Courtesy IFCARWe talk about alternative fuels and energy use and transportation pretty often on Science Buzz, so when news about the Chevy's upcoming car, the "Volt," and it's 230 mpg efficiency, came out last year, I thought that was pretty neat. (Admittedly, I was also sarcastic about it's price, but whatevs.)
Well, car magazines are finally getting a look at the Volt, and they're finding that its mileage is way less than 230 mpg. Like way, way less. 30 - 40 mpg, maybe. Also, it doesn't work how they said it would. It's more like a plug in hybrid car than an electric car with a gas generator, and once its low-range battery runs down, it's not a very good hybrid. But I guess it's still an intermediate step to more efficient transportation*. Just kind of a disappointing one.
*Almost a third of the energy we use in this country goes to transportation, and the vast majority of that is from non-renewable sources, so improving efficiency in this sector is a big deal.
Courtesy bredgurAccording to a report in the journal Mineralium Deposita, there’s really no need for people to fight over mineral resources, because there are lots and lots of them left.
The report comes hot on the heals of a political snafu, in which a Chinese fisherman ran afoul of the Japanese coastguard, and China cut off shipments of rare earth metals to Japan, after the fisherman was arrested. Rare earth metals are vital for building electronics and hybrid electric cars, and China pretty much has most of the rare earth metals in town, so China was all, “You want your cars? Give us our fisherman.” Then Japan was like, “Oh, well, actually we can make hybrid cars without your stupid rare earth metals, so whatever.”
And everybody else started smacking their lunch trays on the tables and shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
But then Japan was like, “Fine. Just take your stupid fisherman. He’s a jerk anyway.” And China was like, “Fine, then!” And everything went back to normal. But it left the world thinking, are we going to have to tussle over stuff like this eventually? Everyone wants minerals, and we might be running out…
Not so, says Lawrence Cathles of Cornell University. We have lots of minerals, more than we could use in thousands of years, even with the whole world living at Western European material standards.
Aw, man. What can we fight about now? I suppose there’s always country and rock ‘n roll. Or we could all split up into Sharks and Jets. We could maybe start randomly accusing each other of cheating at Monopoly, regardless of whether or not we’ve been playing Monopoly.
But… I just can’t get worked up over that stuff. If I can’t throw down over a chunk of copper, or a pocketful of palladium, I don’t know that I even want to fight. Oh well. I might as well just finish reading that article…
So let’s see. The minerals Cathles is talking about come from the ocean floor. At points where the Earth’s crust is pulling apart, molten rock meets ocean water, infusing it with minerals and heating it. The hot seawater rises through the crust, and deposits precipitating minerals on the ocean floor. Lots and lots of copper, uranium, lithium, phosphate, potash, and on and on… all waiting for us in deposits on the ocean floor. A small percentage of the minerals that should be hiding out down there could keep humanity going for “50 centuries or more.”
Sweet! But… wait a second. Didn’t it just say that the minerals are sitting on the bottom of the oceans? Where the tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other, areas one might refer to as “ocean spreading centers.” Sooooo… the minerals are under the middle of the oceans.
Yes! We’re going to have something to fight over after all!
See, I think y’all remember what can happen when you’re trying to get at something on the bottom of the ocean… this sort of thing. And the depths of mid-ocean ridges are nothing to sneeze at. But deep sea oil drilling operations might be a good junior-league analogy for mid-ocean mining—it’s expensive and potentially extremely dangerous, but once we want that resource enough, we’re going to give it a shot. And once we do, that (fortunately!!!) won’t be the end of conflict over the resource. Drilling or mining areas will be disputed, as will environmental liabilities.
I mean, what do I know about it. But when has having enough of something for everybody ever kept people from being upset about it?
I find this to be a very hopeful report. Someday—maybe not soon, but someday—we’ll engage in high-tech, high risk, deepwater mining in international waters. And there will be fighting! Lots of fighting!
