Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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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May 14 2018

AI Accurately Mimicking Humans

Published by under Technology

Recently Google pushed the envelope a bit further with its Duplex chat bots. This is an artificially intelligent (AI) system designed to mimic natural-sounding human speech and interaction. Take a listen to the conversations on the link above, they are pretty convincing.

I do think, knowing ahead of time that I was listening to a bot, I can sense the computer algorithm at work rather than a real person. However, I do wonder if I would have detected it if I were blinded to whether or not the conversation was with a bot, and especially if I wasn’t even alerted to the possibility.

It seems that every time there is an incremental advance toward more human looking or acting robots or software, it sparks a conversation about the implications of this technology. Google Duplex is no exception. Not long after they announced and demonstrated their software, they had to announce that they would always warn people when they are speaking with a bot. It’s interesting, because that may defeat the whole point.

Google says it developed the technology so that people will feel at ease when doing business with AI, because the conversation will feel natural. However, (at least some) people feel creeped out instead. People may feel somehow deceived and even violated if they find out they thought they were talking to a person when in fact they were talking to a machine.

That is an interesting psychological question in itself, one that will likely become increasingly relevant as our world fills with AI and robots.

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Apr 27 2018

Prioritizing Sustainability in Research

Published by under Technology

According to the OECD the world spends about 1.15 trillion dollars a year on research and development. The US spends the most at 0.46 trillion, with China second at 0.41 (but rapidly catching up and likely to exceed the US soon). That is about 2.3% of worldwide GDP. That includes all sources, public and private.

From any perspective, that is a lot of money. It is also a good thing – the world is investing a significant amount of its activity and resources in the future. I don’t know what the optimal percentage for such investment is, and I am sure someone could make a reasonable argument that it should be higher. What I want to discuss here, however, is not how much we invest but how we invest in research. In broad brushstrokes – what should be our research priorities?

If you think about it, where we invest in research essentially determines the path forward that our civilization takes in terms of science and technology. So it’s worth thinking about how that quadrillion plus dollars gets spent.  Right now we have a decentralized R&D infrastructure, with many different facets. There is a lot of “bottom up” research, meaning that individual researchers, companies, labs, and other institutions are determining for themselves what to research based upon their own priorities. There is also some “top down” research in which large funders, mostly governments, determine research priorities through their granting process. There are strengths and weaknesses to a diffuse system like this, but I think overall it’s pretty good. Essentially free-market forces are at work with some nudges here and there.

Private researchers are largely going to prioritize R&D that makes them and their investors money. That’s fine, as this also produces incentives to make things faster, better, cheaper. All governments can do in this situation is look for perverse incentives and mitigate them through regulations. For example, I strongly believe we should not allow industry to simply externalize the costs of their profit-making enterprises. That amounts to a hidden subsidy, and also creates a perverse incentive to externalize costs (for example, by dumping into the environment).

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Apr 26 2018

The 3D Printing Revolution

Published by under Technology

We are in an interesting phase of developing 3D printing technology – the ability to print real objects in three dimensions. The technology clearly works and has applications. The question is – will 3D printing remain a niche technology, or will it revolutionize manufacturing, how consumers obtain certain items, and even introduce new possibilities in medicine and wearable tech?

It’s easy to get carried away with the possibilities, and I think they are all plausible. But often we confuse the mere ability to do something with the cost-effectiveness and practicality of doing so. We may be technologically capable of 3D printing certain consumer goods, but it may just be cheaper and easier to use more traditional methods of manufacturing. We always have to see how technology works out in the real world to see if it will truly be the transformative tech proponents promise, or if it will go the way of the Segue.

There is a steady stream of advances in 3D printing technology, which makes me think we are a long way from seeing the full potential of this technology. Lets take a look at a couple of recent ones.

Thermorph Printing

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated the ability to print flat plastic objects that, when heated, will fold into a predetermined three-dimensional shape. The advantage to this approach is that it is cheaper and faster to print the flat pieces than the solid objects. Also, there are many contexts in which it is more practical to store and ship the flat objects.

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Apr 24 2018

Ehrlich and the Collapse of Civilization

In 1968, 50 years ago, Paul Ehrlich and his wife published The Population Bomb, which famously predicted mass starvation by the end of the next decade. Ehrlich’s predictions failed largely because of the green revolution, the dramatic increase in agricultural productivity. You would think that being famous for a dramatically failed prediction would bring humility, but Ehrlich is still at it. In a recent interview he argues that the collapse of civilization is a “near certainty” within decades.

Let’s examine some of the logic at work here. First, just because Ehrlich was wrong before, that does not mean he is wrong now. It is certainly cause for skepticism about his current claims, because he may be laboring under the same false premises that drove his previous false predictions. We need to take a look at his claims and see if they hold water.

Ehrlich basically argues in the interview that he was mostly right 50 years ago. He may have gotten the details wrong, but his basic point that overpopulation and over consumption will eventually doom us is still valid. While this interpretation is transparently self-serving, he is not alone in this opinion. A 2015 opinion in the NYT also argued that Ehrlich was essentially right. Paul Murtaugh writes:

Ehrlich’s argument that expanding human populations cannot be sustained on an Earth with finite carrying capacity is irrefutable and, indeed, almost tautological. The only uncertainty concerns the timing and severity of the rebalancing that must inevitably occur.

Well, sure. If you reduce Ehrlich’s argument to – the Earth has finite resources, and so we cannot expand our population without limit, of course he is correct. That is a trivialism, without adding any real insight. The parts that Ehrlich did add were clearly wrong.

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Apr 20 2018

Update on Mandatory GMO Labeling

Published by under Technology

A recent commentary in RealClear Science makes a simple but important point – it is difficult for the government to properly regulate what it does not understand. That observation can apply to many things, as we recently saw with the questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The display was quite embarrassing, leading to countless parodies of the aged congress critters asking clueless questions of the young tech giant. This called back to mind the infamous comment by Senator Ted Stevens who described the internet as a “series of tubes.” While serious, this was part of important testimony regarding net neutrality.

The broader issue here is – how can our elected leaders hope to regulate cutting edge science and technology that they don’t understand? This is not limited to internet technology, but also to things like genetic engineering, CRISPR, cloning, stem cells and other biotech. How about artificial intelligence and robotics, or issues related to our energy infrastructure and climate change?

More and more, scientific literacy is a critical virtue we should demand of our politicians. Yet questions about important scientific topics hardly rate during elections.

Just one such important topic is the regulation of genetically modified organisms – GMOs. In 2016 Vermont was the first state to pass a law requiring labeling of foods that contain GMOs. The prompted a federal law, signed by Obama, that supercedes the state law. The federal law also requires labeling, but is less strict, allowing for scannable codes or telephone numbers that consumers can call to get more information. The USDAs guidelines on this law are due this summer.

I am strongly against mandatory GMO labeling for several reasons, but the primary reason is that the very concept of “GMO” is vague and imprecise. You cannot regulate something that you cannot define. You can, of course, simply make up an operational definition (like the USDA did for “organic”) but if there is no real scientific meaning behind that definition, what exactly are you regulating?

The current working definition of genetic modification is, “rearranging, eliminating, or introducing genes in order to get a desired trait.” Of course, by that definition all hybrids are GMOs. When you crossbreed two varieties you are introducing new genes. What about mutation breeding, the use of radiation or chemicals to create mutations in the hope that the occasional mutation will be beneficial. Why isn’t that genetic modification?

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