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Growing up in a country where English was the language of higher education, I inherited an Anglo-centric view of most developments in science and technology. For example, thinking about the history of printing, the names of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton came to mind. When I mentioned Caxton to a German friend, they looked blank, having only heard of Gutenberg. Six hundred years before Gutenberg and Caxton, however, there were nameless Chinese monks who used carved wooden blocks coated with ink to print Buddhist texts. Subsequently, movable metal type was used in both China and Korea, two hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press.
Language matters! The point was driven home to me when I travelled in Central Europe in the 1970s and came across a book. Lightning in his hand: the life story of Nikola Tesla. I read about his discoveries and inventions and thought, it couldn’t possibly be true. Most of these were Edison’s discoveries. The light bulb. The generator. Alternating current. Wrong on all counts apparently. Edison merely perfected the lightbulb and was a savvy marketer. He was also not above using dirty tricks to discredit competition. He is said to have publicly electrocuted dogs and cats with alternating current (ac/which we use today) to prove that his direct current was safer than Tesla’s ac. All this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. For an amusing take on Nikola Tesla’s many accomplishments compared to Edison’s, see Why Tesla was the greatest Geek who ever lived.
In the 21st century, there’s a face-off between two companies that both borrow the great Serbian genius’s name. Nikola and Tesla. Tesla, as some of you might know, became the most valuable car company on the planet this week, based on market capitalization, overtaking Toyota.
Nikola Motors is far less known, and aims to compete head-to-head with Tesla’s electric semi, a heavy duty battery electric vehicle slated to appear in 2021. Nikola claims its trucks, powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, will provide driving range comparable to a diesel truck. They say that pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will have to compromise either on range or haulage capacity, simply because of the weight of its batteries. Nikola has no sales and no revenue, yet has achieved market valuation of $34 billion in 2020. Hmm! Why is there no end of people willing to bet their money against Tesla?
On the other hand, Tesla has a brilliant track record of achieving seemingly impossible goals, its cars outperforming every other electric vehicle on the road today, and it already has several prototype semis on the road. CEO Elon Musk reiterates at every opportunity that he relies on first principles of physics to base technology choices and manufacturing decisions. The above image, courtesy of the non-profit Transport and Environment (via Clean Technica), seems to support his opinion, that producing hydrogen with current technologies to run vehicles on electricity produced by a fuel cell just does not make economic sense. Many engineers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Mercedes disagree with Musk and are putting a chunk of their considerable R&D resources into FCEVs* using hydrogen. None of them seem as yet to have prominent plans to roll out extensive hydrogen charging infrastructure so this indicates a future for FCEVs as niche products in the coming two decades.
All the legacy automakers are in a bind because of Tesla’s rapid roll-out of increasingly attractive and popular electric models. They face a triple whammy, locked in to their traditional supply chains, with highly qualified and experienced ICE workforces who need to either be retrained or made redundant, and confronting dramatically decreased car sales in 2020. Post-Covid, the only automotive growth segment seems to be in EVs.
A case can be made for FCEVs in the case of heavy duty, long-range transport vehicles that only need point-to-point charging infrastructure rather than a widely distributed one; think cargo ships, passenger ferries, trains. Aircraft powered by hydrogen? I don’t know whether the concept will take off (pardon the pun), although Zero Avia has short haul aircraft that run on hydrogen fuelled electricity. Whatever the case, the sooner we come off conventional ICEs, the better for our planetary future.
*FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
**ICE – Internal Combustion Engine
Anyone who reads the news today, whether on social media, newspapers, television, blogs, or whatever, is confronted with a litany of disastrous news about global warming, climate change, natural disasters, political crises, corruption, conflict and so on. True to the adage that good news is no news, there are few in-depth news stories about far-reaching events, running mostly in the background, that have potential to change the world. To give them credit, most news outlets nowadays are aware of this deficit and pepper their front pages with good news, most of which are one-offs; heart warming stories that are categorized as “human interest” stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love human interest stories, and devour them with my morning coffee. But they are not weighty enough to counter the leadbelly that results from reading the rest of the news. So how to counter that?