Courtesy NRELYou’re worried about the future again, aren’t you? You’re afraid that everything will taste like cardboard, and that most people will be robots, and that the robots will be too cool to hang with you, and that our trips to the bathroom with be confusing and abrasive, and something about bats, and that you will be hot all the time, even in your own homes.
And I wish I could tell you otherwise. But I can’t. I just don’t know enough about the future. Except on that last point—it looks like air conditioning may yet be an option in a necessarily energy efficient future.
Air conditioning can use up a lot of energy. An air conditioning unit typically cools air by blowing it over a coiled metal tube full of a cold refrigerant chemical. The refrigerant absorbs heat from the air in your house, and then it passes through a compressor, which squishes the refrigerant down, making it hot so that it releases heat outside your house. And then the refrigerant expands, and cycles back into the cool tube. (Here’s the explanation with some illustrations.)
Other cooling systems rely on evaporation. So called “swamp coolers” pull hot, dry air from outside, and blow it over water (or through wet fabric pads). The water evaporates to pull heat out of the air, so what is blown into your house is cool, humid air. Swamp coolers are more efficient, but they only work in very dry environments.
And then there’s another way to control your indoor climate: desiccant cooling. A lot of what makes warm air uncomfortable is the amount of moisture it can contain. Normal AC units remove moisture from the air, but they use a lot of energy in doing it. Another way is to use chemicals called desiccants. Desiccants suck up water. The little packs of “silica gel” crystals you might find in a new pair of shoes are full of desiccants. Blowing humid air over desiccants will result in the chemicals sucking the moisture out of the air, making it more comfortable.
Figuring out how to use the desiccants has been a challenge, however; desiccant chemicals can be corrosive to building materials, so they, and any dripping water, need to be contained. With this in mind, US government researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a membrane for desiccant cooling systems that allows the water vapor in humid air to pass through it one way, but does not allow the liquid water removed from the air to pass back.
The researchers claim that this air conditioning process is up to 90% more energy efficient than standard AC. Every so often, the desiccant chemicals need to be “recharged” by heating them up so they release the trapped water (outside), a job that can be done by electric heating elements, or with a solar thermal collector. The University of Minnesota used a desiccant cooling system for their entry into the Solar Decathlon competition. Their system didn’t rely on a membrane—rather, humid air was pumped up through a drum of liquid desiccant—but they did recharge the desiccant using heat from solar thermal panels (which are basically big, flat, black boxes that collect heat from sunlight).
It’s reassuring to know that in the future, even as we’re covered in flesh eating bacteria, and spam advertisements for Spam are being beamed directly into our brains, we’ll at least be able to relax in pleasantly dry, cool air, without worrying too much about the energy we’re using to do it.
Courtesy Lucas Vieira MoreinaFive months after the deadly accident that spilled five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo well of the Deepwater oil spill has been declared “dead.”
It’s like when that rabid dog got into your house, and, after a tense struggle, your dad finally pinned its neck under his foot, and, with an Arnold-esque quip like “Bad dog,” sent a 9 mm bullet into the still-thrashing animal’s brain. And then one more, for good measure.
It’s like that, except your house would have to be like a large, deep body of water. And the rabid dog would also have been uncontrollably vomiting flammable poison everywhere. And your dad wouldn’t really have shot it so much as drilled a couple of holes beneath its head, and then pumped it full of cement. And it was your dad’s fault that it started puking like crazy in the first place, because he was really excited to sell more rabid dog vomit to you. (Because who doesn’t love that stuff?)
In any case, the dog/well has been put down with extreme prejudice. Cement has been injected into the oil well through the intersecting relief wells, and the hardened cap has been pressure tested. The well seems to present “no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico.”
That’s a good thing, obviously, but unfortunately it’s not the end of this human and environmental tragedy. Before the leaking well was finally capped, about 210 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, some of it floating into slicks on the surface, some of it lurking in thick plumes deep in the Gulf. How the unrecovered oil will affect the Gulf’s ecosystems and its human population remains to be seen, and determining the extent of BP’s financial responsibility to the region’s inhabitants will likely be a lengthy and difficult process.
