Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hybrid Cars versus Electric Cars: Vying for Green Credentials?

The “Two Major Roads” that lead to a more environmentally friendly motoring are clamoring for our votes, which one will win and which one will you vote for?

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

The two emerging technologies that serve to power a new generation of environmentally friendly cars – namely “hybrid power plant cars” and “pure electric powered cars” – are now clamoring to prospective customers who vote with their wallets and / or checkbooks. Marketing success hinges more on which of the two technologies will be adopted by the major auto- makers; Irreproachable “green credentials” is now a major issue that determines which of the two will sell, and to a more or lesser extent; simplicity of operation and running costs. So here are the merits and faults that accompany the two different technologies.

Ever since the conspiracy theory surfaced to the mainstream media surrounding the “demise” i.e. product recall of GM’s EV1; The theory states that General Motors was under behest by the “1996 Republican Majority Congress” in collusion with “Big Oil Companies” to “kill” the EV1 because it’s “miraculous” performance could end America’s dependence on “Middle Eastern Petroleum.” Back in 1996, GM’s EV1 was the first pure electric car produced in commercial quantities by a major automobile company. It had pretty good credentials under its belt despite being powered by heavy and “inefficient” lead-acid batteries that could pose its own environmental problems. Fully charged, the EV1 has a range of 65 miles.

A lot has happened since then, today, a car that was referred to as the spiritual descendent of the EV1 is the TESLA Roadster. The TESLA Roadster is made by TESLA Motors a small automotive start-up company in San Francisco, California. One advantage that the TESLA Roadster has over GM’s EV1 is weight – or the lack of it. The TESLA Roadster is constructed out of carbon fiber that’s modeled after the Lotus Elise so it’s five times lighter than ordinary steel cars and also five times stronger due to the carbon fiber construction. The TESLA Roadsters claim to fame is it’s advanced lithium ion / lithium polymer battery that’s not only several times lighter than the one’s used in the EV1, it is also more efficient allowing the TESLA Roadster to have a range of 250 miles on a single charge. Because of the carbon fiber construction and lithium batteries, the TESLA Roadsters high power –to – weight ratio allows it to accelerate like a high- end conventional internal-combustion-engine-powered-gasoline-fueled racecar.

In the other camp: hybrid cars i.e. cars whose both powered by a fossil-fueled internal combustion engine and storage batteries that drive the electric motors. The environmental merit of hybrid cars is that the internal combustion engine can be made smaller than that of “conventional” cars because it’s primarily used to recharge the batteries, thus generating lower emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Hybrid cars also have better “mileage” than “conventional” cars because only in demanding situations i.e. going uphill and/or when quick accelerations are required that the two power plants is used in conjunction with each other. The most famous and highly advertised make/model of a hybrid car is the Toyota PRIUS.

While hybrid cars are praised because theoretically they could never ran out of “juice” while on the road due to the current ubiquity of gas / petrol stations over electrical charging stations. Pure electric cars – especially ones using the latest generation of lithium ion batteries – have better performance due to their high power –to – weight ratio compared to current hybrid cars. Also -if major auto makers will start mass producing them again- pure electric cars have the advantage over hybrids in terms of environmental friendliness because it’s much easier and cheaper to place air pollution mitigating devices at the power plant as opposed to every tailpipe of every car that’s running. Borrowing from the “transistor- principle” that a system with fewer moving parts is less prone to breakdown. Pure electric cars has this advantage because it uses only simple electric motors as a primary “engine” as opposed to the hybrid car that still has a conventional internal combustion engine with an inherently inefficient –in energy terms- clutch and gear drive systems. Also pure electric cars can easily tap electricity that’s produced from sustainable and / or non-carbon dioxide generating power plants like wind farms, solar photovoltaic power plants, fuel cell based power plants, etc. Also in the not-so-distant future, carbon offsetting might be legislated to include the transportation sector. Your carbon dioxide generating hybrid car could be singled out by the taxman in the coming years. Also, hybrid cars have “dubious” resale value as reported by Jeremy Clarkson in the 2003 – 2004 season of “Top Gear” an automotive TV show reviewing budget and high-end cars. On one episode, he advises against buying a hybrid car and to choose instead on a conventional car with a better mileage because this fuel- efficient conventional car is not likely to end up lying idly on some junkyard compared to its “hybrid” competition.

