Monday, March 19, 2012

Six Clean Energy Sources Need More Power - Mad Like Tesla Book Review

2012 is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for AllMad Like Tesla, by Tyler Hamilton, salutes people dedicated to finding cleaner alternative energy sources.

Nikola Tesla was an extremely quirky inventor full of mad ideas about the world - many of which eventually proved to work.  Tesla didn't stop what he was doing if others ridiculed him.  He invented the AC induction motor, radio, remote-control (teleautomation) and more.  In 1931, at age 75, he published a design for a geothermal power plant and a way to generate power from the ocean's temperature differential.

These new energy source developers follow in Tesla's footsteps. Most of them have left successful mainstream positions to pursue clean energy using ideas generally considered impractical in our time.

You don't have to be a geek to enjoy this book, but it helps.  The language is accessible, but even technology-lite can get a bit heavy.  But I felt genuinely educated by the end of it.

Mad Like Tesla presents mini-documentaries on real projects in:

Nuclear fusion MadLT nuclear-fusion-prototype.jpg

The dream big brother to dirty and dangerous nuclear fission power - the sun does it, so why can't we?  Fusion has a bad reputation from past false hopes - including the truly ideal cold fusion concept.

There are two main approaches to fusion, magnetic fusion and inertial fusion, and the US government oversees projects using each kind.  But Dr Michel Laberge believes his smaller and much nimbler General Fusion has a real chance (well, 50% and rising).  General Fusion has mixed the best of both worlds into magnetized target fusion - which notably removes the most expensive parts from the design.

Solar power from space MadLT solarspacerace.jpg

Asimov wrote about it in 1941 - huge amounts of solar energy could be generated in orbit and beamed down to us.  Technology (and demand) may again have caught up with Asimov's imagination.  
Gary Spirnak and his company (Solaren) have made a previous NASA design feasible by losing the heavy copper wires and planning for remote installation instead of launching astronauts.   Generated power would be beamed to receivers on earth via microwave.

Tesla was also a big fan of air as a conductive medium for power - he was talking about wireless transmission before anybody reading this was born.  And technically speaking, power can be transmitted from one place on earth to another.

On the one hand, this is a complicated way of collecting solar energy that falls for free every day, and traditional solar power is advancing rapidly.  On the other, the energy would still be available at night and on cloudy or just plain polluted days.

(I'm visiting Solaren's hometown soon and I have requested a tour.  Wish me luck!)

Tornado power

We know tornadoes have enormous destructive power.  Now imagine controlling and using that power.  Tesla was convinced we can break up tornadoes.  Louis Michaud wants to recover the costly waste heat from thermal power plants and use it to create controlled tornadoes, or vortex engines.

Solar chimneys were a predecessor to the idea of using the temperature differential to create air movement and therefore power.  But the towers need to be really really tall.  The manmade tornadoes use the same mechanism but require no material construction.

In future, these vortex engines could be built near tropical or equatorial warm waters (natural vortex generators in themselves).

Biomimicry (bionics meets sustainability) MadLT Lily_impeller.JPG

Aussie nature guy Jay Harman believes that natural designs beat human inventions - and he has good reason.  Based on his lifelong observations of nature (and water swirling down a bathtub drain), he's invented a spiral fan (Lily Impeller) which is both measurably more efficient and much quieter than traditional designs.

Not very exciting?  Fans and propellors are part of every computer, every air conditioning system, every pump system... Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates it "could save over a tenth of the world's energy."

Bionics, or copying nature to improve technology) has a respectable history.  Da Vinci was one of its greatest practitioners, and Velcro was a bionic invention (ever gotten a burr stuck to your clothes?).  Most of us think we know bionics from the very limited application described in The Six Million Dollar Man, but bionics has far greater application than replacing biological body parts.  And biomimicry adds sustainability as a key goal in bionic inventions.

In hives, although drones have very small brains, they constantly send each other data and modify their behaviour for the success of the hive.  This swarm logic has been successfully applied by REGEN Energy to control energy use in a large building - distributed decision-making succeeding where top-down control fails.

Algae biofuel

Cleaner biofuels are controversial because they're usually made from corn (that could feed someone directly) and have a poor energy return.

Other plant sources must be specially processed to create biofuel.  But cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, can create some ethanol metabolically when under stress.  Paul Woods is sure he can genetically modify these cyanobacteria to produce lots of ethanol under normal conditions.  Promisingly, this Algenol has potential for both car and jet fuels.

A casual comparison to milking cows was obviously meant to normalise this process for the General Public.  As I've failed to renew my GP membership, it just pinged my V-dar.  There are enough complex moral and practical issues around genetically altering and permanently harnessing live organisms for our own purposes to keep me arguing with myself for hours in the dead of night.  This isn't just using using yeast to make bread.

The chapter reassures us that sufficient genetic manipulation will prevent ecological problems a la failed biological pest control (cane toad, anyone?), but this failes to soothe all my ruffles.

Super Power Storage

Every day we become more dependent on battery power for the latest inventions.  The intriguing Richard Weir and his company EEstor have been promising a "ceramic battery" - a hybrid between an standard battery and an ultracapacitor. The ceramic battery would be safer, have a higher capacity, and have a much longer lifetime than today's batteries.

This is a game changer from handheld devices all the way to electric cars, for which power storage is a major barrier.

EEStor's ceramic battery development history has been slow and full of hype leading only to delays and disappointments, and other competitors have joined the race to get a ceramic battery into a real device into the market.

And over the edge

I thought this book had already shown me the bleeding edge of energy research...  Have we discovered everything there is to know about the universe?  Not likely.  Some researchers promote ideas that contradict accepted physical laws, and if they're convincing and diligent enough, they can pull a bit of funding too, in the hope of supporting a genuine world-changing breakthough.


I highlighted my concerns about the cyanobacteria biofuel project.  Naturally, the side effects of the other cleaner energy projects might be just as worrying if I knew more about them.

An even more worrying common theme to all the stories:  stronger than any possible technological barrier is the financial barrier, and the true source of the financial barrier is the monopolistic entropy of society's status quo.  Or BAU, business as usual.  Innovators want to get large energy companies on board to support them, yet large energy companies want to be on board only so far as they can prevent threats to their business.

Major governments invest heavily, with our money, into dying and dangerous power sources - subsidising and encouraging deep sea oil drilling and funding commercially unpopular nuclear fission power plants.

Hamilton uses the "half-full, half-empty glass" cliche to signal optimism in the final section of the book.  My conclusion from this book is that we have exactly no idea whether any of these fascinating brainchildren will overcome its technological barriers and then the monopoly market time to make a difference.

Luckily, I can see a Plan B.

Plan B
- No impact energy source

Much of our world's energy is squandered on the production and distribution of:

1) food animals
2) consumer leisure goods


3) wars of economic imperialism (ironically, the US military is the USA's highest energy user, while recently deployed to kill to protect our energy interests)

All these make our lives and the planet poorer.  The award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, which I'll be reviewing later, blows away any lingering fragments of the myth that our technologically complex society makes us fulfilled and happy.

A society like ours, dependent for success on unconscious consumption, will drain any energy source. I watch with interest the pursuit of cleaner power.  But none of these sources is free, none risk-free...and none is even ready now, when we desperately need it.

The only free energy?  Reducing consumption.  That's my little drone message to you, my fellow drones in this hive called Earth.  In that, you already have the real power.

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