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.

Economics Engineering Life Politics Renewable Energy

Welcome President Obama! Now let’s get crackin’ on renewable energy.

I wrote last week about Barack Obama further laying out his plans for renewable energy. He states in that video that he plans to invest $15 Billion or more in renewable energy each year. My question is, what can we start doing now? In order for him and the renewable energy community to hit the ground running on Jan 20th, we need to start planning some actions for the new administrations (with or without funding).

  1. Education — Without a new crop of able young engineers, we won’t get far. So how do you get involved in helping to make this a reality? Follow my volunteer idea and go to middle- and high-schools and share what it’s like to be an engineer with young people. Even better, I recently found out that I was right in thinking I was not original…there are many programs in place to allow engineers to easily reach out to their communities. The one I am currently considering is the New Faces of Engineering Road Show, hosted by the Cleveland Engineering Society. They travel to schools and promote engineering and science to young students, basically the exact thing I wanted to do.
  2. Conserve — The best way that individuals can help on a daily basis is to conserve, in general. Use less utilities (turn off your lights, turn down your heat), recycle your recyclables, carpool to work
  3. Stay involved — This year has shown young people actually can make a difference in elections and in general. This is due to the extreme influence of social media and how it connects people online and throughout the world. Now use that power to go out and influence individuals and corporations that a green economy will benefit all Americans (and the world).
  4. Consider alternative and renewable energiesBlack silicon or not, photovoltaic (PV) cells are still expensive. However, there are simpler methods, such as corn stoves, which have lower environmental impact and are definitely renewable year after year.
  5. Keep them honest — No matter how good their stump speeches are nor how honest they may seem, absolute power corrupts absolutely. While the checks and balances were put in place by our forefathers to keep our branches of government watching one another, the true power in oversight will come from civilian oversight. This has been further enabled by the internet in recent years and we must insist that our newly elected government officials do not take advantage of their positions for personal or nepotistic gain.
  6. Join the fight — Sure, there will be more political battles, notably with oil barons not wanting to relinquish their grasp on easy profits; but the real battle is with innovation and design challenges. Use online resources to go out and educate yourself on analog electronics. The biggest challenges will be won by the groups with the most resources. If we want a future filled with solar and wind generated power, go out and learn how to make that a reality by studying the basics.
  7. Start something — Been studying this stuff for so long that you think you have a great idea on improving an existing system (the power grid, anyone?) or developing a disruptive renewable energy technology? Go for it. In order for the green revolution to begin, America (and the rest of the world) needs entrepreneurs to step up to the plate and take risks in order to develop these emerging technologies. Do you prefer the less technical side of engineering? Pair up with the entrepreneurs. Technically minded people are just as important to take the time to introduce the new technology to the rest of the world.

Good luck President Obama. You have a huge challenge ahead of you, a huge wreckage behind you and a huge nation standing and waiting for you to wave the green flag. Let’s all try and toe the line as soon as we can.

Analog Electronics Economics Politics Renewable Energy

Barack Obama Further Lays Out Renewable Energy Plan

I take a personal interest in Barack Obama‘s new plan to increase investment in renewable energy technologies, as I think and hope my long-term plan of working on renewable energies will come to fruition.

Skip to 9:38 to hear about his plans for renewable energy

I don’t seek to point out any political messages other than to focus on his determination to make renewables a viable part of the American economy, much like Thomas Friedman points out in Hot, Flat & Crowded. A green revolution or economy will help to return America as an arbiter of international issues by once again showing our leadership and innovation abilities (not to mention our economic strength). While I will point out that John McCain has also shown some initiatives for renewable energy (not to mention he does not believe that drilling for oil is the only solution), I feel that his focus on nuclear as the only true long term solution in his administration would not put enough money into the hands of people that will drive the “green revolution”. Given the possibility of recession in this country (or is it already here?), I believe that direct government investment in renewables will help to jump start the economy by driving job growth. And it won’t just come from the presidential administration either; people in the house and senate all need to push these new green energy agendas to really allow for new legislation. Great examples of this are Alice Kryzan, running for the 26th congressional district in New York and Dan Maffei who is running for the  25th district, also in New York.

