Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More Sci-Fi becomes reality

Some scientists have realized that the quickest way to cool the earth is to shade it from the sun.

The November issue of Scientific American lays out three of these plans. "A Sunshade for Planet Earth" by Robert Kunzig illustrates the ups and downs of these hypothetical projects.

The first involves the same scenario that quite possibly killed the dinosaurs. Sulfur, Brimstone, the Devil's smoke is the key but may become a culprit. The theory that volcanic activity killed the big lizards gained credence when Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991. The earth's overall temperature went down by one degree that year. Rainfall also dropped because evaporation was retarded by the lack of sunlight. This may help topsoil maintain its humidic integrity, but it also robs the rest of the planet of rainfall and fresh water. It also requires less carbon emissions or the upkeep would be more than it's worth.

The second involves making our clouds' metaphorical silver lining a thing of reality. Huge, satellite-guided ships would troll the oceans, shooting sea water into turbines (fueled by the churning of water and wind - NICE!), shooting vaporized sea water into the air. The sodium would bond to the clouds, making them thicker to block out solar radiation. However, rainfall would drop, brightening of the atmosphere may be unpredictable and the political repercussions are unknown. What happens in the ocean would affect airspace not necessarily belonging to the country involved and could cause problems. And, again, if carbon emissions are not curbed, it may be a moot point.

The third involves launching a cloud of satellite controlled plastic disks out of the atmosphere to deflect harmful sunlight while letting enough through to ensure survival of the flora and fauna that rely on it (i.e., every living thing on the planet). The prototype is a silicon nitride ceramic paid for by the Discovery Channel. Fractions of the width of saran wrap, it is far stronger and channels the good energy in, bad energy out. Set at L1, a Lagrangian point where the sun's gravity is equal to the earth's, the discs would act like a cosmic parasol, letting some energy in and scattering the rest.

All amazing, awesome ideas to cool the planet and keep the polar bears and penguins living in the style to which they are accustomed, but the underlying problem still exists.

Carbon emissions must be restricted, outlawed or replaced altogether. The above are referred to as a "quick fix."

As cool as they are, does that ever really work?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Austin company at fore-front of solar power

Austin-based HelioVolt, a solar collector production and research company has expanded, creating new local jobs in the alternative tech industry. The plant was slated to have a capacity of 20 megawatts.

The company will be manufacturing CIGS (copper indium gallium selenium) solar cells that come in the form of thin sheets.

So HelioVolt is providing jobs and an alternative to dirty coal plants.

The Texas government is in this city. Are the legislators even noticing what's happening in the city in which they work?

Texas coal-powered electrical plants

According to a Daily Texan article, Texas currently has "10 coal plants permitted or awaiting approval," says the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "Three more have been proposed."

At a panel discussion and film screening Thursday night, representatives of the Sierra Club, ReEnergize Texas and Power Vote organizations promoted alternate energy sources. Citing the fact that Texas produces a third of the nation's wind power, the panel lamented the fact that companies prefer staying with "ancient technology" - because the infrastructure is in place, it's cheap and there really isn't a profit in cleaning up carbon emmissions.

Cyrus Reed of the Sierra Club stated that only "One-tenth of one percent of profits is dedicated to developing new energy technology," adding "Even the dog food industry spends more of its money on development."

What needs to happen is politicians need to quit worrying about oil industry lobby money and become more involved in ensuring that the climate doesn't get any warmer and that Texas stays as clean as it is.

The by-gone "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-pollution campaign now seems hypocritical when the leaders of the state are allowing dirty coal plants to continue proliferating.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's a dilemma

With oil dipping to around $70 a barrel, gas is becoming more affordable and gives Americans less of an excuse to conserve. I'm not bashing drivers; people have families to support and sometimes public and eco-friendly transportation just isn't an option due to location and/or distance. People can make it to work. This is a good thing.

Another upside of lower gas prices is the extra money in people's pockets, money that can be used to stimulate the sorry market economy in its current state. This is a good thing, as well.

In order to halt the slide, OPEC is planning a million barrel a day reduction to drive prices back up to a more profitable level.

This is a good thing because it will force government and researchers to continue concentrating on alternate fuels and other forms of energy.

