Posts about Energy

WindTree – Harnessing Breezes for Electricity

This style of wind power looks cool. The WindTree turns small breezes into electricity. Its production varies with the wind speed and its average output ranges between 1,500 kWh and 2,000 kWh. Peak power is 3,500 kWh.

But I don’t see how it can be effective given the large cost. The WindTree is being offered for installation late in 2017 in the USA and Canada at $67,500 – excluding delivery, installation and taxes (they estimate almost $100,000 total). It really seems to me the prices would have to come down by more than 75% to make any real impact in the market.

An average household in the USA uses 901 kWh per month.

The tree is 36 feet tall and 26 feet in width. The first trees were installed in France in 2015, the company is based in France.

It is good to see us investigating numerous ways to generate clean energy. But unless the price of this drastically reduces over time it doesn’t seem likely to contribute much to our energy needs.

Related: Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally 2005-2012Capture Wind Energy with a Tethered Turbine (2007)Engineering Floating Wind Farms (2010)Sails for Modern Cargo Ships (2008)

Ancient Chinese Natural Gas Drilling Using Bamboo

This very interesting article is a great read about the history of Chinese bamboo drilling by Oliver Kuhn.

The first recorded salt well in China was dug in Sichuan Province, around 2,250 years ago. This was the first time water well technology was applied successfully to the exploitation of salt, and marked the beginning of Sichuan’s salt drilling industry. From that point on, wells in Sichuan have penetrated the earth to tap into brine aquifers, essentially ground water with a salinity of over 50g/l. The water is then evaporated using a heat source, leaving the salt behind.

At some point around 2,000 years ago the leap from hand and shovel dug wells to percussively drilled ones was made. By the beginning of the 3rd century AD, wells were being drilled up to 140m deep. The drilling technique used can still be seen in China today, when rural farmers drill water wells. The drill bit is made of iron, the pipe bamboo. The rig is constructed from bamboo; one or more men stands on a wooden plank lever, much like a seesaw, and this lifts up the drill stem a metre or so. The pipe is allowed to drop, and the drill bit crashes down into the rock, pulverizing it. Inch by inch, month by month, the drilling slowly progresses.

A major breakthrough was achieved around 1050 AD, allowing deeper wells, when solid bamboo pipe was replaced by thin, light, flexible bamboo “cable”. This dramatically lowered the weight that needed to be lifted from the surface, a weight that increased with the depth being drilled. By the 1700s Sichuan wells were typically in the range of 300 – 400m deep

One bamboo pipe line would take away the brine, and others the gas. The 2,000 year plus Sichuan salt industry has drilled approximately 130,000 brine and gas wells, and 10% of those were in the immediate Zigong area. Zigong has a cumulative gas production over this period of over 30 billion cubic metres. The area continues to be a major salt producer, and many of the historical wells are still in production.

drawing of Chinese drilling scene

An ancient sketch originally from “The Annals of Salt Law of Sichuan Province”. A “Kang Pen” drum is seen in the centre foreground, with gas pipes directly feeding the salt stoves on the right. At the top, brine from a remote well is being carried in buckets by men, who feed it into a bamboo pipeline that runs down to the stoves. One of the carriers is being paid at top left, and it appears that a blow out is depicted on a new well being drilled.
(from Zhong & Huang)

As recently as the 1950s there was still over 95km of bamboo pipeline in operation in the Zigong area.

Related: Research on Ancient Roman Concrete Will Allow the Creation of More Durable and Environmentally Friendly ConcreteWhy did China’s Scientific Innovation Stop?Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Highest Paying Fields at Mid Career in USA: Engineering, Science and Math

Payscale has again provided details on average salaries by major for various fields. Once again engineering, math and science dominate. For this data they define mid-career as those with 10+ years of experience.

The top 15 bachelor degrees by mid-career salary were all from those 3 fields. And the median salary was $168,000 for petroleum engineering degrees (at the top) to $107,000 for Aerospace Engineering and Computer Science and Mathematics (tied for 14th).

The starting salaries for those with these degrees ranged from $58,000 for Actuarial Mathematics (though by mid-career salary they were in 3rd place at $119,000) to $101,000 for petroleum engineering. My guess is petroleum engineering salaries will decline from their current highs (as they have done in previous oil price busts). The second highest paying bachelor degree starting salary was for mining engineering at $71,500 – with most of the other fairly close to that amount.

Nuclear engineering pay started at a median of $68,200 before rising to the 2nd highest mid-career level of $121,000.

