September 05, 2007

Goodbye to the Gas Engine?

Okay, "goodbye" may be premature, but then again...

An Austin-based startup called EEStor promised "technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries," meaning a motorist could plug in a car for five minutes and drive 500 miles roundtrip between Dallas and Houston without gasoline.

By contrast, some plug-in hybrids on the horizon would require motorists to charge their cars in a wall outlet overnight and promise only 50 miles of gasoline-free commute. And the popular hybrids on the road today still depend heavily on fossil fuels.

"It's a paradigm shift," said Ian Clifford, chief executive of Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co., which has licensed EEStor's invention. "The Achilles' heel to the electric car industry has been energy storage. By all rights, this would make internal combustion engines unnecessary."

So what's the trick? ZENN is replacing battery technology with ultracapacitor technology. This sounds great, but if they are truly able to do what they claim, it means they've mad an unprecedented leap forward in capacitor technology. We shall see.

Meanwhile, if you need that electric car now, you still have the option of the one powered by laptop batteries.

July 25, 2007

Fusion Update: Schwarzenegger Says Let's Give it a Try

UPDATE: No he didn't. Thanks, M. Simon.

Interesting energy developments in California:

iecreactor.jpgIn a move sure to impress environmentalists and further cement his Earth friendly image, Governor Schwarzenegger is set to launch a multimillion dollar research effort into a revolutionary new source of clean non-polluting power.

The reactor works by using Quasi-spherical magnetic fields that trap injected energetic electrons to form a spherical negative potential well. Fusion ions trapped in this spherical well focused through central region oscillate across the "core" until they are reacted.

The project is focused on the Inertial Electrostatic Fusion reactor invented by the award winning American physicist Dr. Robert W. Bussard. The Radiation Free Fusion Reactor has the potential to change the whole landscape of energy generation, which is usually a choice between bad and worse options that include Nuclear, Coal and Natural Gas systems.

Way to go, Governor. Although nuclear fission might not be that bad (given developments in reactor technology) and coal is a great fuel if you can just do something about the emissions, we're kind of partial to this idea of waste-free, IEC fusion. Here's hoping there's something there.

July 24, 2007

Electro Biking

I drive from south-suburban Denver up to Boulder a couple of times a week. Whenever I make the drive, I swap my relatively gas-guzzling Jeep for my wife's relatively fuel-efficient Subaru. Lately, I've been thinking that I'd like to trade the Jeep in for something more economical and planet-friendly, but I've also toyed with this crazy idea -- especially now that the weather is nice -- of getting a motorcycle. Depending on the route you take, the drive up skims the edge of the mountains, and seems like it would be a lot of fun to do on a bike.

Of course, even the most gas-guzzling of motorcycles would be huge improvement over the Subaru in terms of fuel economy. And then there's this option:

Advanced battery technologies are enabling a much cleaner alternative to pollution-spewing gas-powered motorcycles and could help promote a larger-scale move toward electric vehicles. Yesterday, an electric scooter with motorcycle-like performance made by Vectrix, based in Newport, RI, was delivered to its first customer. And next year at least two motorcycles powered by advanced lithium-ion batteries will be sold in the United States.


The thing is, while conventional motorcycles are a big help on the fuel-saving front, they aren't that much help on the save-the-planet front:

Although conventional motorcycles get extraordinary gas mileage--with many getting more than 50 miles per gallon--they emit more pollution than even large SUVs because they aren't equipped with equivalent emissions-control technology. Indeed, with new emissions standards, SUVs are 95 percent cleaner than motorcycles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So while motorcycles could help reduce oil consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions, these gains come at the price of dirtier air. Electric motorcycles eliminate tailpipe emissions, keeping pollution out of the city, and they can be powered with clean sources of electricity. What's more, electricity costs less than gasoline. Vectrix estimates that it will cost riders just a couple of cents a day to operate its scooter.

The fastest of the motorcycles described can do about 65 miles per hour -- which would keep me within the speed limit, I suppose. However, the best range given for any of them is 80 miles,which means I wouldn't be able to handle a round-trip to Boulder. Depending on whether I could find a somewhere in Boulder to plug in -- and how long it takes to recharge -- it could still be doable.

Still, like with the iPhone, this might be a good technology to allow to mature a generation or two before picking one up.

Hat-tip: FuturePundit.

July 20, 2007

Practical Solar Power Draws Closer

How common will solar power be when this technology is widely available...