Without higher priced oil, it is entirely possible that research into alternatives may slow down.

That would be a bad, bad thing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More on the debate

It's no secret that I'm not a fan, but John McCain seemed a bit out of control to me last night. Repeated attacks on Obama aside, he yelled at Bob Schieffer when he referred to climate change as climate control. Who yells at Bob Schieffer?

Both candidates were very vehement about reducing the our dependence on foreign oil from the Middles East and Venezuela (but "Canadian oil is fine," said McCain).

Obama agreed with McCain that a 10 year reduction plan to eliminate foreign oil imports from "places in the world that are threats to national security (McCain again)."

Unfortunately, both candidates touted domestic oil as the answer.

Sure, McCain brought up nuclear (as he always does) and Obama talked about solar, wind, and geothermal energy as possibly driving the economy "for the next century," but the big oil money seems to still holding quite a bit of sway, both on Capitol Hill and with those striving to conquer it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The third presidential debate

Everything else aside, at least John McCain has a solid idea for America's future energy. Nuclear - and, by God, there will be safe storage and reprocessing, trust him.

There was an argument (debate seems to erudite) about off shore-drilling and ending dependence on foreign oil including Venezualan (congratz, Hugo, you pissed everyone off), but Obama didn't have much to say.

The "solar, wind, geothermal" mantra can't stand for long.

UT makes breakthrough in storage of solar power

Building on the idea that "there's plenty of room at the bottom," UT Austin researchers have come up with a way to store solar and wind generated energy for times when the air is still and the sun isn't shining.

Using graphenes - carbon atoms linked in a honeycomb shape - solar panels and wind generators can channel power and store it on their surface. But in most current tech, these honeycombs are stacked on top of each other, limiting their storage capacity.

By spreading the graphenes out, the surface area is multiplied, thereby increasing the energy storage capacity where it can be used when needed, like a battery. But Nanoscience and Technology Professor Rod Ruoff says that these cells will operate as an "ultracapacitor" which can provide higher amounts of energy over longer periods of time than a regular battery. This makes the idea of long-distance driving in electric cars closer and more feasible, not to mention possibly marking the end of emission-heavy electrical plants.

Easy breathing and lower traffic noise, here we come.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"There's plenty of room at the bottom"

The phrase was uttered by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959.

Nanotechnology offers plenty of ways to make alternate energy sources even more efficient. For example, one technology could raise typical solar panel energy conversion rates by over 60%.

For a somewhat more comprehensive look at various ways that this tiny tech can improve alternate energy sources visit NEN: Nano Energy Now.

That is all.

T. Boone Pickens: "A Surprising Environmentalist"

The Republican Party should listen more carefully to one of their own.

T. Boone Pickens, long-time oil baron and author of the entrepreneurial treatise The First Billion is the Hardest has become one of America's leading proponents of alternate energy. He is calling for government vehicles to run on natural gas, replacing natural gas powered electric plants with wind power and encourages off-shore oil drilling to end our dependence on foreign oil once and for all.

He calls it the PickensPlan and the website offers any visitors a chance to sign a petition or pledge their support.

And although some environmentalists have problems with off-shore oil drilling, such as the Committee Against Oil Exploration (CAOE - pronounced "K-O") due to the possibility of oil spills and the environmental impact inherent in fossil fuels, some of his other ideas are sound, safe and ecologically sensitive.

For example, Pickens recently invested billions in a West Texas wind farm that could conceivably power 1.3 billions homes with almost no emissions of any sort.

Perhaps some of his fellow oil-rich right wingers will finally see the light and follow suit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tomorrow's energy today Pt. 4: The ITER Project

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is another straight-outta-sci-fi alternate energy sources that have physicists and proponents of nuclear energy salivating, as it has for the last 50 or so years.

The concept is based on fusion, the same process that keeps our sun churning. Hydrogen atoms collide, creating helium and releasing huge amounts of energy. However, the reaction must occur in temperatures in the 100s of millions. At that temperature matter becomes plasma, a miasma of nuclei with a positive charge and negatively-charged electrons.

On the sun, the plasma is made cohesive by gravity.

