December 03, 2008

Just in time for Christmas!

Thanks to Hringvolnir.

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August 12, 2008

Automate everything

Food production? Far too labor intensive. Why not pick fruit with robots? Why not grow meat?

Getting food from the farm to the store? From the store to your house? Work humans won't need to do much longer.

The house? Construction is dangerous, tiring work that'll wreck your back. Print one instead.

What builds all these robots? Robot factories, of course. (Yeah, it's lego and it's old, but it's also sweet).

There's no new science needed for any of these things to become standard operating procedure, only (admittedly large) engineering challenges. What is holding it all back (to varying extents, robocars least of all) is the cost and distributability of energy, paired tightly with the efficiency of it's use. Everything we strive for depends on energy getting cheaper and easier to store and move, and every time energy gets more abundant, "science fiction" gets closer to being science fact. At the same time, humans are pathetically inefficient machines with a lot of overhead needed to power our brains and homeostasis, so making a machine that can use energy more efficiently than we can is a lower bar than you might think (something as simple as a bicycle or skateboard can dramatically increase the efficiency of human locomotion, for instance).

Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe in the nobility and moral character of manual labor. I believe more strongly, however, that skilled human attention is a scarce resource, and every time we're able to replace it with a lower-cost substitute. That lowers the price of goods and -- even more importantly -- frees up some amount of human attention for tasks we cannot yet automate. More available labor means costs can go down again, and the cycle can continue forward as more and more complex tasks can be automated.

This is the future I hope I live to see. I fully expect to watch cascading labor riots as human workers are edged out, again and again by machine, eventually losing out to economic realities, elsewhere if not here. I'm not looking forward to the riots, but I'm not sure there's any policy that will let us truly sidestep them.

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July 29, 2008

Zinc just keeps coming up in my posts

Al Fin Energy has a great article on a Zinc/Bromine battery that purports 5 times the energy density of a Lithium ion battery of similar size. Even if they end up being the same energy density, it's still a great step. Zinc is dirt cheap and safe to mine. If we went whole-hog using it for transportation, though, we might finally have to ditch pennies.

As ever, listen to the "end is near" crowd only with a large grain of NaCl. Better electric/energy storage and an expanded electrical grid are coming, and a post-oil future with them. In the meanwhile, we should be drilling everywhere we can.

In the short term, we can burn our own oil and save some cash. In the medium term (after we don't need it), we can sell it to the OPEC nations after they run out. Cackling madly while we do this is, of course, optional.

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July 13, 2008

Pennies = power? (reposted from LJ)

Bare with me, because this is either the worst or best idea I've had this week. It definitely gave me giggles when I thought of it. Sadly, it was not quite mad scientist cackling. I'm saving that for something bigger.

US penny = Copper clad zinc ingot (97.5% Zn, 2.5% Cu).

The Zinc-air battery (or Fuel Cell) uses zinc and atmospheric oxygen as a fuel, generating current through the oxidation of zinc. It would require some amount of copper wire to create conducting leads at the anode and cathode.

Copper and zinc have different reactivities, and this difference could be exploited to remove the copper jacket from the zinc ingot. This link shows a method for using 6M HCl to dissolve the copper and recover the zinc, but doesn't suggest a good way to recover the copper. That will take some looking around, but it's not critical to the project.

How many pennies would it take to build a Zn-ZnO battery that equaled the power output of a AA battery? Is there any chance that it's fewer pennies than such a battery would cost? It's not likely, by any means, but this is government we're talking about. Even if it isn't cost-effective, I've got loads of pennies to try this with just as an experiment in fabricating a simple battery (it's not technically a fuel cell in this case unless you can reverse the Zn-ZnO reaction and store new energy).

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DCFC links and thoughts, reposted from my LJ

Warning: Science content.

Fuel Cell basics
Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) basics
Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC) basics
SARA DCFC research (MCFC approach)
CellTech DCFC research (SOFC with a twist)

In all cases, DCFCs operate at between 700 and 850 degrees centigrade (reaction temperature). A reasonably sized residential cell would be intended for combined heat and power (CHP). Because there's no thermal cycle, per se, just direct chemical conversion, you can pretty much sneer arrogantly at the Carnot limit. In all cases, theoretical efficiency is ~70% for the overall system (compare to conventional coal at ~25-40%). The input fuel can vary from graphite powder to carbon black to methanol (ground diamond could theoretically work). The waste product is CO2, but it's easily captured if you care about that (I don't). The listed temperature suggests that these might be excellent candidates for thermoelectric conversion if electricity is more greatly desired than heat, and partial thermoelectric conversion might improve the overall efficiency in any case. Most of the papers I've read were written prior to the recent revolution in thermoelectrics, so that's worth looking into. Further, I can easily envision a situation utilizing all the waste from such a cell to heat simultaneously heat a greenhouse and supply it with extra CO2 to stimulate plant growth -- nearly ideal for an arctic or antarctic enclosed farm. Or Michigan in Winter, say.

This sort of cell could be scaled for use in a car, but the high temperature might be a very serious issue, which is likely why Honda went with the methanol-reforming cells for their super-expensive fuel cell concept car. They run at a much lower operating temperature (250-300 degrees centigrade, comparable to an internal combustion engine), and the waste from them is H2O rather than CO2 (H2O is actually the stronger greenhouse gas, but it can be caught and condensed at some cost to efficiency). However, you have to carry around a cell full of methanol as a hydrogen source, and the efficiency of such cells is much lower (25-40%). This is another area where thermoelectric insulation could make a very serious difference in the utility of such a cell for this very desirable application.

I shall continue to ponder. Both the companies I listed above did literally start as garage shops. I'm not likely to beat them to commercialization, but it would be fun to build a cell as a project. Wouldn't mind heating my house with graphite or carbon black, for that matter.

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