Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is ammonia the holy grail for renewable energy storage?

"If you want to beat carbon, it's the only way to do it unless you change the chemical charts." So says Jack Robertson about the prospects for making ammonia the world's go-to liquid fuel and renewable energy storage medium.

Robertson is chairman and CEO of Light Water Inc., an ammonia energy storage startup. The carbon he mentions refers, of course, to the major carbon-based fuels of oil, natural gas and coal that provide more than 80 percent of the world's energy. The charts he mentions refers to the periodic table of elements, a listing of the basic elements of the universe which are about as likely to change their properties as the proverbial leopard is to change his spots.

Most of us think of ammonia as a pungent household cleaning agent that disinfects and deodorizes. Farmers are familiar with anhydrous ammonia (essentially ammonia that is not mixed with water) that is a common nitrogen fertilizer.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Progressive Commentary Hour with guests Kurt Cobb and Nate Hagens

In lieu of my regular weekly piece, I'm posting a link to a radio interview I did last week for the Progressive Commentary Hour as I take a brief hiatus. I was privileged to be on with Nate Hagens, former editor of The Oil Drum. We focused on the effect of peak (affordable) resources and climate change on the economy and society. I was pleased that host Gary Null had such a deep understanding and appreciation of the issues we discussed. You can find streaming and downloadable versions of the interview on the Progressive Radio Network site by clicking here and then scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Remembering where we live: Physics vs. biology

It is awe-inspiring to view images of galaxies and nebulas brought to us by high-powered, space-based telescopes. And, it is even more amazing to see depictions of such phenomena as if we, the viewers, are suspended in space a long, long way from Earth. In fact, in modern science fiction movies and television shows we are regularly treated to adventures that take place wholly outside of our solar system and even outside our own galaxy.

Artist's Rendering of The Milky Way
Source: NASA

But there arises an obvious question when one looks at, say, an artist's rendering of the Milky Way with our place in it highlighted: Who is seeing the Sun, the solar system or the Earth from that vantage point? The answer, of course, is no one. No human has ever seen the Sun, the solar system, or the Earth from that distance. And yet, we can conjure such a point of view and imagine through special visual effects that we might someday actually see such sights with our own eyes. In fact, some people claim that it is only a matter of time before we do.

This is the distance the mind can travel using physics. Physics is "the science that deals with matter, energy, motion, and force" according the dictionary. It is the world of "res extensa," literally, "extended things." It presumably operates without respect to humans. If we humans weren't alive, physical laws would still hold in the universe; and, the world of objects, of "res extensa," would still exist. Physics offers a bodiless, infinite view of where we live. According to physics we live in the universe.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The shareable economy: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good

Last fall at the Shareable Cities Summit in Portland a panelist from Getaround, the car sharing service, made the astounding statement that car sharing had the potential to reduce the number of cars on the road by an order of magnitude--for the math-impaired that means 90 percent.

What makes this seemingly fantastical development possible is the fact the cars sit parked 95 percent of the time according to Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning who has made a specialty of researching parking. (This fact has had a huge impact on the urban landscape. But that's a subject for another time.)

The received wisdom is that we are heading toward 2 billion vehicles on the road in the next 20 years, a doubling of today's 1 billion. This is put down primarily to auto demand in India and China. I've doubted this wisdom from the start because of obvious constraints on the liquid fuel supply. But virtually no one in policymaking circles believes that vehicle numbers are headed downward, let alone dramatically downward.