Category: Energy

A breakthrough in fusion energy


Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.

About these ads

IBM “sunflowers” designed to supply off-grid energy, water, and cooling

Looking rather like a 10-meter tall sunflower, IBM’s High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system concentrates the sun’s radiation over 2,000 times on a single point and then transforms 80 percent of that into usable energy. Using a number of liquid-cooled microchannel receivers, each equipped with an array of multi-junction photovoltaic chips, each HCPVT can produce enough power, water, and cooling to supply several homes.

Swiss-based supplier of solar power technology, Airlight Energy, has partnered with IBM Research to utilize IBM’s direct warm-water cooling design (adapted from use in IBM’s SuperMUC supercomputer), water adsorption technologies, and leverage IBM’s past work with multi-chip solar receivers developed in a collaboration between IBM and the Egypt Nanotechnology Research Center, to develop and produce the system…

“The direct cooling technology with very small pumping power used to cool the photovoltaic chips with water is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body,” said Dr. Bruno Michel, manager, advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research.

The HCPVT system can also be adapted to use the cooling system to provide drinkable water and air conditioning from the hot water output produced. Salt water is passed through the heating conduits before being run through a permeable membrane distillation system, where it is then evaporated and desalinated. To produce cool air for the home, the waste heat can be run through an adsorption chiller, which is an evaporator/condenser heat exchanger that uses water, rather than other chemicals, as the refrigerant medium.

The creators claim that this system adaptation could provide up to 40 liters (10 gallons) of drinkable water per square meter of receiver area per day, with a large, multi-dish installation theoretically able to provide enough water for an entire small town.

All of these factors, – waste energy used for distillation and air-conditioning combined with a 25 percent yield on solar power – along with the setup’s sun tracking system that continuously positions the dish at the best angle throughout the day, combine to produce the claimed 80 percent energy efficiency

Estimations on the operating lifetime for the HCPVT system are around 60 years with adequate maintenance, including replacing the shielding foil and the elliptic mirrors every 10 to 15 years (contingent on environmental conditions) and the PV cells, which will require replacement at the end of their operational life of approximately 25 years…

Everyone is so cautious about operational life of photovoltaic systems. It cracks me up. There are homes here in New Mexico with 20 to 30-year-old PV solar panels still running at 90-95% efficiency.

OTOH, the photo-tracker design is one long-accepted by those who can afford the original cost. The National Guard Armory just outside Santa Fe is a site with such an installation.

I look forward to checking out costs and payback when the critters are in production.

Why is this 1939 Dodge pickup so quiet?

One thing you can say about Al Gajda without much fear of contradiction: he has the quietest truck in Lexington, Kentucky.

Some trucks rattle your windows when they pass. Others are so loud that children cower in fear and brave dogs run for cover.

But even newborns sleep in perfect peace when Gajda drives past in his 1939 Dodge pickup. It makes hardly a whisper.

To a casual observer, the Dodge looks like nothing more than just an old truck that runs particularly smoothly. The secret lies underneath.

It’s an electric truck.

Electrical vehicles are catching on in dealer showrooms today as gasoline becomes ever more expensive and environmental concerns grow.

But Gajda, 74, didn’t buy his. He built it.

A mainly self-taught electronics wizard, he spent more than three years replacing the truck’s old six-cylinder flathead engine with a modern all-electric system built around a series wound direct current motor.

He’s driven the truck more than 5,000 miles since completing the work about a year ago.

“It’s my daily driver,” he said. “I take advantage of any excuse to drive it; just banging around town, errands, short runs on the interstate, delivering my granddaughter to school in the morning.”

Lots more about the truck in the article. Even more about Al Gajda. He’s led a heckuva interesting life, engineering and design in the world of technology – without ever getting round to latching onto a degree.

UBS urges investors to join the renewables revolution


Click to enlargeVillage of Eitting near Munich, Germany

Big power stations in Europe could be redundant within 10-20 years as electric cars, cheaper batteries and new solar technologies transform the way electricity is generated, stored and distributed, say analysts at the world’s largest private bank.

In a briefing paper sent to clients and investors this week, the Zurich-based UBS bank argues that large-scale, centralised power stations will soon become extinct because they are too big and inflexible, and are “not relevant” for future electricity generation. Instead, the authors expect it to be cheaper and more efficient for households and businesses to generate their own energy to power their cars and to store any surplus energy in their own buildings even without subsidies.

In language more closely associated with green NGOs, the bank with assets of more than $1.5tn says it expects a paradigm shift away from large-scale conventional power plants. “Power is no longer something that is exclusively produced by huge, centralised units owned by large utilities. By 2025, everybody will be able to produce and store power. And it will be green and cost competitive, ie, not more expensive or even cheaper than buying power from utilities,” say the authors, who urge their financial clients to “join the revolution.”