And although ITER is essentially a miniature sun, it's diminutive size does not produce enough gravity to contain it.

The answer: a giant magnetic container called a tokamak. The one used by ITER will have a diameter of 56 feet and is encased in niobium coils capable of creating enormous magnetic fields and lowering electrical resistance (superconduction). This will heat the the cloud of hydrogen inside while containing it in a ring of plasma well away from the tokamak's inner walls.

The one drawback?

When ITER goes online in 2018, "scientists can then begin working out how to harvest fusion energy for practical use," according to Discover magazine (Seife, Charles. "Free Energy: $15." Discover Oct. 2008: 32.).

Huh? $15 billion and 20 years of work, and no one knows exactly how to make it practical?

But perhaps asking if a small sun is capable of producing energy is a silly question. What is the ultimate source of all life-giving energy in our spatial proximity?

That's right. The Sun.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tomorrow's energy today Pt. 3: The vanadium redox flow battery

Despite it's name, vanadium is not a product of Stark Industries, nor does it fuel any piece of Iron Man's ragingly cool and seemingly low-emission suit. I didn't notice much of a vapor trail, so I'm assuming the metallic muscle man has a relatively low carbon footprint.

[If anyone knows the fuel specs of Iron Man's suit, I would appreciate a head's up. Not finding anything on the web except how much he can lift, how much damage he does in equivalence to pounds of TNT and how fast he flies. No fuel specs.]

While we're in the Zen mode of exploring what things are not, the vanadium redox flow battery is not an invention of Jack Marlowe's Halo Industries, nor will never be used in a cell phone, lap top or even an electric vehicle.

In fact, the vanadium redox flow battery is even more unwieldy than its name.

The battery is enormous, with two tanks of electrolytic liquids that create a charge in a central chamber then flow back to their tank. The energy can be stored and reused almost indefinitely. The problem was that the membrane separating the two liquids would eventually weaken and when the two mix, they were rendered unusable.

The answer was to use vanadium, a soft whitish metal found abundantly and has four state of oxidation. Each state of oxidation has a different energy capacity diluted in liquid. Even when the two states mix, there is no loss because the vanadium can easily flow from one state to another.

The sun goes down at night and wind is as capricious as the mythical wind gods once believed behind it.

With a vanadium redox flow battery, a power plant will not have to rely on natures whims. With this battery at its core, a plant can run almost indefinitely.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tomorrow's energy today Pt. 2: Ethanol and Austin recycling

The field of ethanol research is a double-edged sword. Though ethanol and other biofuels basically use existing carbon, thereby not releasing anymore into the atmosphere, ethanol made from corn is an energy intensive process that doesn't really save the use of fossil fuels.

But many companies are researching ways to use any organic matter, such as wood chips and compost material to create biofuel. The process now involves breaking down the cellulose in plants that give plant cells hardy walls, converting it to sugar and then to ethanol. Today, a different tact is being researched. Carbon rich materials are pumped with oxygen and burned, making the carbon conversion to biofuel more efficient and cuts down on carbon dioxide and other by-products like slag.

So, the plants producing such energy could potentially reduce and possibly replace landfills - organic waste would be shipped to plants (hopefully in non-fossil fuel driven vehicles) to become fuel for the very consumers that created the waste to begin with.

Here in Austin, a new drive is under way to encourage a higher amount of recycling, another way to cut down on land wasted as dumps.

One impediment to recycling, even in the liberal oasis of Texas, was inconvenience. Glass and metal had to be separated from paper and cardboard and it was often a mystery why your recycling bin was emptied by the city last week but not this one. Such sorting systems work in Europe, particularly Germany, but such programs have been in place long enough that it's second nature for Germans to throw glass in one bin, waste in another, paper in another and so on. The bins are colored differently to make it as simple as possible.

In the US, things are going a bit differently. In order to encourage recycling here in central Texas, Austin is introducing single stream recycling. In other words, no more seperation, just throw anything recyclable into one bin.

However, this comes with caveats: No food waste (and all rigid plastic and metal containers must also be free of such), no plastic bags, yard trimmings, or broken or window glass.

However, at austinrecycles.com, the motto is "Zero Waste" and there is a search engine that will tell anyone how to dispose of anything that doesn't fall under the allowed recyclables.