New Flexible Plastic Solar Panels Are Inexpensive And Easy To Make

Science Daily — Researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) have developed an inexpensive solar cell that can be painted or printed on flexible plastic sheets. "The process is simple," said lead researcher and author Somenath Mitra, PhD, professor and acting chair of NJIT's Department of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences. "Someday homeowners will even be able to print sheets of these solar cells with inexpensive home-based inkjet printers. Consumers can then slap the finished product on a wall, roof or billboard to create their own power stations."


Here's a potential win-win for those of us lucky enough to be living the good life here in the suburbs. Print out solar panels in colorful floral shapes, attach fake stems, and "plant" them in your yard. No more watering or mowing grass for that energy-producing patch of ground. I wonder if the HOA will go for it?

July 18, 2007

IEC Fusion for Dummies

I like the heroic score. Apparently this is some old technology -- going back to Tesla -- being repurposed as a possible driver for fusion energy.

Here's a much more thorough explanation from Robert Bussard (yep, the ramjet guy) who is working for a company looking to bring this technology to market. Radiation-free nuclear power! They claim that they'll be in commercial energy production 15 years. Just the other day, a contributor to a futures forum I participate in commented that fusion has been 30 years off for last 50 years. I wonder how long it will be 15 years off?

July 09, 2007

Loading the Grid with Our Brakes

Check this out:

Ford Tests A Hybrid Plug-In Car That Produces Power

Now here’s an idea, straight out of Detroit, and it’s bigger than an Expedition: A plug-in hybrid Ford that not only draws electricity from the power grid so its travels use less gasoline, but which also replenishes the grid with its excess energy.

It’s an idea Ford is testing with Southern California Edison Co., the utility that serves power-hungry parts of Southern California.

Imagine it: A legion of drivers, using the friction of their braking to power their homes. That’s what could happen if the idea works, as the batteries charged during driving release their excess onto the power grid.

It holds the promise for new and innovative conservation schemes that might reward drivers for plugging in during peak periods of electricity demand. Let’s hear it for Detroit.

Well, hip hip hooray, and all that , but I have a question -- wouldn't that reserved braking energy do just as much good stored in a battery in the car? What's the big advantage of pushing that power into the home (or back into the grid in general?)

July 07, 2007

Wind Power is Everywhere

It's here:

Norwegian energy group Norsk Hydro is to place giant floating wind turbines in the North Sea that will provide a reasonable, environmentally-friendly and economically feasible alternative to standard energy generation processes.

“It’s attractive to have windmills out at sea, out of sight of land, away from birds’ migration routes,” said Alexandra Bech Gjoerv, head of Hydro’s New Energy division at a signing ceremony to develop floating wind turbine technology.

And it's here:

A new, 130-megawatt wind power project is to be built in southeastern Turkey. It will more than double the country’s installed wind capacity. The wind park will feature 52 wind turbines built by GE, each rated at 2.5 megawatts. This will be the largest wind power project to date in Turkey. The project’s estimated annual electricity production of 500 million kilowatt-hours will be purchased by independent power consumers. Interest in wind-generated electricity has been increasing in Turkey.

According to the European Wind Energy Association, the country had 84 megawatts of installed wind capacity at the beginning of 2007, an increase of 65 megawatts from the start of 2006.

Approaching Oakland last week on a flight from Denver, I saw a huge wind farm in action out in "fly-over country," probably 100-150 miles east of the bay area. It seemed to go on forever. I know there's worry about windmills ruining the scenery, but when you consider how much of that 2-hour flight is spent over open and untouched land, and how little is spent over developed areas in general, much less wind farms in particular, I think we're going to be okay on the scenery.

Plus, in some really barren areas, wind farms actually contribute to the scenery...


July 03, 2007

Taiwan Switching to LED Traffic Lights

We talked about a possible energy-saving light bulb under development a couple of weeks ago. Of course, there are already highly efficient alternatives to standard light bulbs, depending on the use case. Compact fluorescents, for example, are a good way to cut costs on exterior illumination, or lighting areas such as garages, workshops, unfinished basements...some people are even swapping them out in their living rooms and bedrooms.

Another good alternative is the LED. And it looks like the folks in Taiwan have found a good use case for it:

Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) has budgeted NT$229 million (US$7.0 million) for the next three years starting in 2008 to change the traffic lights in all counties and cities in Taiwan to LED-based ones, according to the Chinese-language Central News Agency (CNA).

