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Saturday, July 24, 2004

A ShipstoneTM in your future?

In his later novels (Friday and To Sail Beyond the Sunset) Robert A Heinlein makes reference to what he calls "Shipstones":

1. Common power source. It involved intensive solar collection and energy storage but was not otherwise described. It apparently replaced almost all other sources of energy. The name also applied to the conglomerate that apparently owned most of the corporations on and off Earth, including Daniel Shipstone Estate, Inc.; Muriel Shipstone Memorial Research Laboratories; Shipstone Tempe, Gobi, Aden, Sahara, Africa, Death Valley, Karroo, Never-Never, Ell-Four, Ell-Five, Stationary, Tycho, Ares, DeepWater, Unlimited, and Ltd.; Sears-Montgomery, Inc.; Prometheus Foundation; Coca-Cola Holding Co.; Intraworld Transport Corp.; Jack and the Beanstalk, Pty.; Morgan Associates; Out-Systems Colonial Corporation; Billy Shipstone School for Handicapped Children; Wolf Creek Pass Nature Preserve; Año Nuevo Wild Life Refuge; and Shipstone Visual Arts Museum and School. In effect, Shipstone controlled the entire economy. A feud among different factions resulted in the overthrow and disruption of many Earth governments, particularly in North America. (Friday)
2. [mentioned in passing] Power source used for automobiles (and probably other devices). (To Sail Beyond the Sunset) [Compare D. D. Harriman's extensive holdings and economic influence in earlier stories, and the more benevolent depiction of an unlimited power source in "Let There Be Light".]
Perhaps science is now catching up to science-fiction:
Imagine a power source so small, yet so efficient, that it could make cumbersome power plants virtually obsolete while lowering your electric bill. A breakthrough in thin film solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) is currently being refined in labs at the University of Houston, making that dream a reality.

Originating from research at UH's Texas Center for Superconductivity and Advanced Materials (TcSAM), these SOFCs of the "thin film" variety are both efficient and compact. With potential ranging from use in the government in matters of defense and space travel to driving forces in the consumer market that include computers and electricity, this breakthrough carries tremendous impact.


Compared to the macroscopic size of traditional fuel cells that can take up an entire room, thin film SOFCs are one micron thick – the equivalent of about one-hundredth of a human hair. Putting this into perspective, the size equivalent of four sugar cubes would produce 80 watts – more than enough to operate a laptop computer, eliminating clunky batteries and giving you hours more juice in your laptop. By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household.
As this line of research plays out, we can only hope that the corporate implications (as Heinlein envisioned them) do not come to pass...