Stories tagged Energy Transformations

Jun
01
2009

Wind turbines surfin' the deep blue sea
Wind turbines surfin' the deep blue seaCourtesy Flickr
Last week, I was lucky enough to partake in a fun-filled road trip to Colorado. Though the Rocky Mountains are a spectacular site, I found myself more excited to see all of the wind turbines on the 15-hour drive from Minneapolis to Colorado Springs. This ultimately resulted in a research extravaganza, as I wanted to know more about how wind energy works and what the US was doing to improve renewable energy.

Lets start with a few Minnesota wind facts :
• Total installed wind energy capacity is currently 1752.16 megawatts
• Total wind energy potential is 657 billions of kWh/year
• Currently ranked at 4th in US for current wind energy output (Go Minnesota!)

On average, one household will consume around 4,250 kilowatt-hours per year , so think of how many homes can be powered if Minnesota was reaching its wind energy potential.

I also came across this article that came out today in Scientific American that discusses the great steps that Hawaii is taking towards renewable energy. Recently, Hawaii signed an agreement with the US Department of Energy (DoE) that outlines a plan to obtain 70 percent of its power from clean energy by 2030, in which 40 percent will be from renewables like wind farms.

As of right now, the state relies on imported oil for 90 percent of its power. If a man-made or natural disaster were to occur that would prevent shipment of oil, Hawaii cannot plug into the mainland’s electrical grid, making them extremely vulnerable. So not only will they gain energy security, but the cost of electricity will also lower by reducing the amount of money spent on shipping money to foreign countries for oil (10% GDP).

The largest source of renewable energy will be makani, or wind. There are currently two proposed farms for Lanai and Molokai islands that will together generate a total of 400 megawatts of electricity, which will provide 25 percent of Oahu’s total generation capacity. Considering that over 70 percent of the stat’s population lives in Oahu, that’s a lot of energy! Solar water heating, geothermal energy, and the novel technologies in ocean thermal plants will also be used to provide the Hawaiian islands with clean, renewable energy.

For more information on what you can do here in Minnesota, check out this blog post from ARTiFactor that describes Windsource, a great program through Xcel Energy.

May
25
2009

Maybe you'll get to like the hum: and maybe not.
Maybe you'll get to like the hum: and maybe not.Courtesy LunaDiRimmel
The hum… if you can’t hear it already, you will now, because now you know about it. And once you hear it, it will never go away. Never.

Before I go any further:
So… I hear that there’s an X-Files episode out there that’s all about this. If this is truly the case, I’d like all of you X-Filiacs reading to just bite down on your autographed Gillian Anderson coasters, and grip your David Duchovny brand Wholesome Stress Release Balls, and just deal with it for a few minutes. (So many people read my posts, I’m sure there must be at least a few thousand die-hard X-Files fans among them.) Are y’all occupied? Think about bees.

Now, for the rest of you (us): The hum.

“The hum” is a sound so low that for most of us it’s usually beyond the southern end of perception. But some people hear it. And they can’t stop hearing it. It’s a deep rumbling tone, and for some people it’s only apparent in certain locations, but to others it can be heard just about everywhere. All the time. The hum has driven people to punch through brick walls, and bite the heads off of gear shifters, because it just won’t stop. (I’m assuming about the brick punching and car biting.)

Scientists believe that the hum is actually a real sound, unlike the tones perceived by people suffering from tinnitus. Tinnitus is an inner ear disorder (and maybe sometimes psychological, which causes people to hear sounds when there’s nothing actually making that sound. The perceived sounds vary, but, in general, it’s like when your ears start ringing for no apparent reason, except that the ringing might never stop.

The hum, on the other hand, is usually perceived as something like the sound of an idling diesel engine. But while there are folks who believe that the hum is actually caused by aliens, and sinister government X-Filesy activity, most scientists believe that the hum is a combination of real sounds (not that aliens wouldn’t make real sounds, but, um…) and a sort of unintended fixation on the part of the hearer.

As this article on the BBC points out, the hum might be caused by the actual vibrations of a nearby factory, or a constantly running piece of equipment in your house, like a fan or the refrigerator. While the sound is so low and quiet that it’s usually barely on the edge of perception, if someone hears it, and focuses on it, they may not be able to make themselves stop hearing it. Once it’s on their minds, they think about how they can’t stop hearing it, and they become focused on the sound, and without intending to they end up adjusting their internal “gain” to notice that sound. Sort of like if you’re trying to be sneaky, the sounds you make seem very loud, or if you’re trying to catch someone else being sneaky, the sound of someone unlocking the front door after curfew is going to be very noticeable.

