Archive for October, 2019

Oct 21 2019

Aluminum Air Batteries

Published by under Technology

An article about a new battery is making the rounds and I am getting a lot of questions about it – Ex-Navy officer turned inventor signs a multi-million deal to produce his electric car battery that will take drivers 1,500 miles without needing to charge. As stated, that sounds like a significant advance, about a 5 fold improvement over the current lithium-ion batteries powering a Tesla, for example.

That would certainly be a huge advantage and give the electric car industry a significant boost. Increased range would alleviate “range anxiety” and also mean the recharging could happen once a week rather than every night. It would also make electric vehicles easier to use on long trips. Further, increased range is the same as smaller batteries. Instead of a range of 1,500 miles, you cold have a battery with a 300 mile range that weighs one-fifth as much. (I am assuming that when they state the range they are comparing batteries of the same size.) That would make the vehicle more efficient and potentially cheaper.

But as always, the devil is in the details. What exactly are they talking about? There are lots of red flags in this article, starting with the fact that it is in the Daily Mail, which doesn’t exactly have a good reputation for high quality journalism. Also it makes it seem like this is the invention of one guy, rather than a lab, company, or even industry. That’s not realistic. There is also this:

Few will have heard of Jackson’s extraordinary invention. The reason, he says, is that since he and his company Metalectrique Ltd came up with a prototype a decade ago, he has faced determined opposition from the automobile industry establishment.

Sorry, but this conspiracy theory does not pass the smell test. New battery tech would not threaten the automotive industry, it would be a new option.

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Oct 18 2019

Diffusion of Responsibility

Published by under Culture and Society

I still remember the PSA of the crying American Indian, sad because of all the trash that the modern world was spreading in the previously pristine environment. It was powerful, and it had a real impact on me. The ad was sponsored by Keep America Beautiful, and I (like most everyone else) assumed this was an environmental group interested in keeping America beautiful.

Actually the piece was a clever bit of propaganda, which relates to the topic of this post – the diffusion of personal responsibility. I wrote yesterday about the letter from celebrities admitting that they are environmental hypocrites for living a high carbon footprint lifestyle while campaigning against climate change. The conflict is between personal and collective responsibility, and my basic conclusion is that both are important. Many excellent points were raised in the comments, and two points in particular I think deserve additional exploration. The main one, mentioned by townsend, is that this all relates to the diffusion of personal responsibility. This was implicit in my previous post, but it is an important social psychological principle that is worth discussing further.

I first learned about this in my Social Psychology class in college – this is a long well-established psychological principle. The broad brushstrokes are this – humans are social creatures. We evolved emotions of justice, reciprocity, shame, and guilt in order to modify our behavior to be compatible with our social structure. If everyone maximally pursued selfish interests, we could never have a functioning society.

However, problems arise when the sense of personal responsibility is diffused, because this shortcircuits the feedback loops of guilt, shame, and a sense of responsibility. If something is equally everyone’s responsibility, then it is essentially no one’s responsibility. I experience this every time I travel is large groups. Once you get north of about 6-7 people, the group is paralyzed and can’t seem to do anything. Even walking together from point A to point B becomes an exercise in herding cats. However, if you assign someone as the group leader (or wrangler, or whatever) then the group can function as a unit. The same is true on any project – there needs to be clear lines of responsibility.

This lesson was learned with public housing. Common areas soon fell into disrepair and utter filth. This is because no one was responsible for them. If, however, housing was designed with no common spaces – where an individual owner was responsible for their own space, the situation was much improved.

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Oct 17 2019

Are We All Hypocrites?

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Recently celebrity supporters of Extinction Rebellion, a protest group calling for aggressive action on climate change, signed a letter admitting to being hypocrites. They state:

“Dear journalists who have called us hypocrites. You’re right. We live high carbon lives and the industries that we are part of have huge carbon footprints.”

But they go on to say:

“Like you, and everyone else, we are stuck in this fossil-fuel economy and without systemic change, our lifestyles will keep on causing climate and ecological harm.”

Their letter highlights an interesting conflict between personal responsibility and collective responsibility. How much is it on all of us as individuals to make sacrifices, or at least make a reasonable effort, to limit our carbon footprint? Coincidentally there was an interesting take on this question in the latest season of The Good Place (spoiler ahead). The lead characters discover that no one has made it into the Good Place in over 500 years. At first they think that the Bad Place has managed to hack the system in their favor, but ultimately discover that this reality is just an unintended consequence of modern life.

Cosmic points are awarded to individuals based on their actions, but the point system considers all consequences, intended or not, no matter how remote. So buying flowers for your grandmother may earn you points, but you lose more points because the money for those flowers found their way ultimately to a corporation using child labor. The interconnectedness of our global economy has made it literally impossible to be good.

So what do we do? Are we all hypocrites?

