I hope to one day live in a house that produces more energy than it uses. A competition between 20 such houses is going on right now on the Mall in Washington DC. The Solar Decathlon joins 20 college and university teams in a competition to design, build, and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered house. Points awarded in ten categories determine the overall winner. As of today (Mon) we have climbed up to 7th place(click for most recent rankings).
I have been excitedly working my way through information as it comes in. You can follow a umn_solar_house Twitter feed and there is an ICON Facebook fan page. The Solar Decathalon landing page allows you to jump to photos, videos, and team websites(not working? Try the site map). The University of Minnesota's ICON landing page branches off into a blog, a virtual tour, and lots of educational pages about design. The media (WCCO News and Washington Post) and bloggers (myself included) will be all over this. I recommend GetEnergySmartNow.com's cheat sheet and their overview of the UMN ICON house. You can also download a 966KB PDF media kit about the Solar Decathlon.
What does a mousetrap have in common with a wind-up clock? A spring. A spring can provide energy to run a clock for days. A mouse trap spring can deliver a quick, deadly energy burst. Unlike batteries, energy stored in a spring can last hundreds of years and is usually not diminished by extreme cold or heat.
MIT scientist, Carol Livermore, "did a combination of mathematical analysis and small-scale laboratory testing to determine the potential of carbon nanotubes to be used as springs for energy storage" MITnews.
The nanospring concept is sound in theory and may even be patented. Working out the details to provide a working device using carbon-nano-tubes to store and re-deliver energy will require plenty of additional basic research, followed by engineering work.
Courtesy tbonzzz_6Get your bells out, everybody, and ring them! The Chevy Volt is here! (In a year.)
GM released new details today about its new gas and electric hybrid car, the Chevy Volt. Using a plug-in battery (as opposed to current, unmodified hybrid cars, which recharge only via the gas engine), GM claims that the Volt should be able to achieve approximately 320 miles to the gallon during city driving. Estimates haven’t been completed for combined city and highway driving, by officials are confident that fuel economy will remain in the triple digits.
The car should have a range of about 40 miles, using its battery alone, at which point the gas engine would kick in. Nearly 80% of Americans, however, commute less than 40 miles each day, so most of the expended energy could come from the electrical grid (the car will plug into a standard outlet), instead of from gasoline.
GM’s chief executive calls the Volt a “game changer.”
Finally, a game-changing American car. Not like those sissy Prius drivers, making smug environmental statements by purchasing impractically expensive vehicles. Sure, the Volt will be entering the game about 9 years late, but it does so with the confidence that every environmentally conscious working-class American with $40,000 to drop on a sweet new car will… wait, what?
What about the rest of GM’s 2010 lineup? They’re cutting more than half of their 30+ mpg cars? But a few Volts on the road should bring that fleet average up, right?
And GM is pushing for environmental responsibility in other areas, at least, right? Oh, they’re pulling out of a partnership that collects toxic mercury from their old scrapped cars?
Well, it was a nice thought. And it’s comforting to hear someone say something like “game changer” now and again.
Weeellllll... it looks like the volt may be kind of an unremarkable car after all. Despite their claims last year that it would get something like 230 miles to the gallon, auto trade magazines are test driving it now, and saying it actually gets mileage in the 30 - 40 mpg range. That's less than a Prius. But don't worry, it's still super expensive. Huh. I mean, I couldn't design a "game-changing" car, but, then again, I never said I would. It turns out, too, that even though GM insisted that it wasn't really a hybrid car, and that the gasoline powered engine would only drive a generator for the battery... that's all not true. The gas engine does charge the battery, but it also will drive the wheels. Prove me wrong, Chevy (or commenters), but is this actually a crappy idea, and not a significant step towards changing our energy use?
Courtesy teapicPack your bags, Buzzketeers, because you don’t want to be the last person to make it to the world’s newest, creepiest continent. (Don’t worry, Australia, I’m not talking about you.)
Trashlantis! The new frontier! The Texas-sized plastic layer floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Why would you not want to go there? The answer, of course, is that you wouldn’t not want to go there… ever!
Yet another scientific expedition is on its way to the fabled plastic continent. But while the last group of researchers mentioned on Buzz was at least partially motivated by the potential to turn Trashlantis back into some more useful hydrocarbons, it looks like these folks are more interested in seeing how the plastic is affecting sea life.
The Yahoo article linked to above sums up the expedition with:
”The expedition will study how much debris -- mostly tiny plastic fragments -- is collecting in an expanse of sea known as the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, how that material is distributed and how it affects marine life.”