“Solar is at the edge of being a competitive power generation technology. The biggest drawback has been its intermittency. This is where batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) come into play. Battery costs have declined rapidly, and we expect a further decline of more than 50% by 2020. By then, a mass [produced] electric vehicle will have almost the same price as a combustion engine car. But it will save up to $2600 a year on fuel cost, hence, it will begin to pay off almost immediately without any meaningful upfront ‘investment’. This is why we expect a rapidly growing penetration with EVs, in particular in countries with high fossil fuel prices.”

The expected 50% reduction in the cost of batteries by 2020 will not just spur electric car sales, but could also lead to exponential growth in demand for stationary batteries to store excess power in buildings, says UBS. “Battery storage should become financially attractive for family homes when combined with a solar system and an electric vehicle. As a consequence, we expect transformational changes in the utility and auto sectors,” it says. “By 2020 investing in a home solar system with a 20-year life span, plus some small-scale home battery technology and an electric car, will pay for itself in six to eight years for the average consumer in Germany, Italy, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe…”

By 2025, falling battery and solar costs will make electric vehicles cheaper than conventional cars in most European markets. “As a conservative 2025 scenario, we think about 10% of new car registrations in Europe will be EVs. Households and businesses who invest in a combined electric car, solar array and battery storage should be able to pay the investment back within six to eight years,” UBS says. “In other words, based on a 20-year technical life of a solar system, a German buyer should receive 12 years of electricity for free.”

But the bank does not expect power companies or the grid to disappear: UBS says they have a future if they develop smart grids which manage electricity demand more efficiently and provide decentralised back-up power generation.

But, hey, your SUV is running OK. Cousin Ernie’s Chevy pickup truck does everything it should do. If our public utilities need to be modernized – well, that’s what we have state legislatures and regulatory commissions to take care of. Right?

Leading Americans in the direction of renewable, cheaper, cleaner sources of electricity is probably as unnecessary as eventually converting the Affordable Care Act to a single payer system. This all may save money and improve our quality of life; but, isn’t it all a little too foreign for Americans to adopt?

Genetically-engineered E. coli poops out propane

bacteriagasolina1

Propane is an appealing fuel, easily stored and already used worldwide, but it’s extracted from the finite supply of fossil fuels – or is it? Researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Turku have engineered E. coli bacteria that create engine-ready propane out of fatty acids, and in the future, maybe even sunlight…

With the premise of producing a fuel that’s more sustainable in a biological host and easier to bring to market, the research team engineered a pathway in E. coli that interrupts the conversion of fatty acids into cell membranes and instead couples naturally unlinked enzymatic processes to manufacture propane…

“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Dr Patrik Jones, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”

Manufacturing useable quantities of propane is the goal for future experiments, along with recreating the process in photosynthetic organisms, so that propane could truly be manufactured with the power of sunlight.

Genetic manipulation continues to forge ahead in the realm of molecular biologists. While I share the humor of fellow sci-fi fans, I doubt the fear of synthetic overlords is justifiable – given the requisite conservatism of the craft.

Though, poisonally, I ain’t holding my breath until this process is productive enough to be commercially viable.

Richard Kinder pays himself $1 a year — poor guy only made $1 billion this week


Click to enlarge

Kinder Morgan (KMI), which operates some 80,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines through a network of separate entities strung together by its billionaire chairman and chief executive, Richard Kinder, is consolidating under one corporate roof. In a deal valued at $71 billion, the parent company will fully acquire three companies it already has partial stakes in: Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, Kinder Morgan Management, and El Paso Pipeline Partners. Think of it as fusing a disparate collection of pieces into one, functioning whole—kind of like building a pipeline.

The deal simplifies a complicated corporate structure that carried big tax benefits for its partners while also resulting in higher borrowing costs. The new corporation should generate more cash for investors and for buyouts. And it will also make Kinder Morgan the fourth largest-energy company in the U.S…

Richard Kinder co-founded Kinder Morgan in the late 1990s after losing out to Ken Lay [Phew - bet he doesn't miss that call] to be chief executive of Enron, and Kinder proceeded to cobble together a bunch of cast-off assets from Enron. In doing so, he pioneered the master limited partnership (MLP), a corporate tax structure that has come to dominate the pipeline industry.

The basic premise of an MLP is that instead of organizing as a corporation, pipeline companies were a collection of limited partnerships. Like corporations, MLPs still have thousands of investors and trade publicly. But under the law, stakes in MLPs trade as units, not shares—and that technically makes their investors partners, not shareholders. The IRS counts each stake in the profit as income, allowing the company to sidestep the 35 percent federal corporate tax.

Which further points out how real capitalists ain’t whining about how the IRS is run.

…Richard Kinder, who takes a $1-a-year salary and earns no annual bonus from any of the four companies, will increase his annual pay from dividends by more than $100 million, according to Bloomberg. His ownership take from all the companies earned him $380 million in dividend payments in 2013.

Bloomberg’s analysis doesn’t include which members of the Senate and the House of Representatives Kinder owns outright. It will take the Progressive bloggers and journalists to sort that out.

