Our Story #1 is very hopeful with lots of cited research activity at the end but is also synchronistic since the co-discoverer of cold fusion, Dr. Martin Fleischmann, died this month. Along with astronaut Neil Armstrong who also just passed away, Martin was a cornerstone pioneer in my life. We were fortunate to spend a day with him about ten years ago for a private lecture on the "Past and Future of Cold Fusion that IRI arranged (which is also available on ancient VHS tapes for only $5 by sending us an email, fax or phone call and say you saw it on the eNews. If ordering online, add this in the comment field for special $5 price). Martin was a great scientist who warned us not to send our kids into cold fusion research since it was so controversial but also conveyed the ironic "spook story" of Dr. Edward Teller calling Martin immediately after the Utah university press conference in 1989 to see if he could "make a bomb out of cold fusion". Story #1 shows that slow steady progress has been made in the cold fusion arena with many new developments for peaceful use of the energy generation, also accompanied by an exclusive contribution from Dr. Paul Werbos. The visionary advocacy that IRI has demonstrated for cold fusion research over the past decade now is beginning to look like it is vindicated, which is also true for "oceanic iron seeding" presented by COFE3 speaker Russ George and his Planktos-Science.com, (DVD available) which has been finally "hailed a success" by Nature magazine. The article in New Scientist from last month indicates the key to success in the Eifex experiment was the high silicic acid in a Southern Ocean rotating eddy that was seeded with iron sulfate so that the resulting algae bloom was rich in diatoms. The diatoms have silica cell walls, making them harder to eat and more likely to sink than plankton with calcium carbonate shells. This is the single most important part of the puzzle to successfully sequester at most, an estimated one (1) gigaton of CO2 each year, or about a tenth of our current global emissions, which is better than all of the rest of the crazy ideas for slowing the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 that will reach 400 ppm in only a couple more years, for the first time in over a half million years. Hopefully, Richard Branson's $10 million prize is still available for this now-proven CO2 sequestration scheme.
Story #2 refers to a new group in the Netherlands that will be hosting a Breakthrough Energy Conference on November 9-11, 2012 in Hilversum, the media capital of Holland. I will be one of the invited speakers as well as many of my colleagues. It promises to be a groundbreaking and exciting conference. We encourage all to attend.
Ever want to carry a flexible battery that works? Now you can with the latest LG Chem development in portable power that even powers an MP3 player for 10 hours in Story #3.
Though the algae fuel market and biofuels have been criticized by many politicians, we see new growth and development still emerging in this field. Story #4 shows the innovative solution that is now reaching the end of an $11 million pilot study with algae treatment of wastewater in Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA).
Our last Story #5 probably reflects a world record. For the first time in recorded history, 600 million people were suddenly driven back into the Stone Age with the wrenching effect of an electrical grid failure on a national level in India. The story emphasizes the fallacy of centralized power and paints a hopeful picture of decentralized "microgrids" with battery storage and renewable energy, much the same as advocated by another energy pioneer,Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Now, out of necessity, India's Infosys company is embracing the same philosophy presented by Amory over three decades ago (ref.: the 1978 book, "Soft Energy Paths") in order to secure the unstable central electrical grid with backup power supplies. Since all nationally centralized grids are unstable and regularly deprive millions of people of their electricity with weather-related storms (e.g., East Coast storm June 29, 2012), IRI advocates private microgrids for pioneering individuals and neighborhoods.
Onward and Upward!
Thomas Valone, PhD,PE
1) New Burst of Energy for LENR
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After decades of wandering in the scientific wilderness, cold fusion may be returning to the land of the acceptable.
It's been more than 20 years since esteemed researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann electrified the world with news that they'd observed low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENR, at the atomic level that generated excess heat, holding out the promise of "cold fusion" that did not require the blast furnace of nuclear fission as part of the energy-creating process.
Cold fusion is, conceivably, a third type of nuclear reaction (after fission and so-called hot fusion) that somehow occurs at relatively low temperatures. When Pons and Fleischmann, two of the world's leading electrochemists at the time, reported in 1989 that their tabletop, experimental apparatus had produced anomalous heat that could only be explained by some sort of a nuclear process, the race to define or explain cold fusion began. Pons and Flesichmann also reported that they'd observed small amounts of nuclear reaction byproducts.
