Stories tagged Energy Transformations


There’s been some buzz about the relationship between clouds and climate recently, prompting Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog to get his panties in a twist about the “…over-interpretation of a couple of [scientific] papers…”

What gives? I wanted to know too, so I’ve done a bit – ok, a lot – of research and this is what I can tell you: The heart of the discussion is not whether there is a cloud-climate connection (that’s clear), but rather over what that relationship behaves like. There are at least three possible theories, but before we get to those, let’s review some important background concepts.

Gimme the Basics First

Cloud Formation

First, scientists think of air as units of volume called air masses. Each air mass is identified by its temperature and moisture content. Clouds are basically wet air masses that form when rising air masses expand and cool, causing the moisture in the air to condense. You can see the process in action yourself just by exhaling outside on a cool morning. The Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes has a webpage to answer your other questions about clouds.

Earth’s Energy Budget
Earth's energy budget: Incoming solar energy is either absorbed (orange) or reflected (yellow).  Outgoing energy is radiated (red).  The arrows show the direction and magnitude of movement where thick arrows signify bigger movements.
Earth's energy budget: Incoming solar energy is either absorbed (orange) or reflected (yellow). Outgoing energy is radiated (red). The arrows show the direction and magnitude of movement where thick arrows signify bigger movements.Courtesy NASA

Energy from the Sun is essential for life on Earth. Let’s pretend the Earth has an “energy budget” where solar energy is like money, absorption is like a deposit, reflection is like a transfer, and radiation is like a withdrawal. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’ll work for starters: Most of the incoming solar energy (money) is absorbed by (deposited into) the ocean and earth surface, but some is absorbed or reflected (transferred) by the atmosphere and clouds. Most of the outgoing energy is radiated (withdrawn) to space from the atmosphere and clouds. The figure to the right illustrates this process.

The Greenhouse Effect

Thanks to the greenhouse effect, our planet is warm enough to live on. The greenhouse effect occurs within the earth’s energy budget when some of the heat radiating (withdrawing… remember our budget analogy from above?) from the ocean and earth surface is reflected (transferred) back to Earth by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor. This National Geographic interactive website entertains the concept.

Climate Change

Climate change is occurring largely because humans are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more heat reflected back to earth and warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures might sound pretty good to your right now (especially if you live in Minnesota and could see your breath this morning as you walked to school or work), but it’s not. Why? Check out NASA’s really great website on the effects of climate change.

Alright, already. What’s the climate-cloud relationship?

From what I can tell, there are three possible theories about the climate-cloud relationship:

  • Clouds actively drive climate change. This is a linear process where clouds reflect too much heat back to Earth, which increases the average global temperature and causes climate change.
  • Clouds passively blunt climate change. This is a cyclical process where more climate change includes increasing average global temperature, which increases average global evaporation, which creates more clouds. More clouds absorb more heat, keeping the average global temperature from rising even faster and lessening climate change. This slows down (note: it does not stop) the rate of climate change.
  • Clouds passively amplify climate change. This is a cyclical process where more climate change includes increasing the average global temperature, which increases average global evaporation, which creates more clouds. More clouds reflect more heat back to Earth, which raises the average global temperatures and worsens climate change. This speeds up the rate of climate change.
  • So which is it? Probably NOT Theory #1. Maybe Theory #2… or maybe it’s Theory #3? Scientists aren’t quite sure yet, so neither am I, but the evidence is stacking against Theory #1 leaving two possible options. The next big question seems to be surrounding the size of the effects of Theory #2 and Theory #3.

    Using what you just read about cloud formation, the earth’s energy budget, greenhouse gases, and climate change (Woah. You just learned a lot!), what do you think? What’s the climate-cloud relationship?

    If you want, you can read more about what scientists are saying about the climate-cloud relationship here:


By the way, when you read about the gigatons of carbon emissions that human activities emit each year, it's helpful to have some perspective:

Let's talk gigatons--one billion tons. Every year, human activity emits about 35 gigatons of [carbon dioxide] (the most important greenhouse gas). Of that, 85% comes from fossil fuel burning. To a lot of people, that doesn't mean much -- who goes to the store and buys a gigaton of carrots? For a sense of perspective, a gigaton is about twice the mass of all people on earth, so 35 gigatons is about 70 times the weight of humanity. Every year, humans put that in the atmosphere, and 85% of that is power. Large actions, across whole nations and whole economies, are required to move the needle.

By comparison, our atmosphere is small--99.99997% of our its mass sits below the Karman line, which is often used to define the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. At 62 miles above Earth's surface, it’s about as high as the distance between St. Paul, MN, and Menomonie, WI.

The oceans also absorb some of that carbon dioxide, but not without consequence.

Of course, the great part about being responsible is having capability--if our inventions bring about such transformations in the air and oceans, then couldn't we be inventive enough to reduce their negative impacts?