Probably the point that I would like to point out most in this video is his call upon the American people to reduce their consumption AND take personal responsibility in their lives (i.e. childhood education). Sure, we could use our innovative techniques to create energy at the cost of the environment ad nauseum. But why not instead work on power saving techniques? Why not inflate your car tires to increase gas mileage, instead of pushing for faster ramp ups of offshore drilling? Why not tell people to turn off their lights, recycle their garbage, stop watering their lawns and driving gas-guzzling cars? Because it’s tough telling people that stuff. It’s not going to work at first, but it will over time, and that’s why I thought this was a good video.

I always welcome comments on renewable energy, but given the touchiness of politics, please be extra gentle when commenting. What do you think of the renewable energy plan? Is it a pipe dream? Do you think there are pieces that both candidates are missing?

Economics Renewable Energy

The Renewable Energy Singularity

It’s gonna happen. Some day.

Some day, we (as the human race) will reach a point–or a singularity–where it will be more economically viable to create renewable energy than to harvest oil or coal out of the ground; there won’t be any going back. We started toeing that line a few months ago. Oil just about crossed the $150 mark before dropping way back, thanks to the possibility of recession. Now that we’re back into cheap oil land, we will probably suffer a setback on developing newer more efficient energy solutions (not even necessarily renewable ones). But once we cross that threshold where renewable energy is cheaper than hydrocarbon based energy, the world can only change for the better.

Let’s look at things that will accelerate the pace at which we (are forced to) develop new energy technologies:

  1. We run out of oil — Whoops! Can that really happen? You’re darn skippy it can happen. And will happen, if growth continues as it had for the past few years. China and India are waking up as new middle class citizens and they are thirsty for oil. There were only so many dinosaurs and other critters that are now our oil supplies.
  2. The oil that is left is REALLY hard to get to — Recently Cuba found out they have one of the largest oil reserves in the world just off their coast. Too bad it’s a mile or more under the ocean. That’s a lot of water to get through just to get at the oil. It’s even tougher if you have primitive oil companies trying to get at that oil. If the price of oil is high enough there’s likely to be someone crazy enough to go get it, but that might raise the price even more.
  3. The oil and coal the US imports is no longer available — The main reason would be “conflict” a.k.a. War. We make Iran or other friends of OPEC angry enough and they might decide to stop sending us 55 gallon drums of crude (that’s just how they measure it…not ship it, right?).
  4. We can’t afford it anymore — Since we’ve been sending China our money for a long time, they are sitting on some significantly larger piles of cash (in US dollars, thank you very much). If it comes down to an eBay style bidding war, the bigger pile is going to win. Even bidding at the last moment won’t help!

OK, so we’ve decided what might get us into this mess. But what else can get us out of this mess? It’s pretty clear that the next US presidential administration will have some serious sway over how renewable energies are governed and encouraged. If they read, or better yet employ the author of “Hot, Flat and Crowded” — Thomas Friedman, then they will have a level headed economist with some great ideas on their side. More important than one man or even one administration is a multi-point plan of attack for reducing the cost of renewable energy.

Remember, the thing we’re concentrating on is that point where it’s more cost efficient to harvest renewable sources than to dig up carbon based sources. In theory, this makes a lot of sense. Sunshine is definitely free, even if it is harder to come by in the great north. Wind is prevalent just about everywhere, just look at Kansas. But until the infrastructure and the methods are in place, all of these elements won’t contribute to our renewable energy solution, they will just sit useless until everybody jumps on board. Let’s look at a list of hurdles we will have to pass in order to make renewable energy, and more importantly energy independence, a reality:

  1. Efficiently storing energy– From what I’ve seen so far, this will probably be done by splitting H20 into hydrogen and oxygen. While I don’t like the idea of liquid or gaseous hydrogen sitting in my car, basement, etc, I would hope material technologies catch up so catastrophic events aren’t as often as we might think. Unless some game changing technology such as batteries or super capacitors comes and proves it can store energy better than electrolysis, then splitting molecules will be the way to go.
  2. A newer and better power grid — This is one whopper of a problem. You know how you hate going to Best Buy to purchase a 10 ft length of cable because the one coming out of your wall won’t reach your TV? You know how they totally overcharge you because those are their high margin products? Well even if there was NO margin, imagine how expensive it would be to run one wire all the way across the United States. Now imagine criss-crossing those wires across every town and city across the United States. Oh and those really huge amounts of cable? Well, let’s make them out of copper, which is currently at some all time price highs right now. A better routed and controlled power grid is a good first step to increasing the efficiency of power transport. But until we as a country begin to revamp the aging infrastructure of this country, renewable energy will not be a reality for locally generated power sold to the masses or at a central power station system where excess power can be put on the grid at any time it is available.
  3. Bringing in the big boys — Like it or not, the big energy companies need to be a part of it. Until BP or Chevron can continue to make the profits they are making with oil, then there will be problems.  I’m not saying that the king cannot be dethroned (ahem, GM), but I think that if the big boys are in on the action, they will be less likely to lobby the government for oil and maybe even turn their interest towards lobbying for renewables. Who wouldn’t want to get free energy (solar)? All you do is plop down the infrastructure and collect those deliciously free solar rays.  On another note about the big boys, I am happy to say that they have started recognizing some of the potential in renewable energy, although it is unlikely that they will be turning in their oil rigs for solar panels anytime in the next few years. Oil rigs are expensive!
  4. Progressive tax credit reforms — Again, this is likely to hinge on the upcoming election and ensuing presidency but in the event that point 3 does not go through and oil companies continue to lobby for hydrocarbon use, tax credits will be needed so individuals are encouraged to buy their own wind, solar and geothermal systems.  Sure, the lowered costs help, but until there is governmental push, it’ll be slower adoption on the part of big business.
  5. Finding replacements for current solutions — I once visited the GE Aviation facility in Cincinnati and I can tell you, that facility is HUGE. It must be miles of offices and test bays completely dedicated to producing engines that run on jet fuel. Until THEY decide to switch over and try new methods of propulsion, having an abundance of hydrogen might not do them (or us) any good. The end products (in this case engines) require jet fuel and until they require something other than jet fuel (and therefore drive the demand down and the impetus to go find and sell more of it down), then the cost of renewables will remain high by association (because there will be less demand for it).

As much as we wish it was, making cheaper solar panels isn’t the only solution to reducing costs of renewable energy. There are many different aspects that feed into making renewable energy a final solution for the human race. If you can think of more milestones we’ll have to reach before this vision becomes a reality, please post them in the comments.

Blogging Economics Music Politics Renewable Energy

“Hot, Flat and Crowded” By Thomas Friedman — A short review

I love public libraries because it’s like having minus the pesky notion of paying for a book. However, the downside is you don’t get to keep what you’re reading–especially if it is a popular book that other people want before you can renew it. As such, I’m going to review what I’ve read of this book so far, because it’s just that good.

For background, Thomas Friedman also wrote “The World is Flat”, a book detailing how the economy and the world has changed since the September 11th attacks, both good and bad. In that book (written in 2005) he details the benefits of outsourcing and globalization and actually downplays the notion of globalization as an enemy, instead framing it as an opportunity that requires a competitive nature in workers and corporations. While that book was written before there was the possibility of recession, the book explains the rapid growth that is occurring overseas which will likely collapse along with the credit markets. I highly suggest reading that book if you have not, it is a great introduction into Friedman’s writings and is a good preface for the book reviewed here.

