I'm at an IEEE motor engineering conference right now, and have noticed something interesting: even though it's held in the US, and has been since it started five years ago, 90% of the participants are European or Asian. Even half the professors here from US universities are foreign-born, and one US navy speaker bemoaned how the US is simply not graduating enough engineers to keep the industry going here. American motor engineering is on its way out.
I mention this because the electric motor industry today is where the computer chip industry will be in twenty (maybe ten) years--ubiquitous but mysterious, a technology that is embedded everywhere (from your cell phone to your refrigerator, not to mention the dozen or so motors in your car), and a technology that performs well enough that only a miniscule percentage of the industry still bothers to push the envelope. It's not new and shiny anymore, it's all commodity--a motor designed eighty years ago can be better than one designed today. Computer chips already hit ubiquity, and the banality (or, to be nicer, timelessness) is somewhere on the horizon.
It is important not to forget technologies at that point. Abandoning basic-but-ubiquitous technologies is like abandoning agriculture. Sure, it's cheaper to do it abroad, but you set up dependencies that will bite you in the butt later. And no matter how mature the industry, there are always potentially more breakthroughs to be made.
I completely agree. The improving of the basic electric motor and it's controllers can have a major impact on moving away from fossil fuels for power and transportation. New brushless DC motors are fairly efficient and trouble and maintenance free, but there can always be more fine tuning. I hope the carbon nanotube and other nano researchers will work with motor manufacturers to see what advances can be done at the molecular level.
Thanks for this, Jeremy. We need to evolve and improve basic technologies like this, but we also need to improve and evolve their purposes. Any technology is for some purpose - that needs R&D too.
Perhaps we're becoming Romans, leaving all that learning stuff to those clever, wimpish Greeks while we concentrate on the important stuff, like stomping heads, making money, and sacrificing to Jove.
I also worry that here, in the United States, we're abandoning basic science and technology research (as well as basic science education). And I agree with the commenters that we need to keep our head in the technology R&D work. But rather than worrying about setting up "dependencies that will bite you in the butt later", maybe we should be proactive and set up inter-dependencies that we can rely on later. Don't get me wrong; I do worry about the dependencies. But I'm also searching for ways to enable relationships that nurture rather than exploit.