However, because the Pons-Fleischmann results couldn't be repeated consistently--and since it was also discovered that they had not, in fact, observed any nuclear reaction byproducts--cold fusion has largely been rejected, and Pons and Fleischmann discredited, by the mainstream scientific community.
While there have been sporadic reports of LENR findings of "excess heat"--basically, that "something happened" that defies explanation--there is still no generally accepted theoretical model of cold fusion.
In fact, the notion of "cold fusion" can be something of a dead end, with virtually no one interested in funding serious research in the effort and reputable scientists leery of ruining their careers by pursuing what some might consider alchemy.
Two separate Department of Energy panels (first in 1989 and then again in 2004) largely dismissed the cold fusion theory and recommended against any sort of a new DOE program to adequately study it, although both did indicate that some sort of modest financial support for small experiments might be warranted.
Despite all this, the hope that cold fusion somehow works and that clean, abundant, free energy might be just around the corner has been an alluring siren call for a few researchers working quietly in the past two decades. And now, it seems, some relatively interesting players seem at least willing to test the waters to finally determine whether cold fusion is real and can be modeled and tested properly with real equipment...or whether it's just a myth after all.
The notion that some big players are showing interest in LENR has set the small community of researchers who have continued to investigate cold fusion buzzing. LENR is real, these researchers claim, even if cold fusion research is almost never published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In short, they've been asking places like DOE or others to jump in the water with them and see if more than 100 largely unsubstantiated (and non-peer-reviewed) reports of observed excess heat effects by some unexplained interaction of hydrogen or deuterium with metals like nickel, platinum, or palladium mean something.
This small community of researchers working with tiny budgets claims that to have made substantial progress in the past few years. But it can't explain the observed effects within the current standard model. And no one can explain how transmuting one material into another at the nuclear level--e.g., nickel nano-powder and hydrogen into copper at low temperatures (freeing up excess energy at the atomic level with no harmful nuclear byproducts or radiation)--is feasible or even possible. But that hasn't stopped the patenting process, and there are a few now that explore LENR systems that use this process in concert with electromagnetic stimulation.
But what has inspired hope within this small community are several recent developments: LENR demonstration projects recently initiated at respected places like MIT, the University of Missouri, and the University of Bologna; public presentations by executives at one of the world's largest instrument companies, National Instruments, apparently designed to attract the top LENR researchers into a project to test and quantify observed LENR effects; and a July report from the European Commission's research and development center that LENR at least has sustainable future energy technology potential.
But near the top of the cold fusion research community's hit parade are musings from NASA, like the fact that the agency apparently filed two LENR-related patents last year and that a leading NASA scientist has indicated that LENR is real enough to pay attention to and study. Boeing and NASA may even be testing aircraft using LENR or other similar concepts.
The benefits of LENR would be obvious: It would be green, safe, and carbon-free, capable of cheaply replacing current energy sources. The most common experimental LENR tests use nickel and hydrogen--the most abundant metal and gas on Earth--in a non-combustion process to allegedly form copper plus energy. The promise alone is almost certainly why reputable, big players are at least paying attention now.
None of this says that cold fusion is real. None of this means that senior executives at big companies like Boeing or National Instruments or senior officials at federal agencies or departments like NASA, the U.S. Navy, or DOE are willing to commit publicly to spending meaningful taxpayer dollars on cold fusion research. In fact, the Navy reportedly shut down its LENR research in California earlier this year after a news report on its efforts led to unwanted publicity.
But it does beg the question: If some big players and research agencies think LENR is real enough to study, test, quantify and even patent, is cold fusion back in the game?
On Behalf Of Paul Werbos
It looks like a win for NASA Langley on this one. Not 100% yet, but far enough.
The article spells out the details. What's more, US News being what it is, certain folks can now dance in the streets.
So maybe I should comment a little on what has been won. The cat is largely out of the bag now anyway.
