Courtesy Mark RyanOld Sol could be stirring up the atmosphere this evening with a display of northern lights (aurora borealis). Scientists have recorded a significant burst of plasma shooting from the Sun’s surface that could mean we earthlings are in for a light show tonight or early Wednesday morning. The solar wind particles are headed right toward us, and when they reach the Earth’s magnetic field they’ll interact with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere and - hopefully - produce glowing sheets and fingers of green, red, blue, or even yellow in a wonderful display in the northern skies. The southern hemisphere experiences the same phenomenon but down there it’s known as the aurora australis (southern lights).
Lately, here in the Twin Cities, the air has been supersaturated with humidity so I don’t know how crisp a view we’ll get but it could be worth stepping outside tonight to see what’s up.
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.
…of climate control systems...
Ever notice the plumes of smoke rising from many buildings, factories, and power plants on a cold day? That smoke is actually water vapor, which still contains usable energy, muahahahaha! Our buildings use lots of energy. Electricity, for example, powers everything from lights to computers to copy machines to coffee makers. Electricity eventually degrades into heat—you can feel that heat coming off of electric appliances. Current building energy management systems expel this excess heat energy instead of using it for other purposes, such as building the ultimate tilt-a-whirl of doom. Dave Solberg, an energy miser and consulting engineer-ahem-secret advisor, wants to change all that using the concept of exergy. He envisions a future where energy is used as efficiently as possible, and he has been working with Xcel Energy and organizations in the St. Paul area to re-engineer buildings.
We all know that mad scientists with plans for world domination need money and power. Well, current climate control systems are expensive to build and operate, and they're bad for the environment. But retrofitting old buildings and creating the infrastructure to support Solberg's systems has a higher up-front cost than following the status quo. If Solberg can demonstrate the effectiveness and cost savings of his plan below at SMM, your regional science museum will become a model for climate control systems all over the world--I mean it will take over the world! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
At Science Museum of Minnesota, Solberg wants to make two big changes in the way we use energy:
Solberg's Plan - Phase 1
Like all large buildings, SMM takes in outdoor air, cools it to dehumidify it, then reheats the air and sends it throughout the building to control the climate. Unlike most buildings, which use giant air conditioners and boilers, SMM uses hot and cold water piped in from Saint Paul District Energy to do that job. You can learn more about District Energy in an outdoor exhibit to the left of SMM's main entrance--and you can see the building right next to us!
Courtesy Andrew Ciscel
The first change Solberg proposes is to re-use the waste heat that SMM generates from cooling down fresh outside air. Currently, SMM's ventilation system cools outside air down to about 50 degrees F with cold water from District Energy, dehumidifies it, and then reheats that air back up to a comfortable indoor temperature with hot water from District Energy.
Solberg would have us cool the air with cold District Energy water, then use that same water (now warmer) to reheat the air back up to 65 degrees F on its way to the ventilation ducts. This change would eliminate the need to use hot water from DE to reheat air, and it would reduce use our demand on DE’s cooling system, because we would send water back to their chilled water plant at a lower temperature than we currently do.
Solberg's Plan - Phase 2
District Energy makes electricity by burning waste wood. DE then uses the heat energy still available after making electricity to produce hot and cold water, making District Energy 50% more efficient than coal-fired power plants. But at the end of the day, DE has 95-degree F water left over. Right now this excess heat is released into the atmosphere from cooling towers on top of the building (see the plume rising from the building in the image?), but that 95-degree water could meet most of SMMs heating needs. Solberg wants us to tap into that wastewater as our primary heating source, replacing the 180-degree water we currently get from DE. This would put an oft-wasted energy source to work, and it would allow the 180-degree water now being used by SMM to be used elsewhere within DE’s hot water distribution system.
This plan is so good it must be evil. In the long run, if the kinds of changes being pursued by SMM were replicated widely, they would amount to lower emissions and lower energy bills everywhere, which is ultimately healthier for our environment (not that mad scientists care about that sort of thing). In fact, we found out that if we had implemented this system when the current building was constructed, we could have saved $1.5 million in infrastructure (which we could have really used for that giant laser in the--end of message truncated--
One oft-cited reason for the relatively small percentage of renewable energy produced in the U.S. (just 7% of our energy is renewable) is that when you have a fluctuating energy source such as sunlight or wind, you need a giant battery to store the excess for use during times of scarcity. Here's one example discussing wind. Perusing Popular Mechanics this afternoon, I came across two innovative new battery designs that could bring us much closer to wider use of renewable energies.
