Archive for May, 2023

May 30 2023

Should You Get a Heat Pump?

Published by under Technology

Starting around 1550 and lasting through the 1600s, England had an energy crisis. They were running out of wood, which was the main source of fuel for residential and commercial heating. England also needed a lot of wood for their massive navy – it took about 2,000 trees to build one of the larger warships. As a result they turned to coal, which has a high energy density and worked nicely for heating. It has the not-insignificant problem, however, of generating a lot of pollution, choking large cities like London in black smoke. This lasted into the 20th century, culminating with the great London smog of 1952.

The world still burns a lot of coal to generate heat, but generally not in homes. There are other options, especially where people live. We can generate heat by burning cleaner sources of fuel, like natural gas. We can also generate heat through electrical resistance, producing no pollution directly (only in the production of electricity, which is likely remote from the user). Heat can also be harvested from waste heat and pumped into buildings. Or heat can be moved from one source to another using a heat pump.

Moving to more efficient and environmentally friendly methods of producing heat is at least as important to minimizing global warming as generating clean electricity. About half of world energy is used simply to generate heat, more than any other use (generating electricity is 20% and transportation is 30%). Decarbonizing heat production is therefore arguably more important than decarbonizing either electricity production or transportation, although of course they are all important.

Two technologies are likely to make the most difference in decarbonizing heat production. The first is harvesting waste heat from energy production and other industrial processes. This requires producing energy somewhat close to where the heat is needed, which is another advantage of more distributed rather than centralized energy production. Harvesting waste heat needs to be designed up front for any installation that will generate a lot of heat. Data centers, for example, expend a lot of energy just cooling all those computers. That heat can be put to good use.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 19 2023

Making Fuel from Sunshine

Published by under Technology

When it comes to big problems it’s generally a good idea to remember some basic principles. One is that there is no free lunch. This is a cliche because it’s true. Another way to put this is – there are no solutions, only trade offs. Sometimes there is a genuine advance that does improve the calculus, and there are certainly more or less efficient ways to do things. But when making decisions that affect the technological infrastructure for a world-spanning civilization of billions of people, everything has consequences.

As I have been writing about frequently, perhaps the biggest such decisions we face involve where we get the energy to power our civilization. On the one hand we have the technology of what’s possible. On the other we have economics, which will tend to favor the cheapest option regardless of other concerns. But then we also have – other concerns. That is generally where governments and regulations come in, ways for the public to exert their common interests other than making individual purchasing decisions. Free market forces are powerful at generating information and homeostatic systems, but are generally blind to long term or strategic planning. In my opinion, we need to have an optimal blend of both.

But in the background, science and technology is slowly, incrementally, advancing. We no longer have the luxury of just waiting for technology to solve our problems, but we do want to keep pushing the ball forward and make sure we include scientific progress in our strategic planning, and efficiently incorporate new technology when it’s available. That is partly why I like to peek a little ahead at potential technologies that might be coming down the pike.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 18 2023

The Fight over Education

Published by under Education

There is an ongoing culture war, and not just in the US, over the content of childhood education, both public and private. This seems to be flaring up recently, but is never truly gone. Republicans in the US have recently escalated this war by banning over 500 books in several states (mostly Florida) because they contain “inappropriate” content. There are a few issues worth exploring here.

First, I think it is an important premise to recognize the value of public education. As educator Dana Mitra summarizes:

Research shows that individuals who graduate and have access to quality education throughout primary and secondary school are more likely to find gainful employment, have stable families, and be active and productive citizens. They are also less likely to commit serious crimes, less likely to place high demands on the public health care system, and less likely to be enrolled in welfare assistance programs. A good education provides substantial benefits to individuals and, as individual benefits are aggregated throughout a community, creates broad social and economic benefits.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 16 2023

The Role of Plausibility in Science

I have been writing blog posts and engaging in science communication long enough that I have a pretty good sense how much engagement I am going to get from a particular topic. Some topics are simply more divisive than others (although there is an unpredictable element from social media networks). I wish I could say that the more scientifically interesting topics garnered more attention and comments, but that is not the case. The overall pattern is that topics which have an ideological angle or affect people’s world-view inspire more passionate criticism or defense.  Timed drug release is an important topic, with implications for potentially anyone who has to take medication at some point in their lives. But it doesn’t challenge anyone’s world view. ESP, on the other hand, is a fringe topic likely to directly affect no one, but apparently is 70 times more interesting to my readers (using comments as a measure).