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Oct 15 2019

Impossible Bug Burger

Published by under General Science

The market is innovating some burger alternatives in order to reduce demand for beef.  There are potentially three reasons to reduce beef consumption – health, environmental, and ethical. How successful are these replacements?

First let me quickly review the reasons for reducing beef. The health effects of eating red and processed meat are, at present, controversial. I reviewed this question recently at SBM. There is evidence for increased cancer and heart disease from eating large amounts of red and especially processed meat, but the absolute risk is low and the quality of the evidence is low. You can make of this what you will, and that’s the controversy. My take is that if you keep your total calories where they should be for weight maintenance, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, the rest takes care of itself.

The ethical concerns are complex and reflect personal values. Again, personally, I don’t have a problem with eating animals after they are dead, as long as they were treated humanely while they were alive and they were slaughtered in a humane way. However, I understand the points on the other side and respect the views of those who wish to avoid meat for ethical reasons. I currently file that away as a personal choice. I don’t think there is ethical justification for outlawing meat, however.

The environmental concerns are also complex, but it is clear that producing a lot of meat is very inefficient. Potatoes, for example, produce 17 times the amount of calories per acre than beef. But some land is better suited for grazing than farming. Cows also produce a lot of methane. Water usage from animals is also high. This does not mean the best thing to do is eliminate meat completely. Rather, as one study indicates, we should use land optimally. Some land is best for growing a certain kind of crop, while another might be best for grazing, while still other land is best left untouched for natural ecosystems.

Whether or not you think we should reduce meat consumption to zero or not, the evidence does suggest that industrialized nations are eating too much meat. So it is reasonable to moderate our meat consumption at the very least.

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Oct 14 2019

Recycling Nuclear Fuel

Published by under Technology

Evaluating the risks and benefits of nuclear fission is a bit of a moving target as the technology develops. Even with established nuclear power plant designs and management technology, I think the benefits outweigh the risks when you compare it to the alternatives and factor global warming into the mix. (I discussed this before and won’t go over all the points again here.)

However, we are not stuck with the current nuclear technology. We are on the brink of developing so-called Generation IV reactors that have a number of advantages. They are safer, smaller, more efficient, and generate significantly less waste (used nuclear fuel – UNF). Scientists, however, have now reported an advance that can potentially significantly reduce UNF, with or without Gen IV reactors.

Closing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle with a Simplified Minor Actinide Lanthanide Separation Process (ALSEP) and Additive Manufacturing.

This is a process for separating various components of the UNF, specifically removing the actinide lanthanide elements. The targets are long-lived isotopes of americium (Am) and curium (Cm) and also neptunium (Np). These are called minor actinides (MA) in the paper. Why is it important to separate out these elements from the UNF? There are two potential reasons.

First, these are the highly toxic and very long-lived radioactive elements in UNF. If you separate them out, the rest of the nuclear waste can be stored much easier and the time it would take for the half-life to decrease the radioactivity down to the level of uranium ore would be reduced from hundreds of thousands of years to just hundreds of years. It’s also easier to store because it will not get as hot.

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Oct 11 2019

Preparing For an Inevitable CME

Published by under Technology

Let’s consider the following scenario – the Earth is at risk for a disruptive event. This event has, conservatively, about a 0.2% chance of happening on any given year. But that is the most conservative estimate, at the high end it could be more like 12% over the next decade. Either way the chance of this type of event happening in the 21st century is quite high, and no matter what it is inevitable.

The result will likely be taking out power grids, possibly world wide in a worst-case scenario. Reasonable recovery will take about a year, with full recovery taking about a decade. Just imagine what would happen if we lost our power grid for a year. No digital banking, no internet, no household power. The most conservative estimate of how much such an event would cost is $2 trillion dollars, but experts are increasingly leaning toward $20 trillion as being a closer estimate (and this figure will only go up in the future).

So here’s my question – what do you think we should spend now to avoid a high probability of civilization collapse over the next century costing tens of trillions of dollars and growing? I am not talking about global warming, or environmental degradation, the death of the bees, an asteroid strike, or massive crop failure. I am talking about a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a solar storm.

A CME is actually the greatest threat to civilization that we face, in terms of probability and effect. In fact I think we are underestimating the chaos that a worst-case scenario would cause. Imagine going without power for a year. I know, there are people around the world who live without power, and the residents of Peurto Rico recently experienced something similar. But if this happened on a global scale, there’s no one coming with aid. Global infrastructures on which we all depend would collapse. How many people would starve or freeze? How much wood would be burned to keep warm or cook until the power comes back on? There are so many downstream effects that we cannot anticipate.

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Oct 10 2019

Ancient Food Storage

Published by under General Science

There are many things we take for granted in modern life, skills that humanity developed over literally hundreds of thousands of years, but also many modern conveniences that are fairly recent. One is food storage – saving food for later consumption.

