Sunday, February 14, 2010

Game changer

There are a handful of technologies that I teach under the heading of "game-changing." This isn't too futuristic. All are reality -- in the sense that they are under development, technically feasible as far as I can tell from the reports and my own critical insight, waiting for nothing really, except orders and demand, or for the factory to get built, or something like that.

One of the technologies I like to watch is amorphous solar PV using printing technology. And I mean printing, like newspapers or books. I follow the company Nanosolar as one example of a patent holder, but there are others. This technology has the potential to reduce the cost of solar PV to at least one tenth, and possibly even less, than its current costs. The result, widely deployed, would be that millions more buildings than present could have solar roofing and generate their own daytime power, and a surplus, for the grid.

The grid, of course, isn't ready for this, and neither are householders, so a massive investment will be needed in education and in decentralized grid management, but the potential is huge. The second factory is coming on line, 650 MW a year of cheap solar. A total of 1300 MW/year will soon be on line, the equivalent of four major coal or nuclear powered plants a year. And the patent is held by a company firmly within western democracy.

Then I study fourth generation nuclear power. Here I like to follow the fortunes of the Hyperion system. Hyperion is a US-patented, underground small scale reactor that is trucked to the factory for recycling and reconditioning at the end of its seven to ten year life. The system runs on thorium, which is secure and safe and doesn't exhibit the core-melt issue with regular nuclear power. Hyperion reactors are essentially nuclear cells, by which I mean that they might as well be batteries.

Hyperion reactors for base load, and Nanosolar power plants for peak load, would provide the core of a new electricity generation system for years to come. And the patent is held by an American company, who bought it from the US government, and who is also firmly within western democracy.

And much as I like wind power, and even though wind power is currently cheaper then either of these two technologies, even I have to admit that wind power is much more damaging to the environment than either of these. (Although wind power is far less damaging and dangerous than coal, oil, or natural gas generation, or conventional uranium or plutonium reactors. And these technologies will still take longer to deploy than the many megawatts of turbines currently planned for this year in the US, or for the North Sea by the yUKe.)

But neither printed PV nor fourth generation nuclear power, nor even wind power, can provide a liquid fuel, except by some inefficient energy transformation. And liquid fuels are the best energy system so far for transportation. Electric cars are great, and I still wouldn't say no to a plug-in Prius, if the price came down, or a Chevy Volt, and they have potential to improve city air greatly, but let's face it, the battery problem just sucks.

So when I read this article here in the Guardian this morning I got very excited. A DARPA scientist, Dr, Barbara McQuiston, is quoted as stating that the DARPA algal-based fuels program has been able to get production costs for algal biofuel down to around $2 a gallon.

This is a total game changer. If this is an accurate report, then algae-based biofuel can eventually replace diesel in a huge number of types of transportation uses: trains, airplanes, shipping, cars and trucks. The only technical difficulty will be in developing cold climate systems, and even then the difficulty can be overcome by heating tanks and fuel lines with waste heat from combustion. These are problems that Unity College students have solved, more or less, over the years with their biodiesel and grease cars.

(If one of our student enthusiasts can make a grease car that runs in a Maine winter, I'm sure Boeing or McDonnell-Douglas can make a biofuel airplane that can fly in the cold of high altitude.)

At $2 a gallon, we might even heat Maine homes cost-effectively with algal biofuel. Although there would still be a major trade-off between biofuel, and insulation and weatherization. We might still prefer to fix up our houses so they need far less heat, and then use a combination of electricity and biofuel to provide that heat.

The very great thing is, algae-based biofuel can be made carbon neutral. And the even better thing is, this is a technology developed by one of the handful of countries in the world that I actually trust.

That might be important one fine day. I don't go around expecting people, especially the people that run one-party dictatorships, to be nice to me, or either of my two countries, just because. I want them to be nice to us because they have to be, because we're more powerful and can really ruin their day if we need to.

So, with algal-based biofuel a reality, if it is, the Chinese (and Russians, and Kim Jong Il, and terrorists who want us all to kow-tow to the new Islamic caliphate, and all their ilk) can all go suck a thousand year-old egg.

And so, now, can climate deniers and the shameful companies that fund them.

If it doesn't cost us anything to switch to carbon neutrality, if a low or no carbon fuel is cheaper than a fossil fuel and runs in basically the same kind of equipment, well, all the arguments against switching diminish to nothing. If it's even slightly precautionary to switch, and it costs you less, you're going to switch, and anyone who thinks otherwise is die-hard and anti-rational beyond belief.

Which is going to be great, because of course nutcases like Monkton and his ilk are diehard and anti-rational beyond belief and now we get to watch them being so and laugh them out of court. And you know they won't be able to help themselves. It'll be better than Jon Stewart interviewing Sarah Palin.

So now I've gloated my way to these wonderful conclusions, my academic skepticism is of course lurking in the background. What can't I find confirmation of McQuiston's statement on the DARPA website? Where is the original source for this news article? Is this really true?

It'd better be.

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