Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Jun 25 2019

More Ways to Capture Carbon

Published by under Technology

One of the most frustrating things about the climate change debate is that we already have viable solutions either at hand or nearly so, and we just need the vision and political will to prioritize the changes necessary to decarbonize our civilization. Some of the resistance is pure protectionism for vested interests, like the fossil fuel industry. However, studies find that much of the rank-and-file resistance is due to “solution aversion.” Just read the comments here to any article in which climate change is mentioned, someone will be warning about socialists taking over the economy.

I have often said that the more productive response from the right should not be to deny the science, and make any ridiculous argument that results in the conclusion to do nothing. Rather, they could spend their time proposing solutions they think will work and that are more compatible with their world view. What is particularly frustrating is that I personally think these are the types of solutions that are most likely to work. I don’t think we need governments to institute huge top-down programs that essentially take control of vast sectors of the economy. Adjusting market forces to properly account for the externalized costs of releasing carbon, while subsidizing emerging clean industries (and ending subsidies for fossil fuel) and investing in green research and infrastructure can probably do the job. We certainly are no where near maximizing these free-market approaches.

Coal, for example, is already dying. We should put it in hospice and ease its passing. Use grants and subsidies to bring new industries into coal country and retrain workers. Make their lives better, while easing the transition to cleaner technology. Economists have already figured out that pretty much anything effective we do to mitigate pollution and climate change is a cost-effective investment. Remember – the health care costs of pollution alone are worth the investment, even if you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. This is an economic no-brainer.

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Jun 20 2019

Possible Universal Memory Reported

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Universal memory is one of those things you probably didn’t know you wanted (unless you are a computer nerd). However, it is the “holy grail” of computer memory that, if achievable, would revolutionize computers. Now, scientists from Lancaster University in the UK, have claimed to do just that. The practical benefit of this advance, if implemented, would be a significant reduction in the energy consumption of computers. This is significant because by 2025 it is projected that data centers will consume 20% of global electricity.

There are several properties that define theoretical perfect computer memory. Memory exists on a spectrum from volatile to robust. Volatile memory is short lived, needs active power, and needs to be refreshed. Robust memory is long term and does not need active power. Memory should also be stable over long time periods – ideally centuries, if not longer. Computer memory also needs to be fast, so data can be written to and read from the memory quickly. And finally the less energy a memory system uses to do all this the better.

The classic problem is that scientists have been unable to come up with a form of computer memory that is simultaneously robust and fast. This has lead to a hierarchy of memory, with each type of memory being optimized for one specific function. A universal memory, by contrast, would have optimal features for every function.

So, there is processor memory which is very fast but very volatile. Then there is cache, which is local memory that is also volatile and fast. Random access memory, or RAM, is the working memory of a computer, and is also optimized to be fast at the expense of being volatile. These types of memory all require active power and are generally used for computer operation. When you are running a program you are loading it into RAM (as much as will fit, anyway), for example.

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Jun 13 2019

There is No One Energy Solution

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This is part 3 of my informal series about our energy infrastructure. My last post was about addressing concerns about nuclear energy, but really can only be understood in the context of our overall energy plan. The comments have been quite fruitful, and I would like to thank all the commenters who provided useful resources for further information, much of which I will synthesize here. That was exactly what I was hoping for, so again, thanks.

I won’t rehash the assessment of nuclear power, but just summarize my position. I am not saying that nuclear is the answer, only that something like it is necessary, and we should not take it off the table. Nuclear is relatively safe, we have plenty of fuel (enough to last centuries), we can deal with the waste, and the Gen IV reactors are extremely promising. But even for those who acknowledge those points but still reject nuclear, a common theme emerged. That theme is – we don’t need nuclear because X is a better option. This approach, however, is fatally flawed for two important reasons.

The first has to do with the economics of power utilities, which ironically was often raised as a point against nuclear – it’s too expensive. The best reference to address this issue is this lecture by Jesse Jenkins, a Harvard environmental fellow.  He addresses this, plus another common theme that emerged in the comments – we no longer need baseload production; that is an antiquated notion. I encourage you to watch the entire lecture, but here is the quick version.

