Energy Futures

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:29 am

(repurposed forum post)

Finally got around to the promised post on energy solutions and futures.

First up, even if we leave aside the issue of climate change entirely, fossil fuels are finite resources.

(Barring a few fantasies about endless renewal from currently on-going natural processes (someone posted a link on that here a while ago and I emailed the scientist who did the original research and she was very definitive that its a tiny source and definitely not the source of the reserves we’re using now)).

So whether we start cutting down on our use now or in a couple of decades, we will definitely have to cut down some time.

What I’m suggesting here is that we get a head start.

I’m absolutely, 100%, not talking about decimating economies and standards of living, anywhere in the world. The goal of this approach is humanitarian, definitely, but that goal is not zero-sum. It is to extend to those in the developing world the lifestyle and health benefits that those of us in the developed world have gained on the back of the massive gift of cheap energy we got from fossil fuels. At the same time, it is to guarantee our own lifestyles into the future, because without action they are unsustainable.

It was the world’s inheritance, and we’ve spent most of it. I’m not about guilt for that, but I am about the responsibility to use that boost to now offer benefits to those who missed out in the first rush (which is really not much more than a century old).

So please leave aside your fantasies of the ravening socialist horde coming to force you to live in a cave. They’re just that, dark fantasies.

First point: Any approach needs to be multifaceted. Fossil fuels, particularly oil, gave us ‘magic-bullet’ solutions to all sorts of problems from powering cars, planes and trains to lubricating their moving parts and generating electricity. We don’t get it that easy again.

Second point: Any solution for the foreseeable future will still have both coal and oil as components. That’s one reason it’s important to conserve them. (The other is petrochemicals like plastics: our descendants will be aghast that we burned something is incredibly useful as petroleum.) It’s a fantasy from the green side to think we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels entirely in the near term.

But what we do need to do is make huge steps to replace them as the mainstays of our energy use. Here are several possible facets of a solution:

  1. (this one is related to climate change, the rest are not) Coal reserves are huge – much greater than oil. There are dirty approaches to converting coal into gas or oil, but they are wasteful and expensive. A better approach is to use the coal to produce electricity, then the electricity to produce hydrogen for a hydrogen economy (see below). This all works and is all proven technology right now. The other piece of the picture is carbon sequestration: the benefit of burning coal in a power station versus burning it in a vehicle is that it’s a lot easier to capture the emitted carbon dioxide and store it underground. That way we can keep using this valuable resource without completely trashing our environment. (Coal is also a very ‘dirty’ fuel in terms of things like the sulfur that causes acid rain: the sequestration process can capture these too.)
  2. A hydrogen fuel cell economy. Hydrogen is an energy transport technology, not an energy production technology, but it’s clean and powerful. In cars it would be adsorbed onto metal hydrides in tanks, with *less* explosion and fire risk than tanks of gasoline. Hydrogen itself would not need to be transported in tankers, because it could be made in fuel cells in filling stations, using electricity: and we already have electricity infrastructure. It’s better than battery for cars because no charge cycle is required – you can just drive in and fill up as you do now – and also because it doesn’t require heavy, environmentally costly batteries. To his credit, President G W Bush pushed hard for the hydrogen economy.
  3. Nuclear fusion is the long term solution. It’s probably 40 years away at the moment, but that could be shortened with increased research funding. Despite the word ‘nuclear’, fusion produces no radioactive waste, and the fuel supply is essentially limitless. Fusion would in many ways create an energy utopia, with enough for all our terrestrial needs many times over, and enough hydrogen for a dramatically expanded space program too.
  4. Nuclear fission is an essential part of a short term solution. I know this is an issue on which I part company with many of my fellow ‘greens’, but I think it’s unavoidable. Opposition to the waste and risk of fission was the principled position 20 and 30 years ago, but that was before (a) massive improvements in plant safety, (b) dramatically better approaches for waste handling and storage and (c) before we knew about the real environmental costs of fossil fuels. I am really, truly actively suggesting the building of many more fission power plants all around the world. It’s not a perfect technology, but it’s a crucial part of the bridge to get us to fusion.
  5. Renewables. All of these draw on solar power to some extent (except tidal, which draws on the gravitational force of the moon). A calculation I made recently for a textbook chapter I’m writing:

    The solar energy reaching the top layers of earth’s atmosphere is about 1400 W per square metre. Of that energy, only about 40% makes it down to the earth’s surface – the rest is reflected back to space (about 30%) or absorbed by the atmosphere, heating it directly (the remaining 30%).

    So take the 40% that makes it to the surface: 560W/sqm. Imagine that’s only over half the earth at a time, so make it 560W/sqm over half the earth’s total land surface area (because collecting the solar energy over the oceans is tougher, although hydroelectricity actually does that) of 150 million square metres, and you get 42 billion watts – about 3 times all human energy use on earth. And that calculation is conservative at all levels.