I just hope none of y’all ever notice the hum. Because what if you can’t stop thinking about it? It’ll always be there… So don’t sit back and try to hear it right now. Don’t even think about that continuous rumbling sound that might be flooding through our town now and forever.

(Oh, if you’re wondering what to listen for, the BBC article has a simulated sample of the hum that you can check out.)

May
11
2009

As odd as it sounds new research conducted by a group of material scientists shows that a piece of industrial glass stretched very thinly and placed between two plates of metal, creating a capacitor, can store and release large amounts of electricity. Capacitors have been an essential part of electronics allowing us do do tasks that a battery is not able to do. A capacitor is able to store and release in bursts large amounts of energy, but unlike a battery it can charge more quickly and more often. The material between the two plates of metal is call a dielectric and it is this material that scientist are researching to find one that can charge faster and with more energy then the last. Applications of the new glass capacitor include heart defibrillators, camera flashes, diesel engine starters and electric vehicles.

May
04
2009

A tsunami of New Yorkers head for the highlands.: Would the evacuation be this organized?
A tsunami of New Yorkers head for the highlands.: Would the evacuation be this organized?Courtesy Pabo76
What say we take a breather from all the bleak and uncertain flu news and turn our collective attention to the possibility of a tsunami washing away the East Coast of the USA? Fortunately no such threat is on the horizon at the present moment but scientists have found evidence they say indicates a large tsunami hit areas of New York and New Jersey some 2300 years ago.

The evidence includes large gravel, wood deposits, and marine fossils found in core samples across the region dating to 300BC, and suggests some sort of violent event took place in the region. The size and condition of some of the deposits point to strong reworking of material rather than just a single violent storm. The wave is estimated to have been 9 to 12 feet in height with the velocity of the water estimated at about a meter per second. If a similar tsunami hit Manhattan today no doubt there’d be big trouble.

But Atlantic tsunamis are rare events. Unlike the Pacific and Indian oceans where tectonic plates are colliding and earthquakes are more common, the plates along the Atlantic ridge are spreading apart. That’s not to say an Atlantic tsunami isn’t possible today. In 1929, a tsunami swept into the coast of Newfoundland killing more than two dozen people. The cause was a massive underwater landslide triggered by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on the Grand Banks.

But neither an earthquake nor a submarine slump may have been involved in the 300BC tsunami. Recent research indicates an asteroid impact somewhere off the Atlantic coast dating to about the same time. Ejecta found in the local sediments such as spherules, shocked quartz, and nanodiamonds could only have been created under extreme temperatures and pressures produced by an extraterrestrial. No crater has been located as of yet but the scientists continue searching.

LINKS
BBC ancient tsunami story
More about the 300BC tsunami
East Coast tsunami threat considered in 2004

Apr
27
2009

Remember on TV's Star Trek how Captain Kirk's impossible requests were always put off by his chief engineer, Montgomery Scott? Scotty favorite excuse for avoiding work was to claim it just wasn't physically possible. This from the guy whose engineering skills could propel a starship across the universe at Warp Factor 10 using a couple lousy dilithium crystals. Or maybe he just had better things to do. Whatever the case, it looks now like Scotty's favorite work shirk excuse may no longer be valid. At least not in the world of nanoclusters.

While exploring strange new worlds using computer modeling and nanoclusters made up of several hundred atoms, researchers in Japan have observed tiny clumps of atoms that seem to break the second law of thermodynamics. Don’t think crime is rampant in the nano-world. Most of the atoms observed were law-abiding. When the nanoclusters collided at just under 12 miles per hour, most of them either clumped together like sticky mud, or bounced off each other and went on their way at a slower speed.

But a small percentage of nanoclusters (less than 5%) bounced away at an increased speed, acting as if they picked up an extra boost of energy.

It’d be like dropping a golf ball on the sidewalk and instead of it gradually losing energy (as absorbed heat) and eventually coming to a dead stop, as expected, it just went higher and higher with each successive bounce until it finally bounced into orbit. That just doesn’t make sense. Or as Scotty’s cohort Mr. Spock would say: “Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.”

According to the researchers, Hisao Hayakawa, of Kyoto University, and Hiroto Kuninaka, of Chuo University in Tokyo, the so-called super rebound resulted from random internal changes of motion in the nanocluster’s atoms, some of which can give the collision an extra boost, like jumping on a trampoline.