In its caveats, the article notes that the phenomenon has yet to be reconciled with the standard model of physics, which says that cold fusion = LENR is impossible.
Actually, my views on this subject were conditioned by two special inputs:
1. I ran the NSF workshop in 1990, which happened at about the same time as the DOE workshop mentioned in the article, but got a bit deeper.
2. I had been a student of Julian Schwinger, who played a prominent role in this stuff.
I first heard about cold fusion at the time of the initial Pons/Fleischmann announcement, where they said they could produce lots and lots of free neutrons in a simple apparatus which any good high school physics lab could reproduce. My first reaction was a huge groan -- do they understand what people can DO with lots and lots of neutrons? How long could we survive in a world where any high school could breed bomb-grade nuclear material?
(If anyone out there imagines that US nuclear detection is protecting us from the resulting threats... well, experts know better.) I did initially contact a Congressional office, and had a few discussions here and there about the security issues, all pro bono.
Openness in science is a fundamental thing, but letting any crazed high school goth blow up the city where he lives... and opening the door to Al Qaida and drug dealer types ... well, there are certain limits.
Which we will start to encounter soon.
I still worked with EPRI to hold a major workshop to get a better fix on what was going on.
At first, it seemed as if there were THREE types of cold fusion -- the very small kind (Jones) good for research but not of high impact, the safe and significant kind (Appleby) and the scary as hell kind (Pons/Fleischmann/Schwinger).
I began to be excited by the possibility that NSF might fund the safe and innocuous kind, while establishing some kind of liaison with highly classified national lab work which would map out the scary kind just to understand it better and monitor any emerging risks. There were important discussions with Pons and with Schwinger as part of that, some quiet and some in sessions.
But Ed Teller came in to talk to me and to my Division Director about the details. He showed quickly how even the "safe" kind could easily be adapted to make big bombs. I hadn't thought of it... but anyone WANTING to kill lots of people, with a very basic background, probably would think of it. There are enough of those people around, and the new developments already encourage that. Please forgive me, but I see no reason to say more, even though Dennis Bushnell knows more than what I have said here about this.
The other part was the scary part, which has two aspects.
Pons explained to me at the conference why he decided not to tell everyone about X, even though not doing so would really hurt his reputation.
But I see substantial signs that X too is being reinvented, and will be coming to a gun store near you before too long. He did say enough to me to be convincing.
Then comes the Schwinger part. For folks who think that perpetual motion machines made by auto mechanics are far more promising than anything from the mainstream, Schwinger is not so interesting. But for folks like me, who thinks that understanding what you are doing is a key predictor of what's possible... Schwinger knew a lot more than all but a handful of the mainstream, even though he was a major scion of the mainstream.
Schwinger did say that cold fusion is real, and my memory says he did play a key part in the X discussions.
I remember one session where a physicist did a standard calculation (first order perturbation as I recall), and concluded with "this is clearly impossible according to theory."
Then Schwinger got up and said: "You forget whose theory you are talking about." (Schwinger shared the Nobel Prize for discovering Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), the first canonical quantum field theory. I also took courses where he developed what people now call "Feynmann path integral quantum field theory," back when Feynmann hadn't gotten that far.) At that time, he merely mentioned that there are higher order terms here, and nonperturbative approaches possible.
I later learned that Schwinger was in many ways the founder of Nonequilibrium Green's function methods, which underlie our best modern ability to understand complicated condensed matter systems such as the solid state structures in which cold fusion takes place.
But even that was maybe not the really big issue.
Back in 1969, Schwinger published a paper in Science, A Magnetic Model of Matter, which presented an alternative to the quark theory, the prototype of today's quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the strong but less tested half of today's "standard model of physics." (The other half is called electroweak theory, EWT, which subsumes QED and Maxwell's Laws and such.)
The revenge of cold fusion does present negative effects for world security, but there is hope it may at least help put the advancement of basic science back on track, in my opinion.
The story on that is not linear; please have patience.