The second battery isn't quite as sexy, but it's no less useful--Donald Sadoway at MIT is working on an all-liquid metal battery that could absorb electrical currents up to 10 times as strong as today's hi-tech batteries.
Pretty exciting stuff!
Courtesy Jack E Boucher LUMEN means “the power of light". HAUS is a reference to the Bauhaus movement and architect Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Like the Farnsworth House, Lumenhaus can open up to maximize its occupants’ exposure to natural daylight.
Lumenhaus, designed by Virginia Tech, has a good chance of winning the Solar Decathlon Europe 2010 competition which ends today.
Virginia Tech had a commanding 35-point lead at Solar Decathlon Europe earlier this week, but the University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim has cut that lead to only six points now. ...everything the teams do—from hot water draws to cooking to washing to cooling their houses—really makes a difference. Every point counts. SolarDecathlon.gov blog
Lumenhaus is a zero-energy home that is completely powered by the sun. Using technology, Lumenhaus' automated systems make the owner’s life simpler, more energy efficient and less expensive. An iPhone app allows its users to monitor everything real time and to even override controls. I would really like to live in a house like this.
Another Solar Decathlon competition is happening, this time in Europe. The Solar Decathlon Europe 2010 is a competition between 20 college and university student teams to design and build the best solar home. The houses must use readily available products and be easy to transport and assemble.
I would really enjoy designing and living in such a house of my own. Watching teams of experts compete to design innovative, efficient, and sustainable housing is a great place to get ideas.
SDEurope.org has a 17 page PDF download which explains how a maximum 1000 points can be earned in the 10 categories.
On the one hand, the competition will include objective methods for scoring, which will include measurable parameters such as the actual energy consumption of the houses, the capacity for solar energy capture, etc., as well as tasks performed by decathletes which reproduce domestic activities.
In addition, a number of evaluations will be made by a panel of jurors with proven experience who will judge qualities such as: architecture, innovation, sustainability, solar systems, communication and industrialization level.
The final score given to each team will be made up of a balanced combination of both objective and subjective assessments.
Courtesy Less Salty
LEEDCo is leading efforts to build, install, and deploy an offshore wind farm on Lake Erie. An initial five wind generators (20-megawatts, enough to power 16,000 homes) are to be located near Cleveland, Ohio, with a 2012 completion target. The expected cost is projected to be $100 million.
The 20 MW venture is just the initial phase. If the test phase is successful, LEEDCo would like to see the Lake Erie wind farm generating up to 1000 MW of energy by 2020. ConsumerEnergyReport
LEEDCo recently announced a long-term partnership with GE who will provide the 5 direct-drive wind turbines for LEEDCo’s 20-megawatt offshore wind project.
Many hoops and hurdles need to be traversed before obtaining major financial commitments. (learn more at Cleveland.com
Approval from at least 16 federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. LEEDCo has yet to file any permit applications but does meet weekly with an interagency task force, the Lake Erie Offshore Wind Team, that Strickland created 18 months ago. Concerns that the turbines will harm birds and bats. A $350,000 study is under way, including radar, laser and acoustic identification of bird and bat flight paths. The proposed site will need a four-mile radius of air space in which few if any birds have been detected. How to anchor the towers in Lake Erie. Engineers must determine whether to sink steel piles down to bedrock, typically some 60 to 80 feet below the "glacial till" on the lake bottom. If pilings are needed, officials are uncertain whether the region still has the capacity to produce enough of the heavy steel that would be required. A way to get the power to shore. Underwater cables from the turbines to shore would need right-of-way approval from the state. The impact of winter ice. Plans call for an ice cream-cone shaped foundation at the water's level, which forces the ice down and breaks it, hopefully saving on cost, LEEDCo's Wagner said. A means of paying for the project. Financing details are still tenuous -- and could be more complicated than the engineering, said Wagner.