There are three basic types of energy production and demand that we can use to balance the grid, to match production with demand moment to moment.

1- We have intermittent energy sources, mainly wind and solar. Their advantage is that they are renewable and zero carbon. Their disadvantage is that they are intermittent and cannot be controlled.

2 – There is “firm” energy production (similar concept to baseload). There are sources of power that run at a constant rate and are slow to ramp up or down. This does not mean they cannot be varied at all, just not quickly. We might, for example, plan on turning off a reactor during a time of day when we know solar production will peak. In this category are nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, and natural gas with carbon capture. We might also add to this category strategies for long term, massive, cheap energy storage.

3 – Rapid response strategies. This include sources of energy that can quickly be turned on and off, mostly natural gas. It also includes rapid storage options, like batteries, that can provide instant energy. On the demand side this category would also include strategies like shifting demand, such as charging your electric car overnight during minimal energy demand to smooth out the demand curve.

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Jun 10 2019

Answering Questions About Nuclear Power

Published by under Technology

It seems every time I write even tangentially about nuclear power the same comments crop up, with the same objections. So I want to explore, as best I can, the answers to those objections. First here are a few caveats. On this topic I am acting as a science journalist, not an expert. This is my personal synthesis of publicly available information. I also consider blogs to be as much conversations as essays, so welcome any thoughtful feedback, especially if you include links to back up your assertions, or if you bring genuine expertise to bear. Sometimes, in fact, I specifically choose a topic to blog about because I want to “crowd source” it in the comments.

Overall, while I think that nuclear power is likely to be a critical component of our attempts at minimizing carbon release from energy production, I am not otherwise “pro-nuclear.” I have no dog in that hunt, I simply want the best science-based solutions to our energy infrastructure problems. I also think that no source of energy is perfect. They all have trade-offs. So my approach is – what are all the risks and benefits to nuclear, and are they ultimately worth it in the end, compared to all the alternatives?

I have taken the same approach to this question that I take to all controversial questions – what do all sides say, and who tends to have the better or final arguments? At this point I find the pro-nuclear position to be more compelling than the anti-nuclear position. In fact I haven’t heard any really compelling arguments against using nuclear power. There are some legitimate points against nuclear, they just don’t add up to a reason not to use it, in my opinion. So let me go through them.

Nuclear Energy Safety

Safety is often a keystone to objections about nuclear power. However, it is pretty clear that nuclear power is the safest form of energy production we have. We need to do an entire lifecycle analysis for each type of power – production of resources (usually mining), operation, and environmental effects (including waste and pollution). Every single reference I have found indicates that nuclear power, when we consider deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), is by far the safest form of energy production.  Burning brown coal has 467 times the death rate of nuclear (including accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima).

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Jun 07 2019

Chernobyl Miniseries – The Good and Bad

Published by under Technology

If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” I recommend it. It is fantastic storytelling, and manages to grip your attention even though you know what happened and the story is extremely grim.

But there are also some major problems with the story. Unfortunately, one of its flaws undercuts its primary strength. This is historical drama, and as everyone should know by now “Hollywoodized” versions of history are never accurate. Braveheart, for example, is famously good storytelling, but horrible history. It gets pretty much everything wrong, but has had a massive influence on the public’s understanding of the historical events it mangles.

I know – fiction is fiction. But historical fiction does often pretend to be at least minimally accurate. It is perhaps more insidious in that it mixes truth and fiction in a way deliberately crafted to be compelling. It is a powerful method of misinformation.

So how does Chernobyl do? What I liked about the series is that the main villain is the lies and deception inherent in the Soviet system. A quote from the final episode states this well:

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies.”

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May 30 2019

The Role of Carbon Capture

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The primary solution to avoid the worst consequences of CO2 induced climate change is to reduce the release of additional CO2 into the atmosphere. So far we have not achieved even this goal – the global release of CO2 reached a new record in 2018 at 37.1 billion tonnes. We need to reverse this trend, for CO2 emissions to actually start decreasing globally. There is debate about how quickly this has to happen to avoid specific outcomes, but it’s pretty clear that we need to significantly reduce CO2 emissions over the next 50 years. Ideally we would get to net-zero emissions – or better yet, net negative emissions. But how is that possible?

