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Ask a Scientist Anything: GE Scientists Host Reddit Forum

By Ideas Lab Staff May 9, 2013

Two GE scientists hosted a Reddit forum to answer questions about the future of electricity.

If you could ask a GE scientist any question about the future of electricity, what would it be? Questions about energy sources? GE innovations? The potential for a flying car?

Jim Bray, chief scientist at GE, and his colleague Kathleen O’Brien allowed anyone to ask them those questions and any others last week during a Q&A on Reddit’s popular “IAmA” forum. The online platform features people who state their profession or other unique characteristics and allows users to ask them any question. President Obama once hosted an “IAmA” forum, for example.

Jim Bray, chief scientist for GE


Bray opened the live forum with an introduction and said he and O’Brien were happy to answer any questions about smart phones, electric cars, cloud computing, smart grid technologies or anything else. Dozens of questions, including the following, were asked by people curious about such energy and technology subjects. And, yes, someone even asked the scientists if a flying car was coming soon. If you missed your chance to ask a question about science, Bray encourages comments and questions at his blog, Stump the Scientist, and he also is on Twitter at @stumpscientist.

From Reddit:

Q: What does GE think the source of electric power will be 20, 50 years out? Will solar or wind ever surpass fossil fuels? Is nuclear still in the equation at all? I see lots of smaller localized gas turbine generator stations – is the future truly distributed?

GE: Let us put it this way: we know there is a finite amount of fossil fuels. We know that amount will eventually run out; it’s just not clear when, but there’ll be quite a bit left even at the 50-year mark. But we must be prepared to replace those sources with renewable energy. Hard to say what form that would take, though.

One possible source: there are international efforts in place to harness fusion. This is a very difficult problem, but we think will eventually be solved. After all, the sun (a ball of fusion) works pretty well. And humans have a good track record of harnessing things that we know work.

Q: I’d like to see wireless charging more in the future. There are some products on the market for some smart phones and game controllers, but there hasn’t been wide spread adoption of the technology. Do you think we’ll get to see a house that is completely wirelessly powered in the next decade or two? (Are we even close to that?)

GE: It’s not going to happen for a house as a whole, but you will see it (and see it now) for small appliances within it. Houses simply require too much power and are too far away from the source of power it would need.

Q: Is GE working with any small farms on solar solutions?

GE: We don’t currently work directly with any small farms, but we do have a variety of technologies that can be used to generate power from wind, sun, and biofuels (including manure, grass, sugar cane, and corn, among other things). Interestingly, when we think of ‘farms’, we think of large installations of wind turbines or solar panels that can be used to power entire communities in some cases. For example, a single 1.5 MW turbine, which is about several hundred feet tall with blades larger than an American football field, can power about 1,000 homes.

Q: What is one of the most promising projects that you are involved in right now?

GE: We’re working on ways to get wind power from remote, windy areas to high-population centers (like LA). Except for Chicago, it’s hard to find places with high wind and lots of people.

Q: Flying car, is when?

GE: We had the choice between making flying cars or giant wind turbines. Seemed like doing both would be a bad idea.

Seriously, though: the qualities of a great car don’t necessarily make for a great plane, and vice versa. Two major challenges: adding flying capability will make the car way too expensive. And the FAA gets control over your car. As a pilot myself, you don’t want that (nor does the FAA). Airspace is already super-congested; imagine what the air-traffic maps would look like.