    1. Hydroelectricity: dams, lots of them. And yeah, greens tend to stop dams being built to protect environments and species. We can do some of that, but we have to build dams. They have the added effect of protecting fresh water reserves, another essential infrastructure for humanity.
    2. Solar, both photovoltaic and concentration forms. Scalable, ubiquitous, and cheaper and more efficient all the time. New approaches are being developed all the time, and putting in the research will help to deal with the current problems. If every new house was, as a matter of course, roofed with solar panel material, that in itself would be an immense change. Creating huge solar farms in otherwise unusable land like areas of outback Australia and African deserts also has a lot of potential.
    3. Wind. It’s a myth that wind farms kill birds. They are noisy, but that’s partly a technology issue, and there are plenty of uninhabited windy places. In Holland they put them out to sea.
    4. Tidal. Only works in some places, but useful.
    5. Wave – an immense untapped resource.
    6. Geothermal – useful in some regions.
    7. Ocean thermal – using cold deep water and warm surface water with a heat pump.

    All of these can be used to generate electricity, feeding into a hydrogen economy. None of them is a magic bullet due to issues like day/night, windy/not windy and so on, but they don’t need to be if we work toward a complementary set of solutions rather than rubbishing them individually because they don’t provide a complete solution.

  6. Ones I’ve forgotten. Please feel free to add your own!
  7. Ones that haven’t even been invented yet, but could be if the basic research was done. Computers have revolutionised our lives, but were really invented within the lifetimes of some of those who post here. The next big thing may be hiding just around the corner. That’d be great, but we shouldn’t and don’t need to rely on it, because we already have all of the proven technologies outlined above that, if combined, could solve this thing.


Solving the ‘apps won’t open’ issue on iPhone

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:28 pm

(a few keywords to make it more searchable: apps applications not won’t work working open opening crash crashing maximize)

Thought I’d share this here because I know enough people with iPhones who might run into it, plus if it’s blogged it will eventually be Google-able, and a bit more reliable than old forum posts from 2007…

I have an iPhone 3 GS 16 GB with software version 3.1.3. Suddenly a couple of days ago most of my third-party apps (i.e. the ones added through App Store rather than the ones that come with the phone) started misbehaving. If I touched them they would maximise to full screen for a fraction of a second and then disappear.

I deleted the Facebook and Tweetdeck apps (both free) and reinstalled them, and that fixed the problem. Didn’t want to uninstall and reinstall the ones I’d paid for, though, so that wasn’t really a solution. Hit the web but most of the offered solutions were from a couple of years ago, and many involved basically formatting and reinstalling everything on the phone.

I checked that this computer was ‘authorised’ in iTunes, and it was – some people mentioned that that can be an issue. Syncing apps wasn’t really a solution, since it removes all the third party apps and they need to be installed again.

Then I found the key: transferring purchases from the iPhone to iTunes on the local computer. You do this by right-clicking (CTRL-click on Mac) on the iPhone in the iTunes left pane and selecting ‘Transfer Purchases’.

Let that happen, then go to the ‘Applications’ tab for the phone in iTunes and check the boxes next to each of the apps you want on your phone (presumably all of them). Now Sync apps and voila, they should all be present, correct and working. You may need to put account info and passwords and so on back into some apps, but they’ll work… and you won’t need to buy them again.

Hope that’s helpful.


Cloud Culture

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:13 pm

Charles Leadbeater does a great job of outlining some of the potential of, and threats to, cloud computing: http://www.counterpoint-online.org/cloud-culture-promise-and-danger/


This Century’s Big Physics Breakthrough?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:53 am

At the end of the 19th century they thought they just about had physics sewed up. Just a few loose ends to tidy up, but basically the big theories were all under control. Then, in 1905 and 1915, a patent clerk named Albert Einstein published two papers that turned the physics world on its head. A heap of other physicists worked out the implications, leading to relativity and quantum theory. Without the latter, the computing revolution would have been impossible. Physics being turned on its head massively influenced technology, changing what was possible, and changing our lives forever.

Einstein spent the last half of his life trying to create a theory that combined gravitation (which he had revolutionised already with general relativity) with the other fundamental forces of the universe, and did not manage to do it.

A new theory by a Dutch physicist, Erik Verlinde, has just been published online. It’s very, very early days, and too early to make the call, but it does seem to offer the potential to revolutionise the way we understand gravity. This New Scientist article does a nice job of explaining the basics: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527443.800-the-entropy-force-a-new-direction-for-gravity.html

There have been plenty of cries of ‘wolf!’ but wouldn’t it be cool if this was the biggie for the 21st century? Understanding gravity has the potential of being able to control it – and if it got a whole lot cheaper and easier to get payloads out of earth’s gravitational well, space exploration and asteroid mining could ease a whole lot of earth’s shortages. Of course, that’s just my guess… I can guarantee that it’s hard or impossible to see the potential new technological applications from here…


Businesses that get the new web

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:46 am

Really just passing on kudos to two businesses that are doing it right.

