Wednesday, February 24, 2010


So apparently all of our emmisions based power problems have been solved! Basically there is a company called Bloom which has created a fuel cell technology that uses combustible material, and a bunch of oxygen, to make power... sans emissions. Now that's a pretty tall claim [not as tall as the routine claims that people have broken the laws of thermodynamics] but no small accomplishment none the less, assuming they've actually done it that is.

If legit, this tech will address one of the biggest hurdles left to clear in order for our societies to transition to emissionless communities, base load. The idea between base load is this, throughout the day, in a given cities power network, demand for electricity with fluctuate throughout the day. In Perth for example [and most of the rest of Australia] our peak usage tends to be in the afternoon in summer, when people come home, turn on the computers, tv, electric ovens, and most importantly of all, and air conditioners [one of the most inefficient technologies around], where as in the early hours of the morning, when all the lights and appliances are off, the demand is significantly lower. Base load is the amount that a power company must supply to a customer, on the fly, so that things don't go dark.

The upshot of this is that most of the large scale clean production systems we've got at the moment [read: wind and solar] are simply fantastic as long as it's not a windless night. The way that our societies are organised, if the power just suddenly goes away it's more than merely inconvenient, it can have disastrous effects. On this point a lot of the hippies will cry out about how our behavioral patterns are the variables that need to change, and then everything will be honkey dorey. While I agree that our society could be a lot more engaged in the cause and effect involved in every day behavior [people who keep their houses at anything below 27 really shit me off] unless the hippies have figured out a way to mobilize a whole society into drastic behavioral change, we're going to have to go about it in a different way, and that means base load.

This is where the Bloom energy servers come in. The company spokesmonkey purportedly hopes that in 10 years homes will be able to buy their own fridge sized bloom box for about 3 grand USD. Supplying energy from anything that's combustible [like say, house biowaste and sewage]. 10 years is a long way away though, and if it's available in 10, that means that large scale adoption wont be in for another 10-15 so we're looking at somewhere in the 30's before the tide actually reverses direction. Which, by almost all accounts, is a probably a wee bit late. So what options do we have in the mean time to reduce our reliance on emission based based load generation? Well, we've got a few options.

Augmentation. This means pretty much what it sounds like, and to a certain extent, is starting to be rolled out at the moment. This is things like the traditional wind turbines and Photovoltaic solar panels. These are fairly easy to integrate into the existing power grid simply working the opposite to what happens when you turn on a blender. Instead of the system registering that a tiny bit more power needs to be supplied, it registers that a little less does. You've also got solar-thermal, which simply heats the water used in the power stations [which are normally just steam engines, essentially] which then has to be heated up less by the coal or gas or whatever, meaning less emissions. "But Ben, why have we not already started augmenting our grids?" I hear you ponder. Good question. One reason for the lack of take up of wind generation has actually been the green movement, believe it or not. There has been many a bearded man and dreadlocked lady the world over that have stopped wind turbines sullying their rolling mist laden vista's [personally I think wind turbines are very pretty and kind of hypnotic, like zamboni machines.] As for the rest, it's expensive, and we live in a society where the "benefit" in cost benefit analysis needs to also be measured in dollars. Social benefits having notoriously low dollar values.

Nuclear. I just heard the collective gasp of every one of my enviro mates, but hear me out. Nuclear reactors, as we are familiar with them, are a joke. It takes more money to refine and transport the fuel for them than they actually produce, and in terms of how long they need to run to produce the amount of power used to build them [a standard metric one can use when comparing power generation methods] we're looking at a time scale of around a decade; wind turbines are about 2 years.


There is a new kind of reactor that has been developed. It's called a pebble bed reactor, and it addresses the bulk of the issues that are raised with conventional nuclear reactors. The basic principle behind the difference between the two kinds of reactors [there's actually about six kinds, but I'll try and keep this simple] is that in conventional reactors all of the safety measures and technology is in an effort to stop the nuclear reaction from running away and causing a melt down [most of the handful of reactor accidents or near accidents have been caused by a broken water pump, or cracked pipe, or something else that normally stops the nuclear reaction from melting through the floor]. Pebble bed reactors are exactly the opposite, all of the systems are in place to ensure that the nuclear reaction is maintained, so should one [or all] of the systems break, the nuclear fission stops, and the plant [and one would presume everything it's hooked up to] goes dark. The material used to power these plants are the "pebbles" mentioned in it's name. They are graphite balls about the size of tennis balls with particles of fuel material [like Uranium] in it. The balls get stacked together and their proximity [in really large numbers] to one another creates the nuclear fission. Because the balls are immensely less potent they are passively safe, meaning you can be near them without you body melting, which also means they are much less of a headache to move around the place. Since they don't need to be cooled down with fluid the plants don't produce anywhere near the amount of waste that conventional ones do.

But all of this is a moot point, because I said the word Uranium, which is enough of make any argument to the left completely moot. I give mad props to the green movement for bringing all these issues to the public's attention over the last 30 years, but man it'd be really cool if they could get out of their own way for a while so we can actually get some stuff done.

So we come back to these Bloom energy servers. The basic principle behind them is a technology called solid state fuel cells. I had not heard of this method of power generation before now, and I'm not sure I can simplify it adequately [not helped by the fact that bloom is being very hush hush about how they work] but essentially, it seems to be like a kind of ceramic battery that takes a fuel, and turns it into electricity, with significantly less emissions. But here is the kicker, in the same way that an electric motor [which if spun by an external force] is also a generator, so to if you feed power into the bloom boxes [say from your house's solar panels or wind turbine] that power can be stored, like a giant battery. This is the truly significant implication of the Bloom Energy Server. Never before have we had a viable way to store enough power to keep things entertaining us into our social coma's when the wind and sun go away for a while.

We have possessed the tools to be a lot further along the road to sustainability than we currently are for quite a while now. The real crime is that when the stakes [and water levels] rise, the rich whiteys like my and most of you will all be fine. We have the money and resources to adapt to whatever comes our way [humans being far and away the most adaptable creatures] but all those poor uneducated schlebs... well, if any of you watched the film "chlidren of men" you'll know where we are heading.

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