Courtesy Mark RyanAnyone who has ever watched a 1950s science fiction film has probably heard the eerie emanations of the electronic instrument known as the theremin. It’s that high-pitched wavering tone that usually accompanied radioactive giant insects, or flying saucers and spacemen (e.g. The Day the Earth Stood Still). It can also be heard creating the good vibrations in the Beach Boy’s song of the same name, I remember seeing Simon & Garfunkle in concert a few years back, and noticing that the instrument was used during the performance of their song The Boxer.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of the device. I suppose it was in those aforementioned sci-fi movies. The electronic instrument (the first of its kind) was created by Russian professor Leon Theremin in 1917, when he stumbled upon it while trying to construct a better radio. Theremin was also a musician and obviously saw potential in his accidental invention.
The theremin is an odd-looking thing made up of a box containing circuitry, some knobs, and two metal antennas, one straight, and the other looped. Rather than strumming, bowing or hammering strings, or blowing air into brass tubes or across reeds, the sounds of the theremin are produced by not touching it. Here’s how it works: inside the theremin’s circuitry guts, two radio frequency oscillators produce two distinct signals. It’s the mixing of these two signals in a process called heterodyning that create the theremin’s sounds. The performer stands near the unit and controls the pitch and volume by moving their hands in the vicinity of the two antennas. Generally, the left hand controls the volume over the looped antenna, and the right hand the pitch near the straight antenna, although some performers, such as virtuoso Pamelia Kurstin, reverse the antennas (I’m guessing the instrument can be constructed for both right-handed and left-handed people). Changes in pitch and volume are controlled by the performer moving his or her hands nearer or farther from their respective antenna. In Kurstin’s case, the closer her left hand moves towards the straight antenna, the higher the pitch in tone, while the farther her right hand moves from the looped antenna, the louder the volume. Musical techniques such as vibrato and staccato can be mastered and controlled by rapid hand movement,
In this TED Talk performance (which got me interested in this subject), the above-mentioned Pamelia Kurstin shows that the theremin is not limited to just special effects. She has mastered the instrument to the point of being able to create dreamy and haunting melodies, as well as simulate a walking bass line as she does in the first song, Autumn Leaves. You’ll notice Pamelia appears to be in a trance while playing the instrument, but as she explains she’s keeping as still as possible so as to not corrupt the tone production. Unintentional body movements or even her breathing can affect the tone she’s trying to produce.
The Bakken Museum of Electricity in Minneapolis has a working theremin on display that visitors can play. Making sounds on the instrument is pretty easy but making music is a completely different story. Like the human voice, the violin, or similar instruments, the theremin allows for what’s called portamento, that is the gliding between a range of tones. You’re not limited by frets or keyboards, and have to sense your way from one note to the other. If you ever get a chance to play an actual theremin you’ll realize just how difficult it is.
Courtesy JJ GeorgesCheck it out: North Korea claims to have produced nuclear fusion. Fusion has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments, and, as I understand it, fusion can be achieved in fission-based nuclear weapons, but scientists have never been able to create it on the right scale to produce lots of cheap, controlled energy (for electrical power generation, which is sort of the ultimate goal.) Except, you know, North Korea now.
(Fusion, by the way, is all about forcing two light atoms to merge together. The atoms have to release some of their components to do this, and when those components go flying off, there's a lot of energy to be had from them. More or less.)
Some folks are pointing out that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they can barely get their national act together in a lot of other ways, so it seems very unlikely that they've made any huge advancements towards fusion power (which has eluded scientists around the world for decades). But you never know. After all, they claim that the discovery coincided with the birthday of North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-Il, and stranger things have happened on that day—according to official biographies, a new star appeared in the sky on the day Jong-Il was born.
la la la
Courtesy Zina Deretsky, NSF
Most computers and communications rely upon controlling the flow of electrons. Such devices would be faster and more secure if they used particles of light (photons).
A research team led by Marko Loncar just published how a "diamond nanowire device acts as a nanoscale antenna that funnels the emission of single photons from the embedded color center into a microscope lens."
"This exciting result is the first time the tools of nanofabrication have been applied to diamond crystals in order to control the optical properties of a single defect," said Loncar.
Not only is communicating through optical fibers more efficient, there is no easy way for eavesdroppers to "tap the line".
"The resulting device may prove easy to couple into a standard optical fiber. This novel approach is a key technological step towards achieving fast, secure computing and communication." nsf.gov/news
Digging deep into diamonds Harvard Gazette