Thanks, Mike

China provinces on track to meet 2015 energy/pollution reduction goals


Pilot project in carbon capture and storage technology at this facility in Inner Mongolia

Most of China’s provinces are ahead of schedule or on track to meet 2015 energy savings targets, the government said on Friday, with Beijing and Shanghai among the frontrunners as the world’s No.2 economy seeks to reduce its impact on the environment.

China has pledged to reduce its energy intensity – the amount of energy it uses to add a dollar to its gross domestic product – to 16 percent below 2010 levels by 2015.

Beijing’s intention in setting the targets was to slow emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases and cut expensive fuel imports, but they have won new relevance with the pollution crisis that has enveloped the nation the past two years.

Data released by China’s top economic planner the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) showed that 26 of 30 regions had achieved more than 60 percent of their targets by the end of last year…

Yang Fuqiang, an environmental expert with U.S.-based non-government agency Natural Resources Defense Council, said China would meet its 2015 target.

“But for the (following) five-year period, there is not much that can be done to improve end users’ efficiency, other than clean up the entire energy mix,” he said.

I guess he’s not as much of a news junkie as I am. Beijing is planning to ban all coal-fired electric generation by 2020 – converting to natural gas and syngas. The national government plans to have 50 coal gasification plants on stream around the Northwest and Central cities in the next few years.

SynGas is what we used in the United States until natural gas was available in economic quantities. I remember the changeover. And natural gas, either recovered domestically or brought in as LNG will enable further reduction of coal dependency.

The “last mile” of this solution is as critical in China as it was in the UK after World War 2. Probably half of the air pollution in northern and eastern China comes from coal fires used for home cooking and heating.

Details in the article – including regions ahead of schedule.

We don’t have to worry about being on time or ahead of schedule in the United States. Our Do-Nothing Congress won’t OK a schedule or fund an energy program that acknowledges either science or the need to reduce pollution.

Offshore wind farms provide feeding opportunities for seals – and more

New research has revealed offshore wind turbines may act as artificial reefs and seals have been deliberately seeking out the structures whilst hunting for prey.

Dr Deborah Russell carried out research with her team from the University of St Andrews where they gathered data from GPS devices attached to seals in the North Sea. The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

The movements of Harbour and Grey seals were tracked and the researchers found a proportion of the seals continued to return to offshore wind structures. This suggested seals forage around wind farms and underwater pipelines along British and Dutch coasts.

Russell said, “I was shocked when I first saw the stunning grid pattern of a seal track around Sheringham Shoal – an offshore wind farm in Norfolk.

“You could see that the seal appeared to travel in straight lines between turbines, as if he was checking them out for potential prey and then stopping to forage at certain ones.”

She added, “The behaviour observed could have implications for both offshore wind farm developments and the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure.”

A study published in the journal of Applied Ecology in May suggested that renewable energy projects could help certain marine species settle in new areas and thrive.

The first thing I learned about offshore structures when I started work down along the Gulf of Mexico was that the best fishing spots in the Gulf were underneath well producing platforms. Between structure and shade which offered temperature gradients, you always had better luck catching your limit next to an oil platform.

The shade was nice, too.

Thanks, Mike

First Buckyballs from boron


Wang Lab/Brown University

Just in time for the World Cup final, researchers have succeeded in building the first ‘buckyballs’ made entirely from boron atoms. Unlike true, carbon-based buckyballs, the boron molecules are not shaped exactly like footballs. But this novel form of boron might lead to new nanomaterials and could find uses in hydrogen storage.

Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley found the first buckyball — or buckminsterfullerene — in 1985. The hollow cage, made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in pentagons and hexagons like a football, got its name from the US architect and engineer Richard Buckminster Fuller, who used the same shapes in designing his domes. The discovery opened the flood gates for creating more carbon structures with impressive qualities, such as carbon nanotubes and the single-atom-thick graphene. Since then, material scientists have also searched for buckyball-like structures made of other elements.

In 2007, Boris Yakobson, a material scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, theorized that a cage made of 80 boron atoms should be stable. Another study published just last week predicts a stable structure with 36 boron atoms.

Publishing…in Nature Chemistry, a team led by Lai-Sheng Wang, a chemist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has become the first to see such a beast — although its structure is slightly different from that predicted. The researchers call their 40-atom molecule borospherene. It is arranged in hexagons, heptagons and triangles…

In addition to having a less elegant shape, the borosphene balls form a different type of internal bond from their carbon counterparts. This makes them difficult to use as isolated building blocks as they have a tendency to interact with each other, but this reactivity may make boron buckyballs good for connecting in chains. It also makes the balls capable of bonding with hydrogen, which the team says could make them useful in hydrogen storage.

Which should have GM and Toyota knocking at the hallowed doors of Brown University. Both are dedicated to producing alternative-fuel vehicles using hydrogen.

Thanks, Mike