Sounds like we got ourselves the makings for some sort of perpetual motion machine here. Well, not quite. Apparently, this scofflaw behavior can only take place in very tiny systems. When the researchers increased the cluster’s atoms from hundreds to thousands, the behavior disappeared completely.

Besides that, the system as a whole still followed the letter of the law. The second law deals statistically with millions of atoms, so even though some nanoclusters picked up extra energy, the clusters overall dispersed energy and headed towards increased entropy just as the law prescribes, and in the end all is well with the universe.

So far the phenomenon has only been seen in computer simulations. But Hayakawa expects it won’t be long before it’s observed in real world experiments. The research findings appeared in the March issue of Physical Review E.

“Fascinating, Captain.”

LINKS

Science News story
More about the second law of thermodynamics

Apr
21
2009

Money: it's a hit: Give the banker his props: rich societies pollute less and emit less carbon (per unit of energy used) than poorer societies.
Money: it's a hit: Give the banker his props: rich societies pollute less and emit less carbon (per unit of energy used) than poorer societies.Courtesy Steve Wampler

We’ve talked before about how rich cities also tend to be clean cities. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people in subsistence situations tend to scrabble for mere survival, without much regard to any other issues. Only after securing basic life necessities can they focus attention on externalities, such as the environment.

Now comes word that there is something of a linear progression going on:
the richer you are, the greener you are.

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The professors argue: “If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.” All thanks to the free-market system, and the wealth that it brings to us all.

Money…it’s greener than you think!

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.

Apr
01
2009

Calling ancient Egypt: Believe it or not, archaeologists in Egypt have discovered this crude device believed to be the first cellular signal transmitting device.
Calling ancient Egypt: Believe it or not, archaeologists in Egypt have discovered this crude device believed to be the first cellular signal transmitting device.Courtesy GAP archaeology specialists
With an avalanche of new archaeological discoveries coming from Egypt in recent weeks, this latest find has thrown all previous ideas of ancient Egyptian culture on end.

Archaeologists working at the site of the Giza pyramids just west of Cairo have found evidence of what is believed to be primitive cellular telephone technology. While ancient Egyptians were considered to be way ahead of their time in architecture, engineering and language development, previous work in Egypt has not shown any signs of electronic communication potential.

Here is the fully annotated report from the Giza Archaeology Project’s (GAP) website.

Researchers admit they were slow to report their findings since people would find it so hard to believe. In fact, they couldn’t fully believe it themselves until they did more analysis.

Back in December, they discovered a tomb wall rendering of a device that looks a lot a cell phone. But they quickly turned their attentions to other meanings for the symbol since it couldn’t have possibly been a telecommunications tool. Then in mid-February, members of the same research team looking in a newly discovered burial chamber in the Pyramid of Khafre found an unbelievable discovery: a wooden device that looks similar to a cell phone was mixed in among the gold and treasures buried with the royal dead at the scene.

“At first we thought it was simply a religious relic,” said lead research Mike Lohnor of GAP. “Then one of our more nerdy archaeologists started poking around on it during his coffee break and discovered there was a crude network of wires in a hollowed out area inside the device.”

Doing some chemical tests on the unit, the archaeology team found that the wood was actually a special strain of cedar that has properties that conduct, and actually amplify electricity.

Click here to see photos and diagrams of the inside the wood cell phone.

“The network of wires inside the wood block was arranged in such a way that when held out in the sun at about a 45-degree angle, a fairly strong electrical field could be induced,” Lohnor said. “While the Egyptians hadn’t figured out a speaker system to tie into this electrical format, they did have a ten-digit numerical keypad that allowed them to send coded messages.

Tomb art confirmation: This piece of tomb art inside the Pyramid of Khafre confirmed researcher's beliefs that they had found a crude text-messaging device.
Tomb art confirmation: This piece of tomb art inside the Pyramid of Khafre confirmed researcher's beliefs that they had found a crude text-messaging device.Courtesy GAP archaeology specialists
“I essence, the leaders of ancient Egypt were text messaging each other,” he added.

Just a couple days after finding the inner workings of the wood device, archaeologists doing more work inside the Pyramid of Khafre found a narrow vertical passage leading to the tip of the pyramid. Inside was another tight web of crude copper wires.

“So the pyramids were serving a dual purpose,” said Lohnor. “As we’ve known for a long time, they were burial monuments. But it also appears they were cell phone signal towers.”

Click here to see photos of the antenna shaft.

Hieroglyphic experts have been brought on to the project to see if there are any recorded samples of these ancient text messages might have said.