I’m guessing what they’re getting at has to do with how plastic affects very very small organisms as it photodegrades. We understand how chunks of plastic in the ocean are no good for larger animals—marine life can choke on them, or fill their stomachs with trash—but the problem goes further than that. See, eventually those larger pieces of plastic start to photodegrade. (That means they get broken down by the energy in sunlight.) But photodegredation doesn’t seem to actually get rid of the plastic, it just breaks it into increasingly smaller pieces. When a plastic bag turns into a million little tiny chunks, it no longer poses a risk for, say, a sea gull choking on it. But smaller organisms are still likely to gobble some up, and if they can eat anything bigger than they can poop (it happens), they’re in a lot of trouble. And when small organisms die off, so do the slightly larger creatures that eat them, and the larger creatures that eat them, and so on. (You remember this from grade school.) So how will Trashlantis fit into this plasticky food-path?
And then there’s the huge real estate potential for Trashlantis. So get there now.
Courtesy Mark RyanI watched the Aquatennial's Milk Carton Boat Races today at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. One of the early heats included an entry from the Science Museum.
Courtesy Mark RyanI don't know who was sailing the ship but dang if science didn't prevail!
The boat looked sea-worthy enough on land but once it was placed into the water, it just didn't want to remain upright. But the hardy crew never despaired, and instead re-engineered the ship (ala Apollo 13) on the spot by removing the entire pesky bottom half and using only the deck to complete the race.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
They didn't win by any means, and at times it looked like they weren't using a boat at all, but they worked together to solve problems and got to shore safely.
Courtesy Zephyris Four newly designed solar power collection dishes called SunCatchers™ were unveiled at Sandia's National Solar Thermal Test Facility. The new dishes are the next-generation model of the original SunCatcher system. Designed for high-volume production, ease of maintenance, and cost reductions, the dishes could be in commercial service by 2010. The projects are expected to produce 1,000 MW by the end of 2012. One megawatt powers about 800 homes.
Courtesy Randy Montoya Last year one of the original SunCatchers set a new solar-to-grid system conversion efficiency record by achieving a 31.25 percent net efficiency rate, toppling the old 1984 record of 29.4.
Source: New SunCatcher™ power system unveiled at National Solar Thermal Test Facility, Sandia News release.
Did you know that the web page that you are staring at right now can produce as much CO2 as an SUV? Well, not science buzz itself but, the internet as a whole is a major contributer to the greenhouse gas, equaling the amount produced by the entire aviation industry. When you think about it, its not as amazing of a fact as it first appears to be. Just imagine the amount of electricity that is used to power all of the computers used in businesses and homes. Add to that the real culprit, all of the servers in data centers that store pictures, videos, and websites.
The data centers run 24/7
Courtesy Gregory Maxwell saving and processing information for internet users around the world. The amount of energy needed to run the servers is large but that is not the only consumer of electricity. The cooling systems for the rows and rows of buzzing machines eat electrons like popcorn. All of this electricity needs to come from somewhere and that is where the CO2 comes into play. Its the coal burning plants that add the gases to the environment.
Making more energy efficient cooling systems, better software, and using recycled water are some of the steps companies have made to create a greener internet. Although it is hard to measure how much CO2 each internet action adds and a direct comparison to cars is not available, this is something to think about when watching the latest youtube video. Its not only your computer you're powering.
Courtesy bre pettisJust kidding! The burning sensation is probably just one of the many symptoms you’ll experience during your bout with gonorrhea. It may feel like electric fire, but, really, it’s only inflammation somewhere in your urinary tract.
But while we’re on the subjects of urine, electric fire, and the future, check this out: your bladder is full of rich, savory hydrogen fuel, and some Ohio scientists have found a great way to get at it.
Using urine in power storage/production devices has been explored before, and, naturally, Science Buzz has been all over it. The story that was on Buzz before, however, was about using urine as an electrolyte medium in batteries, so it’s just there to allow the passage of electrons from one material to another. (That’s how I understood it, anyway—I couldn’t get to the original article.)
What we have here is something entirely different. With this technology, it’s the urine itself that could supply power, instead of just activating a chemical reaction in other materials.
Hydrogen, as we all know, is awesome. It’s easy to remember where it is on the periodic table (somewhere near the beginning, I think), it’s light, so it can lift stuff like zeppelins up in the air, it’s super flammable, so it can run the internal combustion engines we love so much, and it can be made to undergo a chemical reaction in a fuel cell, producing electricity. Unfortunately, hydrogen is also kind of... not awesome. Its otherwise delightful explosiveness also means that riding a hydrogen-filled zeppelin isn’t a great idea, it’s tricky to store, and despite being the most common element in the universe, it’s a pain to get a hold of.
We can get hydrogen out of water, because every molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom. But those hydrogen and oxygen atoms don’t like splitting apart, so we have to run electricity through water to get them to break up, and depending on how we produced that electricity, it sort of defeats the purpose; we’re using a lot of some other kind of fuel to make hydrogen fuel.