Onto the main event. Let’s decode the title of this book:

  • Hot — Not too hard to figure this one out. Global warming is not just a potential threat anymore, it’s real, it’s dangerous and it’s here to stay (or is it?)
  • Flat — See the previous paragraph. The world is quickly trying to elevate more people into the middle class than ever before. This is putting a serious strain on all resources of the planet, including the atmosphere.
  • Crowded — Barring a major war, outbreak or famine, the world population keeps on growing. Add to the mix better drugs, a higher focus on health and longer life expectancies, the people that are here will probably stick around too. Overpopulation is yet another drain and strain on the planet’s resources, multiplicatively so if those people are in the middle class.

Of these, I would put forth that only the “hot” portion has any solution, and at that, reduced consumption and switching to renewable energy will likely only go as far as retaining the current temperature of the earth. For the “flat” and “crowded” parts, the best case scenario is that we find ways to accommodate more and more people entering the middle class and the world in general by changing our perceptions of allowable consumption in the middle class (and any class for that matter). Most notably, Americans who have become accustomed to a particularly wasteful way of life (as chronicled by Duncan)may have to re-assess how they consume products; while it would be nice to think we will do this with conservation in mind, more realistically we will be forced to do this because of the laws of supply and demand are going to make previously cheap products much more expensive.

How do we do it, you ask? With a “green revolution”. This means an economy that is based around locally produced energy that is both renewable and environmentally friendly. Even though it sounds a bit new-agey to conjecture that renewable energy can save the world, it really starts to make sense when you look at current world issues. Here are some problems that a green economy can fix:

  1. Energy supply and demand — The best ways to bring down energy costs is to either flood the market with it (energy) or tell the energy producers you don’t need it. Since the world as a whole will not likely give up our digital and analog electronic gadgets anytime soon and our energy usage will likely increase, it would behoove us to begin making cheap and renewable energy. Since oil doesn’t seem to be an option as cheap energy anymore, we should probably start looking at new exciting options, like solar cells made out of black silicon.
  2. Petropolitics — If we don’t end up going out and figuring out how to make renewable energy, we’ll continue shipping boatloads of money to countries that hate us. Like I had written about these oil barons before, why not hit them where it hurts? In the wallet.
  3. Climate Change — Al Gore knows it and told a lot of the world. There is undeniable climate change happening every day we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Reduce coal and oil usage and the amount we dump into the air will go down.
  4. Energy Poverty — Without energy, it’s hard to do a lot of things. Most of us would go check into a hotel if the power went out for more than a week. However, one third of the world lives in energy poverty, meaning they cannot even come close to pulling themselves out of monetary poverty; health standards are proven to drop dramatically when people live this way.
  5. Biodiversity Loss — Human consumption of natural resources is threatening damn near every species on the planet, up to and including humans. If we don’t want to have only cockroaches and squirrels running around a polluted planet with us, we need to set up more sanctuaries and reduce

I unfortunately didn’t get to read about all of Friedman’s ideas, but plan to read more as I get my own copy of this book. (More of the basis of his ideas can be read from his entries in the NY Times and Foreign Policy magazine)

I will leave you with one of my favorite statistics and quotes that Friedman puts in the (beginning of the) book; Moisés Naím also writes in Foreign Policy about the Chinese and Indian middle class that is emerging and how “the total population of the planet will increase by about 1 billion people in the next 12 years, [but] the ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion”. Just think about that for a second. 1.8 BILLION more people leaving the lights on, eating cheeseburgers, driving SUVs and doing everything else they’ve been sold as “the American Dream” (or at least way of life). They can’t be stopped and they are constantly told through advertising that they deserve whatever they want. Something has to change, and fast (besides the economy). I want to find solutions for new renewable energy and I hope you do too; but a quick thing that will help everyone is if you switch those lights off at home when you’re not using them, so be sure to do that too.

Scared by all of this? That wasn’t the point of this post, but it scares the heck out of me too. Go out and read this book and leave some comments about what you think about the future of the world.

Renewable Energy

Is black silicon the way to make cheaper solar power?