Taiwan's Bureau of Energy, under the MOEA, said Taiwan now has 350,000 traffic lights using LEDs as a lighting source, with the remaining 420,000 traffic lights to also use LED lighting in the next three years for a total savings in power consumption estimated to be 85%, CNA said.

After switching traffic signals to LEDs, MOEA will launch a NT$130 million plan to change street lamps at specific roads or areas to LED-based ones, CNA indicated.


I've been wondering when we would hear more about expanded uses for LEDs. They must be good for something besides panels on electronics devices and Christmas ornaments. Traffic lights may be a good start.

March 31, 2007

Another Scam?

We're big believers in good news around here, but when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Well, now there's this:

Sure, there's loads of energy to be had from burning hydrogen and, yes, there's lots of hydrogen in water. But it takes so much power to break the bond between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in the water molecule, it's hard to come out ahead on the deal. Has this guy found a workaround, or is all this HHO talk just a smokescreen?

Time will tell.

March 30, 2007

Sweet! New Battery Technology

Life (sort of) imitates SNL:

Wife: New Shimmer is a floor wax!

Husband: No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!

Wife: It's a floor wax!

Husband: It's a dessert topping!

Wife: It's a floor wax, I'm telling you!

Husband: It's a dessert topping, you cow!

Spokesman: [ enters quickly ] Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping! Here, I'll spray some on your mop.. [ sprays Shimmer onto mop ] ..and some on your butterscotch pudding. [ sprays Shimmer onto pudding ]

[ Husband eats while Wife mops ]

Husband: Mmmmm, tastes terrific!

Wife: And just look at that shine!

Only this is better than floorwax, I think:

'Juiced-up' Sugar-Fueled Battery Could Power Portable Electronics

Juicing up your cell phone or iPod may take on a whole new meaning in the future. Researchers at Saint Louis University in Missouri have developed a fuel cell battery that runs on virtually any sugar source — from soft drinks to tree sap — and has the potential to operate three to four times longer on a single charge than conventional lithium ion batteries, they say.

Wet-tech meets dry tech. If sugar is a good energy source for cell phones, why not other things? Maybe we've been going about this environment thing all wrong. Perhaps rather than electric/petroleum hybrids, we should be looking at bio-mechanical hybrids. Look, all I'm saying is that maybe these two ought to share more than just an approximate shape and cutesy name:


Hat-tip: Blacknail.

January 22, 2007

Trashing Peak Oil

In 1956, M. King Hubert made a bold and now-famous prediction. He predicted that oil production in the lower 48 states would peak in the early 1970s and decline steadily from that point on. In the years since that decline began -- right on schedule in 1970 -- there have been many attempts to apply Hubert's reasoning to the overall global oil supply, in order to determine when we will reach the peak that will mark the beginning of the end for global petroleum use.

According to Kenneth Deffeyes, a former professor of geophysics at Princeton University, we're going to hit the peak sooner rather than later, and worldwide oil production will have fallen 90% by 2019.

Obviously, one factor that will mitigate against hitting the peak is finding new sources of oil:

Part of the controversy lies in the fact that to know what fraction of the world’s oil we’ve used up, you have to know how much there was, initially. That includes undiscovered reserves, plus known ones from which new extraction techniques will improve our ability to wring the last drops.

Ideally, you’d do this with a careful geological survey of the entire world, adding up everything you find. Instead, you have to estimate. The estimates are all over the map. Most geologists believe there are at least a trillion barrels left. The U.S. Geological Survey thinks there are a trillion more, undiscovered, for a total of 2 trillion remaining.

By the first estimate, we’re at the midpoint now. By the second, we’ve got several more years – 15 at present consumption rates, fewer if consumption continues to increase.

Another important mitigating factor will be trends in oil usage. If we use less oil, the peak gets pushed back. And the numbers seem to confirm that, worldwide, we're using less oil:

Fresh data from the International Energy Agency show oil consumption in the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development fell 0.6 percent in 2006. Though the decline appears small, it marks the first annual drop in more than 20 years among the OECD countries, which drain close to 60 percent of the 84.4 million barrels of oil used globally each day.

Fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles are one step that Americans have been taking towards consuming less petroleum. A new generation of plug-in hybrids will help us to burn a lot less gas, particularly if other sources of energy -- coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind -- are used to generate the electricity we plug into.

The there's the idea of alternatives to oil. Over the past couple of years, we've written about how biodiesel, shale, and methane hydrates, all of which might provide part of the solution.