Payscale also provided data based on master’s degree field. Again petroleum engineering was in first place by mid-career ($173,000). Nurse anesthesia was in second at $159,000 and held the first spot for starting median salary ($139,000).

Taxation is the only filed that is obviously not STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) related which had the lowest initial median salary of $60,700 but was tied for 5th for mid career salary at $126,000. Technology management and operations research are also not STEM fields though are a bit related to the STEM area.

PhD degree’s with the highest mid-career median earning are again all STEM fields. Economics is one many people probably don’t think of as STEM but it is (as a social science) and really it is largely mathematics at this point.

Many of the PhD starting salaries are at $100,000 (or close). The disciplines with the highest mid-career median salaries are: Electrical and Computer Engineering $142,000; Computer Engineering $139,000; Chemical Engineering $138,000; Biomedical Engineering, $137,000; and Economics $134,000.

Related: No Surprise, Engineering Graduates Pay Continue to Reign Supreme (2012)The Time to Payback the Investment in a College Education in the USA Today is Nearly as Low as Ever, Surprisingly (2014)Engineering Again Dominates The Highest Paying College Degree Programs (2011)Earnings by College Major” Engineers and Scientists at the Top (2013)Looking at the Value of Different College Degrees

MudWatt: Make Power From Mud!

Keegan Cooke and Kevin Rand created MudWatt kits as a way to engage kids/students with science. From the website:

We want to show kids this brighter side of STEM, to empower them to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. Because let’s face it, there are plenty of problems in the world that need solving.

Unfortunately, our experience in school wasn’t unique. In 2011, less than one-third of 8th graders in the U.S. were deemed proficient in science. Today, 70% of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields. The supply of STEM education is not meeting the demand.

Most of the world’s mud contain microbes that produce electricity when they eat. That is the engine driving the MudWatt. Colonies of special bacteria (called shewanella and geobacter) generate the electricity in a MudWatt.

The electricity output is proportional to the health and activity of that bacterial colony. By maintaining these colonies in different ways, you can use MudWatt to run all kinds of great experiments. Thus the MudWatt allows kids to engage with science, using their natural curiosity to experiment and learn. Engaging this too-often-neglected human potential will bring joy to those kids (as kids and as grown-ups) and benefit our society.

With standard topsoils, typical power levels are around 100 microWatts, which is enough to power the LED, buzzer, clock, etc..

Related: Arduino, open source hardware (Introduction Video Tutorial)Teaching Through TinkeringAwesome Gifts for the Maker in Your LifeQubits Construction Toy

Biomass Fueled Power Generator from All Power Labs

All Power Labs produces biomass fueled power generators. They have grown from a open science and engineering foundation to their current position. I really like how they are focused on promoting understanding and encouraging collaboration.

They reject the copyright cartel closed science mindset; which is something I like. Their product takes waste biomass; for example walnut shells, coconut shells, hardwood chips (Oak, Beech), softwood chips (Douglas Fir, Pine). It also takes corn cobs, palm kernel shells and others but there are additional challenges to operation.

Their products use gasification which is most simply thought of as choked combustion or incomplete combustion. It is burning solid fuels like wood or coal without enough air to complete combustion, so the output gas still has combustion potential. The unburned gas is then piped away to burn elsewhere as needed.

The Power Pallet is a complete biomass power generation solution that converts woody biomass into electricity. It costs $29,995 which translates to a cost of $1-$2/watt which is more cost effective that alternatives. They have significant sales in developing markets where power is often problematic. It is specifically not suited to some fuel – wastepaper (could maybe work in pelletized form), municipal waste, coconut husk…

This webcast is the start of a presentation on the history and current state of their efforts (continue to view other clips for the whole presentation):

Related: Ethanol: Science Based Solution or Special Interest WelfareDo It Yourself Solar Furnace for Home HeatingKudzu Biofuel Potential Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally from 2005 to 2012Turning Trash into Electricity (2006)

The Downside of Adopting the Metric System

The only downside of adopting the metric system is less control over room temperature (based on my experience). Every ºC = ºF * 1.8 so have less control (when using only integers to control temperature as is the case in my experience).

Granted this could be solved easily by using .5 (option in air conditioning and heating controllers but in my experience they don’t) for Celsius. For Fahrenheit this works out to enough control for me. For Celsius in a fair number (lets say 15%) of systems it is a bit uncomfortable.