So What Is This Polonium Business Anyway

Since the sensational media focus on Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination by polonium 210 isotope poisoning, the element not only gained a much needed fame but also notoriety, despite the general public’s ignorance on the legitimate uses of the element.

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

So what is polonium by the way? First let us examine it from a rational point of view. Back in 1898, when the groundwork for 20th Century nuclear physics was already underway, Pierre and Marie Curie did some experiments with pitchblende, an ore where they extracted the element uranium. The Curies found out that pitchblende was more than four times more radioactive than uranium on a pound-for-pound basis. Armed with this finding, they concluded that pitchblende must contain unidentified elements more radioactive than uranium. As uranium was discovered before, the Curies took the opportunity to explore the yet unknown properties of pitchblende. Laborious chemical separations of the constituents of pitchblende were carried out, resulting of the discovery of two new radioactive elements by the Curies in 1898: radium and polonium.

Despite the resulting fame in honor of their work on radium and polonium, Marie Curie and her daughter Irène and son-in-law Frédéric, all died as victims of the effects of radioactivity. Even their notes, after all this time, can only be handled behind a radiation proof glass, associated shielding and robotic arms used to handle highly radioactive materials. A “testament” to the persistence of radioactive contamination.

Technically, the chemical nature of polonium is known largely from observing extremely small amounts of the element through chemical reactions via radioactive-tracer techniques in which polonium is mixed with tellurium as a coexisting reactant. The available quantities of natural polonium that can be used for scientific study, is extremely small: over 25,000 pounds of pitchblende ore must be refined to obtain just a gram of polonium. Since the half-life of the most abundant isotope, Po210, is only 138.7 days, thus its scarcity is inevitable. One method of producing the isotope for industrial use is by bombarding bismuth209 with neutrons to form bismuth210, which decays by the loss of an electron to give polonium210.

Polonium has legitimate uses. Our favorite use for it is in removing dust from records/vinyl L. P. s (We still have them, we still use them, we still love them and they sound way, way better than CDs, I-pods or downloads especially on snare drums and cymbals!). Using “Nuclear Products Company 3R500 Staticmaster” this is a polonium-treated jaguar-hair brush that eliminates static and dust from records. We swear by this domestic static electricity neutralizer. You might criticize us for using a cancer causing apparatus composed of an endangered species material. As Michael Fremer expressed his sentiments on the February 1998 issue of Stereophile: “When clean records are at stake, who cares?” Remember the 139day half-life, the “Staticmaster” needs “recharging” from time to time.

By the way, polonium is also used as an alpha - particle source for scientific use. Since alpha - particles have very weak penetrating power. They can’t even go through a piece of paper thus polonium is only dangerous when taken internally either by ingestion, inhalation, or injected into the human body.

We hope that the incident with Alexander Litvinenko doesn’t make our powers-that-be legislate irrational laws brought about by fear and lack of understanding of the element polonium.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cold Fusion, An Alternative Energy Crank

Had it worked, cold fusion could have been the magic bullet mankind’s been looking for to solve our energy and environmental crisis.

By: Ringo Bones

Generating energy via nuclear fusion is a piece of cake-provided you can build a reactor that can generate temperatures hotter than the sun’s interior without destroying itself in the process. If somehow you could do fusion at room temperature, you could say hello to unlimited clean energy and goodbye to greenhouse gasses and radioactive wastes for good.

1989 was a very exciting year for those of us who grew up under the shadow of the “Cold War.” Détente was declared between the United States and the then Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and had it been true, the discovery of cold fusion.