Still, though: Bad dog. Blam. That’s something, right?
Making the impossible, possible - one prize at a time. This is the idea behind the X-prize movement. Flying into space, cleaning up oil spills, landing on the moon, or producing safe, practical cars that get 100 mpg are becoming reality as teams compete to win X-prizes.
To drive innovation, offer the right prize and human nature will do the rest.
Cleaning up oil spills costs big money. BP says the Gulf cleanup cost is $8 Billion. Hoping that next time we can do it better, faster, and cheaper, Wendy Schmidt has offered $1.4 Million in prizes to inspire a new generation of innovative solutions.
A $1 Million Prize will be awarded to the team that demonstrates the ability to recover oil on the sea surface at the highest oil recovery rate (ORR) and the highest Recovery Efficiency (RE).
If you are interested click here for the competition rules.
MIT may have a jump on the competition with their Seaswarm project. Last week they showed off what looked like a solar powered treadmill that lapped up spilled oil. Using GPS and wireless communication, a swarm of these devices autonomously coordinate their movements.
"We envisioned something that would move as a rolling carpet along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill," said MIT researcher Assaf Biderman. "This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle -- a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves." Computerworld
They estimate that 5000 of their robotic sea-swarm vehicles could clean up a Gulf sized spill in a month.
I've been thinking about cars a lot lately as I reflect on sustainable technologies and wait for the Th!nk to be sold in America. Even though cars aren't the worst offender when it comes to global warming, their impact is significant and I itch for the kinds of innovation that will reinvent the way we live again. So I hope you enjoy coming along on this little thought journey.
Courtesy Norbert Schnitzler
I wasn't much interested in cars (beyond them getting me to work) until I had to research the history of automobiles for an exhibit. What got my attention was the process of innovation. In the late 1800s, there were three major technologies vying for supremacy: steam, electricity, and internal combustion.
Courtesy Detroit Electric
At first, steam did best because it provided a lot of power. But steam cars took a long time to start and had to be refilled often. Ladies tended to prefer electric cars like the Detroit Electric because they were clean and silent, though they didn't go very fast, very far, or have a lot of torque. Going uphill was a pain. Early internal combustion cars were dirty and smelly, and starting one could really mess up your arm if it kicked back.
Hundreds of upstart companies created models using these three technologies with a variety of designs. Innovation was rampant. Nobody knew what a car looked like because it didn't exist before. Early cars mimicked buggies until it became clear that lowering the body on the wheels was more stable. All different kinds of designs were tried out, and companies came and went in the blink of an eye.
At first, there wasn't even a standard steering mechanism--some early cars used a tiller rather than a wheel. People could even buy engines and build their own cars at home. Over time, strong designs supported stable companies that stayed in business as others failed. It was a time of fast-paced innovation in America and other nations, and that was so exciting to think about as I researched. It sparked my imagination about our future.
Courtesy Utah State Historical Society
I also felt a little nostalgic--steam and electric still have their advantages over internal combustion (IC). The reason IC engines became the dominant technology is that Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T on a motorized assembly line in 1913. Although it wasn't the first mass-produced car in the US as is commonly believed (the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile holds that title), the IC-driven Model T was affordable and you could buy most of the replacement parts at a hardware store.
Then in 1919, the Model T acquired one other asset--the electric starter. The starter took the danger out of starting IC engines, thereby removing one of the major setbacks of gasoline. These advantages helped cement internal combustion as the leading automotive technology, as well as establishing the success of the steering wheel.
But my nostalgia makes me wonder--what if the electric starter hadn't come around? What if Ford had made electric or steam vehicles? What if battery storage had made better progress? What would we be driving today? I think we could easily have built our transportation infrastructure to support any of those technologies.
