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Alternative Energy Sources.(13 posts)

Alternative Energy Sources.Humma Hah
Jul 31, 2003 5:25 PM
The Hummer discussion is totally out of hand. Sorry. But it led to the general problem of oil and energy. As these things both drive our economy and threaten our environment, they're important, and something cyclists (who tend to have a Green streak but who also gotta have jobs) will have opinions on.

I worked for 6 years on a project to develop an alternative fusion system. The project is still underway, but I needed to get back home to my wife, so after 2.5 years of relocation, said adios. I hope dearly they succeed, because the program is intended to use proton-Boron 11 fuel, producing only helium as a waste product, no neutrons, no radioactive waste, and incredibly little waste heat.

Right now, we're burning fossil fuel like mad, building up greenhouse gas, warming the planet, polluting the air, and depleting what could be useful chemical feedstocks for millenia. We need an alternative.

What is being worked on? Fission? Well, it works, but the technology is easily tweaked to make plutonium, and there's enough indication of what the consequences of THAT are in the news ... it is not a good world-wide option, especially with many third-world countries trying to join the atom bomb club.

Fusion? The DOE and its predecessors have been working on things like Tokamaks for about 40 years, and not making much progress. They've got a "thermo" mindset, trying to achieve temperatures of some hundreds of millions of degrees K to initiate fusion reactions, ignoring the more direct electrostatic acceleration approach of the project I worked on. They might achieve deuterium-tritium powerplants in something like another 25-40 years, but present indications are the plants would have a life of a couple of years, cost billions each, get radioactive as hell (the reactions produce industrial quantities of neutrons), and have some curious safety problems that make them prone to blow up with about a kiloton yield. We need something safer, cheaper, and available faster.

Solar? Nice on a small scale. Can we build enough to match demand without covering so much of the planet with them that they affect the ecology? And the present ones are made from poisons.

Wind? Been following the news lately? No self-respecting NIMBY wants a 200 ft windmill on their skyline, much less farms of them such as Palm Springs or Hawaii have. There are also worries they kill migrating birds.

Hydro? Pretty well fully exploited already, and has totally messed up the ecology of many rivers. Salmon and other migratory fish are threatened by them.

Conservation? If we get rid if the Hummers, Excursions, and Suburbans, all switch to hybrids, cycle whenever possible, and push for industrial economy, maybe we could realistically squeeze out another 25%. Expansion of third world economies would eat that up in less than a decade.

We need an aggressive program to come up with alternatives. Maybe several really good ones that are safe and scale up well to useful levels. I don't see it coming. I hear talk about "The Hydrogen Economy", but nobody knows where this hydrogen is gonna come from. It takes energy to extract it from water, the present method of extracting it from hydrocarbons is no better, maybe worse, than burning hydrocarbons.

Our economy runs on energy. We need it. Can't get by without it. But it is killing us. Ideas? Anyone?
Cow gas and political hot airMR_GRUMPY
Jul 31, 2003 6:52 PM
If we could capture all the gas that comes out of cows, we could power all of Washington DC. The political hot air from both parties could heat the city all through winter.
re: Alternative Energy Sources.gregario
Aug 1, 2003 4:38 AM
A thoughtful post once again sir. Thank you.

How about Bio-Diesel? I'm hearing more and more about it. Can say, a Jetta Diesel be modified to run on that (if any modifications are needed at all)? What would be the pollutants from that?

Otherwise I would say wind energy but I too have been hearing about the complaints about folks not wanting giant windmills cluttering up the scenery. Certainly I wouldn't want them on the skyline of Glacier National Park for example, but there has to be plenty of places for them.

What about energy from ocean waves?
re: Alternative Energy Sources.Alpedhuez55
Aug 1, 2003 5:35 AM
I would think that tidal power would be effective. I am supprised they have not come out with a more effective way of using it.

Wind power can be useful in sparsely populated areas, but the number of windmills needed to power a city would not be efficient. THey wanted to put an Off Shore in windpark off Cape Cod, but sadly, all the limosine liberals, Ted Kennedy included, are blocking it. I guerss he is worried about sailing his yacth into it after a couple of bad ice cubes!!!

It will be interesting to see what happens with the feul cell cars. If they have sufficiane power, I think they could work well.

Mike Y.
Arguments and alternatives ...Humma Hah
Aug 1, 2003 6:33 AM
Many alternative energy strategies need good energy storage to be workable. Wind is a classic. Great when its great. If, however, we could harness Ted Kennedy in front of a windmill, it ought to run steadily.

Waves: steadier, but they vary in strength, regularity, and direction. Tides: pretty predictable, but do need some storage capacity to get thru the periods of low rate of change, every 6 hours. Tidal power systems would require penning tidal flow in shallow water near shore, or in existing estuaries. Considerable care would be needed to avoid severe environmental damage. Estuaries are the key to about 80% of ocean life, and are to be protected dearly.

Fuel cells: what fuel? They run on hydrogen (even the ones that supposedly run on hydrocarbons actually use only the hydrogen from the fuel, wasting the carbon). Where do we get the hydrogen?

Biomass diesel: very interesting, although I'd prefer a cleaner alternative. Diesels are high-compression engines and tend to produce oxides of nitrogen in their exhaust due to the detonation of the fuel. Spark ignition engines running clean fuels like methanol, alcohol, or even the cleanest grades of gasoline, are potentially much cleaner, because they burn the fuel smoothly rather than detonating it. I think, if we could run the power grid on something else, use electric cars, bikes, trains, mass transport as much as practical, we could probably come up with enough biomass fuel to power aircraft and other transportation where hydrocarbon fuel is the only practical system. Again, though, raising biomass uses land and sunlight, and is not without environmental costs.