Back then, B. Stanley Pons, professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, and his colleague, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton in England, were credited for supposedly discovering cold fusion. They touched off a furor by announcing with great fanfare that in March of 1989 in Salt Lake City that they had achieved nuclear fusion-a process that would have required multimillion degree temperatures-in a set up consisting of a jar of water at room temperature. As they claimed, this so called cold fusion manifested itself when an electric current was passed through a palladium electrode immersed in “heavy water” i.e. water whose hydrogen atoms are made up of deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen that’s commonly found on water. The Utah team of scientists noted that the palladium absorbs deuterium atoms, which at an atomic level are forced to fuse together, producing heat and neutrons. The hope for an unlimited source of cheap and clean energy was at stake, but there was one big conundrum.

One of the precepts that the “scientific method” prides itself in is that experimental procedures can be duplicated by evaluating scientists and the resulting data is reproducible i.e. the data obtained should be the same and should deviate only within a prescribed limit. But Pons and Fleischmann were vague about how their “cold fusion reactor” worked. And when other scientists tried to duplicate the pair’s results, all they got was mostly cold water for their troubles. As a result profound skepticism among physicists was growing. As time went on, there was an intensive cold fusion research effort involving more than a thousand scientists and an estimated daily expenditure of US$1million.

The patent holder of the cold fusion process, the University of Utah, allowed it to lapse as cold fusion fell from view. Until this day B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann still continues their work on cold fusion albeit separately and quietly.

Last time cold fusion got major media exposure in the 20th Century was on the movie “The Saint.” Even in the new millenium, news coverage suddenly emerges from time to time that most people now has formulated a stereotype on someone will likely discover cold fusion; Usually a young disadvantaged scientist in bad need of legitimacy and political support. Who is under-30 with a lab set up in a barn somewhere in the “grain belt” of the United States. We live in hope that the next time we hear about “cold fusion” on the news, it will be the real thing.

Ecological Technology

Can we solve our current energy crisis in an ecologically friendly manner? Can we gain better understanding on ecological systems when viewed from a technological perspective? The answer is a big yes but only if our intellect is up to the challenge.

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

Ecology, the branch of science that deals with the interactions of living organisms and their environment, a term derived from two Greek words which mean ”the study of the home” while technology is the totality of the means employed to provide objects necessary for human sustenance and comfort.

Since humans are the dominant “life form” on this planet, and are viewed as the cause célèbre for all of our ecological problems. Paradoxically, it is us that can only solve the problems that we create in the first place. One of the problems that we face today is our increasing demand for energy generation that is not necessarily environmentally friendly to begin with. How we go about solving this must go hand in hand on how we will protect our environment just to keep our planet habitable in the future. All the energy that mankind utilizes, whether renewable or not, all come from nature. Only a handful of scientists like R. Buckminster Fuller view ecosystems as an interrelationship between matter and energy or more aptly living organisms and energy.

All ecosystems are governed by: “The Laws of Thermodynamics”, this is the relationship between matter and energy in a system. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that “the sum total energy in a system is constant” i.e. energy can neither be created nor destroyed. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that there is a tendency toward entropy or maximum disorganization of a structure and the loss of usable energy. These laws prevent us from formulating an easy solution to our energy problem in an ecologically friendly manner. But first, let’s check out how nature manages energy to sustain an ecosystem.

In autotrophic based ecosystems, the energy that is stored through net primary production by photosynthetic organisms is used to support higher trophic levels. Energy flows only one way through these levels with decreasing amount at each level. The energy that is captured by the autotrophs (photosynthetic plants) does not revert back to the sun. And also; what energy that flows to the herbivore does not flow back to the photosynthetic plants, and so on, as it moves through the various trophic levels, energy is no longer available to the previous level. The important implication of this unidirectional flow of energy in an ecosystem is that the system would collapse if the primary source of energy, like the sun is cut off.

The next major fact to be noted is the progressive decrease in energy at each trophic level. This fact can be explained by the energy lost as heat in metabolic activity and manifests here as respiration. This particular ecosystem also has a large amount of unutilized energy. Even if more of this “unutilized energy” is being used in a more efficient system, there would still be considerable loss due to respiration. Thus, even with more efficient energy utilization, considerable energy would still be required to maintain the system.

These factors-Unidirectional energy flow and inefficient energy utilization-account for the requirement of a steady stream of energy to avoid the collapse of an ecosystem. An ecosystem simply cannot itself when deprived of a source of energy input for an extended period of time.

