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How Many Energy Changes Do You Make?

How Many Energy Changes Do You Make?

| On 26, Sep 2010

Jack Hipple

There are some fundamental laws of science and engineering that are never violated. One of these says that every time you change energy from one form to another, you lose. The most efficient use of energy is to take energy into a system or product, use its value for something useful, and then throw it away. You still lose some of the value of the energy, but if you convert, say electrical energy into mechanical energy and then into thermal energy, you lose 3 times! We do this sometimes because of the technical backgrounds of the engineers who design products and systems and their bias toward using the energy form they understand the best.

Here’s what you should do to “audit” your system and look for opportunites. List the energy source that enters your proccess or product manufacturing process. Is is natural gas (chemical energy), electrical, mechanical (compressor driven by gas or electricity), solar, hydroelectric, or magnetic? Now make a list of each time, within your process, you convert this original energy source into a different form of energy. Finally, write down the reason you are doing this. Why are you doing this? Is it because you needed to? Thought it would be engineering “cool” to do it? Suppose someone passed a law that said you couldn’t make this conversion or there was a huge tax to do this? What would you do? This artificial tax that I am asking you to think about is the same thing as the second law of thermodynamics that says that every time we convert one form of energy into another, some of the original energy is lost. What could you do with that most energy? Lower your cost and make more money? Lower your cost and expand your market? Propose a joint venture with a partner?

This type of thinking is a key aspect of using what we call “Lines of Evolution” within the TRIZ methodology. The number of energy conversions drops with time with any system. If you’re not thinking about this, someone else is and they will probably put you out of business eventually. In a parallel column today, I describe the predictable decline of movie rentals that has occurred. We could think about this business in this way as well. When someone gets into a car to rent a movie at a retail store, they turn chemical energy (gasoline in the car) into mechanical energy to move the car (twice–it’s a round trip!). With a download, we use a higher level, more efficient field (optoelectronic) one time. Game over!

How many times do you convert energy? We have explained the energy evolution line before–mechanical, thermal, chemical, electronic, electromagnetic. Technology moves inevitably down this line. The highest level field, converted the least number of times, is the winner. Move up and don’t convert–that’s the secret to long term success.