“We’re really at a loss to figure out how these text messages were used,” Lohnor said. “Like a lot of ancient Egyptian language, it was probably only used by the elite: the ruling authorities and the religious leaders. Maybe it was a quick way to communicate with masons working in quarries in Upper Egypt, or a way for the Pharaoh to get updates from generals in the battlefield. We won’t really know until we can get our hands on more message samples.”

So far, the only text samples that have been uncovered are a warning to not text while driving a chariot and another passage noting that there was a daily limit of 10 texts per day to vote for Egyptian Idol.

And if you’ve made it this far without figuring it out: Happy April Fool’s Day!!!

Mar
24
2009

Tata Nano: solution or pollution?

Just like Ford's Model-T, Tata motor's Nano will make owning an automobile possible for several hundred million families. Use this link to Wired Magazine to learn more about India's 50-MPG Tata Nano.

Test driving the Tata Nano

Huge demand the $2000 Tata Nano

Demand for the Tata Nano is so high the company is using a lottery system to select the first 100,000 lucky owners.

At the moment, the Nano will be offered only overseas, but the company insists a version could be headed to North America in three years. Wired

Will the Tata Nano lead to $5 gas?

If hundreds of millions of poor families can now afford to drive a car, won't that demand raise the price of gas? Millions of new automobile users will surely emit additional carbon dioxide into the world's atmosphere.

The Nano supposedly emits 30 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, well below the 160 g/km average of Europe's cars and far less than the 130 g/km standard the European Union will adopt in 2012. Wired (click link to learn more)

What impact will the Nano car have?

Mar
02
2009

I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!
I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!Courtesy whalt
Hey Buzzketeers! Welcome to the new week! Is it everything you imagined it would be?

So, if I said “Radioactive Man,” would y’all get the Simpsons reference? Bart’s favorite comic book hero is Radioactive Man, a guy who survived an atomic blast, and a lightning bolt shaped piece of metal stuck in his head.

Hey, guess what! There’s a real life Radioactive Man running around now!

Oh… but the radioactivity is potentially dangerous. And he’s some kind of sex offender, who has run away from the authorities.

So that’s a bummer, but the situation provides some opportunity for science education (which is, like, my favorite thing).

How does a sex offender get to be radioactive? Good question.

Not all sex offenders are radioactive. For the most part, you still don’t want to come in close contact with them, but not because of radioactivity.

This particular sex offender, Thomas Marius Leopold, is radioactive because he has an overactive thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland hides out in your neck, and it produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism. Too much thyroid hormone, and your metabolism goes nuts—you get weak and hungry, you can lose weight, and your heart rate becomes jittery. That sort of thing. Some thyroid conditions also cause your eyes to become protuberant, and your thyroid gland to swell, forming a goiter.

One of the treatments for hyperthyroidism involves the use of radioiodine. Radioiodine is an isotope of the element iodine. Iodine is number 53 on the periodic table, so it has 53 protons in each atom. Naturally occurring iodine has 74 neutrons in each atom, but iodine can have different numbers of neutrons (different isotopes). The radioiodine isotope has 78 neutrons, but the atom isn’t stable with that many neutrons, so they decay until there are just 74 left. These decaying neutrons give off beta emissions (electrons and positrons), and gamma rays (highly energetic electromagnetic radiation).

Normally we want to avoid this sort of radioactive stuff, but materials like radioiodine can be very useful when they’re targeted at certain cells or organs (sort of like how we blast tumors with radiation to treat cancer). It just so happens that the thyroid naturally traps iodine in our bodies (it needs iodine to make hormones), so when a patient is given radioactive iodine, the thyroid sucks it right up. When the emissions from decaying neutrons blast into thyroid tissue, the thyroid kind of gets worn out, and slows down—that’s why radioiodine can be good for a thyroid that was overactive in the first place.

Radioiodine is radioactive enough, however, that hospitals often recommend keeping extra space between someone who is on the treatment, like this sex offender on the lam, and folks who might be particularly susceptible to radiation, like small children, or arresting police officers.

The radioactivity isn’t super bad, at least, and it doesn’t last forever—radioiodine has a half-life of about 8 days. That means that after 8 days, half of the radioactive material is gone (turned into something more stable). And after 8 more days, half of what was left is gone (so there’s just ¼ of the original amount left). Eventually the amount of radioiodine left in the body is so negligible that you’re safe hugging pregnant women and handcuffing fugitives.

Wasn’t that interesting? We know about radioiodine now! So if you’re in Great Britain (where this story came from), and there’s a creepy-looking dude who seems to be ruining your film just by being around you, call the police!