It's a world leader in clean energy investment and clean coal research and development. Last year, it manufactured a third of the world's solar panels and wind turbines, and it's luring companies from all over the world to build factories there. It has recently made huge investments in clean energy education. But it's not America.

The green tide: Is green the new red?
The green tide: Is green the new red?Courtesy Jude Freeman

The country I'm describing is China. That's right--the world's newly-dubbed largest net emitter of greenhouse gasses. It isn't bound by reduction requirements under the Kyoto protocol, and its use of fossil fuels is powering a growing and booming economy. And yet, the Chinese are courting US companies with financial incentives to build clean tech factories and research centers in China. They're working to corner clean tech markets in California and South Africa. In fact, over the last three years, China has gone from controlling 2% of California's solar market to a whopping 46%--ousting its American competitors. And that's not all--the country has become a proving ground for clean coal with the guidance of US companies and researchers.

Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.
Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.Courtesy BrokenSphere

These companies hope to learn from their experiences testing clean coal tech in China, and bring that knowledge back to the US to transform our own polluting coal plants into next-generation powerhouses. So what's in it for the Chinese? They're quickly gaining lead on the cutting edge in green technology, making room for growth in the energy sector without increasing pollution or relying on foreign imports, and reaping economic benefits--and they foresee substantial economic benefits in the future, when they could be the major supplier of green technology and research to the world.

Given the US's slowing progress on clean technologies, what do you think this will mean for our future? Should we be trying to get on top of green tech research and development? Or is it best left to others? Or are those even the right questions--will we have the best success when we pool resources with other countries?


What if I told you University of Minnesota geology and geophysics professor, Martin Saar, says geothermal energy can be made even greener through carbon sequestration?!

You’d probably say, “Huh?? Hold on, what is geothermal energy anyway, and how does it work?”

Geothermal is heat from deep inside the earth. Because heat is a form of energy, it can be captured and used to heat buildings or make electricity. There are three basic ways geothermal power plants work:

  1. Dry steam plants: Uses high-pressured hot steam to turn generator turbines. Think “steam to turbines.”
  2. Flash steam plants: Uses high-pressure hot water to create steam to turn generator turbines. Think “water to steam to turbines.”
  3. Binary cycle power plants: Uses high-pressure hot water to heat another liquid, which then turns to steam and turns the generator turbines. Think “water to other liquid to steam to turbines.”

(Click here for great diagrams of each of these geothermal energy production methods.)

“And what about carbon sequestration too? What’s that and how does it work?”
Carbon Sequestration: This nifty diagram illustrates both terrestrial and geologic carbon sequestration pathways.  Bonus!
Carbon Sequestration: This nifty diagram illustrates both terrestrial and geologic carbon sequestration pathways. Bonus!Courtesy Department of Energy

Carbon sequestration includes carbon (usually in the form of carbon dioxide, CO2) capture, separation, transportation, and storage or reuse. Plants, which “breathe” CO2, naturally sequester carbon, but people have found ways to do it artificially too. When fossil fuels are burned to power your car or heat your home, they emit CO2, a greenhouse gas partially responsible for global climate change. It is possible to capture those emissions, separate the bad CO2, and transport it somewhere for storage or beneficial reuse. CO2 can be stored in under the Earth’s surface or, according to Martin Saar’s research, used in geothermal energy production.

Alright. We’re back to Professor Saar’s research. Ready to know just how he plans to sequester carbon in geothermal energy production?

It’s a simple idea, really, now that you know about geothermal energy and carbon sequestration. Prof. Saar says geothermal energy can be made even greener by replacing water with CO2 as the medium carrying heat from deep within the earth to the surface for electricity generation. In this way, waste CO2 can be sequestered and put to beneficial use! As a bonus, CO2 is even more efficient than water at transferring heat.

But don’t take my word for it. Come hear Professor Martin Saar’s lecture, CO2 – Use It Or Lose It!, yourself during the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment lecture series, Wednesday, October 27, 2010 from noon-1pm.

Frontiers in the Environment is free and open to the public with no registration required! The lectures are held in the Institute on the Environment’s Seminar Room (Rm. 380) of the Vocational-Technical Education Building on the St. Paul campus (map).


Open fire cooking
Open fire cookingCourtesy Tallia Miller

Smoke in my eyes (and lungs)

Cooking food on an open fire may sound romantic but in reality breathing smoke and scrounging for fire wood make it not so pleasant. It is estimated that the smoke from cooking fires leads to nearly 2 million premature deaths each year.
A Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has formed to

"save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions."

100 million new stoves by 2020

A better burning stove should not be rocket science but several factors should help the Alliance meet their goal of 100 million households converting to clean cookstoves and fuels by 2020.