A perceptive listener once corrected me when I quoted: knowledge is power. No, they chided. Knowledge is only potential power. You have to do something with your knowledge to make it powerful. If you think about it, the converse holds true for bad news. Too much knowledge can be disempowering and reduce us to abject helplessness unless we do something about it. But what?
In an earlier blog entitled “Three score years and ten” I outlined a series of actions one can take to counter planetary leadbelly, beginning with baby steps. Meanwhile, here’s another link to a website that tells in-depth stories of people taking action around the planet to restore its health. Today, this particular story about Miyawaki Forests caught my eye. Tell your planetary gloom to take the day off. Follow the two links above, read, and enjoy.
Chris Goodall (environmentalist, economist and businessman) has published a book in 2020 on recommended steps for a zero carbon future. In 12 concise and easily digestible chapters he outlines steps to be taken to achieve (or even exceed) the UN goal of stopping greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although specific to the UK, the straightforward proposals in the book could easily serve as a blueprint for any country around the world, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of greenhouse gas emissions intensity.
The opening chapters deal with green energy generation to power local and regional grids, then move on to housing and transport. The chapters on transport deal with ground, air and shipping transport, three sectors that might need different fuels, depending on technological developments currently in their early stages; battery electric vehicles (BEVs) for ground transportation, hydrogen used with fuel cells for shipping, and liquid synthetic fuels for aviation. There are potential breakthroughs in the offing for each of these solutions and, of course, unforeseen developments in battery technology could mean that energy density is high enough for BEVs to power ships and airplanes as well as cars, buses and trucks. With so much potential waiting in the wings, this is an exciting time for new technologies, despite the looming threat of runaway climate change that can annihilate patterns of living we’ve developed over the past century.
There is a chapter devoted to fashion and its climate impact, as well as one on the carbon footprint of buildings, specifically in concrete production, and fossil fuels in heavy industry. There are known low-carbon solutions here, and the main problem is changing established production norms, the long lifetimes of existing physical infrastructure, and changing the mindset of the large corporations that own these industries.
Food production and forests have great potential to (one) reduce emissions and (two) absorb more CO2 respectively. Finally, it’s the economist’s turn to ask: how will all these changes be paid for? The straightforward answer is through a carbon tax that captures the environmental cost of the fuels used. However, experience has shown that the implementation of this straightforward answer is anything but. There are powerful vested interests to be overcome, not to mention the expense of retraining workers made redundant by obsolete industries.
Two chapters at the end of the book deal with direct air capture of CO2 and geo-engineering solutions. Each of these have their champions, but in my opinion, direct air capture (by industrial means) would never be cost-effective for a simple reason. The technologies that are sophisticated enough to make direct air capture cost-effective would also be good enough to lower emissions to the point where the technology is no longer needed. A sort of negative Catch-22. As for geo-engineering, the scales and money required for this effort would be best spent on researching and implementing technologies that lower emissions in the first place, rather than trying to decrease their effects. Secondly, there are too many unknowns associated with such large scale engineering projects. History is replete with examples of engineering hubris. The second half of the twentieth century saw countless predictions that “science would solve all problems” and “plentiful nuclear energy will provide power that is too cheap to meter.”
The final chapter, entitled “What can we do ourselves,” is more important than most people realize. On the one hand, individual actions do count and “little drops make an ocean.” But a second, little regarded effect of “little drops” will be the most important. Whether we live in democracies or dictatorships, ultimately, governments are guided by the cumulative wisdom of the governed. And in any nation where the overwhelming majority of its citizens practice sound environmental stewardship, this mindset will be inexorably transferred to the leadership as well.
We all know that leadership counts. We all realize intuitively that we get the leadership we deserve. So ultimately, logic stands on its head and we are forced to admit that we, the people, are the leaders who have to show our leaders the way.
FOSSIL FUELS ARE FOR DINOSAURS – Aviott John
The hydrogen economy may be only a decade away, or more. Some people think that battery electric vehicles will replace combustion engines in the interim. Whatever the case, there are exciting new developments happening in the world of hydrogen. Here’s a shared post from the blog Electrifying entitled Hydrogen – unleash the beast.
