Monday, June 30, 2008

A Car That Runs on Air

When I first ran across this story, about a new vehicle design that uses compressed air to drive the cylinders, I was convinced it was a scam. But, it's been written up in Popular Mechanics, appeared in a Discovery Channel segment (shown above), and a currrent model made a personal appearance at the New York International Auto Show this year.

The potential here seem enormous and I plan to investigate and report more on this in future posts.

Here is a prototype illustration of the six-seater version being designed for the U.S. market.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Uranium Frenzy

No More Uranium Here
Originally uploaded by cogdogblog

The abandoned uranium mine situated on the edge of the Grand Canyon (dubbed Orphan Mine) signals the end of one era and the possible beginning of another. The uranium mining frenzy and speculation that spread radioactive tailings, planted the seeds of cancer, and despoiled rivers and reserverations throughout the West seem likely to begin again, as discussed in Big Bad Boom by Chip Ward.

Ward paints a grim picture of the process:

So we in states like Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana are poised for a mining boom reminiscent of the one in the 1950s when the nuclear age began. Then, the West’s uranium mines provided the raw material for our metastasizing Cold War nuclear arsenal and the nation’s first generation of nuclear reactors. (You remember Three Mile Island, don’t you?) Back then, radioactive ore was often dug out by impoverished Navajo miners desperate for jobs. Many of them later sickened and died from exposure to radioactivity.

After uranium has been turned into “yellowcake,” fit for further processing into reactor fuel, and then used to power a nuclear reactor, it is supposed to return to our Western landscapes in the form of “spent” nuclear fuel — something that is lethally dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Our arid landscapes, we are told, are ideal for waste that must be kept isolated and dry for at least a thousand years.

In other words, we get it at both ends of the nuclear energy cycle — and the drier we get, the more appealing we look. First, they dig a hole and take it out; then, they dig another and return it to the ground in far more dangerous shape. Lurking between the mines and the waste dumps are processing mills — and, of course, we have them, too. Even as debris from toxic slag piles in the old mines and mills of the West is still blowing in the wind or leaching into our watersheds, new slag heaps are taking shape in the fevered dreams of the next generation of speculators.

With abundant renewable energy sources ready to meet our national requirements, there is no good reason to resurrect radioactive ghosts from the failures of the past.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Greening of the Hawks


With the urgency of climate destabilization growing daily, the purity of one's ideological calling card becomes less important than the need to phase out fossil fuels and phase in renewable energy as quickly as possible. As Laura Rozen reports in a Mother Jones article, James Woolsey, Hybrid Hawk, neoconservatives and Iraq war boosters are increasingly seeing the wisdom of clean energy. Though they may cloak the shift as a matter of national security, rather than a means of combatting global warming, many of them are becoming unlikely allies in the quest to beat oil addiction.

Rozen's dialogue with James Woolsey unearthed some interesting revelations:

Woolsey recalls the moment he started thinking seriously about energy as both an environmental and strategic issue. "I was sitting in my car in a gas line in Washington in '73, after the Saudis had declared an oil embargo on us and Israel was attacked," he says. "And I got mad." Energy issues have captivated him ever since. In the early '80s, he joined the Jefferson Group, an alternative-fuel salon founded on the Jeffersonian ideal "that the future of America is determined by the independent yeoman farmer."

An independent streak has run throughout Woolsey's 40-plus years in Washington. He has served in four administrations, both Republican and Democratic. In the twilight of the Cold War, he found himself increasingly identifying with Republicans on national security. He spent three years as a member of then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board. When I met with him, he was expecting another career change, leaving the federal contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to join a California firm that invests in alternative-energy technology. He'd also just appeared in an anti-oil print ad for the American Clean Skies Foundation, a PR group started by a natural gas company.

With earth's future in the balance, we need all the clean energy promoters we can get.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Finding the Ultimate Battery


Storing energy effectively lies at the heart of our contemporary quest for escaping fossil fuel addiction. Two of the most promising alternative energy sources, wind and solar, are inconsistent throughout the day or week or month. Without a means of capturing the energy so generated for those times when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, the potential is diminished. And the vast promise of electric cars hinges on the ability to extend their range sufficiently so you don't run out of power on the way home from work.

Lee Hart, a self-employed electrical engineer profiled in a recent Mother Jones article, A Charge to Keep, tracks the progress of battery technology from his basement lab. What he has learned in the course of rigorous testing is enlightening.

Britt Robson, the writer of this piece, nurses out the crux of the problem:

Hart has heard the dreamers wax on about a time when batteries will run for days on end, revolutionizing plug-in cars, windmills, and solar panels—just about any source of alternative energy would benefit from good batteries, which allow electricity to be stored and transported. He has sympathy for those visions. A motto of his hero, Thomas Edison, is inscribed on a favorite sweatshirt: "To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." Like most electro-geeks who'd rather tinker than strut, he also adheres to Edison's practical DIY ethos, which explains the battery room and the small fleet of electric cars he has either retrofitted or built from scratch. His tests invariably reinforce what he and most everyone else familiar with the battery market have long known. When it comes to practical applications for sustainable energy, batteries are more of an Achilles' heel than a panacea, because we are running 21st-century technology with what is essentially 18th- or 19th-century chemistry.

Hart's work is leaning toward extending available battery power by creating light, structurally solid automobile frames, favoring efficiency over raw power.

But the main innovation in Hart's car has nothing to do with how it's powered—it'll be compatible with any kind of battery—but rather with its strong and lightweight frame, influenced by the ultraefficient "hypercar" philosophy of environmentalist Amory Lovins. "If I make the car lighter, I still get the fuel economy I'm looking for," notes Hart. In other words, for now, the best way to get more out of batteries is to simply demand less of them.

Improved efficiency could make a tremendous contribution to reducing our energy-consumptive habits, as has been thoroughly documented by the Rocky Mountain Institute, providing savings in home and business heating and cooling, industrial operations, and transportation. And even the variability of solar and wind power is not as straightforward as you might think, as this RMI article, Rethinking the Reliability of Solar and Wind Power, points out.

The solutions are out there, if only we'd take advantage of them.