Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Aug 14 2018

Phantom and Prosthetic Limbs

One of the goals of prosthetic technology (replacement limbs for amputees) is to make the user feel like the prosthetic is part of their body – that they own it and control it (called embodiment). It is more difficult to control a limb that does not feel like part of your body, and users need to visually look at a prosthetic to see where it is. This is true of passive prosthetics as well as robotic ones.

I have written previously about researcher attempts to provide sensory feedback to robotic limbs. A new study adds to this growing knowledge about how embodiment works and how to hack the brain to make it happen.

The key to embodiment seems to be multimodal sensory feedback. If the brain sees and feels the same action, that is all that is necessary for the “ownership module” to kick in – that part of the brain that makes you feel as if you own the various parts of your body. The most primitive manifestation of this is the rubber hand illusion. If you have a rubber hand protruding from your sleeve as if it is your real hand, and you see the rubber hand touched while your real hand is touched (and therefore you feel it), this will create the temporary illusion that the rubber hand is your real hand. Obviously this is not practical for everyday use of a prosthetic.

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Aug 10 2018

Organic Solar Cells

Published by under Technology

I’ve had a few posts this week that could come off as pessimistic – but there is an upside to these stories. It is true that we don’t currently have enough arable land to feed the world with the USDA recommended diet. We need to continue to improve the efficiency of production and reduce waste. The silver lining is that we have the technology to do this, if we invest in that technology (genetically modifying our crops to have desirable traits) and push back hard against those greenies who are misguided and the organic industry who are trying to demonize a perfectly safe technology.

It is also true that human-caused global warming is happening, we are already seeing negative consequences, and we may be getting close to a point of no return that could cause disastrous outcomes. The good news is that there are technological solutions, if we prioritize them. While we have been pointlessly debating whether or not global warming is real with closed-minded ideologues, energy technology has been slowly but steadily improving in the background. We could, right now, massively reduce the carbon footprint of our energy infrastructure.

We may be getting to a good tipping point – where clean energy is so much cheaper than fossil fuel based energy that everyone is going to want it. We need to make this tipping point happen faster, and we can if we eliminate fossil fuel subsidies (including the subsidy of not charging for the externalized health and environmental cost of pollution).

One technology that offers the hope of a green tipping point is organic solar cells. These are photovoltaic cells (OPV) that are based mainly on carbon rather than silicon. Silicon produces more efficient solar panels, but they are rigid and heavy. Organic photovoltaics can be dissolved in ink and then printed on cheap flexible plastic or other material. You end up with a light, flexible, and cheap solar cell.

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Jul 27 2018

A Look Inside the Anti-GMO Movement

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

A recent EU court ruling on GMO regulations might just hoist the anti-GMO movement on its own petard. The ruling covers so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). I am not exactly clear on the full scope of what counts as an NPBT, but it does include CRISPR. Some reports also say it includes “mutagenesis plant breeding techniques.”

Part of the problem with the anti-GMO movement is that what counts as a GMO is vague and arbitrary. If you follow organic policy, GMO’s include any form of gene editing, but not mutation breeding (using chemicals or radiation to increase the rate of random mutations in plants). In fact scientific critics of the anti-GMO movement having repeatedly pointed this out as a glaring contradiction – opposing precise single gene changes, but not random mutations.

This ruling by an EU court expands the net of GMO farther, revealing the risk of relying on such vague and arbitrary categories. This is important because it means that a long list of breeding techniques are now prohibitively regulated in the EU. This move was in opposition to scientific organizations in Europe:

For the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, the decision represents a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”.

“EASAC reaffirms that breakthroughs in plant breeding technologies, such as genome editing, remain crucial for food and nutrition security globally. It remains to be seen what implications this decision may have outside of the EU, particularly in developing countries who stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change,” EASAC said.

It is generally a bad idea for a society to consistently go against the consensus of opinion of its own scientists for pure ideology, irrational fear, or because of industry favoritism. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, all three are involved.

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Jul 24 2018

Are Hyperloops the Future?

