Economics Life Politics Supply Chain Sustainability

Is There Room For The Electronics Industry In A Sustainable World?

Even though I’ve stated that I’m not as interested in sustainability as I used to be, it doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. I have been thinking about it in conjunction with investing and my own work in the electronic industry.

Growth is a very important component to the electronics business. It’s priced into many stocks and it drives much of the electronics food chain. Moore’s law has helped for a long time too. Shrinking the geometry of silicon every 18 months really required manufacturers to update their equipment often. This then drives the equipment manufacturers to advance technology to make the new fabrication possible. The analog engineers (ok, digital too) out there utilize the new chips and make requests for the next generation. The ripple effect continues all the way down the line, requiring input from the manfacturers and returning revenue to the shareholders of said manufacturers. Like I said, this growth is an assumption and is priced into how people invest in companies involved in electronics manufacturing.

There’s no denying that electronics are a dirty business. Not oil-gushing-from-a-hole-in-the-ocean dirty, but still, not exactly the most environmentally friendly situation either. The chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing are not known for their safety nor their easy disposal; I’ve only had training on how bad they can mess people up but it goes beyond that; there are entire departments in semiconductor manufacturing facilities devoted to containing and disposing of the chemicals. Outside of the semiconductor world manufacturers have had to drastically reduce the amount of lead in products (in the solder and otherwise) but there are still elements of boards and parts that are not good for the environment. And given both the amount of turnover in the products that people consume year to year and the fact that very few products are designed for long term use, almost all electronics are bound for a landfill within a 10 year time frame (unless recycled). All of this adds up to a nasty picture for the planet.

A business built on growth and components that are not biodegradable nor regulated in their disposal. Is this model sustainable? Can manufacturers continue making products that are not safe for disposal and yet expect people to continuously update their personal electronic portfolio at home? Can manufacturers continue to crank out new devices ad nauseum and not be held responsible for the impact they make?

I do not believe the long term growth of electronics will plateau. While this may be good for my own career, part of me is very conflicted by the idea that my own success could be tied to the fact that we will have to consume more and more over time. Growth will always be driven by the next “must have device”, updating of previous generation devices and bringing electronics to a greater percentage of the population. But how can we rectify the needs (or perceived needs as it may be) with the very real issues and impacts associated with modern electronics? The material and energy inputs required and the waste from technology churn all make for hundreds of miles worth of disposed and forgotten cellphones and CRT monitors which took large amounts of the earth’s resources to make.

So assuming that growth of the electronics industry will continue unabated for various reasons, I think the question is better asked: Is a sustainable world possible with the electronics industry as we know it today?

I don’t usually say it on this site, but I have no clue about the answer to this question. Do you? Is it possible for there to be a healthy electronics industry when taking the planet into account? How does this affect the business model and should the people that manufacture products be responsible for what happens to the at the end of the products’ lifetime? Please let us know in the comments.

Economics Engineering Life Supply Chain

Are Engineers Naturally Cheapskates?

In a down economy, there is always focus on low cost. Job cutting, project re-definition, scaling back expenses, finding new sources of parts, all of these actions can lead to lower costs and help businesses stay alive in crappy economic climates. I think that the average (electrical) engineer can’t but help to let this mentality creep into other parts of their lives. In fact, I think the best engineers enter the profession and excel with this mindset. This revelation about engineering penny pinchers may have been stumbled upon by myself after being accused of being overly-thrifty a time or two. I don’t mind it though; I think maintaining a mindset of low cost is good for my work life and my personal life.

I have been on my own personal finance journey ever since I bought a house in the middle of a recession. I have been a regular reader of Get Rich Slowly, a fantastic blog about personal money issues, getting out of debt, smart money planning and tips on living a simple and frugal life. One of my favorite books suggested by JD has been The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches. It is full of interesting ideas to save money in non-traditional areas and generally living a simple and fulfilling life. If you’ve never read it, I highly suggest it. I also suggest to my engineering friends out there to consider how you can refocus your engineering efforts to match these principles. In his writing Jeff Yeager lists “6 golden rules for ruling your gold”, but I think they have everyday practical implications in engineering. Here is how I translate them for a thrifty engineer:

  1. Live within your means at thirty, and stay there. — I translate this idea as staying on budget for a project. A simple idea but many projects fail to do so. However, this also assumes you have a realistic budget in the first place. Allotting $10 for test equipment when you don’t have any and you plan to work on high speed signals is not a realistic way to start a project.
  2. Never underestimate the power of not spending. — Again, this is my translation but I would say this would be to cut out extraneous costs in a project. True, this sounds a bit scrooge-like, but I feel if I was bootstrapping my own company, this would be the only way I would operate. Ten years down the road you will remember the feeling of accomplishing your goal of releasing a product more than you will remember the t-shirt and mug you got commemorating it.
  3. Discretion is the better part of shopping. — I’ll speak more on this later, but the idea is to understand when you are buying a valuable product or service and when you are just being “sold” on something. It also means you have to understand the intricacies of what you are buying. From an analog engineering perspective, I think of this as buying a switching converter or something similar. Sure, you know you need to change the voltage supplied to a part of a circuit, but unless you know why you do or don’t need the latest and greatest buck converter, you might end up paying too much (for something you won’t necessarily need…could a linear regulator do the trick?).
  4. Do for yourself what you could have others do for you. — Design services are available for just about any task in engineering.If you were desperate enough, you could farm out every task in a project to a separate engineering firm that would piecemeal put together your project for you (READ: outsourcing). While it’s nice to use this service every once in a while to help speed up a portion of a project you are not an expert with, the time it takes to learn what has been done for you will often outstrip the time you save. Then if something breaks later no one knows how to fix it and you must pay the same design firm to help you again.
  5. Anyone can negotiate anything. — This is my favorite of the six golden rules and the one I have been taking most seriously lately. My attitude has been, “What is the downside to asking for a discount from a vendor?” If you are the customer, the most they will tell you is that they cannot swing any discount; at that point I thank them for their time and tell them I will get back to them after talking to some competitors. In a recession, people are eager to make a sale and are willing to lose some of their margin to do so. Don’t think of it as costing them money, think of it as gracing them with your business in a down time.
  6. Pinch the dollars, and the pennies will pinch themselves. — Paying $0.10 more per resistor when you are only buying 100 may have huge dividends. It could reduce the error in a circuit by orders of magnitudes. This is a small expense. Paying $100,000 for an oscilloscope that can measure 80 GHz when you really only need 10 GHz (still a little too RF-y for my tastes) could save you a significant amount of money and raise your overall margin for a product. Making money decisions based on need instead of “ooo-look-at-this-ery” can help project teams, companies and individuals have more rewarding payoffs at the end of a project.

Adding to the cheapskate stew and something briefly mentioned in point 3 above is discretion when buying a new product. I believe engineers are well suited for this mindset and that it stems from a slight mistrust of marketers and salesman. This is neither vituperation against engineers or any salesmen or marketers I have known, just that it is a general trend I have seen. I believe it is the result of encountering both sides of the sale. From the product designer perspective, there is often tension with marketers and salesmen when there is lack of communication. If the salesman talks to a customer and tells them that a new product can jiggle a widget 3x faster than the competition, the customer may purchase the product thinking it will always be jiggling at 3x of FluxCorp‘s latest product. But if the product can only sometimes and under the correct conditions jiggle that fast, well, there will be some problems; when the salesman relays back to the engineer that the customer is unhappy with their new product, arguments and finger pointing may ensue. On the other side of the sale, engineers often encounter sales forces descending upon them to encourage using their sub-widget in the new widget jiggler. If the salesman can supply a portion of the design to your new product then they will share in your success, because every new product made is a sale for them (albeit only a fraction of your product’s final sale price).  However, engineers sometimes encounter marketers and salesman (on the “being sold to” side of things) that may provide some “stretching” of the truth of a sub-widget’s ability. In either case, I believe that being a part of selling to others and being sold to helps hone engineers’ ability to sniff out when they are being sold something (as opposed to buying something because they want/need it). This is both something learned in engineering and a quality that some of the best engineers possess.

Yet another thing that drives engineers towards thriftiness is the nature of their jobs. If you look at an engineer and compare them to a scientist, there are some interesting distinctions. First, engineers are responsible for bringing products to market. This means that whatever technology they are using (oftentimes first discovered by scientists) must be viable on a large scale and must be done efficiently. If a scientist determines that a capacitor can hold more energy if you tap on it with your finger 1000 times before applying a voltage across it, that might be a brilliant (albeit completely fake) discovery. The engineer has to worry about how that capacitor can be sold at a reasonable price (in relation to the demand of the marketplace) and how to possibly produce millions of finger-tapped capacitors as fast as possible. Most importantly, the engineer and the company he/she works for is judged on the difference of the cost and the selling price (margin). More often than not the marketplace will be the one determining the price, so the only option for making more money is to reduce the costs in producing the product. A scientist may have external funding which allows for time to discover the newest technologies that will be later implemented; there is less direct influence on the success of the technology by near-term funding (though I know grant-writing is no picnic). The direct payoff and re-investment of profit from a successful product introduction influences how engineers operate. The thrifty engineers are successful because they can have the money they save go directly back into their next product.

A counter argument to being a (true) cheapskate is when it comes to quality. Many times in work and in life there can be significant savings from buying a quality product the first time. An example might be buying a high quality, variable temperature soldering iron (maybe even with an auto shut down). Compare that to buying a piece of junk Radio Shack soldering iron that you happen to leave on after working on your Wurlitzer. The former can last you many years and will perform well and help you solder many different products throughout its lifetime. The RS soldering iron burns out in less than a year (perhaps due to negligence, we’ll never know) and is not capable of soldering even the largest components properly. In this example there is money saved by not having to purchase another RS soldering iron and there is time saved while working on a project. So while I say that I am a cheapskate, I try to take all costs–including time–into account when purchasing something.

So answer the question Chris. Are engineers naturally cheapskates? After looking at the facts here it is pretty obvious that no, engineers are not naturally cheapskates; rather, they are often in a position to pick up money-saving skills while working on engineering issues and are well liked by management if they succeed in saving money. Also, if you happen to have some innate cheapness you will be at an advantage when starting out in engineering. Some of the people I have encountered in engineering have shown me the benefits of reducing costs in their personal lives and always knowing as much as possible about what they are buying so they can make make the best possible decision.