And now here's an idea that might prove to be another major mitigating factor. FuturePundit Randall Parker asks:

How about an energy technology that will reduce the need for landfills while replacing as much as a quarter of the gasoline burned in the United States?

The technology, developed originally by researchers at MIT and at Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), in Richland, WA, doesn't incinerate refuse, so it doesn't produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy. Instead, the technology vaporizes organic materials to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas, that can be used to synthesize a wide variety of fuels and chemicals.

There is enough municipal and industrial waste produced in the United States for the system to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country, says Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

Implementing this kind of technology would represent a huge win-win. Let's ward off the peak oil problem while reducing landfill waste. Wastefulness is a criticism often leveled against Americans (not without good reason.) Reclaiming a significant amount of the energy we consume from what we throw away would be an excellent place to start addressing the waste problem.


August 14, 2006

Mandatory Solar

Interesting energy-related developments from China:

The southern boomtown of Shenzhen has set an example for power-hungry Chinese cities in energy saving by mandating the use of solar power in new housing construction, state media reported.

The law, the first of its kind in China, will require all new residential buildings with fewer than 12 storeys to install solar powered water heating systems, the China Daily reported.

Of course, government-mandated demand wouldn't be my first choice for something to round out the equation, but if governments are going to be madating stuff, I can think of lots worse things than this.


August 03, 2006

Half of the Equation

Here's an interesting development:

Vail Resorts to switch to wind power

DENVER - Vail Resorts said it will buy enough wind-generated electricity to replace all the power used by its five ski areas and more than 135 other stores, lodges and offices.

vail.jpg Vail said Tuesday it would purchase nearly 152,000 megawatt-hours of wind-generated electricity a year, making it the second-largest corporate purchaser of wind power in the country. It did not immediately disclose the cost.

"By embracing wind power as a clean and renewable source for 100 percent of our companywide electricity use, we want to reinforce our commitment to the natural environment in which we operate and be a leader on this critical effort within the travel industry," said Rob Katz, chief executive officer of Vail Resorts.

Way to go, Rob.

The half of the equation mentioned in the title of this entry is, of course, the demand half. So often when we see new information about alternative energy sources, the focus is on the supply half of the equation -- equally important, of course. But what's neat about news that centers on the demand half is that, from the fact that Vail has announced that they're making the switch, the supply half can be pretty much assumed.

The reverse isn't necessarily so. If someone announces that they have figured out a way to save the planet by generating power from lawn clippings, we have no way of knowing whether the planet will actually be saved, because we don't know whether anyone is going to take the visionary up on their idea. But we can rest assured that the 152,000 megawatt hours required to run Vail can be had via wind power -- because Vail is putting money on the table. That is to say, even if the power weren't available, somebody would see to it to make it available, pronto.

But apparently, there is a lot more wind power out there than you might guess. The quoted article goes on to report how the Whole Foods grocery store chain is also switching to a 100% wind-powered model -- and they use up about three times as much power as Vail.

This also helps make the case against one of the fallacious arguments raised against alternative energy sources, the so-called Silver Bullet argument. It goes something like this:

Power for a grocery store chain and a couple of ski resorts is a drop in the bucket. Wind power, on its own, could never supply more than a small percentage of the energy we currently get from petroleum. Therefore, it is not a solution.

The response to the Silver Bullet argument is that we don't need a Silver Bullet. Wind power doesn't have to replace petroleum on its own. If we do a little bit with wind, a little bit with solar, a little bit with biofuels, a little bit with nuclear power -- it adds up. And the more demand that organizations like Vail and Whole Foods create, the more supply of alternate energy there will be.

July 28, 2006

A Different Kind of Car Race

From the fine folks who brought us a different kind of space race, we now have this:

Goals of the Prize
Our goal is to stimulate automotive technology, manufacturing and marketing breakthroughs that:

  • Radically reduce oil consumption and harmful emissions
  • Result in a new generation of super-efficient and desirable mainstream vehicles that people want to buy

How it will work
The rules are being shaped by our philosophy that the Automotive X PRIZE must:


  • Achieve our main goals (above)
  • Be simple to understand and easy to communicate
  • Benefit the world - this is a global challenge
  • Result in real cars available for purchase, not concept cars
  • Remain independent, fair, non-partisan, and technology-neutral
  • Provide clear technical boundaries (i.e., for fuel-efficiency, emissions, safety, manufacturability, performance, capacity, etc.)
  • Offer a "level playing field" that attracts both existing automobile manufacturers and newcomers
  • Attract a balanced array of private investment, donors, sponsors, and partners to help competitors succeed (e.g., manufacturing assistance, testing resources, etc.)
  • Make heroes out of the competitors and winner(s) through unprecedented exposure, media coverage and a significant cash award
  • Educate the public on key issues

Here's looking forward to what the entrants in this competition come up with, and hoping that some of the ideas get past the concept stage and into real commercial implementation.