Published by under Technology

Starting around 1550 primitive railroads were developed as a way to move coal, first within increasingly deep mines, and then from the increasingly distant coal mines to the towns and cities where the coal was needed. At first they were simply wooden rails to help support the wheels of carriages on soft dirt roads. Ties were added for further support. Rails were changed to iron and then steel to add durability. Eventually steam-powered engines were used to move the rail cars.

Even though rail lines were laid to move coal and metal ores from mines, it was simple to add a car for people, which was just an afterthought. Railroads became an efficient way to quickly move large loads and lots of people at high speed over long distances, and were central to the industrial revolution.

Later motorized carriages (cars) became popular. Gasoline powered internal combustion engines beat out steam engines and electrical vehicles when Ford built his factory and outproduced all competition.

Soon after the Wright Brothers worked out the technology for powered controlled flight, airplanes were used for commercial and military purposes, and soon to move passengers.

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Jun 25 2018

Review: Energy – A Human History

Published by under Technology

I just finished reading, Energy:  A Human History by Richard Rhodes. It’s a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. Rhodes reviews the history of our use of energy from around 1500 to the present, it is well-researched and contains a wealth of historical information.

I love reading popularized science, but the challenge is finding books that are in the sweet-spot of technical detail. As a science communicator, it is often difficult to know how deep to get on any topic. Compared to the knowledge of a non-expert, there is a vast depth of complex, technical, and nuanced knowledge about most scientific topics. The trick is to know your audience and to have a sense of how far down that well of technical detail and complexity to go, while remaining correct as far as you go.

This is a personal choice, but I thought Rhodes did a perfect job on this score. The level of detail was enough to get a rich sense of the topic, and to be a little challenging, but not so much that it slowed down the narrative or overwhelmed you with details you would not remember anyway.

A few themes stuck out for me in the book. One was how similar the social, political, and market forces are today and in the past when it comes to energy. I guess this should be obvious, but my surprise reflects what I think is hindsight bias. We look back now at history with the unconscious bias that it was inevitable, at least in its broad strokes. This is perhaps especially true of science and technology, because they are framed and understood as “advancing” in an objective direction.

Don’t get me wrong, I think science and technology do advance. But there are many twists and turns along the way, and the path that we happened to take was not inevitable, even though it may seem that way now.

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Jun 15 2018

More Evidence of Water on the Moon

Published by under Technology

As we contemplate not only more Moon missions, but establishing a long term base on the moon (Moonbase Alpha, of course) the question of how much water on the moon becomes pragmatic, and not just theoretical. It seems paradoxical – the Moon’s surface is the very image of a dry wasteland. How much water can there be?

Well, a new study supports prior evidence that there may be more water than you think trapped in the lunar soil, and in perpetually shaded craters at the poles. It is indirect evidence, but not unreasonable.

Japanese researchers have found moganite in lunar meteorites. They report:

Silica micrograins occur as nanocrystalline aggregates of mostly moganite and occasionally coesite and stishovite in the KREEP (high potassium, rare-earth element, and phosphorus)–like gabbroic-basaltic breccia NWA 2727, although these grains are seemingly absent in other lunar meteorites.

Basically moganite in a mineral of silicon dioxide. What is special about this particular crystal formation is that it only forms in the presence of water and high pressure. So if there is moganite in a lunar meteorite, that implies the moganite formed under the surface of the Moon, which means there may be significant water there.

The article makes specific mention that other examined lunar meteorites did not have moganite, but this actually supports the conclusion that the moganite was formed in the Moon. This is because an alternative hypothesis is that the moganite formed on the meteorite after it landed on Earth. But if this were true, then you would expect to find moganite on many or all of the meteorites found in the same location (meaning in the same Earth condition). The absence of moganite on the other meteorites means that the mineral probably did not form on Earth, which means it likely formed on the Moon.

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Jun 11 2018

The State of Carbon Capture

Published by under Technology

The basic idea of carbon capture is fairly simple – in order to counteract industries that release CO2 into the atmosphere, we develop technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. If these industries exist in near balance, then there will be no net increase in CO2.

When you think about it, we do have to eventually get there – to the point that human activity does not result in a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Any significant amount will build up over time and have an effect. We need to get down to negligible amounts, compatible with homeostasis and indefinite sustainability.

