Stories tagged Energy Transformations

Aug
05
2009

Somewhere, beyond the sea: Somewhere, a plastic continent that you're missing out on.
Somewhere, beyond the sea: Somewhere, a plastic continent that you're missing out on.Courtesy teapic
Pack 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.

Jul
19
2009

USS SMM prepares to launch
USS SMM prepares to launchCourtesy Mark Ryan
I 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. Houston we have a problem!: Most of the ship's hull and all of the bilge had to be removed to correct flotation problems.
Houston we have a problem!: Most of the ship's hull and all of the bilge had to be removed to correct flotation problems.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I 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. Science prevails!: The crew of the reconfigured USS SMM limps bravely and safely toward the finish line with honor and dignity intact.
Science prevails!: The crew of the reconfigured USS SMM limps bravely and safely toward the finish line with honor and dignity intact.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.

Jul
19
2009

Two cylinder Stirling engine: Alpha type Stirling engine. The expansion cylinder (red) is maintained at a high temperature while the compression cylinder (blue) is cooled. The passage between the two cylinders contains the regenerator.
Two cylinder Stirling engine: Alpha type Stirling engine. The expansion cylinder (red) is maintained at a high temperature while the compression cylinder (blue) is cooled. The passage between the two cylinders contains the regenerator.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.

Better and cheaper solar conversion

SunCatcher™ power system
SunCatcher™ power systemCourtesy 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.

Jul
13
2009

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 24/7Data Center
Data CenterCourtesy 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.

Jul
10
2009

Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?
Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?Courtesy bre pettis
Just 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?

Jun
28
2009

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.

Cool.The accelerator: The target wheel equipped with lead waiting to be irradiated with zinc ions
The accelerator: The target wheel equipped with lead waiting to be irradiated with zinc ionsCourtesy 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.

Jun
12
2009

High definition digital orcs are only hours away!
High definition digital orcs are only hours away!Courtesy Alexander Heinz
Heyo, 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.

Sincerely Yours,

Rob

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.

Sincerely Yours,

Rob”

Word.

Jun
12
2009

Wind energy harvest farm: Palm Springs, California
Wind energy harvest farm: Palm Springs, CaliforniaCourtesy Mark Ryan
Is the wind being knocked out of the sails of the wind energy industry? A study to be published this summer in Journal of Geophysical Research seems to be pointing that way. Wind measurements in the Midwest and eastern parts of the United States in particular have shown a decline in the energy source.

Two atmospheric researchers, Sara Pryor (no relation to Science Buzz’s own Liza Pryor – or is she?) of Indiana University, and her co-author Eugene Takle, a professor at Iowa State University say their research shows a distinct drop in wind speed in areas east of the Mississippi River, especially around the Great Lakes. Wind speeds there have diminished 10 percent or more in the past decade, and an overall decline in wind has been taking place since 1973.

Global warming may be the cause. Differences in barometric pressure drive wind production. In a global-warming environment, the Earth’s polar regions warm more quickly than the rest of the globe, and narrow the temperature difference between the poles and equatorial regions. That reduced difference in temperature also means a reduced difference in barometric pressure, which results in less air movement (wind).

Peak wind speeds in western regions of the US such as Texas and portions of the Northern Plains haven’t changed nearly as much. Pryor speculates the reason the Great Lakes area shows the greatest decrease may be because wind travels more slowly across water than ice, and in recent years there’s been less ice formation on the Great Lakes. Changes in the landscape such as trees and new construction near instrument stations may have also skewed the research. Still, wind speed studies done in Europe and Australia showed similar declines there, adding credence to the Pryor and Takle findings.

There are detractors to the study. Jeff Freedman, an atmospheric scientist with a renewable energy-consulting firm in Albany, N.Y., says his research has revealed no definite trend of reduced wind speed. And even though research hasn’t been published yet, some climate models studying the effects of global warming seem to agree with Freeman’s findings.

But if Pryor’s and Takle’s study proves to be true, it could mean big losses to the wind energy industry, since a 10 percent drop in peak winds would mean a 30 percent change in how wind energy is gathered.

Scientific American website story
Story on Yahoo.com

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.)