The future of energy is almost here

29 July 2014, 2:25 p.m. EDT
by Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

Al_Romig_Keynote_29Jul14Alton Romig, vice president of engineering and advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, better known as the Skunk Works, discusses the state of the art in energy systems at AIAA's Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cleveland.

The future of energy will be here before we know it, said Alton Romig, vice president of engineering and advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, better known as the Skunk Works. He was addressing today’s plenary session at AIAA’s Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cleveland.

Romig discussed the state of the art in energy systems, considered the possible futures, and analyzed the challenges that may prevent such a future from unfolding. His vision included innovations such as compact fusion energy; producing energy from excess heat on aircraft systems; warp drive; reliable hydrogen systems for aircraft; and reliable electric aircraft propulsion systems. His vision also touched on alternative fuels, advanced electrical power sources, energy harvesting techniques, and revolutionary advances in energy storage, such as efficient and larger capacity batteries.

Romig acknowledged that some of these goals are well off in the future. But it’s just a matter of time before we attain them, he said, reminding the audience that it was “only 50 years between Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket launches and the Moon landing.” In short, technology advances quickly.

Drivers that will speed us toward that future, according to Romig, are globalization, climate change, fuel costs and government support of programs. Each of these will generate change as we move forward.

Romig said the path ahead is filled with barriers – some practical, some attitude-related – that prevent change in systems. One such attitude is “incrementalism,” the belief that change can’t be achieved in great leaps but only in small steps. This view leads to program death when results don’t come soon enough to keep people interested in a project, causing cuts in funding or outright cancellation. Other barriers, he said, include “lack of funding, the valley of death – created when technology takes too long to come out of development and then languishes waiting to be approved; the time needed to certify new systems per FAA and/or military standards; and the shortfalls in our nation’s STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education programs.”

Heat generated by systems is another barrier to advancement, said Romig. “Right now we are at the limit of what we can do to mitigate heat, especially in establishing heat sinks on systems; the thermos bottle is just about out of capacity.” Solutions must be found so systems can run cooler and be less of a threat to aircraft or generators, he said.

Progress in energy systems will not be rapid, said Romig, and will probably stall unless the barriers are surmounted. However, he added that “competition drives everything” and expressed optimism that the competitive need to establish new systems will create the needed solutions.

Romig ended his talk by asking the audience to “think about how technology accelerates today as compared to the past….I don’t know if tech will run past mankind, but if good things happen in 100 years, imagine where we might end up. These ideas are not totally crazy and could completely revolutionize the aviation industry as we go forward.”