Is The Age Of Cheap Solar Power Dawning?

After $10 million and six years worth of research, Texas Instruments Inc. and Southern California Edison Co. have devised a low-cost way to harness the sun's energy. The idea is to make teeny silicon beads and sprinkle them on aluminum foil, 1,000 or so to the square inch. This inexpensive approach should finally make solar panels competitive with conventional power. The key is slashing the cost of generating solar electricity to $1 or $2 per watt, down from today's $6 a watt. "This could be the breakthrough we've all been working for," says Robert Dietch, SoCal Edison's vice-president for engineering, research, and environment.

The silicon-sphere approach solves several vexing problems. It eliminates the need for large slices of expensive semiconductor-grade silicon. Because each little sphere is an independent solar collector, damage to a few won't matter--whereas a small crack in silicon cells can put several square inches out of action. TI plans to begin small-scale production within weeks, and trial systems for homes should be ready late this year.

Part 2

Move over, Johannes Gutenberg: Computers have brought another revolution in printing. The German inventor's movable type has evolved into four-color, offset printing systems. But they're often too costly for print runs under 5,000.

Not anymore. Presstek Inc. in Hudson, N. H., and German printing-press giant Heidelberger Druckmaschinen have developed a new color printing process that eliminates photographic plates, the most labor-intensive step in four-color printing. The new system transfers computerized data on photos directly onto a special composite plate that is blasted away to expose an ink-absorbing polyester base. The machine completes the process in 15 minutes and doesn't need the toxic chemicals or water used in the traditional photographic process. Quick-copy shops that print small runs should benefit greatly from the less-expensive color printing technology. A subsidiary of Sir Speedy Inc. is already testing it in Irvine, Calif.

Part 3

Turning the ignition key almost always shortens the life of a car or boat engine. That's because it starts "dry": Certain components, notably crankshaft bearings, don't get oiled properly until the engine turns over a few times. Now, Lubrication Research Inc. (LRI) in King of Prussia, Pa., has a way to reduce the dry-start grinding that prematurely ages engines.

The company has developed a special pump, called Pre-Luber, that squirts oil onto bearings and other parts for 12 seconds before the engine starts. LRI claims that the system can double the life of the engine. Pre-Luber kits are already available for car and boat enthusiasts who are willing to spend roughly $500 to coddle their engines. And now, some boat-makers are gearing up to offer marine versions of the pump as original equipment. High-end boats from Cigarette Racing Team Inc. will soon have prelubrication as a standard feature, and Alden Yachts will offer it as an option. For trucks, Japan's Nissan Motor Co. and Isuzu Motors Ltd. are evaluating the system.

Part 4

Grandma is frail and 80, but she insists on living alone. What if she should fall or get sick? The police in tiny Snoqualmie, Wash., have a solution: a $9,500 computer system that automatically calls to check up on the town's old folks. If they're O. K., they answer, then hang up. If they don't answer after several tries, or if they do and press an emergency button, the Care Dial System, developed by Portage Communications in Seattle, alerts a police dispatcher, who sends help.

Will Grandma mind hearing a recorded message from a machine? "No call at all is impersonal, too," says Portage President John S. Harris, who developed Care Dial while working full-time for a local telecommunications company. Snoqualmie, a town in the Cascades that suffered from heavy floods last November, also plans to use the system for flood alerts.

Part 5

The questions of whether the earth is warming and whether rapid action is warranted to stop any so-called greenhouse effect have generated rancorous debate in recent years. The answers, in a long-awaited report released Apr. 10 from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, are "maybe" and "yes." After poring over the available evidence, the scientists who authored the report concluded that the earth has warmed anywhere from 0.5F to 1.1F over the past 100 years. But because scientists know so little about the underlying phenomena, they can't be certain whether the rise has been caused by greenhouse warming or by natural climatic variability.

The report says that it could be several decades before researchers can predict whether there will be an additional global temperature rise and how big it might be. Nevertheless, the scientists consider the consequences of the worst-case scenario sufficiently dire--on food production, among other things--to justify action now. But the scientists don't recommend what many environmentalists want--a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Instead, they suggest a "no regrets" approach--actions that cost little and have other benefits. These include phasing out ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons, improving energy efficiency, and planting trees. Such policies would cut U. S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 10% to 40% from 1990 levels and reduce greenhouse warming, if such a warming occurs. As the report says: "Insurance is cheap."

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