Stories tagged alternative fuel

Oct
11
2010

Industrial hemp: Fields of green, etc, etc. Don't be tedious.
Industrial hemp: Fields of green, etc, etc. Don't be tedious.Courtesy Aleks
Oh, happy day! It was getting dry out there, Buzzketeers. I’m referring, of course, to the dearth of hilarious science news items; everything is extinction this, cancer that, radioactive this, greenish discharge that. If you wanted to write a clever and humorous article about scientific research, you’d have to lower yourself to making fun of oil-covered seabirds, or the stupid things babies do when they’re learning. Ugh.

But not any more, thanks to researchers at the University of Connecticut. By exploring the potential of industrial hemp to be a bio-fuel feedstock, they have opened up a plentiful new source of raw material for puns.

We could spend hours discussing how “green” the research is! Ha ha ha! Or, like, the high expectations scientists have for technology that can convert up to 97% of the oil from hemp seeds (a commonly discarded byproduct in hemp farming) into biodiesel. Ho ho ho ha!

Or what about this: there’s been a lot of… buzz surrounding biofuel production, because it could potentially remove food crops and high quality land from our food production system. But because hemp—which is typically grown for its fibers—can grow on relatively poor-quality land, it shouldn’t affect our production of munchies! Ha ha hahahahaaa!

It turns out that industrial hemp has a lot of applications, but it can’t be used as a drug! Ha ha… Oh, wait, I guess that wasn’t really a pun.

In any case, it’s illegal to grow industrial hemp in 41 states, so this one is probably just for other countries.

PS—Drug abuse isn’t any funnier than drug-related puns. Don’t yell at me.

Feb
23
2010

There's lots of buzz (normal buzz, not our patented Science Buzz) on the 'net today about the "Bloom Box" featured on 60 Minutes this weekend.

It seemed to me to be a pretty junky interview and feature, but I'm intrigued nonetheless; the Bloom Box is supposed to be an efficient new fuel cell that would allow electricity to be produced at the site where it will be used, eliminating transmission losses, and efficiently converting fuel to energy.

It runs on hydrocarbons, but it sounds like it's pretty omnivorous as to the kinds it can use (so natural gas works, but so would carbon-neutral biogas, etc), and it presumably emits CO2, only much less of it than traditional power generation. (The interview was extremely fuzzy on that aspect, but the Atlantic's article about Bloom from a month ago says that the device does release CO2.)

Something like 20 companies in California are already testing Bloom Box units, and the people making them to have attracted a ton of money, so the technology doesn't look quite so pie in the sky as a lot of other energy inventions we're supposed to get excited about.

The guy behind the Bloom Box believes that, inside of a decade, you'll be able to have one in your basement for something like $3000 dollars. More expensive than a used Super Nintendo, but, as far as major appliances go, pretty darn cheap. We'll see about that, sir... The featured skeptic seems to think that, if we see it at all, we'll see it coming from a company like GE, not Bloom Energy.

Here's the 60 Minutes piece:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

The whole operation has been kept pretty secret until recently, and supposedly there will be more details coming soon.

But until then... What do you think? Ho-hum? Hoax? Or is this something to be excited about?

Jun
15
2009

Have you ever seen anything more dull?: Even the toilet seems to be yawning.
Have you ever seen anything more dull?: Even the toilet seems to be yawning.Courtesy luis echanove
It’s called growing up, Peter, and everyone does it. Even you. But, on the plus side, you can legally buy cigarettes now.

Or am I just tired of life?

Well, whatever. Poop is in the news. Yawn. Again. And again.

Where others might see a barrel, and be all, “Hey, I’m not scraping the bottom of that barrel,” the cleverest capitalists and the sharpest scientists look at the situation and say, “Are you done with that barrel? And does anyone want to buy what I can scrape out of here? Even if it’s poop?” And of course it’s poop. And of course someone wants it.

Awesome I guess.

I should be more excited, shouldn’t I? I mean, someone out there is taking human waste and turning it into an environmentally-conscious coal substitute. It probably looks hilarious. But there’s only so much human waste a person can take. It’s just not exciting anymore.

So some company is squeezing the water from the brown gold of southern California, and turning it into coal-y stuff. Cement factories buy it, they burn it, they mix the ashes with their cement. At full capacity they’ll produce enough crapcoal to equal the energy out put of a 7-megawatt power station.

Great.

The fecal sciences just seem to have lost their flavor.

May
06
2009

Green machine: This race car is made from sustainable materials and burn a biodiesel fuel composed of waste material used in making chocolate.
Green machine: This race car is made from sustainable materials and burn a biodiesel fuel composed of waste material used in making chocolate.Courtesy Yahoo UK
Powered by the byproducts created in making chocolate and constructed out of materials created from vegetables, this is no ordinary race car.