I also get e-mails, and my recent article on ESP research attracted a number of angry individuals who wanted to excoriate my closed minded “scientism”.  I think people care so much about ESP and other psi and paranormal phenomena because it gets at the heart of their beliefs about reality – do we live in a purely naturalistic and mechanistic world, or do we live in a world where the supernatural exists? Further, in my experience while many people are happy to praise the virtue of faith (believing without knowing) in reality they desperately want there to be objective evidence for their beliefs. Meanwhile, I think it’s fair to say that a dedicated naturalist would find it “disturbing” (if I can paraphrase Darth Vader) if there really were convincing evidence that contradicts naturalism. Both sides have an out, as it were. Believers in a supernatural universe can always say that the supernatural by definition is not provable by science. One can only have faith. This is a rationalization that has the virtue of being true, if properly formulated and utilized. Naturalists can also say that if you have actual scientific evidence of an alleged paranormal phenomenon, then by definition it’s not paranormal. It just reflects a deeper reality and points in the direction of new science. Yeah!

Regardless of what you believe deep down about the ultimate nature of reality (and honestly, I couldn’t care less, as long as you don’t think you have the right to impose that view on others), the science is the science. Science follows methodological naturalism, and is agnostic toward the supernatural question. It operates within a framework of naturalism, but recognizes this is a construct, and does not require philosophical naturalism. So you can have your faith, just don’t mess with science.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 15 2023

Student Attitudes Toward AI in the Class

Published by under Education,Skepticism

Researchers recently published an extensive survey of almost 6,000 students across academic institution in Sweden. The results are not surprising, but they do give a snapshot of where we are with the recent introduction of large language model AIs.

Most students, 56%, reported that they use Chat GPT in their studies, and 35% regularly. More than half do not know if their school has guidelines on AI use in their classwork, and 62% believe that using a chatbot during an exam is cheating (so 38% do not think that). What this means is that most students are using AI for their classwork, but they don’t know what the rules are and are unclear on what would constitute cheating.  Also, almost half of students think that using AI makes them more efficient learners, and many commented that they feel it has improved their own language and thinking skills.

So – is the use of AI in education a bane or a boon? Of course, asking students is only one window into this question. Educators have concerns about AI creating a lazy student, that can serve up good-enough answers to get by. There are also concerns about outright cheating, although that has to be carefully defined. Some teachers don’t know how to react when students turn in essays that appear to have been written by a chat bot. But many also think there is tremendous potential is using AI as an educational tool.

Clearly the availability of the latest generation of large language model AIs is a disruptive technology. Schools are now scrambling to deal with it, but I think they have no choice. Students are moving fast, and if schools don’t keep up they will miss an opportunity and fail to mitigate the potential downsides. What is clear is that AI has the potential to significantly change education. Simplistic solutions like just banning the use of AI is not going to work.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 12 2023

Will Hydrogen BEV Hybrids Be A Thing?

Published by under Technology

I recently recorded a YouTube video on the notion of hydrogen fuel cell cars (it will be posted soon, and I will add the link when it’s up). One question I did not get into in the video, but which is an interesting thought experiment, is hydrogen – plug-in battery hybrid vehicles. I can find just one model coming online in Australia, the Hyundai N Vision 74. This approach could, theoretically, save hydrogen from losing the the competition to replace internal combustion engine cars. I still don’t think so, but it’s an interesting idea.