We began as hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle that involves mostly consuming food right as it is acquired. This creates times of feast and famine, but little consistency or predictability. Without refrigeration and other techniques of food preservation, most foods would not last long. Cooked meat, gathered fruits might last a few days, while nuts and roots might last a bit longer. But that was about it.

Agriculture led to a significant increase in our control over our food supply. We could now store food as dried grains for months. As we cultivated crops, some were selected for storing well. Some hard-skinned squash, for example, can keep for several months. Cheese was a huge discovery, preserving milk calories also for months. Domesticated animals could be “preserved” indefinitely, and then slaughtered when needed. Salting, pickling, smoking, and curing were discovered over time as methods of preserving various foods. Industrialization eventually allowed for things like canning and, of course, refrigeration.

But what was the oldest and first example of humans preserving food for later consumption? Archaeologists think they have discovered it – researchers from Tel Aviv report the finding from Qesem Cave, a paleolithic human settlement from 400,000 years ago. They found evidence that the people living there would preserve deer and other bones for potentially up to 9 weeks, and then break them open to eat the marrow.

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Oct 08 2019

2019 Nobel Prize in Physics Goes To Three Astronomers

Published by under Astronomy

It’s Nobel Prize time of year again (it always seems to come around so fast), and the Nobel Prizes for Medicine and Physics have been announced. The physics prize goes to three astronomers, James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, for contributing to our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

This is a more abstract Nobel Prize theme than many, and the first awardee, James Peebles, was recognized for a lifetime of collaborative research, more than any specific discovery. I like it.

Peebles was one of the cosmologists who predicted the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). This is the afterglow of the Big Bang at the beginning of our universe. It’s existence was confirmed in 1964 by astronomers Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. It’s hard to overstate how monumental this prediction and later confirmation were to cosmology and our understanding of the universe.

The utility of the CMB goes beyond confirming the Big Bang. As the name implies, it is now the background temperature or glow of the entire universe. This has proven to be a highly useful window into the history and structure of the universe. Everything on the cosmic scale seems to leave its fingerprints in the CMB. That is always the best kind of discovery, and I have noticed one that attracts the attention of the Nobel committee – discoveries that open up entire fields of subsequent research.

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Oct 07 2019

Utilities vs Renewable Energy

Published by under Technology

We are beginning to experience some growing pain with widespread adoption of wind and solar energy. Solar in particular is causing utility companies some heartache because of its distributed design and intermittent energy production. None of the issues raised are fatal problems, but we do need to address them head on.

The basic problem is that we cannot simply look at each piece of energy production in isolation. It’s tempting to think that if you install solar roof panels, that is a pure environmental good because clean energy will be replacing more dirty energy. Initially this may have been largely the case, with very low penetration of distributed solar. However, as the amount of installed solar increases, tensions with utility companies and the complexity of integrating into the power grid are rising.

In 2018 solar was producing 1.6% of total electricity generation in the US (total renewable is 17.1%), but this is projected to rise considerably over the next decade. Solar and wind cause challenges for the grid because they are intermittent sources. For the individual installing solar will likely result in decreased electricity cost. However, if our concern is the overall efficiency and environmental impact, a more complicated evaluation is necessary.

A recent study by Duke Energy highlights this complexity. This is not an objective source – some utility companies are taking a hostile attitude toward distributed energy because of the problems it causes. Here is a quote from Dan Kish, distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, to give you an idea:

“Renewable energy sounds good, but it performs terribly. If you want electricity available when you need it, you don’t want intermittent, unreliable, renewable energy,” Kish said. “It’s like a cancer on an efficient grid, with its ups-and-downs forcing other sources to pick up the slack in the most inefficient ways, which, in some cases, are more polluting.”

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Oct 04 2019

Mission To Find Life On Mars

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

The next NASA rover to Mars, the Mars 2020 Rover (final name to be determined), launches next July. It will arrive at Mars in February 2021. This is the next iteration of rover design and has some interesting new features, include a drone that can fly around to survey more of the Martian surface.

But perhaps the feature that is getting the most attention is the drill. For the first time a Mars rover will have the ability to drill down into the rock and dirt. Why is this so important? If Mars ever contained life, then it is likely the remnants of that life can be found down in the rocks, rather than on the surface. This is the first rover specifically designed to look for signs of life.

There is even the remote possibility of finding signs of recent, or even current life. The mission will be looking for life signatures, such as certain forms of carbon, or signs of sustained water presence in the past. Once the rover lands and is operational, it should only take a few months for answers to start beaming to life. We may know by the middle of 2021 if life ever existed on Mars.

Finding signs of life on Mars will have profound scientific implications. However, CNN, when reporting about this, chose to go with this headline: “When — or if — NASA finds life on Mars, the world may not be ready for the discovery, the agency chief says.” They quotes NASA chief scientist, Jim Green:

“It will be revolutionary,” Green told the Telegraph. “It will start a whole new line of thinking. I don’t think we’re prepared for the results. We’re not.”

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