In fact, the WorldFirst Formula 3 race car unveiled this week in Great Britain bills itself at the world’s first sustainable race car. The car, which is being prepped for racing in the Formula 3 series, is opening eyes on may levels.

Initial tests had the car going at 60 miles per hour. With a few more tweaks, designers estimate that it should go at around at a competitive 145 miles per hour.

Powering that speed is a special turbo-diesel engine that runs on bio-diesel fuel. The current fuel formulation uses waste products leftover from making chocolate.

Other “green” components of the car include a steering wheel made from a polymer created out of carrots, wing mirrors constructed from a potato starch base and brake pads that have cashew nut shells as a component. The car’s seat includes materials created out of flax fiber and soy bean oil.

Want to learn more? Here are links to two different stories on the WorldFirst Formula 3 car.

With the Indy 500 coming up, this new eco-friendly car could prove to be a boost to drivers in that marathon race. If they get hungry during the race, they could just take a bite of the steering wheel or driver’s seat.

Apr
18
2009

Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.
Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.Courtesy Stefan Thlesen
BTW, Buzzketeers, if I ever catch you using the term “the john” when talking about a toilet, I will erase you from the story of my life. Sure, I just used it, but think I have the right to take possession of that word to divest it of its hurtfulness. Sort of like how ugly people are allowed to call stuff “fugly.”

Anyway, let’s consider the future of energy. We all know that we have to start conserving fossil fuels, so that we can use them with abandon in a dune buggy-filled Mad Max style future. (I like to think of this as “saving it for the party.”) In the mean time, we have to get clever. This week I noticed a couple of stories about people thinking outside the box with regards to energy. In one case, they’re thinking above the box, in the other they’re thinking below the box. (Or maybe they’re thinking in the box. It depends on what you use your boxes for.)

Check it out: a company called Solaren Corp has convinced the largest energy utility in California to purchase 200 megawatts of solar power from them by around 2016. The way they propose getting that power is the interesting thing—they plan on getting it from space.

Wait… that was poorly phrased. All solar power comes from space. What Solaren intends to do is launch a massive array of mirrors (as large as several miles across) into orbit to collect and reflect sunlight onto photoelectric cells. The cells will convert the sunlight into electric power, which will then be converted into radio waves and blasted down to a receiver on Earth. The radio energy will then be turned back into electricity. Solaren claims that the system could eventually generate 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of power at a price comparable to that of other alternative energy sources, enough to power 250,000 homes in California. And unlike land-based solar panels, the flow of energy wouldn’t depend on weather, and the orbit would be high enough that the system could provide energy 24 ours a day. They intend to launch it up to about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet, meaning that it would be just inside of a high Earth orbit, and therefore geosynchronous. (I think.) Pretty neat, huh?

However, getting a couple miles of mirrors up to 22,000 miles above Earth is a little tricky. A little tricky, and super expensive. Building the receiving systems isn’t going to be cheap either. Some folks think that the project is altogether… unlikely. But the California power utility isn’t actually making an investment (i.e., taking a risk) they just promised to buy the power when it’s there (or if). But that commitment is probably comforting for investors.

Solaren says that the radio waves being sent back to Earth will be one sixth the intensity of sunlight. But what kind of radio waves are we talking about here? Visible light is composed of radio waves. So are radio, um, radio waves. Nope, we’re talking about microwaves. Microwaves have the advantage of being pretty high-energy. They have the disadvantage of being a little scary to me. And to other people. But it seems like it’s not all that dangerous; the center of the microwave beam would have an intensity of about 23 milliwatts per square centimeter. The limit for workplace exposure to microwaves in the US is 10 mw/cm2, so obviously 23 mw/cm2 is beyond what the government considers safe, but the area of maximum intensity is relatively small. Near the outside of the receiving array, the intensity would be closer to 1 mw/cm2. Birds flying through the center of the beam could have some trouble, and small aircraft and hot air balloons would do well to avoid it, but the metal shell of conventional planes should protect passengers entirely (the same way that your metal microwave protects you from the forces cooking your food). I suppose a super-villain could always hack into the satellite controls, and re-aim the system at a neighborhood. But that’s assuming that it ever gets built.

So from pie in the sky (a huge mirror pie), let’s turn our attention to fudge underground. It doesn’t have quite the sunshiny appeal of space mirrors, but it’s a little more feasible at the moment.

Remember how, in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Master Blaster was harvesting methane fuel from pig feces? Well, that works in the real world too, and not just with pig feces.

