Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Aug 18 2017

A New Option for Grid Storage

Published by under Technology

Last year I wrote about the various grid energy storage options, adding a newly proposed option – chilled air. I am now writing to add another new option to the list – concrete gravity trains. But first, let me review the background.

We need massive grid storage for two main reasons. The first is peak shaving. Energy demand peaks in the early evening, which means we need to have the capacity to meet all of peak demand, even though demand the rest of the day is lower. Peak power is less efficient and clean, because the more efficient energy is used preferentially for baseload production. We dip increasingly into the less efficient energy options when necessary to meet peak demand.

Grid storage could shift energy produced during low demand and then draw upon it during peak demand. Optimally enough grid storage could completely flatten power production, increasing overall efficiency.

The second reason for grid storage is the increasing use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar which are intermittent and not on-demand. This varies by season and location, but generally peak demand occurs just after sunset, when the sun is not shining. No matter how much solar and wind energy we produce, without grid storage we would need to maintain all of our peak capacity. You can encourage people to shift their energy use to times when energy is produced, but it’s hard to get everyone to do something.

The bottom line is that if we ever want to get to significant renewable energy production we will need significant grid storage.  Continue Reading »

29 responses so far

Jul 27 2017

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis

It is very disheartening for me to listen to the political discussions surrounding health care. I can’t help thinking that the proposed changes amount to rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

This is not to say that there aren’t important policy decisions at stake. It is important that everyone has health coverage, as a matter of efficiency and just compassion. However, the health care debate is often framed as an attempt to reduce health care costs. This is where the rearranging the deck furniture metaphor is apt.

There are some minor efficiencies to be gained in how we pay for health care, but that is not going to touch the real driver of rising health care costs – technology. Of course there are multiple factors, but the main one is the fact that we have the technology to deliver more care and more expensive care, and to keep people alive longer. This is combined with a culture that demands expensive care. We want MRI scans for every ailment, and the most aggressive procedures to keep our loved ones going for as long as possible.

More care and higher tech care costs more money.

Continue Reading »

25 responses so far

Jul 25 2017

The Speed of Commercial Jets

Published by under Technology

nasa_supersonic_conceptWhen I was about 10 my family flew to California to visit my uncle. The flight from New York to LA took about 6 hours. Forty years later a flight from New York to LA still takes about 6 hours (exact flight times vary by airline, but 6 hours is typical).

The pace of technological advance in the last century has been so fast that we generally expect everything to get faster, better, cheaper as a matter of course. So the flat commercial travel times seems to be a weird exception.

Airline travel has improved over this time. Jets have become safer and more fuel efficient. Average costs of flights have decreased by about 50%, although apparently this had more to do with deregulation than technology. It may also have something to do with the shrinking legroom in economy class. But still, why does it take me 6 hours to fly across the country?

There are a number of reasons for the flat commercial flight speeds, which make it seem that there is unlikely to be a change anytime soon.

Supersonic Flight

The first factor that most people likely consider is that we are pushing up against the sound barrier. This is partly true, but not the whole story. The Concorde, which was the only commercial supersonic jet, was retired in 2003. This was mainly because flights were too expensive and it wasn’t commercially viable. There have been no plans to bring it back or replace it.

Continue Reading »

24 responses so far

Jun 26 2017

Stephen Hawking on Space Travel

Published by under Technology

Moon-habitatAt the recent Starmus Festival, Stephen Hawking expressed some interesting ideas worth exploring. They are nothing new, especially for Hawking, but he seems to be speaking with more urgency on this issue. Essentially Hawking thinks that the human species needs to spread out off the Earth if we are going to survive long term. Here are his specific points:

  • The Earth is not sustainable, and so we need to spread out.
  • The Earth is at risk and therefore spreading out to other worlds will be a hedge against extinction events, like asteroids.
  • Exploring the solar system and beyond will unite humanity.

He specifically recommends colonizing the Moon and visiting Mars (apparently with longer term plans for colonization). I partially agree with Hawking. I tend to disagree with him on the first point. To be fair, he does say we need to tackle global warming and take care of the Earth, but he also seems to be pessimistic about our chances. He also mentions that he is talking about surviving for the next million years, and so he is talking long term.

Continue Reading »

29 responses so far

May 22 2017

The Smart Meter Hubbub

smart-meter-exampleSame story, different day.

While the details of specific topics change, people are the same. They commit the same fallacies and errors in thinking, and so the patterns of arguments tend to be the same.

Many power companies are replacing the old analogue meters with digital smart meters – devices that measure how much electricity you use and therefore need to be billed for. The newer meters are able to gather more information about electricity usage, not just overall usage. They can measure when you are using electricity throughout the day, for example. They can also communicate this information to the power company wirelessly, eliminating the need to have someone come to your home to read the meter.

There is an obvious efficiency to this increased data and communication. Further, one of the most challenging aspects of power production is balancing production and demand. Demand also tends to peak at certain times, which means that power companies need to have a lot of extra capacity that kicks in just for peak usage. Peak power production tends to be the least efficient and most expensive.

One hope is that smart meters will allow for peak shaving – giving customers information they can use to shift their energy usage off peak.

So what’s the controversy? The same litany of mostly made up complaints and conspiracy theories that seem to crop up for any new technology. Just about every complaint about smart meters has an analogy with vaccines and GMOs, for example, and generally the same crowd are complaining.  Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

Mar 28 2017

Is AI Going to Save or Destroy Us?