Here’s a story for the dwindling number (I hope) of climate change skeptics who still look forward to business-as-usual, or more-of-the-same as a blueprint for the rest of the 21st century. A HuffPost report in November reveals that, way back in 1956, the coal industry accepted the reality of global warming and did not feel threatened by it (the problem lay one generation in the future!). The same is true for the oil industry, according to a spate of lawsuits brought against it by various groups and several US States. In December 2019, Exxon won a major climate change lawsuit brought against it by the state of New York, but there are many more on the way.
The remarkable thing here is that the science of impending climate change was uncontested as long as the threat to the profits of fossil fuel corporations lay decades in the future. Here is the paradox at the heart of the debate about climate change. In the early days of global climate modelling, in the 1970s, the models were relatively unrefined and scientists themselves did not stake strong positions based on the results of their own models. Additionally, the majority of scientists subscribed to the myth that science has to be neutral in order to serve as an impartial referee that floated above the discussion, distributing facts where necessary. In reality, the discussions on the ground were becoming messy. The science began to be disputed as the soon as the deadline for meaningful action neared. Powerful polluters, mining companies, oil corporations, muddied the waters (both literally and intellectually) with arguments that played on statistical uncertainty to kick the decision a few decades down the road.
Meanwhile scientists sat back and redoubled their efforts, striving for ever greater accuracy in their models. They reasoned, logically, that once their results achieved greater accuracy, people would come round to their point of view. But that is not the way the world works. It has little place for logic and reason. So they toiled on, with ever more dense reports of double- and triple-checked facts and innumerable citations. Meanwhile the world went on guzzling gas and emitting CO2, methane, and worse. This is the point when the world drowns in despair or A MESSIAH APPEARS. Lo and behold! We have our unlikely messiah. Hundreds of thousands of school children, young people. Their face is that of Greta Thunberg whose single-minded focus has made her the global symbol of the movement.
If we look at simple facts, solutions to the problem are much more doable than we think. Elon Musk is mocked for saying that 10,000 sq. miles of the Nevada desert covered in solar panels could produce all the energy requirements of the United States. He’s right of course, but this is only intended as an example of scale. It wouldn’t be safe or desirable to have the entire nation’s energy needs produced at a single source. The following is a better example. An engineer acquaintance, Klaus Turek, calculates that in the case of a temperate country like Austria, just 0.391% of its surface covered with solar panels is sufficient to meet its electricity requirements. That works out to about 328 sq. km. for the whole country. The area covered by buildings is 2.4%, however (2,013 sq km approximately). Therefore, just 16% of the currently available roof space would be sufficient to cover all of Austria’s current electricity needs, with plenty left over for expansion.
A quick internet search reveals that the name ZOE means “life” in Greek and is usually a girl’s name, although it can be used for boys as well. A website called “Behind the Name” tells us that the name ZOE was adopted by Hellenized Jews as a translation of EVE. Two early Christian saints of this name were martyred under Hadrian and Diocletian. A few weeks ago I bought the Zoe pictured below. This Zoe has nothing to with saints or martyrdom but it could be one of a tribe that will help a gasping planet to breathe a little easier.
When one lives in a city with well-designed public transport there is little need for a private car, but after hearing a few acquaintances talk about range anxiety and the impracticality of electric cars, I decided to buy one and rent it out on a daily basis. This is intended as a small step to allay common fears and misconceptions about electro mobility. Some of these misconceptions are due to society’s resistance to change; others are spread by petrol heads, addicted to imported oil and oblivious to environmental costs and the thousands of kilometers conventional fuel has to travel before it enters the tank. Contrast this with electricity that is generated much closer to home (or even at home with your own solar panels!), and potentially available at every city street corner. Then there are the car companies with their armies of highly qualified technicians and engineers whose skills will suddenly become obsolete. Instead of powertrains and cooling systems, they suddenly need software engineers to tweak more power out of lithium ion batteries, or optimise charging speeds at various levels of charge, or find ways to enhance the power density of the cells they use. For example currently, the batteries of the BMW i3 carry a charge of 170 Wh/kg compared to the 250 Wh/kg of a Tesla. That’s a 32% advantage in battery weight alone, which translates into range, efficiency and price. And a company like Tesla makes improvements all the time, continuously upgrading even its older cars with over the air software updates. So conventional car companies have a vested interest in maintaining the manufacturing status quo and will produce more affordable electric cars only when more customers demand them.