First let me state why I think battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are winning and will win this competition. BEV technology is already past the point where there is enough range for most users. While upfront costs are still higher than ICE vehicles, lifetime costs are lower. For those who own their own parking space, which will be the early adopters, there is an extreme convenience to charging at home. And – this is critical – battery technology is still improving, and quickly. There are already production batteries using silicone as the anode in lithium ion batteries with twice the energy density as existing BEV batteries (for now used in aircraft). They will likely go into production ground vehicles in a few years, and this same tech will likely double energy density again by the 2030s. BEVs have other advantages. They can be used for regenerative braking. There is already a reasonable infrastructure for recharging, and this is being built out fast. And, they are among the most efficient vehicles. The round-trip energy storage efficiency is >90%, and they are about twice as efficient in translating energy to the wheels as ICE vehicles.

The negatives for BEVs is the recharging time. Fast charging can take 15-20 minutes, although the newer batteries coming out in a few years claim 0-80% recharge in 10 minutes. In practice, I have not personally found this to be a problem. The only time I fast charge on the road is on long trips, and even a 15 or 20 minute recharge is basically a rest stop. Go to the bathroom, get some snacks or drinks for the ride, and your done. It does take a little planning, but software can do most of this for you. But sure, faster charging would be nice. The real negative for BEVs, in my opinion, is the raw material necessary to make them: lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite (although the graphite will be replaced by silicone which is more abundant). Again, research is working on replacing the cobalt and nickel with more abundant elements, but for now this is a potential choke point.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 11 2023

Germany and Nuclear Power

Published by under Technology

Germany has been thrown around a lot as an example of both what to do and what not to do in terms of addressing global warming by embracing green energy technology. It’s possible to look back now and review the numbers, to see what the effect was of its decision to embrace renewable technology and actively shut down their nuclear power plants. The numbers, I think, tell a pretty clear story.

First, some history. Germany has long had an environmentalist anti-nuclear bent, going back to the 1980s. In 2000 the coalition Green Party and Democratic decided to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022, making it an even higher priority than phasing out fossil fuels. This policy was reversed by the Christian Democratic Union, extending the timeline until 2034. After the Fukushima accident, however, public opinion shifted and the 2022 timeline was reinstated. This was delayed by a year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but now the last German nuclear power plants have been shuttered. At the same time, Germany invested heavily in wind and solar.

What did this mean for Germany’s energy production and carbon footprint? Did it makes sense to phase out nuclear while building lots of wind and solar? I would argue an emphatic, no. It demonstrates, quite nicely, (I know, I need to be careful of confirmation bias, but hear me out) what I have been saying for years. For now the choice is not really between nuclear and renewables, but nuclear and fossil fuel. A Washington Post article summarizes the relevant numbers. In 2010 Germany’s energy mix was 60% fossil fuel, 23% nuclear, and 17% renewables. In 2022 (before the final shutdowns) it was 51%, 6%, 43% respectively. If in 2000 Germany had decided to prioritize shutting down coal-fired plants and other fossil fuel sources and just kept their existing nuclear power plants open for as long as possible, their mix today would be 32% fossil fuel, 24% nuclear, and 43% renewable.

Either way, they would have 43% renewable. They were building it as fast as they could. The only difference is that today (now that the last nuclear plants have closed) we have something like 57% fossil fuel instead of 32%. It really was the choice between nuclear and fossil fuel. As a result of this policy Germany, despite investing heavily in renewables, has one of the dirtiest energy mixes in Europe, only behind Poland and the Czech Republic. Germany produces 385 gCO2 / kWh. Heavily nuclear France, by comparison, produces 85. This will also delay Germany’s ability to phase out coal, and it will be one of the last European countries to do so.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 09 2023

Is The Boring Company Useful?

Published by under Technology

Elon Musk has a complicated legacy. Most people I encounter who bother to express an opinion tend to be either a fan or hater. I am neither. He’s a complicated and flawed person who has accomplished some interesting things, but also has had some epic failures. People like a clean narrative, however, so it’s tempting to portray him as either all good or all bad, or at least minimize the parts that don’t align with your narrative. I find it interesting, for example, that many people who don’t like Musk feel compelled to take away his genuine accomplishments, like SpaceX. The common criticisms I hear are that Musk did not engineer the rockets (of course he didn’t), or that he didn’t build SpaceX, he bought it. The first claim is irrelevant and the second is simply wrong. SpaceX exists because of Musk, because of his dedication to building that company and his willingness to sink lots of his own money into a string of failures until it worked. You have to give the devil his due. Similarly, his successes do not excuse his personal failures, unsavory business practices, unfortunate politics, or epic failures like Twitter.

