles that ties up the permitting processing for solar energy plants)

Cost-effectiveness of solar energy varies by location, and you don't mention where you are or whether you'd consider relocating. FYI, Las Vegas sits in the center of the "solar bread basket" of the U.S. (although it seems that most of the major industry players are still based in California).
posted by Jacqueline at 4:12 AM on May 7, 2011

I read something yesterday that said natural gas powered cars were on the cusp of a major breakthrough, as several of the major oil companies have committed to rolling out natural gas fueling stations. The technology is already there, it's a distribution issue.
posted by COD at 5:52 AM on May 7, 2011

With few exceptions (nanosolar, ...), solar is being done in China.

Wind is progressively being done more in China but still has strong European companies.

Concentrating solar is being done by many money-losing parties (Brightsource just filed for IPO).

Smartgrids are being done by the large networking players like Cisco.

You should make use of your degree in software (cs? ee?) for about 10 years and then revisit this question.
posted by rr at 7:45 AM on May 7, 2011

Best answer: If you're into software then something you might look at is smart energy. You may have heard of smart meters or smart grids. Essentially the thinking is that smart grids will change the way we deliver and use energy, shifting away from the current paradigm where big utilities sell as much energy as they can to consumers and moving to a model where sevrices are provided, this might be something as simple as keeping your hosue at a given temperature of it might be allowing householders or service providers to become far more active consumers. In between are things like ssytems which take into account varying energy prices to calculate whether to shut off you super efficient fridge/water heater, etc. The potential for new technologies and for new systems is tremendous and it is being looked at seriously in both the EU and the US, includng by major utilities. This will be a big area going forward and there is potential for technologies saving both billions of dollars and millions of tones of Carbon. The UK for example is looking to achieve savings equal to ~10-20% of energy use.
posted by biffa at 10:53 AM on May 13, 2011

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