Monday, November 30, 2009

Power transformers, pt. 1: S. Massoud Amin, electrical and computer engineer, University of Minnesota

While the last half-dozen "power broker" entries have outlined our rethinking of the current energy paradigm, the next two spotlight technologies.

S. Massoud Amin's concept: Giving the grid an immune system.

This is a self-healing energy grid that isolates and restores problematic elements to normal routine with little or no human involvement.

It may include multiple energy sources linked by a network that identify malfunctions and relay information to automatic repair devices. This would ensure constant running with no inefficiency.

Problem: Fear of robotic control of resources.
Resolution: Human supervision.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quick and easy solar-powered generator

Easy and rewarding.

Power brokers, pt. 6: Brooke Coleman, executive director, New Fuels Alliance

From Discover, if you haven't figured that out by now.

Brooke Coleman's "bright idea": let biofuels compete freely with petroleum on the open market.

Verbatim (again):

"Sometime people compare using advanced biofuels to the Internet boom. But no one had control of the Internet market before the Internet existed. The oil companies do have control of the liquid fuels market, however - so at the end of the day, what the biofuel folds are looking to do is to take market shate away from probably the most powerful industry in American, and arguably in the world. It's not an easy thing to do, and it's policy driven.

"So what do you need to do to solve the problem? You have to cut the knot by allowing these fuels to compete in the marketplace on a level playing field. Get flex-fuel vehicles on the roads that can run on any combination of biofuels. In the United States, people pretend it's really difficult. It's not. It's less expensive than putting a seat belt in a car, certainly less expensive than air bags, definitely less expensive than stereos and a leather interior. Comapnies have to attract investment, build plants, and produce gallons ahead of the market, in time for these mandates to kick in.

"Anybody who has lived in this country for the last 18 months knows that when petroleum prices go up and down, you have a variety of indirect carbon effects in the market. If we place controls on carbon in the future, we will have to score each fuel based on specific variables and assumptions that might make or break entire industries. We need to let renewable fuels out of the box so they can compete on a level carbon playing field. If you're going to carbon-score them and compare them on a relative basis, threat petroleum and biofuels alike."

That would show 'em.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bio-engineered plastics

Their neighbors to the north may be under the crushing grip of a megalomaniac with a severe personality disorder, but South Korea is kicking some serious scientific booty.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tolkein fan builds Hobbit home in Wales

You gotta see this to believe it.

I wanna live here.

Power brokers, pt. 5: Daniel Nocera, chemist, MIT

Again, from Discover

Nocera's "bright idea": Split water to generate hydrogen energy - but do it in a cheap way.

Since he puts it so well himself, this is verbatim:

"Nature is the best solar fuel enerhy storage machine known, so let;s figure out how it works. Light comes in four photons, and then it hits the leaf, and it splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. A leaf makes twice as much hydrogen as it does oxygen, and then it stores the result as a solid fuel. So you've stored the sunlight in a fuel,and the energy is in the chemical bonds. Then you eat that fuel, and you get all the sunlight back out in a time-released way. So you are literally chewing the sun.

"Our lab at MIT invented a process that splits water and performs photosynthesis cheaply, outside the leaf. Lately we've found out we can use the Charles River as a water source. We can use waste streams as water sources. We can use the ocean as a water source. So you can generate hydrogen through artificial photosynthesis whenever you need it. I'm very interested in the nonlegacy world, especially Africa and India. Giving a little kid in Africa 500 watts of energy will change his life. And that's not much energy.

Al Gore has been walking around saying: "Just use the technologies. They're on the shelf. Take them off." But he's gone a bit over the deep end. Yes, we do have the technologies. I have photovoltaics. I can store hydrogen in a fuel cell and get all the energy out. I can build any number of systems for you right now, but guess what? They're too expensive. The reason you need scientists like me to discover my little cobalt phosphate catalyst - the material that can drive photosynthesis outside the leaf and in the lab - is because I'm going to do it cheaply.

"To take care of the average house in a day, you need 20 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is equivalent to only 5.5 liters of water. To drive that point home, I'm holding the amount of water in my hands that you need to power a very big house on the California coast. That amount of water takes care of that house as well as powering a fuel cell car around town. So that's the future. There's no way to stop it. Nature already did this 2-billion-year experiment and decided on this process, and it's coming soon."

There ya go!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Power brokers, pt. 4: Vivian Loftness, Carnegie Mellon architect

Still from Discover.

Slap an "i" between the two syllables of her last name, and her surname would be synonymous with arrogance and possible hubris, but what Vivian Loftness proposes is more aptly called idealistic - even Utopian perhaps - but infinitely doable and realistic.

Her "bright idea": Use natural light, better airflow and smart design to make buildings more efficient.

It worked for the Mycanaean's. In the 1000s BC, the proto-Greek civilization had developed a form of air conditioning uses nothing more than a crafty series of vents and air holes. Most builders forgot this in the last few hundred years, making AC a must-have, especially in the warmer climes. But universities and colleges and even the House and Senate Buildings in DC were originally designed to let nature provide cooling breezes.

And for lighting in workspaces: the sun, duh. Most work, especially in offices occurs during daylight hours. Using larger ventilating windows would cut down on both the need for an artificial climate and unnatural, soul-killing fluorescent lighting.

Close the ventilation for sun-provided warmth in the winter.

Worker morale would increase as well - studies show that natural lighting is more soothing to the psyche. Plant trees around work spots for shade.