This is the idea of carbon capture – taking carbon back out of the atmosphere for long term storage. The problem is not that we can’t do this. We can. The problem is that current processes are limited. They have two main problems. The first is that they can’t be done on a meaningful scale. We mostly have laboratory proof-of-concept techniques, but without a clear way to scale them up to industrial levels. We need to be removing billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, anything less is just a drop in the bucket. The second problem is energy efficiency.

The term “carbon capture” refers to various methods. This includes just growing biomass, which naturally incorporates carbon from the atmosphere. Plant life temporarily stores carbon, until it dies and rots. Or it can be turned into biofuel, or buried underground for more permanent storage. You can also use minerals to capture carbon, or phytoplankton which then sink the ocean floor when they die. The term can also refer to the process of recouping some of the carbon released when burning fossil fuels.

What we really want, however, is direct air capture of carbon dioxide – taking carbon that is already in the air and removing it. We can do this now, but again not on a scale or efficiency that we need.

What would we do with the carbon once we take it out of the atmosphere? There are three basic approaches. The simplest is simply to bury it in a solid stable form. This will sequester the carbon long term, reversing the process of burning fossil fuels which releases previously sequestered carbon.

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May 28 2019

Hyperloop Hype

Published by under Technology

Here is another future technology where it is not yet clear how things will work out – the hyperloop concept. Several companies are working on developing what is called a hyperloop – a closed tube with reduced air pressure that will operate like a rail system for high-speed travel. The idea is almost a staple of science fiction, but could one day be a reality.

Most of the press for hyperloop has focused on Elon Musk’s project, because he is Musk. I like that Musk is not afraid to pursue bold new technology, and not afraid to fail. He will throw a lot of money, and dedicated focus, at a problem and has produce some stunning results, such as SpaceX’s rockets able to land after use. But he doesn’t have any magical ability to get around real-world limitations, just the money to hire great engineers and sick them on a specific problem.

One of those problems is developing the hyperloop. The idea has some solid merit. Having a dedicated path for traffic (you know, like a train or subway) has advantages, especially if that pathway is isolated from pedestrian or competing traffic. The idea of using a tube with reduced air pressure, in order to minimize air resistance to improve travel efficiency, is also a good one. I remember reading about this decades ago, so the idea itself is not new to Musk. The closed tube would also protect the path from weather.

From there things get progressively tricky. Is the tube going to be above ground or below ground? Neither option is great, and a system may need to use a combination. Above ground is far cheaper, but then you have a tube cutting across the landscape. You could elevate it so as not to interfere with animals and other traffic, but that adds some expense and creates another point of maintenance and possible failure. Such a structure would also be hugely vulnerable to terrorism.

An underground tunnel would be optimal – out of sight, away from harm and the elements, and the path can run under cities, roads, rivers, and other obstacles. However, an underground system would be much more expensive, prohibitively so.

This, of course, is the exact same problem any similar mass transit system has. These are major infrastructure investments, and which lucky cities get to be on the path? Just working out the rights to pass through many different pieces of land can get horrifically complicated. But if we made this investment, what would be the potential pay off? This is where the hype comes in. Optimistic projections are that some hyperloop systems could have cruising speeds around 500 mph. There is time to speed up and slow down, but still, that’s a good clip.

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May 24 2019

Using Bacteria to Store Energy

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Energy storage is now a critical technology for the future of our energy infrastructure. We want to move to renewable forms of energy, but many of them are intermittent sources, and so energy storage will be necessary. At low penetration, up to about 30%, we can essentially use the grid as if it were a battery – putting unused energy into the grid when producing excess, and then taking from the grid when demand exceeds production. Having an efficient electrical grid is essential for this strategy, but it has inherent limits. It requires that the majority of electricity in the grid comes from base load or on-demand sources.

There are many potential options for large scale energy storage, but no currently available options are ideal. A new study explores one such possible solution, using bacteria to produce energy storing molecules from sunlight. The authors of the study lay out the problem:

No present energy storage technology has the perfect combination of high power and energy density, low financial and environmental cost, lack of site restrictions, long cycle and calendar lifespan, easy materials availability, and fast response time.

