RSSCategory: Technology

A new generation of batteries as the missing link to robust renewable energy

March 31, 2012 | By | Reply More
A new generation of batteries as the missing link to robust renewable energy

Donald Sadoway, a professor at MIT, has helped develop a new type of battery, and he proposes that such a device is critically needed for America to make use of sustainable energy technologies such as wind and solar:

If we’re going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can’t just conserve our way out. we can’t just drill our way out. We can’t bomb our way out. We’re going to do it the old fashioned American way: we’re going to invent our way out working together.

He starts the talk discussing the history of the battery. The problem is that there is no battery yet available to meet today’s main needs: “uncommonly high power, long service lifetime and super low cost.” (min 4). He indicates that it needs to be made out of abundant elements–“dirt cheap.”

His proposed liquid-metal battery consists of magnesium, antimony and salt (min 10). He adds that prototypes have worked well, and they have “no moving parts . . . minimum regulation . . . no thermal runaway . . . designed to work at elevated temperature that come from current surges . . . reduced cost by producing fewer larger units . . . ”

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Aerogel demo

January 31, 2012 | By | Reply More
Aerogel demo

Can this be true? Aerogel appears to be an amazing material.

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About your iPhone

January 30, 2012 | By | Reply More
About your iPhone

I own an iPhone and I constantly admire its inner-workings, though they are incomprehensible to me. This article by Mother Jones tells you more than you’ll probably want to know about environmental impact of making an iPhone.

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On flying a space shuttle

December 26, 2011 | By | Reply More
On flying a space shuttle

I realize that the fleet of space shuttles has now been retired, but in case you ever wanted to learn how to fly a space shuttle, all you need to do is learn to use these dashboard controls. (this is a 360 degree image)

Speaking of space shuttles, check out this gorgeous photo a space shuttle launch.

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Or maybe we could say, “Good for the Chinese”

November 19, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

When someone from another country does something impressive, Americans are well-trained to be threatened. We are teaming with ressentiment. Here’s an example from the July 18, 2011 edition of Time Magazine. Notice the photo on the right. It is an image of a brand new extremely long bridge, the longest sea bridge in the entire world. It is more than 26 miles long. It’s extremely impressive. It is something that reminds me that the Chinese people have excelled in many ways.

But notice the text under the photo. Especially notice the line: “The Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is yet another Chinese nose thumbing.”

Where does this writer get the idea that the Chinese have built the world’s longest bridge to make the United States look bad? I hear this attitude all the time, exemplified by statements like this: “America is the world’s greatest country.” Despite the fact, of course, that there is much room for improvement in modern day United States.

Many of these comments I hear uttered by Americans are aimed at the Chinese; for many Americans, anything impressive done by Chinese people is a threat to America. More disturbing, I fear that this ressentiment of outsiders builds into paranoia about outsiders and fuels the “need” for exhorbitant and irresponsible warmongering by the United States. I remember that in the months prior to 9/11, there was intense building hostility aimed at the Chinese. Then we got distracted by the Middle East. It seems that Americans intensely need an enemy, and that if they don’t actually have one, they invent one. That is a destructive technique most of our politicians use to maintain power and obeisance of the governed.

I’d recommend that Americans, especially those involved with the American media industry, work harder to keep their ressentiment in check. Time should have reacted to this amazing bridge by saying something like: “That’s amazing engineering and construction! Well done, Chinese people.” I’m afraid, though, that this attitude of being happy for the successes of others has become thoroughly un-American.

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Peter Singer discusses robots and the future of war

September 29, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Peter Singer discusses robots and the future of war

At this TED talk, Peter Singer explains how robots are increasingly replacing soldiers, but they are turning war into entertainment akin to video games, encouraging “war porn” videos, creating “cubicle warriors,” and painting us as cold-hearted aggressors to the rest of the world. And it’s about to get a lot worse, when armed autonomous systems come online. Singer argues that many ethics issues are lagging far behind the dangers of widely implementing these robot technologies. He also suggests that the problem is not in the machines themselves, but in the fact that we appear to be “wired for war.”

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I want to work with Thomas Heatherwick

August 22, 2011 | By | Reply More
I want to work with Thomas Heatherwick

I have worked with architects, engineers and contractors for nearly 20 years, managing the design and construction of all manner of facilities. As more than 18 of those years were in the public sector (15+ federal – military, 3+ municipal), function over form was unfortunately a primary design consideration. Where form did come into play, it was usually a more decorative stone face instead of some brick. Too often, I was working with budgets set down four to five or more years earlier, and in some cases with unchangeable scopes of work – the military construction (MILCON) program is rather rigid in that respect to ensure what is authorized is built (getting permission and funding for one thing but building another is verbotten). You can imagine that the crystal ball gets a little foggy out that far. And, by the time you get the funding to design and build, the budgets are usually too little to do what is needed, requiring creative scope cutting to get the most product for the buck. And that is why almost no federal, and very few municipal buildings are anything other than sterile designs that serve a functional and nearly never a visual need.

So you can probably see why architect Thomas Heatherwick, and his firm Heatherwick Studio are such a treat for me. His designs are visually stunning, incredibly creative and are slap-the-forehead wake-ups to what we should be able to do at no more cost than traditional design. I was amazed at the very innovative solution to a common construction requirement (no spoiler…it’s at the 4 minute point in the video), and even more amazed at the focus of his talk: the British contribution to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the Seed Cathedral. Imagine deliberately designing a building with 60,000 penetrations…and then making it work.