It's a start and a good one. If even a small portion of central Texans began recycling, waste could be significantly reduced.

Now if we can get some of those biofuel plants close to the city, perhaps the promise of zero waste is not so far-fetched.

A renewable Austin. Smell that fresh air.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tomorrow's energy today Pt. 1: Wind

In 2007, the entire electrical capacity of the US was one trillion watts. Stanford University atmospheric scientists Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson estimated through detailed calculations of current air patterns the potential wind power under optimum conditions would be 72 trillion watts.

This number, however, only takes into account wind blowing at an altitude of 80 meters, approximately the height of most wind turbines.

Bryan Roberts, an engineering professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia has come up with a plan to harvest more powerful winds at higher altitudes. A few miles up, a wind generator could produce 250 that amount of power, according to Discover magazine and infoniac.com.

Roberts and his team are designing "kites" with rotors that fly like a helicopter to altitudes where the winds are strongest. The rotors then switch to generator mode and send energy back down the tether that also keeps them from just flying away.

The contraption essentially looks like a flat H with rotors at each of the four points of the "kite."

There are a few things that do need to be worked out, however. How will severe weather affect the generators? What if a few of the tethers become entangled. Not to mention the fact that a "no-fly zone" would have to be established to keep airplanes from slicing through the tethers or worse, crashing.

Unfortunately, the idea is so new and revolutionary that no one seems to be biting. The US throws hundreds of millions of dollars to fusion experimentation, but these electricity-generating kites are apparently just too wacky to take seriously.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Yesterday's sci-fi is tomorrow's reality

In the October issue of Discover magazine, an entire section is dedicated to alternate energy. The editors write:

"One of the greatest impediments to progress is simple failure of imagination." ("Reinventing the World." Discover October 2008: 19.)

In the kitschy sci-fi classic, Logan's Run, there are ubiquitous advertisements for plastic surgery whenever the protagonist is in public areas. At the time, in the real world, this was unheard of. Plastic surgery was for the stars and the idle rich. Now, commercials for nose jobs, face-lifts and even (gasp!) breast augmentation are as common as those for little magic pills that can make one happy for the measly cost of a greasy stool and sometimes death.

Comic books in many senses are simply sci-fi novels for the ADHD ridden (no offense to any fans of the graphic medium as I am - just making a point).

Back in 2003, when An Inconvenient Truth was merely an inkling of a twinkle in Al Gore's disenfranchised eye, a comic book writer was predicting the future with what some may argue was almost creepily accurate.

No longer content to save the world by beating up one super-baddy at a time, Joe Casey took on one of Wildstorm's (now a subsidiary of DC Comics, which is owned by Time Warner, but we'll let the Bildeberger conspiracy buffs tackle that one) flagship books, WildC.A.T.S., re-vamped it as Wildcats v. 3.0 and created a new breed of superhero.

Jack Marlowe (nee Spartan) was a former android superhero created in another galaxy who took over his "uncle's" corporation upon the elder's death. Trading spandex for a white three piece suit, Marlowe decided to go about saving the world through commerce. The alien technology involved made it possible.

The first product introduced by the Halo Corporation were simple batteries. The difference: they last forever. No need to mine more ore for the casings or risk acid leaks. Not to mention the exponential savings in land fills and recycling plants.

But batteries were just the beginning. Next came cell phones with superior reception that never tire and computers that run off a Halo power source, eliminating the need for power cords.

But the coup de grace was discovered accidentally. While test driving a Halo sponsored Nascar (sporting a Halo battery, natch!), the driver realized he'd driven over 100 miles on an empty gas tank. Production of low-cost, non-petroleum dependent cars went into effect immediately.

Although science fiction is in no way a barometer for what's to come (I still ain't buying artificial gravity, Roddenberry), the imagination that the editors of Discover insist is a necessity is certainly in some of these individual's writings.

There are no retired superheroes masquerading as businessmen, nor is there (to my knowledge) any alien tech involved in some of the new technologies and thoughts I will be discussing for the next week or so.

Until then, live long and prosper. "Ride in style...Straight into the future."
Copyright 2005 Wildstorm Comics