We really need all of those features in one option for it to be an effective solution. If any one feature is bad enough it is a potential deal-killer. Right now pumped hydro has the greatest efficiency, but is very site restricted. Batteries are not site restricted and have good energy density, but have a limited life-span and use some expensive materials that are not harvested in an environmentally friendly way and cannot be easily recycled. Producing hydrogen for storage is not a bad option, but we need better storage technology for the hydrogen (that is what has delayed the hydrogen fuel cell car so far).

There are some new proposals out there as well, such as using excess energy to have cranes raise blocks of cement into a tower. The blocks can then be lowered to drive turbines and recover the energy.  You could also heat minerals that can hold onto the heat for a long time, or spin up fly wheels in a vacuum.

Again – none of these technologies are ideal. Likely we will by using a variety of methods in different locations and situations. The authors of the current review explore the potential of using engineered bacteria to store energy from sunlight in the form of carbon-based high energy molecules – essentially biofuel. Bacteria can split carbon from carbon dioxide using sunlight as their energy source. That carbon can then be used in other reactions to create hydrocarbons. Essentially the captured energy will be stored chemically.

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May 17 2019

The Climate is Always Changing

Whenever the issue of climate comes up on this blog (or even just in the comments on unrelated articles), climate change deniers make an appearance. Consistently they use terrible arguments – relying on straw men, factually incorrect statements, deliberately confusing and blurring the lines, and committing just about every logical fallacy. They are also the same recycled arguments I see over and over, regardless of how many times they are refuted. That is how you know a position is intellectually dishonest, it never changes. It just moves around to the same repertoire of refuted positions.

A systematic refutation of these bad arguments requires a book, and there are many good resources out there, but I just want to focus on one argument in this article – the notion that the climate is always changing. This, of course, is true. It’s simply not a refutation in any way of the scientific position of anthropogenic global warming.

This is one of the many positions of the deniers. First they will argue that the climate is not changing. When the evidence for that is too irrefutable, then they say that it is always changing. This is also where the unmitigated hubris comes in – they bring up the point that there are natural trends in climate change as if this is news to anyone. Oh really, you don’t say? The climate naturally changes? I wonder if the world’s climate scientists, who have dedicated their careers to thinking deeply and carefully about things like the climate, have ever encountered that notion before. You should tell them.

Or, this is just a suggestion, you can take a moment to try to understand what scientists actually think rather than just swallowing science-denying propaganda whole. If a scientific idea is comprehensible to you as a non-expert, it’s a pretty good bet the experts have thought of it. You certainly shouldn’t assume that they haven’t, or you are somehow smarter than all the climate scientists in the world. Seriously – get some perspective.

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May 16 2019

Training an AI to See Like a Human

Published by under Technology

The synergy between AI research and neuroscience is fascinating, and becoming more so. Knowledge of how organic brains function is informing our approaches to artificial intelligence, and research into AI is informing our understanding of neuroscience. I think this process will eventually lead to an artificial human brain, but it’s very hard to predict how long this will take.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to see the fruits of AI algorithms that employ neural nets or try to recapitulate organic learning in some way. A team at the University of Texas has published a paper in which they present yet another example of this – teaching an AI to quickly gather visual information about their environment from a few “glimpses.”

Human perception evolved to be fast and efficient, to infer our environment from as little information as possible. The advantage of this is speed – there is obviously an advantage to perceiving something flying at your head, or a predator stalking you, as quickly as possible. Our brains use algorithm to make high probability inference to construct our perception of the environment from tiny slices of information. This process works very well, and most of the time we accurately perceive our environment sufficiently to move around and interact with it.

However, this system is not perfect. It occasionally will make incorrect inferences or assumptions, and reconstruct reality wrong. We experience such occasions as optical illusions (if we ever break the incorrect construction, otherwise we persist in the wrong perception). This happens, for example, when our brains receive insufficient information or ambiguous information. When observing objects in the sky we may lack a reference in order to judge size and distance. Low light conditions may obscure much of what we see. Unusual objects or environments may challenge the algorithms assumptions.

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