How about you? Are you a cheapskate? You definitely don’t have to be an engineer to be one. Do you find that engineers are naturally more thrifty? Please let me know in the comments or take the poll below!

[poll id=”2″]

Photo by MacQ

Engineering Renewable Energy Supply Chain

What The World Needs, Part 1

I like the communication between myself and my readers and my readers (either random or regular) on the comments section. As such, I’ve decided to try some posts titled “What the world needs” (similar to the “My Hobby” posts over at xkcd). These will supplement, not supplant, my regular posts. So here we go:

What the world needs, part 1…

What the world needs is more energy storage solutions. What we have right now just isn’t going to work. Batteries aren’t reliable enough over the long term, ultracapacitors aren’t developed enough and large scale solutions just aren’t efficient enough. All we keep hearing about at the Detroit auto show are the hybrid and plug-in vehicles (Nov 2010 for the Volt? It’s going to take that long??). While they have the conversion from braking energy back into stored energy, I feel like all of the stored energy solutions right now (within the cars, just are not sufficient). Furthermore, when all those plug-in vehicles are in the driveways of the suburbs and sucking down grid power, there will be a higher need to draw upon reserves of energy, either by cranking on more power plant capacity or tapping stored energy. If we want renewable energy to fill that gap in available power we will need even more storage capability, as renewable sources are not “always on”.

My favorite idea out there is the storage of energy by pumping water up a hill (known as Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity); it’s so simple and beautiful, basically you pump water up a hill and then release it later to be converted through turbines into electricity. The initial concept was developed to help deal with load variations on power lines but also to help sell lower cost electricity produced at night during the high cost hours of the day (a concept the plug-in vehicles also hope to capitalize on). Today we see these hydroelectric storage facilities being targeted as ways to store energy from sources such as solar cells or wind turbines.When the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, renewable sources cannot output power; people do not typically stop consuming energy during those times though, quite the opposite. When the sun is highest A/C units are cranked and when the wind is blowing outside people are cuddled under blankets watching TV or reading by lamp.

Like any engineering problem there are limitations. Evaporation reduces the efficiency in arid climates where large photo voltaic installations are likely. Wind occurs more naturally and is more likely to be harvested in areas with out large inclines to pump the water up and down. The turbines are not 100% efficient so there are losses during any pumping of the water. So the question remains, how else can we store and then harvest energy to take advantage of renewable energy infrastructure?

  1. As the verbiage above suggests, we can actually store energy and harvest it through biofuels; it’s really just a different way of thinking about an existing solution. Corn is a favorite right now, with switchgrass being a potential in the future. Mother nature helps us take sunshine, nutrients from the soil and water to produce plants that can be converted into energy through distillation.
  2. Gravity (in non water forms) could help us store more energy. I think of having lifts that could raise large weights into the air to be released at later times. I know there’s a lamp that uses gravity to temporarily light up LEDs, but I wonder how scalable this idea is.
  3. Spring energy has always fascinated me, ever since I got one of those wind up planes as a kid (you turn the propeller to twist a rubber band which then releases to unwind the propeller as the plane flies). I imagine a huge spring being pushed by some weight and then slowly released later to power a generator, but I doubt the materials would allow this indefinitely (springs eventually lose their “springiness”).
  4. Heat is another storage mechanism but has some serious limitations. You could try and heat up a medium (salt? water? saltwater? I think I saw that somewhere), but then maintaining the heat and retrieving it later provide some serious issues.
  5. Hydrogen is touted as a great storage mechanism; while I like the fact that water is readily available, I don’t think the storage capabilities are reasonable. One of the things I like most about the pumped storage facilities is its simplicity.
  6. Pumping air into a bladder or bag underwater could be a possibility someday. You would pump air into the bag and once the pumping had stopped and you wanted to retrieve the energy, the pressure surrounding the bag would force the air back upwards; when you need it, you direct the air through a turbine to retrieve the energy. Temperature changes as you go down in depth would be a concern (air compresses as it gets colder).
  7. Batteries are still an option…basically taking electrons and squirreling them away into electrolytic solutions (or however you want to do it). These become severely limited in large scale operations though; imagine how many “AA” rechargeable batteries you would need to store the output of a 500 MW wind farm

As a final note, I should point out I found this other Wikipedia article on grid energy storage at the end of writing this post. I still wanted to publish my ideas but only some of them matched.

I get a little frustrated when I try and think of new ways to store energy; however, it’s reassuring that there are many options out there that can still be improved upon. Can you think of any other natural or otherwise methods of storing energy? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by obenson

Economics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

A Quick Thought on the Economics of Renewable Energy

I glanced at my natural gas bill today while cleaning up the house and was a little shocked at myself. I pride myself on being better than most on conservation (at least cognizant of it) and my usage was quite high. That was last month and I can only imagine this month will get worse. And yes, I do live in a rental house right now (with an energy efficient house in my near future), but that’s the case for a lot of people, especially lower income. So I got to thinking, what will stop people from using so much energy in their frosty, great northern homes?