I came across an article today talking about how black silicon will revolutionize solar power. The idea developed at Harvard (and now at a company called SiOnyx) is basically to blast the surface of a silicon wafer with a high intensity laser for a very short interval. This short time “melts” the silicon and when it comes back together it has a structure allows the structure of the silicon to absorb more light. They also utilize a new type of doping, (doping is insertion of low quantities of specific elements, such as phosphorus, into silicon in order to change the properties of the silicon. Depending on the type of dopant the silicon may want to release an electron or absorb one); the laser process likely allows better penetration of the dopants into the silicon, which usually are accelerated into the silicon with HUGE magnets. There aren’t specifics about the entire process, but as you can see in the picture below, the silicon seems to stretch upwards creating cones of silicon. I would guess that the process is similar to carbon nano-tubes where they also use a laser to blast the carbon. It also makes sense that the process would work for silicon given the similar structure between carbon and silicon.

Courtesy of SiOnyx

Again, I don’t know the specifics of how the final product works better, but my guess would be that the cones are much better and capturing light, due to the higher surface area. When the light hits these more sensitive nodules, the energy “knocks” an electron loose (just as in regular PV cells), which then contributes to the overall current coming from the cell. Also of note is how the dopants shift the sensitivity of the silicon to a lower wavelength. In this case, it is shifting it down into the red and infrared regions of the spectrum, which allows for more energy to be absorbed by silicon, as opposed to reflected. This also is the namesake characteristic of this technology, because in theory “black” silicon would absorb all light (as opposed to a theoretically worthless “white” silicon that would reflect all light). The higher amount of cells hit by light (due to more surface area) and the greater sensitivity to low wavelength light such as infrared (which our bodies interpret as “heat”) gives this new silicon a much higher overall absorption and translation into usable electrical energy.

I like this idea because it lets existing solar facilities be transformed easily into solar cell facilities. This new capacity could then be absorbed by local micro-factories, putting the solar arrays together and hopefully driving the cost to the consumer down. As more and more fabrication facilities are shut down due to a possible recession, they could quickly be modified to start outputting less complicated solar cells in higher volumes. The SiOnyx equipment would provide the final processing necessary to have the higher efficiency panels.

I only know what I have read online, but I like what I have seen thus far (plus I tend to trust researchers from Harvard more than just some schlub off the street). It seems feasible in the short term and has much broader appeal and use than ideas like “dancing to save the world“. Check out the above article and if you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments.

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!

Life Renewable Energy

This may sound a little corny…

Ah summertime. What a great time of year. There are tons of things to do, but none match the splendor and diversity of a county fair…especially in middle of nowhere Ohio. Between eating pizza subs, watching horses pull stuff and admiring the great bounty of mullets that only rural areas could give us (“Strong crop of mullets on the back 40 this year, Pa!”), I found something genuinely interesting.

In a cramped show trailer, I happened upon a nice older gentleman whom I’ll call Hank (cotton candy causes memory loss). He was selling a range of products from, which is a distributor for a range of pellet stoves. Neither the website nor the product is particularly flashy; basically there is a thermostat that controls a hopper, which can hold wood pellets, or sometimes grain. When it gets below the set temperature, the thermostat kicks on and releases a few of the tiny pellets into the already raging, but compact fire (500°F and up in those tiny piles). This method allows for only using the amount of energy needed and not much more. Depending on whether the system is a boiler or a furnace, the pile of burning pellets then heats liquid or air respectively and then goes through a heat exchanger. I immediately asked Hank if my house would smell like popcorn, but he calmly explained that the heat exchanger would not usually allow that. He was nice enough to humor me though, and told me that it might smell like popcorn outside my house. He also told me that a retrofit system for an existing 1500 sq. ft. house would cost about $5000 or so. It would tie into an existing furnace’s ducts and then kick on instead of the regular furnace (with the option to use the original furnace). I though this was a pretty interesting idea.