These clever Ohio scientists, however, realized that by using the right materials, they could get hydrogen and nitrogen to split apart from each other with a lot less electricity. (It takes them .037 volts to split hydrogen and nitrogen, compared to 1.23 volts for hydrogen and oxygen.) Where, then, is a cheap plentiful source of nitrogen bound with hydrogen? Where indeed…
You know where this is going: urine, or as I call it, yellow gold. Urea, one of the main components of urine, has four hydrogen atoms bound to two nitrogen atoms. If you put a nickel electrode into some urine and run electricity through it, that hydrogen gets released, and you can do with it what you will.
One cow, claim the scientists, could produce enough hydrogen to supply hot water for 19 houses. A gallon of urine could theoretically power a car with a hydrogen fuel cell for 90 miles. A refrigerator-sized unit, they say, “could produce one kilowatt of energy for about $5,000.” Someone might have to help me out on that last one. That can’t be per kilowatt, or “kilowatt-hour” (how we usually measure electricity usage), because a kilowatt-hour costs about 10 cents these days. I’m assuming that it would cost about $5,000 to build a unit like that, and the cost to run it would largely fall upon your kidneys. (Maybe?) Commercial farms, required to pool their animal waste anyhow, could power themselves with all the spare hydrogen.
It’s a pretty neat idea, and one that I actually had a long time ago. I have to give it to the scientists, though—they definitely advanced on my original idea. See I was just trying to burn urine straight up, and, frankly, it wasn’t working. Nothing about it was working.
I’m wondering, also, what the byproduct of urine-produced hydrogen would be. Fuel cells should just produce water vapor, but what’s happening when the hydrogen is separated from the urea? The chemical formula for urea is (NH2)2CO, so after the hydrogen leaves you’ve got two leftover nitrogen atoms, a carbon atom, and an oxygen atom. Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, is N2O, but what about that carbon? We don’t like carbon just wandering around unsupervised these days.
Can anyone help me out here? When we remove the hydrogen from (NH2)2CO, what’s left over?
Want to hear the most exciting chemistry news for the month of June?? Yes…? All right then.
A few weeks ago, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (or IUPAC if you’re feelin’ lazy) officially recognized the element 112, discovered at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung, as the newest element to be added to the periodic table. That’s right kids, the periodic table is gettin’ a makeover.
The new element is approximately 277 times heavier than Hydrogen, making it the heaviest element to hit the periodic table since roentgenium (which coincidentally, was also discovered by GSI). It’s been a long road for 112. Way back in 1996, Professor Sigurd Hoffman and a team of 21 scientists at GSI created it with an accelerator. Six years later, they were able to produce another atom. Finally confirming the discovery, accelerator experiments at the Japanese RIKEN produce more atoms of 112.
How does an accelerator make an atom, you ask? Well, zinc ions are fired towards a lead target with the help of a 120-meter long particle accelerator. Once they hit, the zinc and lead nuclei merge in a nuclear fusion to form the nucleus of a new element.
Courtesy A. Zschau, GSI
And now for the fun part. Over the next few weeks, the scientists from the discovery team will deliberate on the name of element 112. After its been submitted to IUPAC, it will be assessed and then officially be crowned the newest member of the periodic team.
Courtesy Alexander HeinzHeyo, Buzzketeers. Once more, today’s the day that regl’r TV switches completely and forever to digital TV. So get yourself a converter box. Or sit back and watch your newer TV, and, once again, forget everything else about the world. But Science Buzz will not be held responsible for your confusion.
Seriously, go to Science Buzz’s Digital Television Feature, and get your brain exploded with knoooowwwwleeeeedggggeee.
Also, we have here a question from one of the visitors to Science Buzz regarding what is called the “cliff effect” in digital broadcasting:
Why does digital TV and all types of radio technology experience the cliff effect? Is this caused by binary code packets that are corrupted or eliminated by natural and man made sources of over the air interference and signal reflections? Is this tied into the fact that any computer/translator of binary packets, back into analogue waves within our televisions and digital radios, must have this data to function? Is there any way to create computer technology to eliminate this malaise of digital broadcast technology? Why cannot we have a "dirty" digital signal that gets through without "drop-out" in all weather conditions, and through buildings and all sorts of structures just like with analogue? Why is analogue AM, FM and Pulse Modulation still able to be "copied" reasonably well through sources that block or corrupt a signal?
Hoping to read your response to these questions soon.
Weeelllll… first of all, Rob, I have the feeling that you know more about this than you’re letting on. In fact, I have the feeling that you know more about it than me, and I wrote the digital television feature linked to above. But let’s start from the beginning…
So, everybody else, the “cliff effect” is something a few of you will probably soon discover and react to with a big ol’ “But this is a brand new fancy TV! I. Can’t. See. Anything! W. T…. F!!!”
