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Science and Energy

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I read with fascination this morning on Gizmag about a 60 Minutes episode that aired this week about the Bloom Energy system. Set to be unveiled later today, the Bloom Box has the potential to be a game-changing device for energy. It is a fuel cell which does not rely on precious metals (built from ceramics) and it runs on ethanol that could be manufactured from switchgrass or waste. It does emit a small amount of CO2 but it also by-produces hydrogen which gives the machine a double capacity for power since the hydrogen can then be used to fuel cars, etc. with no CO2 emissions.

I can see land art wind and/or solar power sculptures placed delicately above fields of switchgrass planted to power the bloom boxes of the world. On the perimeter are beautifully designed carbon-sequester-to-fuel devices that, combined with the capacity of the grass, will offset the bloom box CO2 emission. Switchgrass roofs top all the buildings of the city with SNAP installations between them.

But perhaps this is all a bit premature and I’m not sure that the CO2 created by a world powered significantly by Bloom Boxes would be able to be offset. In any event, they would not be allowed as a part of a submission to the Land Art Generator Initiative design competition since they do put off CO2. But they could be a very nice transitional technology and they may be able to help put the brakes on the momentum that the nuclear industry has been getting lately…

Link to the original 60 Minutes episode.
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Two 100-kilowatt Bloom Energy Servers at a site in California. (via New York Times, via Bloom Energy)

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I’ve stumbled across a number of articles recently that seriously propose that we set up huge solar arrays in space and wirelessly beam kilowatts back to earth such as this one highlighting the plans being discussed in Japan. The originators these plans are very legitimate and there is even an international conference being held right now on the subject in Ontario. The subject has its own advocacy blog. Then there is the National Space Society version. NASA is working on it. MIT is working on it:

Space solar power stations are envisioned as large solar power collectors in geosynchronous earth orbit. Solar energy would be gathered by photovoltaic cells and converted to microwaves so that it can be beamed wirelessly to receivers on earth. Space solar power is clean, inexhaustible, available 24 hours a day, and has the potential to generate as much energy as terrestrial power plants.

If the orbit is geosynchronous though, wouldn’t it be in the shadow of the earth for at least 8 hours per day? I suppose that the further away from the earth it is placed in orbit, the longer the sunlight would strike its surfaces, but it also seems that the limiting technological factor of the beaming of microwaves from the satellite to the surface of the earth would also require that the orbit be as low as possible.

The idea is tempting since the available energy outside of the atmosphere is 136% that available on the surface due to the reflective effect of the atmosphere itself. The surface are required to fuel the world with solar would therefore be 74% of that required on a land-based installation.

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And what about the arrows in this diagram that are bouncing back into space? Don’t we want that to continue to be the case? All things equal, wouldn’t it be adding to the overall amount of heat energy on the planet to harness more Joules of solar radiation than would naturally be absorbed by dark soils and plants down below? The law of conservation of energy tells me that bringing more sun energy into the atmosphere than would naturally be absorbed is not necessarily a good idea. Sure the energy is immediately captured as electricity and then sent to run kinetic devices, but the running of those devices creates heat and that heat is then a part of our inner atmosphere. Multiplying this continuously over many years and the effect may add up.

I don’t claim to know the answer to this, but I’m a bit of a precautionary person when it comes to messing with the natural order of things. Maybe it is better to stay down on the beautiful surface of the planet where we naturally are comfortable and to figure out solutions to our problems that are based on earth rather than out in space.

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If this technology ever makes it into commercial production then it will open up a huge potential for creative uses.

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