So why now? Well, energy prices don’t really seem to be going back down anytime soon (even if oil prices are falling temporarily). And while corn prices seem high at the moment, you can always plant more corn next year…you can’t make more oil. Also, I tend to think that farmers are over planting corn this year because of the high prices. Who wouldn’t want to get close to double what they were getting a few years ago? If corn AND oil are both high, these systems have the benefit of being versatile; they can use any range of bio-fuels, from wheat to rye to recycled paper pellets. The most commonly found feul is compressed wood pellets, which are made from sawdust at mills and elsewhere. All will have varying energy densities (which will change how much heat an individual pellet will output), but the pricing will often make up for the differences. Hank also told me that with a boiler, the cost would be about 60% less to heat a home (because heating oil will be higher this winter than natural gas). It would be about 40% cheaper with a furnace. Disclaimer: These facts are all from Hank, the salesman. Actual results may vary, but he seemed pretty genuine.

So why this solution as opposed to something else? It’s simple, stupid. Really simple, so much so that these systems have been around for a while (think wood burning stoves, but with pellets). But now there is a renewed focus on this solution. Sure there are geothermal house heating solutions and communities with steam pipes going to houses and solar thermal towers and on and on. For most people though, those things are not an option for an existing house in an existing neighborhood. Sometimes there aren’t any other resources that can be harvested naturally (wind, sun, heat from the earth, etc), so people have to buy fuel. It’s a reality we’ll all have to face. There are downsides, as in any issue: you have to clean the system weekly, it’s not carbon neutral, it’s dependent on prices of fuel sources, it burns food that could feed some people (not feed corn, but some of the other types of things). I’m not saying you should go out an buy one, that’s Hank’s job to convince you. But it’s another way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and maybe help some local farmers too.

Analog Electronics Politics Renewable Energy Supply Chain

Solar Automation and Micro-Factories

I have a friend who alerted me to a company out in New Mexico known as Solar Automation. They don’t make solar panels; rather, they make the equipment to make solar panel arrays. However, what I find most intriguing about the company is their concept of Micro-Factories. In the case of Solar Automation, the basic idea is that a small team of people are capable of creating solar arrays by soldering the tiny wires with non-lead solder. This same concept could be expanded to many other applications, including mechanical or auto assembly, textiles, food preparation (already done at caterers, really).

Although it exists on a slightly larger scale, China epitomizes the Micro-Factory model. They have large labor pools using simple equipment to make incrementally more complex equipment. One example might be a board house that hand assembles and solders through-hole part boards. This could instead be done in a large facility with automation on expensive equipment. However, the cost for the equipment would likely mandate a large overall throughput for the factory in order to justify the cost of the equipment. Conversely, a smaller hand soldering operation could easily scale the number of people required to make an order of boards. As for energy savings, there can be higher efficiency with a laborer using a low wattage soldering iron as compared to heating lamps or continuously heating a wave solder machine.

The pivotal point in this argument is whether or not the end product requires increasing complexity in the machines that construct it. Solar is a good example. The panels themselves are not particularly complex, mostly they are tons and tons of PN junctions that convert incident light into flowing electrons. However, the chemicals and the semiconductor processing equipment is very complex.

So what are the benefits of Micro-Factories?

  1. Local workforce – With the exception of a privileged few (non-whiners), no one will contend that the US and the world economy is hitting some tough times. Local jobs are outsourced or cut outright. Mom and pop shop workers are now greeters at WalMart. Why not instead allow lower education workers have a job creating something useful for society and the environment, rather than peddling trinkets made 6000 miles away? Added bonus: Your workers do not have to travel from far away to work, thereby cutting down on costs and emissions.
  2. Simple training – Training is not cheap. If you ask people at Samsung, I was training for roughly a year and a half to do my job (and promptly left for a new one). It takes times to get into the swing of things at companies, no matter the task. Why not make the task simpler? The Solar Automation takes a complicated end process and allows simple training to quickly begin.
  3. Built in quality control (eyes) – While this would hinge on the enthusiasm of the workers (and therefore dependent on myriad other factors), it’s a fact that most computers do not notice something innately wrong with a process. Most people will notice if a solar panel is discolored or if a wire is hanging off where it’s supposed to be connected. Until the day when computers are smarter than humans (and cheaper), people will implement a natural form of quality control.