Clearly we are not there now. Currently the world emits about 9.8 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon per year. That carbon winds up in the air (44%), ocean (26%) and land (30%). Ninety-one percent of these emissions come from fossil fuels: “coal (42%), oil (33%), gas (19%), cement (6%) and gas flaring (1%).”

One obvious way to reduce global carbon emissions, therefore, is to use carbon neutral sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. But no energy source is completely carbon neutral – you still have to build the wind turbines and solar panels, or farm the biofuels. Also, until we find a replacement for cement, that industry will still release massive amounts of carbon. So there is certainly a lot of room to reduce our carbon emissions, but it does not seem that we will reduce them to globally negligible anytime soon.

Carbon capture, therefore, is an attractive idea. However much carbon we remove from the environment (air, water, and soil) gives us a budget of carbon we can afford to release into the environment with other industries. The consensus, however, is that carbon capture technology is no where near being a magic solution to climate change and carbon. At best it will be one of many technologies that inch us toward a carbon-neutral future.

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Jun 05 2018

Powering Implanted Devices

One of the cutting edge medical technologies that promises to be a game-changer in terms of our ability to affect biological function is the interaction between machines and biology. Of course we already have many medical devices, from cardiac pacemakers to artificial joints. Increasingly sick and aging humans are becoming cyborgs, as we augment and replace broken body parts with machines.

We have only scratched the surface of this potential, however, and the technology is advancing quickly. There are definitely technological hurdles that limit such technology, however, and perhaps chief among them is the need for power.

MIT researchers have recently presented a new method for powering implanted devices that may open the door to a further proliferation of implantable medical devices. They use radio waves as an external power source, which eliminated the need for cumbersome batteries.

Right now power is a major limiting factor for implantable medical devices. We can make small batteries, but they still become the largest part of many devices. Especially as solid state digital technology improves, we can make very tiny electronic devices, and then we attach a relatively large battery to them. Even these “large” batteries also have a limited life span.

There are several possible approaches to this problem. One is to make better batteries, ones that can hold more energy for longer in a smaller package. This is happening, incrementally, but is still a major limiting factor.

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May 21 2018

Solar and Wind Power and Energy Balance

Published by under Technology

My latest post sparked a bit of conversation, which is typically the case when the topic has a politically controversial angle. The question, an important one that we are currently facing as a society, is how to chart the best path forward in terms of our energy infrastructure. There is legitimate debate among experts on this question because of the various trade-offs and the uncertainty of projecting technology even a little bit into the future. There are many complex variables, and how you account for all of those variables can affect the bottom line.

As is also often the case, the more political a topic the more propaganda and nonsense seeps into the conversation. In such cases not only do we have to contend with a lack of information, but there is actual misinformation to address first. And that misinformation is not random or due to error – it is manufactured with a purpose, motivated misinformation, if you will.

Usually I (and others) will address such issues in the comments themselves, but occasionally correcting important misinformation requires a blog-length response. One comment in particular was a string of error representing common propaganda, that I thought worth addressing at length:

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May 18 2018

Renewable Energy Debate

Published by under Technology

Do we currently have the technology to create an energy infrastructure that is based 100% on renewable energy? That is a legitimate and very useful debate to have, and one that is playing out in the published literature.

Two recent systematic reviews in particular take opposite sides of this question. In one Heard et al argue that the burden of proof for feasibility and viability have not been met. In the same journal, Brown et al respond, saying that 100% renewable is both feasible and viable.

Both articles get fairly wonky, but they are reasonably easy to follow for the main points.

Heard argues that studies looking at plans for total renewable energy fail to consider critical factors, such as the feasibility of grid storage, of load balancing, and the necessary ancillary services required to maintain such a grid. They conclude that we would have to reinvent the electrical grid and infrastructure if we wish to go to 100% renewable.

Brown responds by arguing that only incremental advances to evolve our energy infrastructure are needed, and that 100% renewable are feasible with current technology, and economically viable.