  • Recent advances in clean cookstove design, testing, and monitoring
  • Compelling new research on the health and environmental benefits of clean cookstov
  • Recent commercial success and development of a number of business models in the field
  • The advent of national cookstove programs in India, Mexico, Peru and elsewhere
  • The increasing need for effective near- and long-term action to address climate change at the local and regional level; and
  • The potential for carbon finance to fund stove initiatives at greater scale

Learn more

BBC video
Clean Cookstoves/media


New space launcher proposal

Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System
Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) SystemCourtesy NASA

Starting with several existing cutting-edge technologies, NASA might be able to develop a way to catapult satellites and spacecraft into orbit.

An early proposal has emerged that calls for a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets to be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The aircraft would fly up to Mach 10, using the scramjets and wings to lift it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small payload canister or capsule similar to a rocket's second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit. The aircraft would come back and land on a runway by the launch site.


Mission accomplished

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.

Edison 2 wins $5 million with their "Very Light Car"

Learn more about the automotive X-prize winners
Scientific American


Arhchimedes heat ray: Did an array of mirrors set ships aflame 2200 years ago?
Arhchimedes heat ray: Did an array of mirrors set ships aflame 2200 years ago?Courtesy Finnrind

Solar powered heat ray

Did Archimedes use a heat ray to set enemy ships on fire over 2000 years ago? A text written about the Siege of Syracuse (212BC) some 400 years later merely said he lit the ships on fire. He could have used flaming arrows or perhaps hurled larger balls of flame via catapult.
Centuries later,

Anthemius of Tralles mentions burning-glasses as Archimedes' weapon.
This purported weapon has been the subject of ongoing debate about its credibility since the Renaissance

Myth Busted?

In 1973, an experiment using 70 mirrors, each with a copper coating and a size of around five by three feet, caused a mock-up ship 160 feet away to burst into flames within seconds.
A group of MIT students used a parabolic array of 127 "polished metal mirrors" 1 sq ft in size for a 2005 MythBusters episode and were barely able to set part of the "ship" aflame.

My favorite Arhimedes heat ray experiment

I recently came across this video of a recreation of the Archimedes heat ray experiment.


Electricity in the air: Some of our energy needs may someday come from the atmosphere.
Electricity in the air: Some of our energy needs may someday come from the atmosphere.Courtesy wvs (Sam Javanrouh)
In a paper delivered at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, a researcher envisioned a time in the not-too-distant future when houses and buildings outfitted with the proper equipment would be able gather electric energy stored in humidity in the atmosphere that could be used to fill a community’s electrical needs.

The concept isn’t new; electrical wunderkind Nikola Tesla had a similar idea more than a century ago.

Science has long sought the answer to how electricity builds up and discharges in the atmosphere, and whether the moisture in the atmosphere could even hold an electrical charge. But Fernando Galembeck, a professor at Brazil’s University of Campinas, claims he and his research team have successfully shown that it can, and by using special metal conduits to collect that electricity, it could allow homeowners and building managers to gather and store the electricity as an alternative energy source.

”Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” Galembeck said. He terms the new method “hygroelectricity” which means “humidity electricity”. Galembeck's research could also add to our understanding of how thunderstorms form.

In their laboratory experiments, Galembeck’s research team created a simulated atmosphere densely saturated with water (humidity), which they seeded with silica and aluminum phosphate, two chemical compounds commonly found in air. As water droplets formed around the tiny, airborne chemical substances, the researchers noticed the silica took on a negative charge while the aluminum phosphate droplets held a positive charge. The charged water vapor readily condenses upon contact with surfaces such as a cold can of soda or beer, and on the windows of air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. In the process, energy is transferred onto the contact surface.

“This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes in contact with,” Galembeck said.

Just as solar panels convert energy from sunlight into a usable power source, the researchers think water vapor in the atmosphere could someday be harvested for its hygroelectric energy. The rooftops of buildings in regions of high humidity and thunderstorm activity could someday be fitted with special hygroelectric panels that would absorb the charges built up in the humid atmosphere and funnel the energy to where it can be utilized, and at the same time reduce the risk of lightning forming and discharging. The technology would be best suited to regions of high humidity, such as the tropics or the eastern and southeastern U.S.

ScienceDaily story
Wired story
Green Diary story

Thunderstorm over Lake Harriet in Minneapolis; Could this be a new source of energy for the Upper Midwest?


Automotive X Prize competition is almost over

I have waited almost two years for this race. What kind of automobiles can qualify to win the $10 million Automotive X Prize?

The Zap Alias seems to be the favorite.

Validation is the final technical event in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE. Finalists in both the Mainstream and Alternative classes will undergo dynamometer testing under controlled laboratory conditions at Argonne National Lab facilities. The car in each class that exceeds 100 MPGe, meets the emissions and performance requirements, and, in the case of a tie, completes the Combined Performance and Efficiency challenge with the fastest time, will win. The $10 million prize purse will be presented at an Award Ceremony on September 16, in Washington, D.C.

Learn the latest news about the Automotive X Prize

Auto X Prize Blog
Automotive X Prize website