First of all, it seems clear to me in retrospect that Schwinger's successful guidance to Pons and Fleischmann was influenced by how he had a different model of the nucleon (neutron and proton) in his mind. I look at X and I look at his model, and it's really clear. So even if cold fusion can't be explained in the standard model of physics (maybe, maybe not), perhaps it will reaffirm a better model which can.
Second, a few years back, I decided to check the literature, to try to find out why QCD has been treated with so much religious reverence (despite snide remarks from leading empirical researchers like Makhankov, Rybakov and Sanyuk) while Schwinger's model was not discussed much.
Had people done experimental analysis to compare the two? Or was it just a matter of religion excluding science?
On a quick check... (see one of my papers at arxiv.org
, easy to search to find).. it seemed like the latter. There IS some empirical data out there, and it tends to favor the Schwinger model over the QCD model. Yet more definitive experiments could be done.
It seemed to me like the worst bankruptcy of science that we would not do those critical experiments! I approached the author of one of the key papers, a respected Japanese nuclear physicist named Sawada, and we even coauthored a paper, which I blithely tried to insert into arxiv.org
But then it came out. Sawada had ALSO done work on cold fusion, and was heavily blacklisted (in part for understandable reasons), and I immediately joined him in the blacklist. Lots of paper trail to prove this. In punishment for his work on cold fusion, no consideration at all of the clear empirical points he made, or of the possible new experiments.
This year, I have explored this a bit further. You may have heard of Putin's speech a couple of years ago where he said that Russia is working on a new nuclear technology as far beyond fission and fusion as those are beyond gunpowder. I wondered at the time what this could be. A later chapter of the book Topological Solitons by Professor Nick Manton of Cambridge University explains a lot of what is going on. One of the key players is Protvino, where my wife got her first PhD in such stuff! But not from the same guy.
The key issue is: "Is baryon conservation absolute?" If so, the complete conversion of neutrons and protons (without a supply of antimatter at hand) to energy is impossible. But that in turn basically depends on just what constituents the proton and neutron are really made of.
In QCD, it really is impossible. If the neutron and proton are made up of fundamental solitons, in which baryon number (or baryon number multiplied by three) is a topological charge, then the efforts at Protvino are doomed to failure. But in Schwinger's model is true, OR IF ANY OTHER MODEL of the nucleon is true in the same family (nucleon neutrality hypothesis is satisfied), it should be possible, in principle. In practice, it would require a variant of X to actually do it. In other words, a variant of the technology which people are groping towards for more powerful cold fusion also has the potential to give us a planet-busting bomb.
And so, the Faustian souls out there might immediately say: "Hey, cool! I doubt it, but it sounds like fun. Let's see if we can blow up the earth.
Wow would that be a gas! We would be ever so famous!" (The former exclamation is certainly true, and the latter certainly not, assuming no observers other than humans.)
My reaction is that we really need to do empirical basic research on these things in earth orbit or beyond, once we get past the obvious simpler things.
But that's not realistic without low-cost access to space. The announcement of DARPA's recent hypersonics initiative sounded really great, like our first hope of preserving and advanced the key enabling technologies since the demise of the old Boeing TAV/RASV program ... but the actual BAA is not well focused or funded enough to live up the early announcements.
We really are at a critical point now.
2) Breakthrough Energy Conference November 2012 in Holland
Press Release, Breakthrough Energy Movement by Jeroen van Straaten
We are excited to announce our first conference to be held on November 9, 10, 11 in Hilversum Holland. Tickets are now on sale.
We have put together a world class program which will cover breakthrough technologies and their world-changing implications. Together we will take a journey into the past, present and future of our energy landscape. With over 18 speakers, two conference rooms and a 3 day program, this event is designed to focus on the full scope of Breakthrough Energy Technologies.
|Breakthrough Energy Movement Conference 2012 Holland|
The first day is about the Science. What is Breakthrough Energy?What are the breakthroughs of this time? What are the basic principles? How are they scalable and applicable in today's society?
On the second day we will discuss the implications. How will these technologies impact our lives and our planet? How will it affect our economic and political structures? Why should we care?
Lastly, on the third day we will begin with the history and end with the future. How did we get here? What can we expect in the near future? What is the role of activism, media and journalism? How can we educate ourselves?