We didn't mention Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). This uses the roughly 20C difference between surface and deep ocean water. An inefficient process, but the energy is free and abundant. It would have environmental costs in changing the temperature of both layers of water.

Geothermal, to me, is great, when you can get it. Hawaii's Big Island largely runs on a couple of amazingly small plants. They have a wind farm, too, but as near as I could tell, its not actually on the grid and is not being maintained much. Hard for even those steady winds at the south tip of the island to compete with the compact and economical steam turbine plants possible when you live on a volcano. And near Kona, in sight of one of those steam plants, is an OTEC research facility. I believe they've given up on trying to produce commercial power with it as it can't possibly compete with the volcano's steam at that location. They're using the deep ocean water for some sort of aquaculture experiments.

The ideal power source would be a compact and economical nuclear technology with no radioactive waste and no potential to be used as a weapon. p-B11 fusion offers that possibility. It would trump almost all of the above, if it can be made to work. It may never replace chemical fuels for highway and aircraft use (probably can't be made small enough for a car), but could offer the ability to synthesize fuels or produce hydrogen.
Arguments and alternatives ...gregario
Aug 1, 2003 7:24 AM
sorry I can't resist..what about the flux capacitor or di-lithium crystals?

You answered my question about Bio-diesel. I was thinking of the possibility in the future of buying a diesel when bio-diesel was usable. But I know that diesels produce more smog, even if it smells like french fries.
re: Alternative Energy Sources.Softrider
Aug 1, 2003 9:55 AM
There was a little article in Popular Science last month about using the ocean waves to generate electricity.
Popular Science regularly predicts the return of dirigibles, tooThe Walrus
Aug 1, 2003 11:26 AM
...going back for decades--any day now we'll have safe, elegant and clean air travel courtesy of fleets of Zeppelins... Their prognosticative abilities are a bit questionable.
Personally, I like riding my dirigible more than my bicycle...bicyclerepairman
Aug 1, 2003 5:45 PM
Solar on an individual basisSpoiler
Aug 1, 2003 7:26 AM
I work with a retired biochemist. She worked on a project that led to the U.S.'s refusal to sign the global environmental agreement on lowering industrial emissions.

She said global warming is not man-made. Her group compared temp changes in the North Pole vs. South Pole. She said there's many industrial polluters near the North Pole, but no polluters near the South Pole. Her studies found both Poles were warming at the same rate, so they concluded that the industrial polluters weren't a factor.

Anyways, she's about 70 years old, and lives by herself. She converted her large mobile home to solar. She's "off the grid." She has to make a lot of changes in order to adapt to the restricted electrical capabilities, but she's got a lot more conveniences than I do.

The point is she cares enough to make the effort on an individual basis. She's not waiting for the government to make the decision for her.

Not everyone can afford to do this. When people who can afford to convert follow through, they set an example for the government to follow.
Up at the cabin in the woods ...Humma Hah
Aug 1, 2003 8:44 AM
My wife and I have a cabin in WVA, originally remote enough that going "off the grid" was viable. I put in a small 12V solar system (48W) for lighting and a 12V TV, and a large propane-powered generator for power tools and the deep-well pump. When I left for San Diego (to work on the fusion project), my wife insisted to go on the commercial power grid so she wouldn't have to fool with it.

It is really hard to get people to accept the expense, bother, and education requirements to go off the grid if there's cheap commercial power available. I kinda liked the technical challenge.

If I had to build the system over again for the same money, I'd go all solar, and possibly add a small-scale hydro plant to exploit a little seasonal stream on the property.
If only I knew the answerStarliner
Aug 1, 2003 8:11 AM
I think the answer to your question is to continue shifting to and improving on the various technologies you have mentioned. I do not feel we should be waiting around for the Big Breakthrough before we collectively wise up. That kind of Lottery mentality works against making small scale changes now which over time will add up, and buy us more time in the long run.

Government can help by creating incentives for people to become more responsible with managing their energy usage - with a two-pronged goal of conservation and of adopting more efficient means of using consumable energies.

An example which I've previously detailed out a while ago is a tiered pricing structure for gasoline purchasing whereby, for each licensed driver, the price of gasoline they would pay at the pump would increase after a X number of gallons purchased within an annual registration period; and increase further after Y number of gallons has been bought.

A plan such as this would put the monkey on the shoulders of the driving public, forcing us to make our own personal choices with regard to how to manage our own energy usage by making it cost us less money if we are responsible, and cost more money if we choose to be indifferent.

Unfortunately, I don't think many politicians would have the guts to support a plan which would place the burden of responsibility of energy usage on the shoulders of their constituents. It's much more politically expedient to go after the titans of industry with regulations and laws desingned to force them to make more efficient vehicles which, when they do, nobody will buy. So we all end up back at square one, wringing our hands and pointing fingers at everybody else but ourselves while we wonder how can we somehow change the ship's direction before we close in on that line of icebergs which loom ahead in the distant sunset...
Synthetic life to create biofuels?Continental
Aug 1, 2003 12:24 PM
Here's a link to an interesting article. http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/GEessays/SyntheticLife.html
I think there are many solutions for future energy sources. I'm afraid thatwe will need a severe crisis before we develop any of them, It's too easy to keep doing what we're doing.