The answer is, of course, money. It always has been. But now we’re in a climate where the costs are beginning to rise so fast that people who sat dormant before will begin to take action. In fact, this will also likely move people in all economic groups to take action; the most important of these being the middle- to lower-income groups. Why? Because costs like heating are a larger percentage so there will be a more voluminous cry from the masses for cheaper energy (not that we don’t love our green friends, pushing the renewable energy agenda and buying recycled elephant dung paper as Christmas gifts for family). Hopefully more people clamoring for energy efficient devices and alternative fuels will push us towards a tipping point (which I incorrectly identified as a singularity), where renewables become the norm and cost of energy will drop due to the abundance of natural energy, waiting to be converted. So as prices continue to increase–and the temporary drop in gas prices is undoubtedly temporary–the push from most people will be towards a more sustainable future.

How about you? Have you felt the need to push for more conservation lately solely on energy costs? Let me know in the comments.

Photo by nothern green pixie

Economics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Cheaper than Coal?

My friend Cherish over at Faraday’s Cage is where you put your Schroedinger’s Cat sent me an article on solar power approaching the cost of coal (generated electricity). It’s a great article and it quotes Ray Kurzweil so I’m automatically a fan. However, I have no doubt in my mind that it WILL hit this price point (~$1/watt), it’s just a question of when.

The real thing I want to touch on and get responses to is: What happens when solar energy is cheaper than coal?

Coal is dumb

I think there will be gradual uptake by the large energy companies (most already have dipped a toe in the shallow end for solar power). Even large scale consumers will start to put renewable energy on their balance sheets, assuming it is cheaper. But then what? Business as usual? Am I allowed to keep my lights on all night, even if it is silly to do so? I’m confident that not only will solar be cheaper than coal, but over the long term, it will be MUCH cheaper because you get more lifetime out of a panel or a solar thermal system than you do with a lump of coal. So will prices go down from the power company? I’m not so sure about that one as I’m guessing they’ll want to pass their “investment costs” down to the consumers.

Another facet to this idea is whether or not consumers will start to take on the burden of their own energy generation. Will there be a deficit in the north and a surplus in the south? Will there be a grid efficient enough to transfer this energy transcontinentally? Will there ever be a storage mechanism that is feasible for all of the energy we could potentially harvest from the sun (I just heard about this idea and thought it was really cool)? Or is the individual power generation scheme doomed to fail because there is still an energy broker in the middle (the power company) for all those times when the sun isn’t shining (and the wind isn’t blowing if that becomes a more efficient source of power also).

If power consumption continues to get cheaper and everyone adopts a renewable stance on it, will the environment actually improve? Will there be as much focus on conservation, both in reducing power needed in devices and total consumption per capita (reducing our individual “carbon footprint”)? Will the cheap energy of the future fuel the next boom and pull us out of the doldrums of this dumb recession?

So many questions. So so many and we still haven’t even found out if we CAN make it cheaper than coal yet (cautiously optimistic here). Renewable energy will be translating to big money for some people over the next ten years and that means lots of conflict. What do you think will happen when/if solar becomes cheaper than coal?

Analog Electronics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

EEStor not delivering

I used to read Popular Science religiously. Those great stories about the new technologies were so exciting, sometimes I had trouble sitting still. And the best part was turning to the back where you could buy some DIY kit! I remember there were “lightsabers” and “hovercrafts” and flying vehicles, all available in kit form. I have since stopped reading Popular Science, but I could very easily imagine some of those ads on the back. One might just happen to read “Batteries no longer necessary. Ultra-capacitor is the wave of the future! Cheap energy for all!”. Of course, these are in fact the headlines for an Austin based company EEStor.

So I’m going to say it. I don’t think EEStor will deliver on the hype surrounding them. Even the more recent endorsements from third party auditors, a deal with Lockheed Martin and their ongoing partnership with ZENN motors does not make me think they can produce an award winning product any more than other companies out there could. Part of me thinks there are signs that prove this (explained below) but the other part of me is secretly hoping this is one of those situations where I say something will never happen and then it immediately does. This could be called “self-reverse-psychology” or “deluding myself” or even just “being wrong”, but who cares? I just don’t see it in the cards for EEStor and I’m not the only one.

Oh sorry. I forget sometimes that the only people who fall into reading my blog are my lovely friends and hopefully a few casual browsers. EEStor is a company that claims they have and are continuing to develop an “ultra-capacitor” capable of producing capacitors with extremely high capacitance, thanks to a new dielectric material, barium titanate. But real quick, let’s look at capacitors in general for anyone who might not have the whole picture. (Maybe skip down the page if you know how capacitors work).

The simplest capacitor possible is two flat plates of metal, connected to a DC electricity source:

When you turn on the source, charge flows to either side of the plate, but cannot pass through. In this case it cannot pass through because of the air in between the plates; here, the air is the dielectric.

Ok, so now there is charge stored on either side of the plates…but what good does that do? Well, there are myriad uses for the capacitor in the world of science and otherwise; but in the most basic definition, a capacitor exists to store energy. Furthermore, the higher the capacitance of a capacitor, the more energy it can store. So how do we get that capacitance to be higher? Let’s look at the equation (real quick, I promise and then no more equations).