Ongoing conversations hint towards possible live demonstrations of breakthrough energy technologies.
For more information go to:
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3) Bendy Batteries Lets You Wear Gadgets Power Supply
Will Ferguson 22 August 2012, New Scientist,
BATTERIES are going round the bend. A flexible, lithium-ion battery can fit inside the cable for your earphones so you can wear it round your neck.
|I am wearing party lights, unplugged!|
Developed by a team at Pusan National University in South Korea, the battery is made from electrode strands coiled into a hollow core and surrounded by an outer electrode tube. It could make future gadgets lighter because they will no longer need an integrated battery. Flexible displays or wearable electronics will be less bulky too. It might mean you can wear your power source on the wrist, round your neck or any another part of the body, its creators say.
In tests, a prototype continuously operated a red LED screen and iPod Shuffle even when researchers tied the battery in a knot. Je Young Kim of Korean firm LG Chem and a co-creator of the device, says the battery can power a small MP3 player for up to 10 hours and provide 5 minutes of emergency calls from a cellphone (Journal of Advanced Materials, doi.org/fz5rg5).
The team's goal is to have the battery ready for mass production by 2017, for use in MP3 players or as emergency back-up power for cellphones. "This may be the first cornerstone of the wearable energy era," says Kim.
Cotton transistors weave comfort into electronics
Katherine Bourzac 09 November 2011, New Scientist
THE next generation of wearable electronics could be a lot more comfortable, thanks to transistors made from cotton fibres. Such transistors may soon make for wearable electronics as comfy as your favourite pair of jeans or T-shirt.
Some electronic textiles, such as shirts that integrate heart-rate monitors, are already on the market. But these products incorporate wires and bulky boxes of electronics, saysAnnalisa Bonfiglio at the University of Cagliari, Italy, who led the new work in cotton. What's more, metal and silicon - materials typically used to build electronics - are difficult to weave into fabric, while conductive polymer fibres that can be woven do not match the comfort levels most people expect from their garments.
Cotton, by contrast, is perfect to wear but not a good conductor.
Bonfiglio and colleagues have now found a way to make cotton conductive enough to use in transistors, the devices at the heart of most electronics. They did it by giving cotton fibres a coating of gold nanoparticles combined with a conductive polymer. This material forms the gate of the transistor, which regulates the flow of current from one electrode to another.
To make a full transistor, the researchers coated the conductive cotton with a semiconducting polymer, which carries current between two electrodes - spots of conductive silver paint at either end of the cotton strand. Varying the voltage in the gate as current flows in the circuit makes the transistor switch between being very conductive and resisting current.
The transistors, which look and handle like cotton thread, can be electrically connected to one another, and to other cotton components, simply by knotting them. The team's work will be published this month in the journal Organic Electronics.
Cotton transistors won't match the speed of silicon transistors in typical microprocessors any time soon, but they could perform simple computational tasks. For example, a carpet could count the number of people in a room or sense the temperature.
The new transistors also promise to make wearable biosensors better. In separate work, Nicholas Kotov at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has coated cotton threads in nanotubes and antibodies that change their conductivity in the presence of blood. Such sensors could warn medics if a soldier is wounded. Kotov says cotton transistors would make sensors more sensitive, because they can amplify signals.
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4) Even Greener Alternative: Energy from Algae
Jonathan Trent, New Scientist, 22 August 2012
Before we run out of fossil oil, we will thoroughly tap the sea floor, find and frack wells wherever they may be, and excavate and extract the most recalcitrant of oil shales. In so doing, we will fuel our lifestyle for a few more decades at the cost of releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, adding to global warming, melting ice caps, raising sea levels, acidifying oceans - and setting course for a future for which there are few optimistic scenarios.
In the face of all this, scientists are racing to find alternatives. Biofuels are my passion but they have had rather a bad press, from complaints about displacing food production to the inefficiency of soya beans and the carbon footprint of ethanol. Microalgae have a low profile but they deserve a much higher one, since the fossil oil we mine mostly comes from microalgae that lived in shallow seas millions of years ago - and they may be key to developing sustainable alternative fuels.