The specific circumstances add greatly to creating a problem. My guess is those that annoy me swing even further than 1 ºC, they move further in one direction in order to not turn on and off all the time. So maybe that moves to swings of 2 or 3 ºC at the measurement point. But that is another issue, the measurement on home (or hotel) systems is often 1 reader so the variation is often greater in other locations.

Add to that the imprecision of their measures, I don’t have good data, but I am confident that the measurement error is fairly high. I am pretty comfortable at about 25ºC for air conditioning. But in some places I am cold at 27º and others I am warm at 23º. It could be me, but I don’t think so (most of the time – sometimes it is me).

A long time ago I had some imprecise portable temperature gauge and while I wouldn’t stake my life on results based on it, it confirmed my feelings (when I felt it was warmer than the local reading said my device agreed and when I felt it was colder my device agreed). Hardly scientifically valid proof, but it made me more comfortable trusting my opinion on this matter anyway.

My guess is in a unit using ºF you often can be 4 or 5 degrees off (or more) in different locations. For some people that might be ok. But for me that often starts to be uncomfortable. If you convert the issue to that time 1.8 it is noticably worse.

Now in reality I don’t think it expands quite that much. While the manufactures balance the confusion of adding .5 to a Celsius controller and decide not to, I would think they don’t swing 1.8 times as far (in heating or cooling in order to not turn on and off all the time), but it is still let precise than using Fahrenheit integers. I believe (hope) they set their internal dynamics not based only on integers but could say for example turn off .5º past the setting and turn on when the conditions are .5º worse than the setting (so .5º too warm in the case of air conditioning, for example).

It is still lame the USA fails to adopt the metric system, but reducing this problem in the USA is one small benefit of holding off 🙂 I wonder if 1 in a million, 1 in 10 million… up to 1 in 7.2 billion people (just me, all alone in the world) have my concern for the lack of precision of heating and air conditioners when using the metric system.

Related: Google Lets Servers Stay Hot, Saving Air Conditioning CostsDo It Yourself Solar Furnace for Home HeatingUsing Algae Filled Window Panes to Provide Passive and Active Solar

Do It Yourself Solar Furnace for Home Heating

Man builds $300 solar furnace, decreases heating bill

“I think it’s something that everyone should have affixed right to [their] house. I think it should be part of your design,” said Buchanan. “It would be very easy to do. [With a] south-facing house like mine, it’s perfect.

“Just mount it on the side. If you touch the side of the house, even at —20 C, it’s still hot. We should be gathering that heat and driving it inside as quickly as possible.”

It is great to see do it yourself solutions that easily tap the energy provided by the sun to heat your house.

I had a friend that had a south facing greenhouse (attached to her house) that had 2 huge water tanks. They would heat up in the sun and give off heat all night (the stone floor would do the same thing).

Related: Brian’s Pop Can Solar HeaterSolar DIY Space Heating ProjectsHow to Build a Soda Can HeaterPay as You Go Solar in IndiaSoda-can furnaces powered by solar energy heat Denver neighborhoodGreen Building with Tire BalesCost Efficient Solar Dish by Students (2008)

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Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Elon Musk (the engineer and entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and before that he helped create PayPal) has a very cool idea of how to provide fast long distance transportation (faster than a plane). Essentially it is a big version of pneumatic tubes that used to be used to send small packages around a building, as seen in the movie – Brazil 🙂 Details are scheduled to be released August 12th.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Build the Hyperloop for a Tenth the Cost of High-Speed Rail

Having a elevated Hyperloop main line also completely avoids or reduces many of the pitfalls of ground-level right-of-ways, and opens up some new opportunities as well:

  • The crossing of other right-of-ways, like roads and railways, will be a breeze.
  • Rivers and other terrain obstacles will only be a 10th the problem of rail construction.
  • Hyperloop can avoid tunnels completely by having more flexible choices of right-of-way.
  • An elevated right-of-way opens up new route options, like leasing farmer’s fields using contracts similar to what wind-power companies sign.
  • That could be paid for by leasing Hyperloop’s right-of-way to communications companies for fiber optic cables, cell phone towers, etc.
  • …and let’s not forget the solar power that a couple of square miles of surface area can generate!

Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for Hyperloop

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power.

Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Elon Musk has some very good ideas but what really sets him apart is turning them into functioning enterprises. Great ideas are wonderful but a huge number never go anywhere. Those people that can actually get ideas into the marketplace are the people that provide a much greater standard of living for all of us. And many of them are engineers.

Update: link to his blog post announcement.