If you live a long ways from a television station’s transmitter tower, or have some large mountain-y, forest-y, building-y thingy in between you and that tower, you might not have gotten very good reception on your old TV (analog broadcast TV), but you still might have been able to see and hear something even if it was grainy or fuzzy or staticy, or whatever. That’s because analog signals could be picked up perfectly, or not at all, or everywhere in between. Digital signals, on the other hand, can more or less just be picked up perfectly, or not at all. So if you got slightly fuzzy reception before, you might get perfect digital reception. Or you might get no digital reception at all. But you shouldn’t get fuzzy digital reception, because at a certain point it’s like the signal just drops off a cliff—it’s there just great up to a point, and then it disappears.
This happens because of the nature of digital broadcasts.
Think about an analog signal (old TV) being like someone shouting a message to you. If you’re very near the shouter, or broadcaster, you’re going to hear them perfectly. If you’re a ways away, you can still hear the shouting, but the words are getting quieter. And as you move further and further away, you’ll hear less and less of the sounds of the shouting, until it’s so faint that you can’t hear anything at all. Analog TV is like this. Sort of.
Now think about a digital TV broadcast as still being like someone shouting a message to you, but they’re shouting it in a complicated, secret code. Nearby, you hear and interpret the code perfectly. A ways away, you hear the shouting pretty well, and if you miss a piece or two of the code, you can still put together the over all message. But after reaching a certain distance, you might hear so little of the code that you can’t understand any of what the message is supposed to be, even if you can still hear faint shouting. That’s sort of like digital TV.
See, analog TV really is kind of like listening to the broadcasting tower shout out signals. It’s not as nice to listen to (that is, watch) a faint and distorted signal, but it’s still something. But digital broadcasts send out packets of digital information (1s and 0s). The digital information is decoded on your TV and turned into a picture, and the TV can still make a pretty cool picture even if not all of the information is getting through, but if there’s enough interference, and not enough digital information is reaching the TV, at some point the decoding equipment in the TV will be all, “Screw it. I totally give up.” And you’ll be totally without a picture.
Does that make sense? Tell me if it doesn’t.
So back to Rob’s questions specifically:
“Why does digital TV and all types of radio technology experience the cliff effect?”
Interference and weak signals. Digital TVs don’t see the cup of information as half full, half empty, full, sort of empty, almost empty, nearly full, etc. They see the glass of information as “full enough” or “empty.” Oh, man, I liked that analogy.
“Is this caused by binary code packets that are corrupted or eliminated by natural and man made sources of over the air interference and signal reflections?”
Yep. Digital broadcasts still use radio waves, just like analog broadcasts, so the same stuff that would interfere with an old TV signal will interfere with a digital signal.
“Is this tied into the fact that any computer/translator of binary packets, back into analogue waves within our televisions and digital radios, must have this data to function?”
Um… yes? (When Rob says “binary packets” he’s talking about digital information. “Binary” is the basic language of computers—it’s the 1s and 0s I mentioned before.) Yeah, that data is what gets turned into images and sound, so if it’s not there, or if there’s not enough of it… no images or sound. BTW, with digital TVs, digital signals don’t necessarily get turned back into analogue waves. Mostly they go straight to being images, after being decoded. But on older sets with converter boxes, or on fancier CRT screens, yeah, they do get turned back into waves, because the display technology uses them. The waves are translated directly into a beam of electrons that “paints” the images on the back of the screen… actually, that’s a different topic, and remembering learning about it makes me sad.
“Is there any way to create computer technology to eliminate this malaise of digital broadcast technology?”
Er… maybe? At the moment, I think the best way to eliminate the problem of the cliff effect is to get a better antenna, or put your antenna in a different spot. Check out this section of the feature for some home made antenna plans. I made one of these myself, and it really does work well, even in my basement bedroom. (This also makes me sad.) I don’t know enough about it to give you a better answer, but… maybe if there was a new and more efficient way of encoding images on digital broadcasts, a TV (or whatever) might be able to construct a picture out of the information available on a weak signal. Maybe?
“Why cannot we have a "dirty" digital signal that gets through without "drop-out" in all weather conditions, and through buildings and all sorts of structures just like with analogue?”
For the reasons we went through above. Going through stuff makes a TV signal weaker, whether its digital or analog, and DTV needs a certain strength of signal to make a whole picture. So maybe if way more power was put into broadcast towers that would help? Or maybe if we broadcast TV on a higher energy wave than radio waves? X-rays would punch right through houses and hills, I bet, and deliver delightful reception all over. But they’d also give us cancer. Whoops!
“Why is analogue AM, FM and Pulse Modulation still able to be "copied" reasonably well through sources that block or corrupt a signal?”
I don’t know.
“Hoping to read your response to these questions soon.