Algae are single-celled organisms that thrive globally in aqueous environments and convert CO2 into carbohydrates, protein and natural oils. For some species, as much as 70 per cent of their dry weight is made up of natural oils. Through transesterification (the process of adding three molecules of alcohol to one molecule of natural oil), the algae oils can be transformed into renewable fuels.
Microalgae hold great promise because some species are among the fastest growing plants alive and are therefore one of the best sources of biomass, while other species have been estimated to produce between 18,700 and 46,750 litres of oil per hectare per year, nearly a hundred times more than soya beans' 468 litres per hectare per year.
But there are big unsolved problems at which governments should be throwing funds and brainpower as if we were involved in a Manhattan project. For example, since few species of microalgae have been domesticated, we don't know how to grow them reproducibly or economically. At what scale will algae farming be efficient? To put this in perspective, US planes use 80 billion litres of fuel per year. To supply this fuel from microalgae at the lower end of the estimated production rate would take 4.2 million hectares - twice the area of Wales.
Luckily, there may be a good way to cultivate this much algae while solving the ethical problem of producing biofuel without competing with agriculture. Freshwater algae can be grown in wastewater (effectively, water with fertiliser), or marine algae can be grown in a blend of seawater and wastewater. In both cases, wastewater provides a growth medium and the algae clean the wastewater by removing nutrients and pollutants from it. So there's no competition for fresh water needed elsewhere, no reliance on synthetic fertiliser, and the environment benefits.
The UN estimates that the world produces around 1500 cubic kilometres of wastewater annually, of which more than 80 per cent is untreated. This means there is an ample supply of nutrient-rich water for the algae, while algae treatment is available to offset the environmental impact of wastewater.
There remains the question of how and where to grow the algae. A few species are cultivated commercially on a small scale, in shallow channels called raceways or in enclosures called photobioreactors (PBRs). Raceways are relatively inexpensive, but need flat land, have lower yields than PBRs and problems with contamination and water loss from evaporation. PBRs have no problems with contamination or evaporation, but algae need light, and where there is light, there is heat: a sealed PBR will cook, rather than grow, algae. And mixing, circulating and cleaning problems send costs sky high.
Assuming we can fix this, the question of siting remains. In order not to compete with agriculture, PBRs must use non-arable land reasonably close to a wastewater treatment plant. But in most cities, wastewater plants are surrounded by infrastructure, so installing PBRs on thousands of hectares around the plants would affect roads, buildings and bridges - again driving up costs prohibitively.
A solution occurred to me: for coastal cities, we should try a system I call OMEGA - Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae. Some 40 to 60 per cent of Earth's population lives near a coast, most of the biggest cities are near a coast, and nearly all coastal cities discharge wastewater offshore.
How does OMEGA work? It uses PBRs made from cheap, flexible plastic tubes floating offshore, and filled with wastewater, to grow freshwater, oil-producing algae. It would be easier to build the systems in protected bays, but breakwaters could also be constructed to control waves and strong currents. The water need not be deep or navigable, but a few things are crucial, including temperature, light, water clarity, frequency and severity of storms, boat traffic, nature and wildlife conservation.
The salt gradient between seawater and wastewater can also be exploited to drive forward osmosis. Using a semipermeable membrane, which allows water, but not salt, pollutants or algae to pass through, wastewater is drawn into the saltwater with no added energy. In the process, algae are concentrated in preparation for harvesting and the wastewater is cleaned, first by the algae, and then by forward osmosis. This produces water clean enough to release into the marine environment or recover for reuse.
If OMEGA's freshwater algae are accidently released, they die in seawater, so no invasive species can escape into the ecosystem. In fact, OMEGA can improve conditions by providing a large surface for seaweed and invertebrates to colonise: part floating reef, part floating wetland. Then there are the extra possibilities of developing wind or wave power and aquaculture - growing food such as mussels.
OK, if it's so good, where is it? For the past two years, backed by NASA and the California Energy Commission, and about $11 million, we have crawled over every aspect of OMEGA. In Santa Cruz, we built and tested small-scale PBRs in seawater tanks. We studied OMEGA processing wastewater in San Francisco, and we investigated biofouling and the impact on marine life at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Monterey Bay.