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Open source knowledge…what a novel concept

July 1, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Open source knowledge…what a novel concept

Thirty years ago, give or take, I read Lucifer’s Hammer (by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) for the first time. Published in 1977, it has a few dated elements, but apart from those, it holds its own in my mind. The novel describes a near future after a comet hits the Earth. I enjoyed it, but one very small reference stcuk in my head.

One of the characters has a library (that he preserves from the anarchy) and the one book he takes as currency to the outpost central to the novel is “Volume Two of The Way Things Work.” Google “The Way Things Work” now, and you’ll likely find mostly hits on David Macaulay’s illustrated book. Nice…and informative, but not the one Niven and Pournelle were talking about.

I searched for years, pre-internet, before finding my copy. It’s an eighth edition of the one originally published in 1963 by Simon and Schuster; subtitled “An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology.” It’s a single volume, not two, and although also dated (vacuum tubes), it is still an enormous, condensed wealth of knowledge. I’m not an end-of-the-world type person, but I have several survival books of this nature (Back to Basics, The American Boys’ Handybook, etc.) for my children and descendants…just in case. Not in case of the end of the world, but in case they get stranded or what have you.

Driving around to look in on various construction projects today, I listened to a few TED videos and one, very short by TED 18 minute standards, conveyed in four minutes one of the more amazing ideas I’ve seen at TED, host of hundreds of amazing ideas.

Marcin Jakubowski, a Polish American with a PhD in fusion physics, founded Open Source Ecology, “home of the Global Village Construction Set, developing community-based solutions for re-inventing local production” after starting a farm. I’ll let him describe what he’s done:

I’m adding this to my various “Way Things Work” works. It’s free, brilliant, full of maker ideals, and can deliver affordable technology to the world. Maybe I’ll even be able to contribute.

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Impossible physics

June 13, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Impossible physics

As I approach my 50th birthday, I’ve been having fun coming up with various lists of 50 things – 50 people I want to meet, 50 sitcoms I’ve watched at some time in my lifetime, 50 quotes I like, etc.

Among the lists of lists, I gen’d up two of books I want to read (50 is far too small a number for either list, but it fits with the age thing): 50 books I own that I have yet to read – I have many, many more than that, and 50 books that I do not own that I want to read. Of course, if I ever read any of them, I will likely find myself adding to my library (no surprise there).

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku happened to be first on my list of books that I do not own that I wanted to read. I picked it up last Monday when returning A Confederacy of Dunces to the library. I hadn’t planned on getting it – I was only looking to see if it was in – but was taken in immediately by the subtitle: “A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel”. Not unlike Star Trek – I’m Working On That by William Shatner and Chip Walter, the book promised a survey of science fiction concepts becoming a reality, but very unlike Shatner’s book, here was a theoretical physicist doing the looking and explaining why something could not be done or how it might.

It’s a rare scientist (or engineer for that matter) who is truly respected by his/her peers for research results/theories who can also communicate to the masses. Richard Dawkins certainly made that leap (his early books are more academic than his later works). When it comes to physicists, I think the pool shrinks. Stephen Hawking did a marvelous job conveying cosmological concepts in his books, as did Brian Greene – though Green’s books, while quite readable, are still fairly technical for the average person.

Michio Kaku writes a very readable book…for a physicist who is the co-founder of string field theory. Perhaps that is an unfair qualification. I have known many physicists who are wonderful conversationalists, but I don’t know if they are so because I am interested in their subjects or that they are simply wonderful conversationalists with everyone. Regardless, Kaku writes as one of those wonders. Peppered throughout this book are references to other books (a lot of fiction), a few movies, some history of the people and science behind the science. Those may make Kaku more accessible to the average reader, but I think it just shows that he has a life outside of theoretical physics.

In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku looks at science fiction to see what might possibly become science fact. He breaks down his subjects into three classes of impossibilities:

  1. Technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate known laws of physics and may be possible in some form in this or the next century (these are force fields, phasers, Death Stars, ETs and UFOs, teleportation, starships/antimatter engines, antimatter universes and certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility.)
  2. Technologies that “sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.” They may not be possible at all, and if so, will likely only be possible thousands or millions of years in the future (these are time machines, hyperspace and wormhole travel as forms of travel faster than light, and parallel universes.)
  3. Technologies that violate the known laws of physics, which if possible, will result in a fundamental shifting of understanding of physics (Kaku notes there are surprisingly few such impossibilities, examining only perpetual motion machines and precognition).

Of course, one should read the book before thinking that Star Trek’s transporters, phasers, warp engines, or shields (force fields) could ever become a reality. I won’t spoil your read by revealing what the “certain forms” might be, but you can guess that Dr. McCoy won’t be complaining about having his atoms scattered across the universe for many centuries to come.

I was intrigued by Kaku’s discussions of what one would call paranormal, but after he gently observes that there has never been any real evidence for telepathy, psychokinesis or precognition, he explains the physics behind how one might be able to realize a part of the first two (precognition violates the known laws of the universe, thus cannot be performed through any technology…but is not completely impossible.) I liked his summary of science and psychokinesis:

One problem with analyzing psychokinesis scientifically is that scientists are easily fooled by those claiming to have psychic power. Scientists are trained to believe what they see in the lab. Magicians claiming psychic powers, however, are trained to deceive others by fooling their visual senses.

He’s fair where research has had some seemingly positive findings, but does note that “fully half” of the successful trial of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Program “originated from a single individual” and that the results are always non-reproducible.

The lesson here is that while almost nothing is impossible (what scientists really mean is that these ideas are impossible for primitives such as us), the technology needed to overcome the impossible is impossibly advanced.

So, I strike one from one list and add at least seven, as I now want to read Kaku’s other books. I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible as a diversion from the contemporary news.

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