What are the drawbacks, you ask?

  1. If you give a mouse a cookie (cutter job), he’s going to want benefits – My own views about benefits and healthcare aside, it’s a fact that people expect some form of benefits, most easily represented in business as overhead. It expands beyond healthcare and such (think tables and chairs and other things that people expect from jobs), so you might have to label the job as “an alternative workplace” where compensation is higher (in the event you don’t want to/have to provide benefits). Doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive workplace though.
  2. In the solar example, there are still high material costs (the actual solar cells), so the margins will be squeezed. In general, assembly jobs are meant to be high volume, low margin endeavors, so there are risks when material costs rise; doubly so if your revenues are stagnant (because of contracts or otherwise).
  3. Sometimes it’s still cheaper to ship repetitive jobs overseas or automate a process. That’s all there is to it.

Micro-Factories could be a great way to increase employment, mobilize a stagnant workforce and help cut down on emmissions. I would highly suggest you check out the Solar Automation page and leave comments on other places you have seen similar ideas implemented.

Analog Electronics Politics Renewable Energy

Stealing stars and leaving the Barons in the dust

I recently had a high school friend visit and while watching the Olympics and having some beers, conversation turned to China (and the rest of the world). I know, I know, I’ve recently talked about the Olympics and China and such; But this is different. The conversation moved to energy and how it relates to national security, which I also have read about recently in a trade journal. Basically he brought up the astute point that renewable energy needs to be our number one priority in the coming years. We’re not talking 20 or 30 years…we’re talking 2 or 3. Really, it’s that important.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Let’s say America reduces its energy dependence and busts its hump to get renewable energy contributing to say 40% of the country’s need (imagine a breakthrough that would allow this). What happens next? Well, if it was overnight (which it wouldn’t be), oil demand and prices would more than likely fall overnight too. Not to worry, I’m sure somewhere along the way that the demand would be filled by large countries that manufacture goods and want some newly cheap energy. But what about (the) US? In succession, we’d be able to say “Goodbye! No Thanks! Don’t Need it anymore!” to: Iraq…Iran….Russia….Venezuela….and China (though we probably wouldn’t with China, they make our stuff, right?). Almost all of the conflicts the US has with other countries center around oil! I would imagine it’s not going to stop with these countries either. Oil will become the driving force behind global conflicts for years to come, followed only by the fight for potable water. So why not go over the oil barons’ heads and make our own energy and let the wind and sun give us all the power for free?

40% of energy coming from renewable energy? Does the US have the brainpower to achieve that? No, not unless just about every scientist and engineer was capable of dropping what they’re doing and shift all their focus to working on energy. But there’s tons of smart scientists and engineers all over the world. What a break! In fact, there are engineers already doing a lot of this renewable energy work already. So maybe we could achieve two things here…first, the US would get scientists to help develop energy solutions that would allow us to ignore the tyrants of the world; second, the US would continue to maintain our most important resource going to the future: intellectual capital.

For the past 100 years, the US has been a leader in technology because of its innovators. These best and brightest minds created everything from electronic building blocks to the computers in which they were utilized. And now we’ve seen not only jobs going overseas, but a lot of the best minds are popping up outside this country too. Not only that, a lot of the top minds are coming to the US to study and then following jobs home to their native countries. So another solution for the benevolent (or otherwise) forces in the world: lure them to the United States and claim them as our own. While intellectual capital may have been one of our greatest resources that is arguably losing ground to the rest of the world, the US still has something that many other countries do not. What other countries have Hollywood, New York City, Chicago, LA, National parks bigger than certain countries and so on and so forth? Where do people want to move for jobs and stay and live and raise families? I think that the US needs to utilize the drawing power of our entire country, our availability of opportunities and our lifestyles (whether people agree with the decadence of western culture or not).

The future of the world in regards to energy is very uncertain; the US will remain a world power only if we are able to recruit the best minds, keep them here and have them help to create a world run on renewable energy.