We’ve been using TPG for our web access (ADSL2+) for a year or so, and have been very happy with them. We’ve just given them all our mobile phone business too (the 3 girls’ phones – mine is through work and is described below).

At the time of setup one of TPG’s techs connected with me on Gmail’s chat application and I was able to chat directly with him about our needs and any issues that arose. I know his name and a little about him, and he’s still in my Gmail contact list and offers a prompt answer or referral to any questions I have. It’s a really excellent customer support experience, using a simple technology, and I don’t abuse the privilege, just enjoy it.

My phone plan is through Optus, and after a storm last night left me temporarily without service, I discovered they have a presence on Twitter. Any questions tweeted for them get a prompt and courteous response with good followup. Turned out my issue last night was with my phone rather than their service, but they were great.

Not hugely expensive things to do, I imagine, but in a world of robot phone answering machines with menus that never quite fit my situation, international call centres that are sometimes tough to understand and anonymity for all, these simple touches definitely leave a good impression of the companies that ‘get’ the technologies and make the effort.


iPhone Day!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:08 am

Heading in to uni today to pick up my new iPhone – which will be my first ever mobile phone. Guess in this particular technology I’m an extremely late adopter… the fact that I’m not really a big fan of talking on the phone may have something to do with that. Maybe the new toy will help to overcome that phobia… Ended up picking the iPhone over the alternatives after reading a heap of reviews, and on the fact that, like most things Apple, it *just works*.

The challenges for me now are (a) to prove to Sue that I *won’t* end up extending my email obsession into every waking moment if I have it with me all the time and (b) to manage caps for calls, text and data so that I’m *not* one of the people who suddenly discovers they have a surprise $1000 (or $5000) bill for usage…

Anyway, should be fun – and though I bought it myself, this is definitely my Christmas present. I’ll ask the family for something smallish like maybe the second book of Clive Barker’s ‘Abarat’ series.


Large Hadron Collider Panic

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:47 pm

Reading the comments on the web and in the media about people freaking out that the starting up of the Large Hadron Collider today will end the world, I have two opposing reactions:

  1. Wow, my colleagues and I need to work much harder at science education
  2. May as well give up on science education, the battle is already lost


Hanny’s Voorwerp

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:59 pm

(a story about the new networked world)

This is Brian May, the guitarist from Queen:

He’s also known as Dr Brian May, having recently completed the PhD in astrophysics that he postponed over 30 years ago when the band got big:

This is Hanny Van Arkel, a primary school teacher from Holland who is a big Queen fan:

This is Galaxy Zoo, a project that Hanny found out about from Brian’s home page:

Galaxy Zoo is based on the Sloan Sky Survey (in the poster behind Hanny in her photo), a digital archive of over a million images of galaxies in our universe. The challenge was that there are so many galaxies and so few astronomers with so little time – it would have taken ages for all of the galaxies to be categorised and studied. Someone had a brainwave – let’s get amateur astronomers onboard. They developed a 5 minute web tutorial on categorising galaxies (basically into spiral or elliptical, the two main types), and a process for assigning sets of galaxies to participants. They thought they might, if they were really lucky, get a couple of thousand participants.

As it happened, they got over 100,000! Which meant they got a massive amount of science done in a short amount of time, by non-scientists. They discovered new things about galaxies and their shapes and colours that overturned theories in the field. It was a massive success.

But one of the stars of the project was Hanny, who found this object (the Dutch word for ‘object’ is ‘voorwerp’) in her assigned set of images:

(the green odd-shaped blob in the bottom half is what’s interesting in this image) She had no idea what it was – clearly it’s neither spiral not elliptical. She wasn’t sure what to do, but after a couple of days she rather tentatively emailed the scientists at Galaxy Zoo.

It turned out they had no idea what it was either! They’d never seen anything like it, and as far as we know so far it’s the only object of its kind anywhere in the universe.

All discovered by an amateur who is not really that much into astronomy – but likes Queen.