The Zoe pictured above has a maximum range of 150 km, which translates to somewhere around 120 km in the real world, depending on driving speeds, terrain and temperature. In my fossil-fuelled car-owning days, I usually drove around 50 km a day during the week. On weekends, a jaunt to the surrounding countryside might mean a trip of 200 kilometers. The big surprise driving the Zoe in 2019 was to find that a good network of charging stations already exists around the country and in most countries in Western Europe. The big problem is they are not well marked, even on highways. The various charging points are not necessarily shown on a common app. These are all deficiencies that have to be overcome in the coming months, and I will try and talk to companies about these points. But the bottom line is, if one is willing to do some homework before a journey and map out a choice of charging points along the way, one can cover most of Western Europe emission free. Of course, I hear someone say, but ah, what about the emissions caused by the production of electricity. Good point. All the more reason for Europe to phase out its remaining coal-fired and natural gas power plants and switch to PV, wind and hydro.
Oh, but wind and PV are intermittent! You’ll still need fossil fuelled power to provide a stable base load of energy. This used to be a valid argument, but no longer. Efficient software, smart meters and battery backup can do the job at much lower rates. Additionally, countries like Norway, Spain and Austria are geographically favoured and have enough sites where pumped hydro can do the job at competitive rates. While writing this article I came across an interesting site listing existing pumped hydro storage (PHS) and future potential for six countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Spain).
The above work shows that conditions in various EU countries differ widely due to varying geography, political will and regulatory systems. There are many choices we can make as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. The quickest three steps may be to lower thermostats in winter, switch to a plant-based diet and either walk or use a bicycle for errands within a 5 kilometer radius of the home. If we must drive, then an electric car is not only better for the planet, it costs less to run and maintain in the long-run. The good news is that by now there are used electric car models available for the price of a small used car like the Volkswagen Polo. If you’d like to rent the Zoe pictured above for a day, a week or more, look for it on the car-sharing website at drivy.at and take it out for a spin. You will enjoy the drive.
Although this blog was begun to publicise my own fiction, there are so many interesting things to write about that the fiction element has been displaced by other kinds of stories; stories about geopolitics, concerns about global change (of which not least, climate change), and new developments in science and technology.
It currently seems to me, as an informed layperson, that the answer to the planet’s global warming crisis lies primarily not so much in technological advances as in social engineering for change. For example, livestock farming produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Halving the consumption of meat, to take only one measure, would have enormous health benefits for individuals and at a stroke, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of removing the 2015 contributions of the two most populous countries, India and China! According to a 2006 FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow (416 pp.), cattle alone are responsible for more global warming than all forms of transportation put together.
Another quick fix would be to reduce national defence budgets and invest the money in women’s health and education, easier said than done, considering the political madness that one sees in countries around the world. This too can be changed if enough people around the world set their minds to it and realise that we, the people, are the drivers of political change. Politicians are servants. They are merely people responding to our collective angsts and biases.
As global temperatures rise, people try to cope by installing air-conditioning units. This compounds the problem, since electricity consumption multiplies and heat dissipates to the outside world, creating urban heat islands and causing yet more global warming. It’s like polluting an ocean. Imperceptible when only one person does it, but massive when done by millions. Here’s an exciting technological fix in the works that might help to solve the air-conditioning problem: thermoacoustic cooling.
The principle was apparently observed by glassblowers more than two centuries ago. They noticed a sound was created when blowing a hot glass bubble at the end of a cold, long tube. 19th century scientists figured the sound was produced by the thermal gradient, and resonance was giving extra energy to the air in the tube. Apparently the first modern application to capture this energy for cooling was used in NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery in 1992. Today, there seem to be two companies, in the Netherlands and in France, who offer solutions based on this principle for pollution free cooling. Here’s a link to the websites of Dutch company, SoundEnergy and France-based Equium. The sooner such companies are commercially successful, the better for the planet. Here’s a simple demonstration of the principle showing the working of a thermoacoustic engine.