From reading both papers, which if you are interested in this topic I suggest you do, I came down somewhere in the middle. I give the edge to Brown, but I think he and his coauthors made a bit of a biased case for renewables. Meanwhile Heard, I think, overemphasized current limitations. I got the sense that both were making a lawyer’s case for their side.

Here is what I get from these articles: First, it seems clear that we are capable of making sufficient energy from renewable sources to meet world demand. Further, renewable energy is cost effective, and the price is continuing to drop. So energy production is simply not the problem.

Further, renewables (mostly wind and solar) have some strong advantages. The first is that they are renewable – they do not depend on a limited resource that will eventually run out. The second is that they do not directly release carbon into the environment. There is a carbon footprint associated with the production of solar panels and wind turbines, but this is a small fraction of other energy sources.

Also, if you consider the externalized costs of the environmental and health effects of fossil fuels, non-polluting energy sources are massively cost effective.

So where are the problems? Renewable energy’s main downside is that they are intermittent, not on-demand. This creates challenges for grid stability, balancing supply and demand, grid storage, and reserve capacity for occasional dry spells (sustained periods of low light or low wind).

Both authors agree that right now we do not have the infrastructure to deal with significant renewable penetration. They differ about how radically and quickly we would have to change or infrastructure – but we have to change it.

Grid storage is clearly needed, and this is the main area where I disagree with Brown. He suggested that existing grid storage options are adequate, and even gave a positive nod to lithium ion batteries.

However, while he gave us calculations on the finite amount of uranium in the world, there was no mention of the finite amount of lithium and rare earths. We may find more reserves of lithium, but we may also find more reserves of uranium. We may find substitutes for lithium and the rare earths, but we also may develop thorium reactors (thorium is much more abundant than uranium).

In any case, I simply don’t think we are there yet with battery technology. We are making steady incremental advances, and I think we will get there, but we may be 10-20 years away from a viable widely distributed system of grid storage based on battery technology.

There are other options, which I review here, but none of them great. Pumped hydro is the best, but is limited by terrain. We may need to develop hydrogen fuel cells, use renewables to make hydrogen, and use the hydrogen to store the energy. But this will require a massive change to our energy infrastructure.

This is where I think Brown skirted some real issues. He essentially argued that there are options that do not require any new technology or massive upgrade to the system, and there are options that can meet all our demands. But these are not the same options – there are no options that meet all the criteria he detailed at the same time.

Another alternative to grid storage to level off supply and demand is simply demand capacity – creating electricity on demand as needed. Brown acknowledges that worst case we may need to keep some fossil fuel plants on hand to meet demand needs.

He also points out that nuclear is not a good option for demand power generation. Nuclear plants operate most effectively when they are always on a peak production. But there is a recent analysis that indicates that nuclear power plants can produce variable power to meet demand, and that this would improve the economics of nuclear power.

I also think he does not consistently apply his criterion of viability of not requiring any new technology. I agree that we should not count on any technological breakthroughs, like fusion reactors. But I do think we can count of incremental advances that are already in the pipeline. This should apply equally to nuclear as to battery and solar technology.

I do agree with the bottom line conclusion of all the authors that we need to have a healthy evidence-based debate about how to move forward. We cannot make plans without a detailed analysis of technological feasibility and economic and political viability.

We need to chart a course forward that will get us to a sustainable minimal carbon energy infrastructure as soon as possible and in the most cost-effective way.

But at this time I do not think there is on clear option, because every options has serious limitations that will require some technological advances and significant upgrades to our infrastructure.

I think we still need to explore all our options. Clearly we will benefit from continued incremental advances in solar, wind, and battery technology. But I also think there is tremendous potential for advances in nuclear technology, and that we should not ignore this option.

We need to explore all our grid storage options, and will likely need a system that uses many components, optimized to location and other considerations.

The good news is that I think we will get there. The economics is on the side of renewables, and that will ultimately drive the development. The big  variable right now is time – how much carbon will we release and with what consequences before we move to mostly low-carbon energy?

This is where political will comes into play. And here, I think all we may need is to properly consider the externalized costs of fossil fuel. If fossil fuel use has to pay for the health and environmental effects, all other forms of energy become a no-brainer.


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