i think people (such as myself) may sometimes over-rate the value of private enterprise in the US. it is great at competing for a larger slice of pie, but it is perhaps less good at growing the pie.
growing the pie is risky. it generally costs a lot and often returns nothing of commercial value.
that is why we have national labs, a Department of Energy, and universities where people get funding mostly from the federal gov't to do basic research on everything from cold fusion to cosmic dust. much of the research won't benefit anyone for decades. some of it will never go anywhere. but, this week i heard about two ideas that will directly impact all of our lives, though we may not be aware of it.
the first is from the GridWise Alliance at the Pacific Northwest National Lab. Most of the ideas here bore me because they are about how to make your electricity supply plan more like your cell phone plan, which is to say complicated and annoying. This would be great for private utilities because it would give them the chance to confuse both their customers and their regulators and make lots of money (taking more of the pie). Public utilities have no profit motive, so they don't adopt a technology unless it will save the customer money. I don't see that this technology has the ability to save anyone in the PNW any money in real life, but i'm off topic.
the cool thing is an inexpensive tiny little chip that senses an impending blackout and prevents it from happening. simply put, blackouts are caused by too much load relative to supply. so, utilities have schemes for how to automatically reduce their load (by turning off power to neighborhoods or entire cities) to prevent a system-wide collapse, but these schemes are expensive, inefficient, and politically difficult. what this tiny little chip does is briefly turn off load that nobody will notice, like your water heater, clothes drier, A/C, the heating element in your dishwasher. what we're talking about is a 10 minute outage every 5 years or so, something that absolutely nobody would ever notice. what society gets in return is a significantly more stable and possibly less expensive electrical supply. this is especially significant when we consider the amount of wind generation many states have decided to mandate be installed. wind power adds instability to the electric supply, these chips installed at virtually no cost in all of our heavy load devices would counteract this by adding stability, effectively reducing the cost of adding wind power to the system. there is no such thing as a free lunch, but this device seriously strains the rule. it is the biggest thing in power engineering since HVDC, maybe bigger.
the second innovation is in material science and is more likely to impact your life in a way you'll notice. the Oak Ridge National Lab has created a highly waterproof low cost material. think gore-tech on steroids. i think the first commercial application that we'll hear about will be a lifetime car polish, then the next generation of outerwear, then who knows. what would you want to be waterproof if it didn't cost anything and lasted forever? unwettable paper? ultra stain-resistant clothes and carpets? ever-dry building materials for houses? stay-dry hair treatment? i dunno how you'd wash it out, though. would you want your sunscreen to keep you dry too, so water would bead up and roll off your skin like it does on a sea lion? i'd try it. there are surely an unimaginably huge number of applications out there.