When the electric Citicar was built in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, the company essentially started where electric cars left off in the 1920s. Part of what is taking electrics so long to catch on now is that we're having to re-invent the wheel so to speak. But I don't think that means we should lose heart. If we had spent the last 90 years working on electric vehicles, electric cars might well be running circles around internal combustion engines.
The same could be said for steam. In fact, a little known car called the Doble started nearly as quickly and easily as an IC car and could go farther before refilling, but in addition to bad management in the company, IC had already taken a strong lead by the time Dobles appeared on the market.
Far from being disappointing, my nostalgia makes me hopeful that we can return to that state of openness and innovation--that we can build on electric and other technologies to develop not just a replacement for internal combustion, but something better. When I sit with my grandchildren someday, I want to tell them the amazing story of how we avoided a crisis not by sacrifice but by being so gosh darn creative. I want to see something so cool that it makes gasoline a quaint throwback to an earlier era. And I want to see it happen for agriculture, power plants, and the economy, too.
What do you think? Is it too tall an order? Or can we invent our way to a better world? Got any ideas for how to do it?
The Smartypants Grid
The smart grid is actually a futuristic collection of technologies that manage electricity distribution. Ultimately, they are "smarter" (more efficient) at generating, distributing, and using electricity than the current industry standards.
Courtesy Duke Energy
Some people are getting excited about smart grids because cutting back on electricity usage is cutting back on fossil fuel consumption which is cutting back on human-driven causes of global climate change. (Are you still with me or did I lose you there?) Other people are looking forward to smart grids because they should decrease the number of brown- and blackouts experienced in the country, which improves the region's health and economy. Still more people are pumped for the smart grid because it could mean lower electricity bills for their homes.
When will the smart grid reach your hometown? That depends. Some cities already have smart grid technology, but regional adoption is set to take place on a rolling basis during the next five years and is largely dependent on whether the American people get on board.
Scientific American: How Will the Smart Grid Handle Heat Waves?
"Pretty well, once the technology to automatically respond to peak demand and store renewable energy matures."
Smart grid test cites in Harrisburg, PA, Richland, WA, and Boulder, CO have their work cut out for them this week as people across the nation crank down the A/C to battle the heat wave covering most of the continental United States. According to the Scientific American article, a regional smart grid should have the potential to excel under stressful heat wave conditions. In the meantime, utility companies and academics are working toward developing a method to better store electricity when supply exceeds demand thus creating a stockpile of electricity for times of scarcity.
If you're looking for a more interactive learning experience, check out General Electric's smart grid webpage complete with narrated animations.
Of course, if you're looking to hear from academics or industry experts themselves, the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment in conjunction with the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment and St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, are hosting Midwest's Premier Energy, Economic, and Environmental Conference, E3 2010, at the St. Paul River Center (right across Kellogg Blvd from the Science Museum) Tuesday, November 30.
Courtesy kqedquestWe’ve talked about the delights of cow feces before on Science Buzz, but mid-July always puts me in the mind of “brown gold” (coincidentally, the last occasion it came up was exactly four years ago today), and any time there’s talk of turning an animal into a fuel source, I get excited. (Remember that fuel cell that ran on the tears of lab monkeys? Like that.) Why not take another look?
So here you are: another wonderful story of cows trying their best to please us, before they make the ultimate gift of allowing their bodies to be processed into hamburgers and gelatin and cool jackets.
Poop jokes aside (j/k—that’s impossible), it is a pretty interesting story. The smell you detect coming from cattle farms is, of course, largely from the tens of thousands of gallons of poop the cattle produce every day. The decomposing feces release lots of stinky methane. (Or, to be more precise, the methane itself isn’t smelly. The bad smell comes from other chemicals, like methanethiol, produced by poop-eating bacteria along with the methane.)
Aside from being, you know, gross, all of that poop is pretty bad for the environment. The methane is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to global warming (methane is 20 to 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), and the poop itself is spread onto fields as fertilizer. Re-using the poop as fertilizer is mostly a good idea, but not all of it gets absorbed into the soil, and lots of it ends up getting washed away into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it pollutes the water.