Consider the following: if you were to safe all of your… solid waste for one year, you could produce an amount of fuel equivalent to about 2.1 gallons of diesel fuel. I know—it doesn’t seem as much a it should, right? But if a city of 250,000 people was converting its waste into fuel, they’d have enough to drive 80 buses 62,000 miles each. If that figure sounds oddly specific, it’s only because that’s what Oslo, Norway intends to do. The city is all set to fuel its public transportation with brown gold. (Or with the biomethane produced by it.)

The cost of producing an amount of biomethane equivalent to a liter of diesel fuel comes to about 98 cents, while a liter of diesel costs about $1.30 at the pumps in Norway. And, unlike some other biofuels we won’t mention, it only gets into your food supply after you’ve eaten it.

Because the fuel comes from recently grown organic materials, it’s supposed to be carbon neutral, which is good. The article doesn’t say how energy intensive the process of making it is, though. Also, methane itself is a pretty bad greenhouse gas, but I suppose if it’s all burned efficiently that shouldn’t be a problem. (Burned methane makes CO2 and water.)

Energy may be plentiful in the future. We’ll just have to watch where we step.

Jan
05
2009

This http://www.engadget.com/2008/11/21/better-places-1-billion-electric-vehi... caught my eye today. Hawaii became the latest addition to follow suite of Israel and Denmark and theoretically gave nod to creating Electrical Vehicle Infrastructure. Silicon Valley startup Better Place is going to make that happen. The cars equipped with system and service from Better Place will be able to locate the nearest battery exchange station using GPS and electronic ID for the car and little intelligence from the computer on-board. The driver will tell the car where she wants to go and car will locate the on-board computer calculates how much charge is left in the battery, determines does it need to recharge and the location of the nearest battery exchange station.

This is just like OnStar service. The vehicles equipped with OnStar get to have certain services like emergency road side assistance. Now, companies will offer "Green" services.

Sep
12
2008

A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.
A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.Courtesy Albedo-ukr
San Antonio has made a deal with the duke. A particularly mighty duke, too, and one that has often been overlooked, despite this duke’s ability to deliver great power.

Sep
03
2008

Demand for ethanol is pushing up the price of corn: Some poor countries are facing food shortages.
Demand for ethanol is pushing up the price of corn: Some poor countries are facing food shortages.Courtesy swankslot

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entries here, here, here, here and here.)

In 2005, Congress passed a law requiring that set levels of renewable fuels, such as ethanol, be blended into gasoline, with the amount rising every year. Ethanol is usually made from corn, and increasing the demand for ethanol has pushed up the price of food.

(We have touched on this topic a time or two before. Researchers are working on making ethanol from non-food sources.)

In August, the state of Texas asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver from the requirements, claiming that higher corn prices were making cattle farming unprofitable. And, ironically, making ethanol production unprofitable, too. The EPA reused.

Some bloggers argue that this refusal puts upward pressure on food prices—a fact that is beginning to hurt poor people the world over. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has argued for a “safety-valve” that would let refiners miss their targets if food prices rise too high.

Subsidies and tariffs also keep the price of ethanol artificially high. If these wee dropped, the incentives to turn corn into fuel would lessen, and food prices would stabilize.

Jun
19
2008

It's an important job I've got for you...: That's right: pump my gas. I'm not getting out of the car.
It's an important job I've got for you...: That's right: pump my gas. I'm not getting out of the car.Courtesy thefiveten77
Using microorganisms to do our dirty work is all the rage these days. And, you know, they deserve it—they’ve spent so much time making us sick that they’re due for a little bit of productive action (and don’t bring up gut microbes, water treatment, or natural decomposition. I’m just not interested in anything that contradicts me).

It’s encouraging, then, to see that scientists in California have genetically engineered microorganisms (like yeast and strains of e. coli that eat organic garbage and poop crude oil. Is “poop” the right verb? It is? It’s exactly the right verb? Oh, good.

Currently the process requires a lot of equipment for a pretty small output. A room-sized computer and fermenting machine produces about a barrel of oil a week—America consumes about 143 million barrels of oil each week. And, at the moment, the process isn’t super cheap.

However, the scientists involved are hopeful that the necessary equipment can be shrunk, and the product can be produced more efficiently. With a commercial-scale facility (planned construction in 2011), using Brazilian sugarcane as feedstock (not the best crop, but that’s another post), oil could be produced at a cost of about $50 a barrel. Not bad, compared to the current price of oil hovering around $140 a barrel.

The process should be carbon neutral or negative too. That is to say, the CO2 produced by burning the fuel produced should be less than that pulled from the air by the feedstock materials.

It’s all very interesting, but I’m afraid that this sort of technology is forcing biotechnology away from its true purpose—microorganisms working for us in the very literal sense. The day e. coli wanders out into my yard and mows my lawn is the day I’ll get excited. Otherwise, what’s the point?

A company in California is harvesting the power of cow patties, using manure to produce natural gas for home heating.