Published by under Technology

cylon1Futurists have a love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence (AI). Elon Musk represents the fear side of this. In two recent articles we see two sides of this fear of AI. In a Vanity Fair piece we learn:

He told Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance, the author of the biography Elon Musk, that he was afraid that his friend Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and now the C.E.O. of its parent company, Alphabet, could have perfectly good intentions but still “produce something evil by accident”—including, possibly, “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.”

We also learn from The Verge:

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company, which is still in the earliest stages of existence and has no public presence whatsoever, is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices.

So Musk thinks we need to enhance our own intelligence digitally in order to compete with the AI that we are also creating, so they don’t destroy us. Musk is joined by Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking raising the alarm bells about the dangers of AI.

On the other end of the spectrum are Ray Kurzweil, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page. They think AI will bring about the next revolution for humanity, and we have nothing to worry about.

So who is right?

Continue Reading »

304 responses so far

Mar 24 2017

3D Printed Houses

Published by under Technology

ApisCorHouseHere is a light and fun item for a Friday – we are making progress in the technology for 3D printing houses. Business Insider did a review of a San Francisco startup, Apis Cor, that says it built a 400 sq ft. house in 24 hours with $10,134 worth of materials. That is pretty impressive.

They estimate the cost of a square house built with their methods at around $223 per sq meter. A conventionally built home would be in the $1,200 per sq meter range (obviously this is highly variable, depending on quality, complexity, and finishing).

3D printed homes are not new. The idea is that you use a large 3D printer that makes the walls of the home using additive technology. They print with some version of concrete. There are limits on the size and the height of such constructions, and it has been costly and time-consuming to set up the printer on sight. One option is to 3D print sections of a house in a factory then deliver them and assemble on site. This adds time and expense.

Apis Cor’s advance is their 3D printer, which they claim is more portable and can easily and quickly be set up on site, to 3D print the home entirely as one piece. The video at the link above shows the process (but is almost comical in that it is a self-parody of a corporate promotional video).

Continue Reading »

10 responses so far

Mar 21 2017

Y2K and the Year 2038 Problem

Published by under Technology

unix2038I was recently asked about the year 2038 problem as it relates to the Y2K bug. Specifically, it seemed like the Y2K bug was a non-event, so should we similarly not worry about the year 2038 problem.

Lessons from Y2K

At this point some of you may not know what I am talking about, so first some history. When the modern computing age was being developed back in the 1950s memory was at a premium. For this reason dates were represented by six digits – MM/DD/YY.  Just two digits were used for the year, assuming that all years had the prefix 19. So 01/01/80 was January 1st, 1980.

The first person to recognize this was a potential problem was Robert Bemer in 1958. Apparently he spend the next couple of decades trying to convince his fellow programmers this was a problem, but no one listened. Talk of the year 2000, or millennial bug (often shortened to Y2K bug) didn’t really spread until the 1980s, and no one took it seriously until the 1990s.

The potential problem is that once the date turned over to January 1st, 2000, computers would only record that as 01/01/00, and treat it as 1900. This might cause systems to crash, and by 2000 much of our society was controlled by computers, from banking to air traffic control. In the 1990s the Y2K bug went from a non-problem to a mild panic, with the most dire warnings talking of civilization collapse.

Continue Reading »

28 responses so far

Mar 07 2017

Phasing Out Coal

Published by under Technology

coal_waterIt seems clear that if we are going to make significant progress in reducing global CO2 emissions, we are going to need to phase out the burning of coal to generate electricity. The UK may serve as a demonstration of this fact.

In recent years UK coal burning has plummeted – in 2016 the UK burned 18 million Metric Tonnes (Mt) of coal, which is less than it has burned since before 1860. At its peak in 1956 the UK burned 221 Mt of coal.

As a result, overall carbon emissions from the UK have also dropped, from its peak of 685 Mt of carbon in 1970 to 281 in 2016. That is the lowest annual carbon emission from the UK since 1894 (not counting two years in the 1920’s during massive strikes).

Power from coal is being replaced by power from gas, oil, and renewables. Last year the UK generated more power from wind than from coal. Some are crediting the precipitous drop in coal burning to a doubling of the carbon tax in the UK in 2015.

Continue Reading »

88 responses so far

Jan 31 2017

Are We Close to a Flying Car?

Published by under Technology

flying carThere is a good rule of thumb that whenever a headline is phrased as a question the answer is, “No.” This headline is no exception. You might not think this from reading a recent AP article titled: “A commuter’s dream: Entrepreneurs race to develop flying car.”

I am old enough now where I can say that I have been reading such headlines for literally decades. Since I was a nerdy teenage technophile I have been reading about, and dreaming about, flying cars. They are undeniably cool – one of the holy grails of future technology.  I still sometimes imagine myself rising above the congested roads during particularly bad traffic and flying to my destination unhindered.

The AP article, however, is an excellent example of the overhyped future technology trope. Often a dramatic new technology, like flying cars, requires that several different component technologies all work sufficiently so that the application is feasible. Skyscrapers could not be built until the elevator was invented. It didn’t matter if engineers had perfected ways of supporting really tall buildings if no one could get to the upper floors.

I have discussed this idea with batteries many times. A useful battery has to simultaneously have multiple properties: good energy density and capacity, stability, sufficiently rapid charge and discharge rates, many charge-discharge cycles, and be made of material that is not too expensive, heavy, rare, or toxic. There also has to be a way to economically mass produce them. Missing even one property can be a deal-killer.

Continue Reading »

28 responses so far

Next »