C = frac{varepsilon{}A}{d}

Here C is capacitance, A is the area of the plates, d is the distance between the plates, and ε is something called the permittivity of the dielectric. So to make C bigger, we either need to make A or ε much bigger or d much smaller. At first I thought EEStor was trying to only find a better dielectric (with a higher value for “ε”), which would look like this:

This shows that the charges being closer together, but in reality, it’s that the material between the plates allows the electric field to permeate through to the other side better than air. This approach of having a better dielectric is actually closer to an electrolytic type capacitor.

However, EEStor is trying to make a better ultra-capacitor. So back to the formula (last time). Ultra-capacitors try to change everything in the formula. To maintain overall size of capacitors, the area of the plates (“A”) is changed by adding material with higher surface area (Wikipedia lists a possible material as activated charcoal). This gives the charges on each plate more places to rest. Next, the distance between the plates (“d”) is reduced to be as small as possible, down to the nanometer range. This is where most ultra-capacitor manufacturers stop. They use an ultra-thin dielectric layer with a standard permittivity (“ε”) and then surround the capacitor in electrolytic fluid. This limits the overall capacitance and the material properties of the current dielectric also limits the amount of voltage (potential energy), usually to around 3V (rather there is a trade off between voltage rating and capacitance).

EEStor is trying to change all of this by using a dielectric with a much higher value. They use barium titanate, which in a powder form has a very high dielectric constant and very high tolerance to voltage. They claim to compress the material to a pure form in a very thin layer (up to 99.9994% purity, they claim), which should maintain that high dielectric constant; however, this is up for contention. If they do manage to purify the material, they will be able to put a much higher voltage across the dielectric without fear of material breakdown, which they claim is main benefit of using barium titanate. Additionally, they use many different layers of the dielectric and other plates in order to create a higher capacitance. Why, you ask? Because the work (Energy * charge) a capacitor is capable of producing is equal to

That means if you are capable of increasing the voltage rating of a capacitor (how much it can handle before the dielectric breaks down or blows up), the work goes up in a square relation to that higher voltage (doubling the voltage yields 4 times the work). You can have a much higher energy density in the device, making the operation appear to be closer to that of a battery.

Alright, so we’re finally at the point where I explain why I think that EEStor won’t deliver on their promises. First, let’s look at what they have promised:

  1. A working prototype by the end of 2008. A fully implemented device in a ZENN vehicle by the end of 2009.
  2. A Capacibattery at half the cost per kilowatt-hour and one-tenth the weight of lead-acid batteries.
  3. A selling price to start at $3,200 and fall to $2,100 in high-volume production.
  4. Weighs 400 pounds and delivers 52 kilowatt-hours.
  5. The batteries fully charge in minutes as opposed to hours.

Yikes. Those are some pretty lofty goals. I’d say the most unbelievable of these is the first one (followed closely by the third). Since they haven’t shown the slightest sign of publicity, there really is not much to go off of. In fact, as a business model, EEStor has mystique as it’s main asset. They could go public with no product and have people bid up the stock price towards the sky with absolutely no product behind the curtain. In fact, the only people who have really stuck their head out to talk about this product is the CEO of ZENN motors, Ian Clifford. And why not? Even if the EEStor product (called the EESU) is a flop, ZENN motors can play the martyr and get the free publicity. But that’s all business. What about the technical stuff? Let’s look at some safety/efficiency/production concerns that could prevent them from making a product that can be mass produced at (relatively) low prices:

  1. ESR
    • ESR stands for “Equivalent Series Resistance”. It is caused by imperfections in both the dielectric and the material that connects the capacitor to the rest of the world. The ESR is how much the imperfections impede the current flow, as the current works to align internal bonds (in both the capacitor and the connecting material). Normally, ESR will not have any effect at DC because it is assumed that there is no charging time. However, charging a battery or capacitor is more like an AC signal (albeit only half of a cycle), and the faster someone tries to charge it (in EEStor’s case, quite fast) the higher resistance will be. This will translate to heat in the capacitor and wasted energy. With the high currents being pushed through the capacitor at high rates, this becomes a safety concern first and an efficiency concern second.
  2. High Voltage
    • This is really the key to the EEStor device. If they are ever planning to have a super fast charge, it will require higher voltages, likely on the order of kV. However, the high voltages have the obvious safety concerns (ZAP!) and the not-so-obvious concerns such as skin effects. Manufacturing a safe product that will pass automotive standards will be a difficult test. Consistently turning out a reasonably priced product that will safely deliver those same voltages will be even more difficult.
  3. Piezoelectric Effect
    • Piezoelectric effect occurs when the crystal structure of a substance is stressed and then releases charge. The best piezos release charge all in the same direction based on their crystal structure. What happens when this box gets compressed, via a car crash? Will all of the charge be released at once? Will a fender bender turn into a ZENN car sponsored fricassee? (on a related, but unimportant note: If we go to all electric cars, what will happen in car chases in the future and they want to blow up the other car? Even though it doesn’t actually work, what will they shoot if there’s no gas tank? 🙂 )
  4. Material/Production Costs
    • The product we have heard about so far, with extreme purity, will require a cleanroom-like setting, a foundry-like setting, or both (comparing it to what I know about fabs). In any of these scenarios, the cost of operation far exceeds what most venture capital firms are willing and capable of supplying in terms of cash. Unless they are quickly bought by a large scale producer of batteries or similar technologies, they would not have the working capital necessary to bring their production facility to a point where they are making enough units to create economies of scale (lowering the overall cost by averaging large fixed cost over all products produced).
  5. Manufacturing issues/Large scale manufacturing
    • Aside from the material cost and the operations cost, let’s look at the obvious: making one of these units seems to be hard.  I understand that they are developing processes to create these products, but the precision required for a consistent quality product could be so cost sensitive that they will drive the final part cost way past the projected $3200 price tag.
  6. Leakage
    • Leakage would likely not be a barrier to production, but it would probably hurt them in their ability to deliver a product with the longevity needed to power cars. If the voltage across a capacibattery is supposed to be 1kV or higher, even with the best available insulators, there will be some amount of leakage (everything allows it). If the car was required to be plugged in while in a parking lot it would not be as big of an issue, but I don’t believe this is the model they are going for; they seem to want to deliver a standalone piece of equipment.
    • Another way “leakage” can happen is across the dielectric. As capacitors age, the stress on the dielectric barrier eventually starts to break down and let electrons through. If EEstor does not properly monitor for DC leakage, there could eventually be catastrophic failure of the capacitor, as more and more current moves through the dielectric; this would heat up the device to unsafe temperatures and eventually cause a meltdown or explosion (exciting, but unsafe).
  7. Efficiencies
    • Let’s say you have a “fueling station” that is actually capable of charging a ZENN car in minutes (as opposed to hours); it would likely require voltages on the order of kV as opposed to 10s or 100s of volts and currents that are on the order of amps. Let’s say for our example that we are trying to transfer 10 kW (10A * 1000V) . Even at 95% efficiency of power transfer (a very optimistic estimation), that means we would be wasting at least 500W everytime that we go to charge our capacicars.
  8. Infrastructure
    • While my friend Nate would love to point out that the energy density of these devices still won’t approach that of gasoline or ethanol, they are proposing a product that comes closer than any others have yet. However, to achieve their miraculously fast charge times and high capacity capacitors, the product will require a charging station as mentioned above that is capable of deliving a high voltage payload to the battery (hopefully at a high efficiency). This means we’ll either need to convert gas stations into power stations or create huge step up transformers for the home. Remember, US line voltages coming into a house are 120V out of your wall socket. That will take some expensive equipment to safely regulate those voltages and convert to DC (another potential efficiency problem). The costs associated with implementing such a system (either commercially or in the home) could seriously hinder any chance of public acceptance.

So for the final piece of this ultra-capacitor manifesto, let’s look at the possible scenarios we might eventually encounter with EEStor. Aside from the skeptics, there are a good deal of people who are hopeful this company will succeed and fully expect it to; this outcome is possible, but the extent to which EEStor delivers will be up for anyone’s guess. As such, I’ve included a complementary predicition of the chance each will happen (in percentage):

  1. They deliver a “product” but it is only a fraction of the promised delivery-Perhaps they have an overzealous marketing person.
    • Chance of happening: 40%
  2. They deliver a product but price it so high, there is no way to employ it in any commercial application for the next 5 years-Lockheed still might buy it. Lockheed’s interest is what got everyone so excited again back in May…but it doesn’t mean this product will be delivered or that it’s even possible.
    • Chance of happening: 55%
  3. They deliver on all of their specifications and price targets
    • Chance of happening: 5%

So go ahead EEStor, prove me wrong. I don’t want to seem like those people that said man would never fly or that there would be no need for more than 5 computers, I just wanted to write an article pointing out the difficulties that EEStor is likely to encounter and hopefully have already overcome. So EEstor, if you’re sending out samples and need a tester, I would be happy to play with one of your toys. And if you (the reader) think I missed any crucial points about ultra-capacitors or EEstor, please let me know in the comments.

Analog Electronics Economics Supply Chain

DC powered home

Either my readership has extended to people at multinational corporations or the idea is intrinsically viable enough to actually work! Either way, I’m happy.

Junko Yoshida of EE Times reports that Sharp Corp and TDK corp have both displayed home mock-ups that include DC modules running of of solar cells and do not require any AC/DC or DC/AC conversion (thereby saving power wasted on the conversion process). This is reminiscent of when I asked if DC can power an entire home. They cite instances of using DC power to directly use in LED home lighting, flatscreens and various other commercial products.

Looks like the idea is catching on, I can’t wait until it becomes possible for everyone!

Analog Electronics Learning Life Politics Supply Chain Work

The Great North

This blog started when I moved back to Cleveland. Really, it was a little bit sooner, but it got going full time once I was settled in back in May. Since I’ve been back, I’ve actually really enjoyed it. There are some things I miss about Austin (where I used to live), but I am happy with my decision, most notably because of my job. I feel like I am part of the minority that is moving back North, that others in my generation are more likely to head south at the first opportunity.

Is there any reason to live in the north anymore?