More examples of cool extreme engineering: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelTransferring Train Passengers Without Stoppingtransatlantic tunnelWebcast on Machine That Bores Subway Tunnels

Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally 2005-2012

Chart of installed wind energy capacity by country from 2005 to 2012

Chart of installed wind energy capacity by country from 2005 to 2012 by Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog using data from the Wind Energy Association. 2012 data is for the capacity on June 30, 2012. Chart may be used with attribution as specified.

Wind power generation capacity continues to grow faster than the increase in electricity use. The rate of growth has slowed a bit overall, though China’s growth continues to be large.

From 2005-2012 globally wind power generation capacity increased 330%; lead by China with an increase of 5,250%. Of the leading countries Germany grew the least – just 63%. The percent of global capacity of the 8 countries listed in the chart (the 8 countries with the highest capacity in 2012) has been amazingly consistent given the huge growth: from a low of 79% in 2006 to a high of 82.4% in 2011 (2012 was 82%).

Global growth in wind energy capacity was 66% in 2008-2010. In 2010 to 2012 the increase was 28%. The second period is just 18 months (since the 2012 data is for the first half of the year). Extending the current (2010-2012) rate to the end of 2012 would yield an increase of 37%, which still shows there has been a slowdown compared to the 66% rate in the previous 2 year period. The decrease in government subsidies and incentives is responsible for the slowing of added capacity, though obviously the growth is still strong.

From 2005 to 2012 China’s share of global wind energy capacity increased from 2% to 27%, the USA 15% to 20%, Germany fell from 31% to 12%, India fell from 7.5% to 6.8% (while growing capacity 292%).

Hydro power is by far the largest source of green electricity generation (approximately 5 times the capacity of wind power – but hydro capacity is growing very slowly). And installed solar electricity generation capacity is about 1/5 of wind power capacity.

Related: Global Wind Energy Capacity Exceeds 2.5% of Global Electricity Needs (2010)Wind Power Capacity Up 170% Worldwide from 2005-2009Wind Power Provided Over 1% of Global Electricity in 2007

Pay as You Go Solar in India

Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar

In October, Bangalore-based Simpa Networks Inc. installed a solar panel on Anand’s whitewashed adobe house along with a small metal box in his living room to monitor electricity usage. The 25-year-old rice farmer, who goes by one name, purchases energy credits to unlock the system via his mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go model.

When his balance runs low, Anand pays 50 rupees ($1) — money he would have otherwise spent on kerosene. Then he receives a text message with a code to punch into the box, giving him about another week of electric light.
When he pays off the full cost of the system in about three years, it will be unlocked and he will get free power.

Across India and Africa, startups and mobile phone companies are developing so-called microgrids, in which stand- alone generators power clusters of homes and businesses in places where electric utilities have never operated.

Very cool. Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access. The poorest spending up to 30% of their income on inefficient and expensive means of providing light and accessing electricity. Solutions like this, finding engineering solutions for basic needs that are market based, are great.

That the poor end up owning their solar system after just 3 years is great.

Creating great benefit to society with the smart adoption of technology and sustainable economics is something I love.

Related: Solar Power Market Solutions For Hundreds of Millions Without ElectricityAppropriate Technology: Solar Hot Water in Poor Cairo NeighborhoodsEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerWater Pump Merry-go-Round

Google Lets Servers Stay Hot, Saving Air Conditioning Costs

The electricity to run huge server farms is enormous. One of the significant cost is air conditioning to cool down the server rooms.

Too Hot for Humans, But Google Servers Keep Humming

Google’s data center in Belgium, which was the company’s first facility to rely entirely upon fresh air for cooling, instead of energy-hungry chillers.

For the vast majority of the year, the climate in Belgium is cool enough that this design works with no problems. When it gets hot in Belgium, the temperature inside Google’s data center warms beyond the facility’s desired operating range

During these periods, the temperature inside the data center can rise above 95 degrees.

“We’ve had very few excursion hours, and they don’t last long, so we let the site run right through them. We ask our employees to go in and do office work. It’s too warm for people, but the machines do just fine.”

Google’s experience is the latest affirmation that servers are much tougher than we think. Many data centers feel like meat lockers, as servers are maintained in cool environments to offset the heat thrown off by components inside the chassis. Typical temperature ranges in data centers often range from 68 and 72 degrees.

In recent years, rising power bills have prompted data center managers to try and reduce the amount of power used in cooling systems.

The temperatures in Fahrenheit obviously. I was surprised that the servers don’t seem to need to be chilled to perform well.

Related: Saving Energy with Smart SoftwareNew Server Uses 75% Less Power and Space

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