Monday, September 29, 2008

Disgustingly Green Biofuel

pond full of green algae - and rubbish
Originally uploaded by Scorpions and Centaurs

It's ugly and smelly, but it makes a pretty good biofuel. Green algae has some unique properties, which is one of the reasons that AlgaeLink, a Netherlands firm, is attempting to commercialize algae production with their bioreactors.

In a Huffington Post entry, Green Energy: Cost-Efficient Process Expected to Turn Algae Into Fuel, the rationale becomes clear.
"This is the ultimate fast-growing organism," says Peter van den Dorpel, chief operating officer of AlgaeLink, which makes bioreactors for speeding reproduction. "Algae is lazy. It eats carbon dioxide and produces oxygen." It has no roots, no leaves, no shoots. "It grows so fast because it has nothing else to do. It just swims in the water."

Farming algae doesn't require much space or good cropland, so it avoids the fuel-for-food dilemma that has plagued first and second generation biofuels like corn, rapeseed and palm oil.

It can grow in fresh water, polluted water, sea water or farm runoff. It can purify a city's sewage while feeding on the nitrogen and phosphates in human waste.

Given the numerous problems in using agricultural crops for biofuel, plentiful, fast-growing algae could be a practical alternative that effectively addresses many of the key problems.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More on Air Car Technology

From a broadcast earlier in the year on The Science Channel, here are some more intriguing glimpses of air car technology, which offers pollution-free motoring. Based in France, the company that produces this line of vehicles, Motor Development International, designed the CAT (compressed air technology) engine that powers the vehicle.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Turbine Recycling


A Boston Globe article, Where turbines wind up to get their second wind, tells the story of a new twist on recycling. A company in Plymouth, Massachusetts, reburbishes aging wind turbines, repairing and replacing bearing, gear boxes, and generators, as required, to meet the growing need for wind power.

Brian D. Kuhn, the cofounder of Aeronautica, aims for the mid-level market, a niche that has significant potential for growth.

"The nice thing about this midscale market that we are concentrating on is these are not huge machines," said Kuhn, who hopes his company will be able to supply turbines to power schools, homes, or even supermarkets. Already, he says, several people with local projects in the works have called seeking equipment.

With backlogs on new wind turbines hindering deployments, Kuhn has built a business around the increasing popularity of wind as an energy source.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Playing Russian Roulette with the Planet

xNASA photo

In an effort to explore the forces that created the universe, scientists at CERN started operation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) today, despite concerns from some physicists and cosmologists that the experiments conducted in the LHC could cause reactions leading to the destruction of the planet.

Cosmologist Luis Sancho, who was initially behind the project, commented in Harpers:

Unfortunately, theoretical calculations show that the LHC could produce two kinds of dark matter—black holes and strange, ultradense quark matter—that are extremely dangerous, as both have been theoretically proven to swallow in a chain reaction the entirety of Earth. Thus, a cosmological bomb billions of times more powerful than the atomic bomb might be created at the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The exact probability of a runaway reaction that converts Earth into dark matter is unknown. The minimal risk as calculated by CERN allows for a 1 to 10 percent chance of extinguishing Earth. In the insurance business, a potential catastrophe’s “death toll” is calculated by multiplying the number of possible victims by the probability that the event will occur. A similar calculation (6,000,000,000 x 1–10%) shows that the LHC experiment would be, technically, the largest holocaust in history. It would also be the biggest environmental crime in history, far more harmful than global warming, as it would mean the destruction of all life-forms on the planet. Since the production of dark matter is neither necessary for the advancement of science nor safe for mankind, the LHC should be forbidden to operate. As we close Chernobyl-like plants for security reasons and forbid the reproduction of the Ebola virus in an open environment (though some specialized virologists would like to study it for research purposes), so should we forbid the reproduction of free, uncontrolled dark matter, even if its theorists would like to study it at CERN. The production of dark matter will not be a “new discovery,” nor will it advance the study of physics. Furthermore, CERN’s researchers will not be awarded a Nobel Prize—the ultimate goal of all experimentalists—if Earth is consumed.

The LHC started without incident today, leading some wag at The Independent to proclaim, You're reading this, so the world hasn't ended.... Of course, the initial startup of the particle accelerator only involves a stream of sub-atomic particles moving in a single direction through the 27-kilometer circular tunnel. The particle collisions begin when they launch a stream in the opposite direction and those collisions are expected to briefly reproduce conditions that existed when the universe was conceived.

Efforts to halt the operation of the LHC through lawsuits until safety concerns are addressed have so far been unsuccessful. The Citizens Against The Large Hadron Collider Web site states:

Some experts fear that the risk of operating the LHC disproportionately outweighs anything science might gain from this experiment. It is not possible to know what the outcome of the experiment will be, but even CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) scientists concede that there is a real possibility of creating destructive theoretical anomalies such as miniature black holes, strangelets and deSitter space transitions. These events have the potential to fundamentally alter matter and destroy our planet.

I wish I could get the image out of my head of a band of arrogant children poking at a hornet's nest with a stick to see what might happen. I'm not persuaded by the reassurances of the career-minded scientists at CERN who routinely dismiss critics at Luddites and yet don't really know what will happen and what the ultimate outcome will be when the particle streams collide in the LHC. That's why it's called an experiment.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Using Wind to Power Cars


Lester Brown calls T. Boone Pickens to task for pushing natural gas as a vehicle fuel when using wind to recharge electric cars is a much more efficient process (and far easier to implement).

Brown gives Pickens credit for the wind power side of his argument in an opinion piece for The Capital Times, but sees no sense in the natural gas advocacy. In this piece, he asks:

Why not use the wind-generated electricity to power cars directly? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits climate-changing gases when burned.

Plug-in cars are here, nearly ready to market. We just need to put wind in the driver's seat. Several major auto manufacturers, including GM, Ford, Toyota and Nissan, are producing plug-in hybrids. Both Toyota and GM are committed to marketing plug-in hybrids in 2010. Toyota might even try to deliver a plug-in version of its Prius gas-electric hybrid, the bestseller whose U.S. sales match those of all other hybrids combined, next year.

GM is in the game, too, with its Chevrolet Volt. This plug-in car is essentially an electric car with an auxiliary gasoline engine that generates electricity to recharge the batteries when needed. It boasts an all-electric range of 40 miles, more than adequate for most daily driving. GM reports that under typical driving conditions, the Volt averages 151 miles per gallon.

Brown goes on to say:

This new car technology is matched by new wind-turbine technology, setting the stage for an automotive-fuel economy powered largely by cheap wind energy. The Energy Department notes that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone have enough wind energy to easily satisfy national electricity needs. To actually put wind power on the road, of course, we would have to tap the wind resources in nearly all the states, plus those that are off-shore, which the department says can meet 70 percent of national electricity needs.

Who is right? I'm inclined to cast my vote in favor of Occam's Razor, or, as it is often paraphrased: All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best. Wind-powered plug-in hybrids appear to be the simplest solution.