One Musk venture, The Boring Company, is itself complicated to assess. I’m still not sure if this is going to turn out to be another SpaceX or an expensive dead end of false hype. It’s not looking good so far, but neither did SpaceX during its string of crashed rockets. l

The stripped-down idea is not a bad one – develop the technology for digging underground tunnels to make the process faster and cheaper. If you can make tunnel-digging fast and cheap enough, it changes the calculus and could open up new applications. Faster and cheaper is always nice. At the very least this would be good for existing applications for underground reinforced tunnels. But Musk wants this technology to become “disruptive”. He certainly has not achieved that. But let’s step back and just think about potential applications for underground tunnels in general.

The big advantage of tunnels is that they can bypass obstacles. In a city, for example, you can dig a tunnel under the streets and buildings to bypass traffic and physical obstacles to zip from one end of the city to the other. This is the idea of a subway system, and it works. You can also build tunnels for auto traffic, either to go under a river (instead of a bridge), or again under a congested city. Boston’s Big Dig is an example of using tunneling to redesign a city’s flow of traffic.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 08 2023

New Platform for Timed Drug Release

Published by under Technology

This is one of those technologies that most people probably never think about, but could potentially have a significant impact on our lives – timed drug release. The concept is nothing new, but there is a lot of room for improvement on current technologies. We already have time-release capsules, patches, and some drugs that can have long term effects with one dose, like Depo Provera. But for most drugs, you have to dose them every day at least.

Only about  50% of people take their medication correctly, without missing doses. This has huge consequences, resulting in, “100,000 deaths, as much as 25% of hospitalizations, and a healthcare cost exceeding $100 billion” in the US alone. Right now we primarily deal with this problem through patient education and using drugs, when possible, that have longer dosing times. Sometimes we also monitor patient compliance with blood tests. There is also occasionally talk of developing a medicine bottle that monitors compliance (going back to at least 1989), but such technologies are not in widespread use.

There is therefore a lot of benefit that could potentially result from developing a drug delivery platform that can deliver a consistent dose of medication over weeks or even months. Imagine getting a shot every three months (perhaps even self-administered at home) rather than taking a pill every day. Researchers have recently published one potential such technology, they are calling PULSED – Particles Uniformly Liquified and Sealed to Encapsulate Drugs. Continue Reading »

No responses yet

May 04 2023

Meteostat-12 Meets Flat Earthers

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

I know this wasn’t the purpose of sending up a €4.3bn satellite into geostationary orbit, but tweaking flat earthers is a fun side effect. European countries have collaborated on this project, having weather satellites in orbit since 1977. The latest iteration is Meteostat-12, which was launched in December and is now in orbit 36,000 km above the equator. This means it will have a constant view of Europe, where it takes high resolution pictures every 10 minutes. The goal is to provide a constant stream of weather information surrounding Europe. Two more satellites are planned, which will keep Europe in weather data through the 2040s.

If you believe the data coming back from Meteostat-12 it absolutely proves that the Earth is a globe. It also breaks a lot of the false claims of flat earthers. For example, because of the distance of the satellite it can take a picture of the entire Earth at once, without having to stitch multiple images together. In these pictures you can also clearly see the curvature of the Earth. The satellite is stationary so you don’t see the Earth rotating, but you do see day and night cycles, and you see weather patterns moving across the Earth. You are also seeing one hemisphere of the Earth. As evidence goes, this one is a complete slam-dunk.

But of course that initial caveat is the key – flat earthers will simply deny this evidence is real. But even there they should be squirming just a bit (if they weren’t already completely deluded). Flat earth conspiracy theories generally revolve around NASA, who, in their fevered imaginations, is an all-powerful organization that has been perpetrating the round earth hoax for, well, I guess longer than NASA has even been known to exist. However, the Meteostat-12 has exactly nothing to do with NASA. This is entirely a European project. This problem is easily “solved”, however – apparently NASA has control over the European Space Agency and all European governments as well.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Next »