Instead of sending waste heat from furnaces out a chimney, re-route it and use it to provide warmth, cutting back on the amount of heat that needs to be generated. It is self-sustaining and relies on nature.

As she puts it: "If you use daylight as your dominant source of lighting, your work environments are so much more beautiful."

It worked for the ancient Greeks. Now, if we just started exercising a little more, maybe we could run around in the same state of undress without inducing nausea in those around to witness it.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Power brokers, pt. 3: George Huber, chemical engineer at UMass Amherst

From the December issue of Discover magazine.

Huber's "bright idea": Produce ethanol or other renewable fuels from biomass we do not use for food.

This has been addressed in A Cooler world previously. Grassoline is one such fuel, onion skins another. Non-edible plants are known as cellulosic biomass and include wood chips and agricultural waste, all of which can be converted to fuel.

First you break it down to liquid or gas form. Then add catalysts to convert it into a compound. From this basic compound of biomass one can produce gasoline, diesel, even jet fuel.

People could be at the pump and not even know that they are pumping a plant product in their tank; it can be used interchangeably meaning that radical engineering changes in automobile manufacturing won't be necessary.

And it can happen in five to 15 years.

Another bonus: lower to zero admissions when compared to fossil fuels.

Woo hoo!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Power brokers, pt. 2: Ralph Masiello, innovation director at KEMA (

From the December 2009 issue of Discover magazine.

KEMA - A global, leading authority in energy consulting and testing & certification.

Ralph Masiello's "bright idea": Store renewable energy so we can use it when we need it.

One of the main problems with the electrical infrastructure is that there is really no way to store electrical power - "every time somebody in the house turned the light on or off, ultimately the source of electricity - the generation plant - had to wiggle up or down."

But we have finally reached the point that we can put storage on the grid, handling fluctuations and the imbalance between demand and supply.

Right now, plants have to pay someone to send excess energy to, sometimes dropping the price of electricity to -$20/megawatt hour, an expenditure that is passed on to the consumer.

However, batteries are too limited, and Masiello suggests figuring it out as a fuel problem. He calls for a smart grid that only releases energy when asked for, storing it otherwise.

There are some legal and industrial hurdles, but in the long run, it would mean cheaper electricity, and power generated by wind and solar, not coal.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Power brokers, pt. 1: Lowell Ungar, senior policy analyst, Alliance to Save Energy

The December issue of Discover Magazine contains an article called "Power Brokers." In it, "Eight leading thinkers offer visions of how to make our energy supply cleaner, more efficient and more abundant.

Lowell Ungar of the Alliance to Save Energy suggests treating efficiency like a fuel and make it the cornerstone of US energy policy.

He states there are dozens of simple things everyone can do, from merely knowing which lightbulb is the best to use or if a ground source heat pump would work where you live. Is your home adequately insulated, saving energy that could be lost through leakage?

Write your congressman. Let them know you support energy-efficiency policies such as carbon cap legislation. Encourage local builders to use natural lighting and cooling.

Try to buy a more energy efficient home. Some of the foreclosure problems in the country sprang from utility bills - there is good evidence that such bills are the second-leading cause of foreclosures.

Protect your pocketbook while you protect the planet and go Green.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Green Scenics

From Eva Radke of Film Biz Recycling, an organization that reuses set pieces, costumes and everything else in new productions, sells to collectors or gives to charity rather than needlessly using landfills for things that are often near new.

"I just caught up with Marshall Carbee - he has developed some amazing techniques and products - check out his soy gesso and low VOC paints.....made for scenics by a scenic.

Go here to see the products

And here to see his beautiful low-impact art

Here's how he paints these days in his studio in New Hampshire.

1. Wood stretcher bars for stretching the canvas are milled locally with locally grown wood.Our NH forests were cut down 100 years ago, local wood is sustainable.

I have stopped using stretchers for all the Flatbread type paintings.

2. I am using wood scraps from a local lumber yard for small painting panels. There are also composite wood panels that are green. (not made with formaldehyde!)

3. Canvas? I'm using an 18.5 oz. 100% hemp canvas and a certified organic cotton/hemp blend that is 12.5oz.

4. Acrylic or oil based gesso? I've replaced gesso with a soy based product.

5. Commercial paint? Now I make my own paints with low impact earth pigments. No cadmiums, flake white, or other toxic pigments or additives. No petroleum products. Earth pigments rock!

6. Binders? Now using cold-pressed linseed oil, organic linseed oil, walnut oil and a little beeswax.
7. Mineral spirits, turpentine? Don't use them anymore, using an eco-friendly citrus oil thinner with food grade terpenes.

8. No Frames (Unless you want them!) Now, we hang the paintings like banner she studio like we do at all the Flatbreads on harvested saplings, driftwood, or train stricken saplings from behind the studio. Charles is our a framer right here in the factory. Charles is the best framer around and he's right downstairs!

9. Hanging wire Don't use wire anymore, we use hemp chord now.

10. Carbon Footprint? I'm paying down our carbon footprint at Native Energy. Our goal is to get an accurate measurement of the studio footprint and neutralize it with investment in wind energy.

11. I'm making these paintings to help connect us to nature through natural color, nature images, organic forms, patterns and textures.

12. My 100% cotton rags (I use a lot of rags) are refuse from a local custom dying facility. The rags are given to me, they are the company's reject color tests.

And there you go...way to go Marshall - what an inspiration."