Some farms have managed to address all of these problems, and make money while doing it.
Instead of spreading the manure onto fields right away, the farms funnel all the poop into swimming pool-sized holding tanks, where it is mixed around and just sort of stewed for a few weeks. All of the methane gas produced by bacteria as it breaks down the manure is captured in tanks. What’s left is a fluffy, more or less sterile, solid that can be used as bedding for the animals, or mixed in with soil, and a liquid fertilizer that can be spread onto fields.
The methane can then be used on-site to generate electricity, either by burning it in a generator, or using it in a fuel cell. (The methane is broken apart and combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water, and carbon dioxide.) A large farm will produce enough electricity to power itself and several hundred other houses. (The extra electricity is just put back into the power grid and sold to the power company.)
Whether the methane is burned or used in a fuel cell, the process still creates carbon dioxide. However, CO2 isn’t nearly as bad as methane when it comes to trapping heat, and because the original source of the carbon was from plant-based feed, the process can be considered “carbon-neutral.” (Although one might argue that the fossil fuels involved in other steps of the cattle farming process could offset this. But let’s leave that be for now. It’s complicated.)
The downside is that setting up an operation to capture and process manure, and to generate power by burning it is expensive—it took about 2.2 million dollars to do it at the farm covered in the article, with about a third of that coming from grants. Still, the byproducts (electricity, fertilizer, soil/bedding) are profitable enough that the system could pay for itself over the course of a few years.
It’s amazing, eh? Out of a cow’s butt we get soft, clean bedding, liquid fertilizer, and electricity, all without the bad smell. What a world.
Agriculture is widely understood to be one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is unfortunate for two reasons: 1) greenhouse gases are a driving force of climate change, and 2) last time I checked, people still need to eat.
Courtesy Curbed SF
Specifically, farming is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases – in our atmosphere. The four major sources of these emissions include fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer usage, animal farts and poop (no kidding!), as well as land use change (mainly, deforestation). As serious a problem as climate change is, one of the most important truths for environmentalists to remember is that people have needs that necessarily affect the health of the environment. For example, the world’s population is currently well over six billion people who need roughly 2,000 calories from food each day. That’s a lot of food that we depend upon farmers to raise and grow for us every day! And with predictions of nine billion people occupying the Earth in a mere forty years, our global population’s appetite is growing.
However, a June 2010 study published in Scientific American says that farming’s bad rap is undeserved, and actually modern high-yield crop farming has a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Say what??
Here’s how it works: What sustainability-minded scientists from many disciplines strive to do is find ways to limit (better!) or eliminate (best!!) peoples’ negative impact on the environment.
In the 1960s, farmers and researchers began to develop new methods of farming to feed the rapidly expanding population. This has been called the “Green Revolution.” The results of their studies produced modern high-yield farming, which has allowed farmers to produce more food in less space. According to the Stanford researchers, though high-yield farming is possible largely because of fertilizer use – one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms – it prevents land use change in the form of deforestation – another one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The key point is that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use is less than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, which yields a net reduction. That is, if we had continued with pre-Green Revolution farming techniques, in order to feed today’s population, we’d be using less fertilizer, deforesting more land, and emitting considerably more greenhouse gases than we currently are.
Today, at the Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative continues to focus on seeking ways to secure a healthy land use future for both people and the environment. This includes researching innovative agricultural practices.
Another Scientific American article has it’s own ideas about how to provide food to our growing population: build vertical farms. These futuristic, skyscraping greenhouses are based upon existing hydroponic greenhouses and could reduce fossil-fuel use while simultaneously recycling city wastewater. Hydroponic greenhouses grow plants without soil! Instead, they use mineral nutrients dissolved in water, allowing plants to be grown just about anywhere… including on the 34th floor. According to the article,
“A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres…”
That’s a lot of food. A lot. Really? Is it possible? The paper’s author claims it is and that architects, engineers, designers, and “mainstream organizations” are taking note of his vertical farm concept.