I'm now pretty confident we can deal with the biological, engineering and environmental issues. So will it fly economically? Of the options we tested, the OMEGA system combined with renewable energy sources - wind, solar and wave technologies - and aquaculture looks most promising. Now with funds running out and NASA keen to spin off OMEGA, we need the right half-hectare site for a scaled-up demonstration. While there is enthusiasm and great potential sites in places ranging from Saudi Arabia to New Zealand, Australia to Norway, Guantanamo Bay to South Korea, as yet no one has committed to the first ocean deployment.
We could be on the threshold of a crucial transition in human history - from hunting and gathering our energy to growing it sustainably. But that means getting serious about every option, from alpha to OMEGA.
Jonathan Trent studied at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California,San Diego, specialising in extremophiles. He is lead scientist on the OMEGA project at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. This essay is based on a talk he gave at TEDGlobal 2012 and a paper in Biofuels
5) How Power Outages Might be Avoided One Day
Kevin Bullis, New Scientist August 2012
Microgrids, an increasingly popular solution in the developing world, could take the pressure off India's struggling national grid.
Some 600 million people in India have been left without power after parts of the country's massive electricity grid collapsed Tuesday. While the cause isn't yet clear, the outage isn't surprising. India's grid has long been strained, with demand often exceeding supply by hundreds of megawatts, forcing regular rolling blackouts in some areas.
A big part of the solution is obvious: more power plants, more power lines, and an increased supply of coal and other fossil fuels-in India, many power plants don't operate at full capacity because they can't get enough fuel. But another part could be technology that's already starting to catch on in many parts of the developing world: microgrids.
Instead of relying only on large, centralized power plants, microgrids supply a small area with electricity from distributed sources-such as diesel generators combined with solar panels with battery storage. These localized grids can operate either attached to the national grid or apart from it, in many cases allowing businesses and hospitals and other organizations to keep going without a hiccup when the larger grid goes down.
The technology is already becoming popular in India because businesses can't simply count on the grid. "There is a tremendous amount of investment that Indian companies have to make in captive generation as a backup strategy," says Rohan Parikh, head of green initiatives at Infosys, a software company with 10 campuses across India, each with its own backup power supply. Infosys is also working on the software that helps control microgrids.
Microgrids are an extension of on-site generators, or dedicated power supplies, sometimes called captive generation. But they have several advantages over the simple backup diesel generators that are keeping many essential services in India going right now. They use a variety of resources for power, not just diesel generators, which makes them more reliable. So they can keep running, at least in a limited way, even if supplies of diesel fuel get cut off.They can also be cleaner-if solar is used as part of the energy mix. And now that solar panel prices have fallen, distributed solar can be cheaper than running diesel generators alone for backup power. "Solar power is very attractive when compared to diesel generators in the daytime," Parikh says.
Microgrids also offer benefits for the larger grid. Utilities can call on businesses running microgrids to disconnect to ease strain during times of peak demand. That could reduce the number of power outages in a country like India.
Microgrids are no panacea. There's a limit to the amount of solar power that can be installed on a given site, for example. Parikh estimates that on-site solar will only ever account for 10 to 15 percent of the power demands of a given campus-there's just not enough roof space and open land to do much more than that. Batteries are also too expensive to store much solar power for use when the sun isn't shining. Therefore, to some extent, microgrids will need to rely on conventional fossil fuels to keep running.
Microgrids may also be important as countries such as India continue to develop, bringing power to more people even as power demand increases. One vision is that, as India develops, it could become a network of many microgrids, each connected but able to survive independently. Outages that affect entire states could become a thing of the past.
While news reports suggested that there are 600 million people who lost power with this week's outages, that's almost certainly an overestimate-if only because hundreds of millions of people in India didn't have grid power to start with. Some of these people are starting to get power for the first time, via microgrids.
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- Dr Thorsten Ludwig from Germany (GASE) discussing the mysterious Hans Coler motor that WWII British Intelligence researched.