Let’s go over the sour points first:

  1. It’s cold — No brainer on that one, it definitely snows more in Ohio than in Texas, but you do get the benefit of some winter sports (skiing, tubing, professional snowman making) and the picturesque nature of seeing snow on Christmas or at other times (this wears off after about two weeks). Unfortunately, the cold lasts longer than most people would like in Ohio. Back in Texas I was wearing shorts and tubing down the river by March.
  2. Gas/Heating —  This year might be the best example of expensive heating, but it has yet to play out. Oil prices are falling right now but could easily rise again in time for winter. There are some other (corny) ways to heat your house, so oil prices do not have the final say in how much we’ll be paying per month for oil north of the Mason-Dixon line. On the bright side, we’re paying WAY less for electricity than the south during the summer months.
  3. Young people — There’s kind of an avalanche effect to people migrating out of one city or into another. The more people that move somewhere, the “hotter” the scene becomes and more people want to move there. Cleveland still has a pretty vibrant night life, but it pales in comparison to Austin and some other larger cities.
  4. Urban Development — Suburbs happen. Sprawl happens. The longer a city has been around (such as those  in the north), the more people want to spread out and get their own space. This is slowly happening in the south (Dallas, anyone?), but Austin is still relatively compact. With newer, smaller, growing southern cities, urban planning can help to compact things and make them more accessible. If you are moving to a city in the north, it’s likely that a lot of the urban development is already done (though not completely).
  5. Jobs — We hear about the manufacturing jobs lost in Mid-West every time you turn on NPR. But there are also less large corporations in the north, due to some of the above listed reasons and less amiable tax laws than parts of the south.

But there is a lot of bright spots in Cleveland, even in the winter!

  1. Water — Necessary for life, right? Well some people didn’t really think about that when they were setting up new cities and towns in the southwest (I’d reference all of Arizona first). The Mid-West though? We’ve got tons of it! The great lakes are a great resource, whether for shipping, recreation, fishing or even lighting on fire (go Cleveland!). It definitely makes the summer months that much better and makes the winter months that much more bearable. Polar bear club, anyone?
  2. Infrastructure — Even though we may be a sprawling metropolis with many different cities, I will say that Cleveland has the benefit of a well developed system of roads. If you are so inclined, you can also take an AmTrak train to more destinations than you can from Austin (more track = more destinations…but to be fair you can get to most any city if you sit on a train long enough).
  3. Proximity — This was another nice deciding factor, both in where I went to school and why I wanted to move back. I can easily drive home to Buffalo in 3 hours, can drive to Columbus in 2.5, can drive to Detroit in 2.5 if I’m feeling feisty and can get to Chicago or DC in about 6. This compared with Austin having a 3 hour drive to the next biggest city (that I didn’t want to visit anyway) and a 12 hour drive to get out of the state.
  4. Airport — Similar to above, sometimes you just want to get out of town. If you can’t drive, you might as well fly. And if you’re going to fly, you might as well fly out of a hub. Even though continental decided to cut back their flights out of Cleveland, we have a great place to fly out of to get to some warmer destinations in those bleak winter months.
  5. Home Prices/Cost of Living — Thanks in part to our bozo friends in the finance industry and the overzealous DIYer house crowd, the housing market isn’t doing too hot right now. However, if you’re looking for a house, this is a great time! House prices and general food prices make for a much lower cost of living than many parts of the country, especially those with similar populations to Cleveland. Sometimes this is offset by lower taxes, but your consumption rate can be a little higher without incurring as much cost.
  6. Renewable energy — There is a lot of wind out on Lake Erie. This primes the region for becoming one of the premier renewable energy markets as we move forward with attempting our energy independence. The Great Lakes Institute for Energy Innovation is a start up at Case Western that could really help to move this forward.

I’m still really glad that I moved back to Cleveland. I only dealt with winter from Feb – April last year, so we’ll see how I handle an entire Cleveland winter. I’m not saying I’ll live in the Great North forever, but that for now, it fits me just right. Keep warm!

Analog Electronics Blogging Supply Chain

Why I love open source

There are so many great examples of open source these days. I find more and more that I can accomplish just about any task, either online or in the real world, with the aid of open source, especially software. For a relatively recent grad, I appreciate any opportunity to save money for the future. This could easily be the same case if I ever have the opportunity to start a business, as not many entrepreneurs relish the thought of paying thousands for an enterprise solution software package (such as Oracle). Let’s look at a few examples:

  1. Blogging – There are tons of sites out there that will give you space to host your blog either because they want exposure for their own site or have advertising motives. My blog is done published using WordPress, a wonderful free software. You can either have them host at their site or you can install their software really easily on your own hosting site. It’s amazing how well developed the software is and how easy it is to post and maintain online content. I remember when I first tried making websites back in the 90s I was so overwhelmed that I never ended up getting a site online. Now it’s a snap!
  2. Software – This is where the most open source opportunities come from and is really what drove the advances in open source. Here are some of my favorites.
    1. Wikipedia – This has to be one of the most prevalent examples on the internet today, not only of free software, but free information that is surprisingly accurate. The amazing thing about it is how effective it is as a standalone website. Google just about anything these days and a Wikipedia entry is likely to be at the top of the results. Why? Because Google works by popularity and whatever site the most people link to is usually the top hit on the results page (with some other criteria in there too). So many people link to Wiki articles though, that they often shoot to the top. Wikipedia is kept accurate and up to date by its contributors and moderated by some superusers, but has been shown to be effective as less and less people watch TV and instead spend their time online helping moderate content.
    2. Linux – A favorite of mine, this is the Windows killer that people have been talking about for years. It’s getting close, but Apple will probably chip away at Microsoft’s dominance first. Either way, it’s amazing how far the Linux systems have come from even just a few years ago. There are myriad releases available that suit different needs of users, but Ubuntu is the most popular now thanks to a user interface that is simple, similar to Windows and to be honest is spectacular. An add-on, once called Beryl, now Compiz-Fusion, is a spectacular interface that started following some of the OS X features (from Apple) and then was heavily copied in Microsoft’s Vista (flop). If you need some free software that does a tremendous job and is well supported, go with Ubuntu.
    3. PHP/MySQL – More software that makes this blog and many like it possible. WordPress is written in PHP, an open source software protocol that pulls from online databases. MySQL is the language that makes those databases possible. It is used in some of the most powerful sites on the web and is a simple standard to learn.
  3. Clothes – This one is definitely more unorthodox, but makes sense. A company called offers the opportunities to submit designs that are voted on by users and then they manufacture the most popular versions of the shirt and sell them. The artist gets a cut of the profits and the company doesn’t have to maintain an in-house staff. The situation is reminiscent of freelance photographers; it may not be the best for the artist, but it produces some spectacular work for the end user. Another company started doing this recently for shoes too. Soon you may be able to have an entire wardrobe based off of user created clothing!
  4. Music/Radio – Radio isn’t quite open source in the traditional sense, but online radio stations such as Pandora and Slacker are removing the need for big-wig dictated content. Allowing the user to decide what they will listen to more specifically than a station type with lots of songs you don’t want to hear (“104.8, playing hits from the 80s, 90s and today!). These online stations allow for you to pare down the specific genre you enjoy and then they will play songs from within that category
  5. Analog – This site is about analog, right? Well of course I’m going to include an example how this works.
    1. My favorite example is the open source tube amp project called Me and a friend built up an amp using the schematics and directions on this site; anyone is free to add their own variations and improvements to the base model to share with everyone. Some of the audio samples on the page show that these amps really can crank out some vintage, fuzzy tone that players the world over love.
    2. Another good example is the board layout from vendors. Often times a vendor will give an evaluation board in order to help sell a product (so the user can evaluate how well the product works before buying thousands of them). They will also offer the schematics of the eval board so that the user can directly copy it if necessary and save development time. Although the user does not usually share their modified end product, the fact that the board design can be re-used without a royalty payment makes it more “open” than “closed” source.

With all the free-ness of open source, why do companies do it? Why does anyone do it? Well, there still is an economically positive nature to open source. In the case of the clothing, still can make money through efficient production and distribution. They pass the cost of design to their submitters who make commission on their work. For the software companies, often times the open source version is available for companies to modify under the GNU public license (GPL) agreement, which says that if modifications are made that are not significantly different from the original that the changed version must be made available to the public. Sometimes when a company decides to deviate the software from the open source version, they decide to sell the new product and often times will offer professional support for the new version. Yet another way that open source providers can make money is through advertising revenues. A good example of this is Pandora, even though they are severely threatened by legislation that recently doubled the price of playing a song. Finally, sometimes, there is no revenue stream. People sometimes release open source information and products out of the goodness of their hearts or out of boredom.

Open source will continue to drive innovation because it allows for a free flowing of ideas. The fact that these ideas are free for all to use and modify and then share will ensure that more people will add to the collective knowledge and provide more open source products.

Analog Electronics Blogging Learning Life Supply Chain

A quarter century retrospective

When I started writing on my blog, I promised myself that it would not be about personal issues (“my roommate won’t pickup his socks!”) or rants about everyday happenings (“The people at the grocery store are slow!”). But I feel that reviewing the past 25 years of my life is good from a historical perspective and in terms of this blog so readers know more about where I’m coming from.

I am constantly amazed at how lucky I have been. I was born a white middle class male to loving parents and into a great family that encouraged my academic and intellectual achievement. I was also born in the United States of America, in an English speaking community that was voted one of the safest in America throughout my childhood. I’d say this already puts me in the top .1% of the world in terms of being dealt some great cards. Add to that the opportunities I’ve had with the school I was able to attend and the jobs I successfully interviewed for and I can’t think of many better situations. On top of all that, I work at a great company with lots of educational opportunities and I do something I really enjoy.

So not to sound like an Oscars speech, but I would like to thank so many people that made the past 25 years of my life possible. I want to thank my parents and sisters for being there for me and putting up with me. I’d like to thank all of my teachers throughout school that encouraged me, especially my high school physics teacher that inspired me to go into engineering. To all of my friends that are kind enough to click on my blog on a regular basis and give me great feedback on all things in my life, not just this blog. To our pound puppy Lola, who licks my face at every available chance and sits next to me whenever I need a canine friend. And saving the best for last, to my beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, who encourages me every day and loves me even when I’m writing about electronics and trying to explain it to her at 11pm.

That’s all for now. I thought one mushy post interspersed with serious posts wouldn’t be too bad, so I hope you enjoyed. Getting older always seems to have a stigma of life going faster and getting more hectic, but I think of it as more opportunities for learning and meeting new people. I’m sure this year will be another great one. If not, at least I can now rent cars with out that silly under-25 surcharge. Woo!