July 27, 2006

Fire and Ice -- The Promise


Over on the Speculist I just a wrote a short piece about the potential environmental dangers posed by methane clathrate -- the burning ice pictured above. But danger is only part of the story. To quote a recent Popular Mechanics article on the subject:

Natural gas locked up in methane hydrates could be the world's next great energy source--if engineers can figure out how to extract it safely.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 100,000 to 300 million trillion cu. ft. (tcf) of methane exists globally in hydrate form--most of it in the ocean floor. "There's more energy potential locked up in methane hydrate formations across the world than in all other fossil energy resources combined," says Brad Tomer, director of the Department of Energy's Strategic Center for Natural Gas and Oil.

That sounds like good news.

Plus, let's not forget a point I raised in the earlier entry -- methane burns much cleaner than any other fossil fuel. So we have more of this stuff than we do any other energy source and it would be a net plus for the environment if we were to start using it (to the exclusion of dirtier fuels.)

Of course, the risk is still there that methane clathrate could do some significant harm to our environment. To reiterate another point raised in the earlier post -- methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. We have to be really careful with that stuff. If we go heating the planet up so that too much of it is released into the atmosphere, a dangerous chain reaction might ensue wherein warmer temperatures cause more methane to be released...leading to still warmer temperatures. And so on.

On the other hand, isn't there room for a win-win scenario, here? Let's say we start (very carefully) extracting methane gas from hydrate deposits that are determined to be at the greatest risk for melting anyway. That would make sense, wouldn't it? That way we protect the environment while making the switch to a new, cleaner energy source. Once the process is perfected for safely extracting methane from methane clathrate with minimal or no leakage, we begin widespread extraction, eventually switching to methane as our principle fuel source. If petroleum emissions are making the planet warmer and increasing the risk that additional methane will be released into the atmosphere, wouldn't burning methane -- a cleaner fuel -- help cut that risk?

It's two sides of the same coin. By developing a new energy source, we make the planet cleaner. Or, if you prefer, by making a modest effort to clean up the planet, we open up a new energy source.

Sounds like we win either way.

July 25, 2006

The Five-Cent Cigar Challenge

Thomas Riley Marshall was vice president of the United States in the year 1917 when he uttered a phrase which is now remembered far better than his own name. Marshall is reported to have quipped in response to a laundry list of items falling under the heading of "what this country needs" with the now immortal words:

What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.


From the vantage point of almost a century, perhaps it's time to update Marshall's famous rejoinder. Not because smoking has fallen into such disfavor, or because it's unlikely these days that one can acquire a really good cigar for anything less than five dollars, but simply because the phrase "what this country needs" is irresistible to the L2si community. It's a phrase in need of completion. It's a challenge.

We therefore announce the L2si Five-Cent Cigar Challenge. All are invited to help us complete the phrase: "What this country needs..." The winning phrase will be chosen by universal acclamation of its brilliance. The prize will be the fame and glory associated with the idea's imminent implementation.

So please, don't let's sit on those brilliant ideas, not when they can be so easliy appended to the comments section of this blog entry.

As a humble example of the kind of thing we're looking for, we present the following:

What this country needs is a really good battery-powered sports car.

Gizmodo provides the following pertinent facts about the Tesla Roadster:

Goes from 0-60 in four seconds

Top speed of 130 MPH

Powered by 6800 lithium ion batteries

Runs 250 miles on a single charge

Recharges in about three and a half hours

So we're talking about a very clean, very quite, very powerful vehicle that just happens to look like this:


Wired News adds that this smokin' hot speed machine will sell for about $80,000 -- which puts it in line with top-of-the-line gas-powered sports cars -- and that its level of energy efficiency means that driving it will cost about 1-2 cents per mile -- which significantly differentiates it from those same standard sports cars. (Maybe we should have said, "What this country needs is a good two-cents-a-mile sports car?") Wired News also reports that this new entry in the budding electric car market hails from Silicon Valley -- those are laptop batteries powering it, after all -- and that a more reasonably priced sedan will follow the commercial roll-out of the roadster next year.

To all of which we can only say, bring it on.