Trent Reznor breaks the musical fourth wall

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:34 am

He’s experimented with it before – leading to some inspired remixes that cut his dark industrial through the Ghostbusters theme, among other things – but now that he’s free of a major label Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has released all the original tracks of his new album, allowing fans to create their own remixes with ease. I’m not a huge fan of all his music – although I loved the fact that he did the Quake soundtrack all those years ago – but this approach to inviting the fans inside the creation process of the music seems like something genuinely new and interesting to me.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:06 pm

Some of the beginning teachers in my class used the phrase ‘BG – Before Google’ as a joke today, but it’s really a pretty amazing concept in terms of education. How does education change when, rather than needing to memorise facts, you can google them in a second? Now what school needs to do is not teach you facts, but what the facts mean and how to judge the quality of the information you find, from whatever source. I’m afraid an awful lot of our educational system is still geared to the BG world…


Green Explosives

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:45 am

Environmentally friendly killing and maiming: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v427/n6975/full/427580a.html


Blended Learning

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:55 am

Currently sitting in a workshop on using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace in university teaching, as part of a daylong conference here at UQ on ‘Blended Learning’. That means some sort of complementary approach where face-to-face teaching is supported with some kind of information and communication technologies. The range of things is immense, from videoconference to the use of ‘clickers’ that allow students to answer multichoice questions in class to shared online whiteboards and a whole variety of different kinds of tools.

One of the key points that is here but kind of implicit is that the tools you use are determined, or at least heavily influenced, by your educational goals. And sometimes those goals are not re-evaluated, even as our means are changing rapidly.


A Cool Thing

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:46 pm

Attended a session today on some of the ways in which MIT is using both technology and different classroom design to make their first year physics lectures more effective and interactive, Very interesting.

One thing they showed us was this very rich Java applet for teaching the phase relationships in a circuit containing a resistor, an inductor (coil) and a capacitor (click on the photo to link to the live application and have a play):


New Evidence Changes My Mind (again)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:57 am

Like most people who are concerned about the environment, I used to oppose nuclear energy, because of its risks and the issue of long-lasting nuclear waste. But then, when we came to understand the impact of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as a greenhouse gas, I had to re-think: nuclear has some issues, sure, but newer technology has reduced some of the risks, and it now becomes more of a cost-benefit analysis once we realise fossil fuels aren’t as ‘cheap’ as we thought.

But this article made me think a third time: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/06/02/nuclear_power_price/

If it’s correct, and nuclear is that expensive, then the cost of sustainable, less risky and non-polluting solutions such as wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and so on become much more attractive. Because, as the articles says, the only ways nuclear would be viable is if governments threw billions of dollars in subsidies at it.

So, on balance, I’m much more supportive of governments biting the bullet and throwing those billions at renewable, sustainable energy development instead. Nuclear had some promise, but it’s not the solution.


A way to boost my publication record?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:11 pm

This is cool, in a geeky sorta way: http://www.theage.com.au/news/technology/automaton-author-writes-up-a-storm/2008/04/21/1208742816514.html


The Future

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:13 pm

Check out this fully working and powerful electric motocross bike. Just too cool, and a great indication of where things might go. Charge it with renewable power and all sorts of things are possible.


Obsolete Technology

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:20 am

Cassie was quite chuffed to be using a terribly outdated and obsolete piece of technology this morning: her teacher had asked her to submit her work in electronic form on a floppy disk!

I don’t usually feel old, or do the grandpa thing, but I have to admit I did go into a bit of a ‘when we were young we used to use audio cassettes for data storage, then 5.25 inch floppy disks that were *really* floppy…’ these things are still new-fangled to me!

But she’s all about USB sticks, CDs/DVDs and e-mail attachments. I guess she has a point – when was the last time you used a 3.5 inch floppy?


Facebook and Family

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:25 am

We were at a 70th birthday party for my Dad last week, and caught up with lots of the family. Chatted quite a bit with my cousin Tracylee, who I hadn’t seen for a long time, but who I had also taught when she was a high school student and I was a beginning teacher, a long time ago. She indicated that a lot of my cousins were linked up on Facebook. I’d had a Facebook account for a while because my friend Lyndon Jones had invited me, but not really done much with it. Went back to it and connected with a heap of cousins and other relatives, and also with a lot of old friends… very cool. I’m sure I could get hooked on the various quizzes and other Facebook activities, but just as a way of keeping in touch with friends I’m impressed with it.


The Essential Geek

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:07 pm

Was just at a PhD confirmation hearing (where the student has to convince us that s/he is ready to do the research) on having middle school students use digital video to learn and communicate their learning. Very interesting stuff, but one of my stray thoughts was that any innovation like this (or web-based teaching, or…) needs an ‘essential geek’. I may have talked about this here before, and I’ve certainly been thinking about it for a while… hey, I’ve *been* the essential geek on a couple of teaching technology innovations. But the point is, without that person who loves the stuff, for whom it’s a hobby, and hence they’re willing to put in a heap of unpaid hours, it just doesn’t happen.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:22 am

Workshop this arvo on Jmol, a Java-based application for viewing molecules in Chemistry. Lots of fun, and really intelligently written to make it simple to use.

I’d love to have shown it to you right here on the blog page – that would have been very cool – but unfortunately the blog code breaks the javascript code that calls Jmol. Instead, this screenshot photo links to another page with a demo I made today:

Jmol is free and open source, and well worth a play if you’re into chemistry – or just enjoy playing with cool stuff.