To know more about this energy flow or how “Mother Nature” does energy management on ecosystems, Vanessa and I studied R. Buckminster Fuller’s thesis about “energy and wealth.” At first we thought that we came to a wrong conclusion. At present, most college physics students are taught the idea that the energy of a closed system remains constant, but as time goes on its entropy always increases. That is, natural processes always tend toward states of increased disorder. Based on what they’re taught, those college students could conclude that what humanity’s been doing is using up our available sources of energy at a rate greater than the ability of our technology to make new sources available. Until solar energy is in use on an everyday basis, humanity had better hang on to our oil, coal, natural gas, and wood.

The more we studied R. Buckminster Fuller’s thesis, the more uncomfortable we felt on his rejection on the second law of thermodynamics as a universal principle. This rejection is based on his own axiom that there are no closed systems-that closed systems; like straight lines or bodies at rest, are like obsolete Aristotelian concepts that hinder, rather than help, our understanding of the universe.

Fuller’s synergetic-energetic geometry is still debatable, of course, and it will probably take another generation of experiments and research before his position on the second law of thermodynamics is truly confirmed or refuted. However, a modification of that law has become generally accepted-and if “most college physics students” does not know about this, most graduate physics students do (like Ringo), this concept was only known to graduate physics students because it is a relatively recent finding. Only college physics students who go out of their way and follow closely the latest trends in the advancement of thermodynamic research can know about this. This refers to the development of general systems theory, which redefines both closed and open systems. While closed systems follow the second law precisely, and entropy increases within them, making less energy usable, open systems operate without this restriction, so that negative entropy (negentropy) may increase, making energy more usable.

As L. Brillouin wrote in American Scientist in 1949:

The second¬ [law] means death by confinement…Many textbooks, even the best of them, are none too cautious when they describe the increase of entropy…The theory of relativity, and all the cosmological, quantum mechanical theories that followed…involve a bold revision and drastic modification of the laws of thermodynamics…The earth is not a closed system…The sentence to “death by confinement” is avoided by living in a world that is not a confined and closed system.

Of course, this does not deny the existence of an ecological problem. It’s because the scientists concerned wish that this problem should be understood correctly, as a misuse of technology, like the increase of “greenhouse gasses” in our atmosphere, rather than a consequence of an inescapable human law. This law is a product of our current understanding of the universe, that Fuller and others have emphasized so urgently that there is nothing in thermodynamics that makes the growing ecological disaster inevitable.

So what does all of this suppose to mean? First the ecological structure of our planet is quite complex that it is very easy for the powers- that- be like industrialist and politicians with the help of scientists in their payroll to refute the existence of global warming. They do this by stating that our current knowledge of the planet’s ecosystem is insufficient or flawed and to contradict to this would take research and experiments that would take so much time and money as to be an anathema to the shaky relations between science and politics. Second, we cannot stop technological progress. The Genie is out of the bottle so we have to deal with it rationally. One viable solution to this problem is to move our less ecologically friendly industries out into space, thus the urgent need for “green energy” to escape the earth’s “gravity well.” This in turn will make it easier for us to turn the entire planet as a nature preserve with us humans as an integral part of it.

First Woman in Space

Was the Soviet Space Program a milestone for feminism or an esoteric footnote in history to be gawked at by academics?

By: Vanessa Uy

In today’s world where feminism is a living / breathing ideology, Why is it that virtually no one knows who is Valentina Tereshkova. Most feminists worth their salt within a stone’s throw from me don’t even know her. Even more surprising is that a majority of those who knew her exploits are men over 32. Isn’t that weird? She started working as a mill hand in Soviet Russia. Then probably served the mandatory required military service, which is quite common in the former Soviet Union. During her military service, Valentina Tereshkova became a skilled skydiver which didn’t go unnoticed by the powers- that- be in the Soviet Space Program. On June 1963, the then 26- year- old Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space almost 20 years ahead of the next woman astronaut, an American named Sally Ryde. Valentina Tereshkova made 48 orbits in the Vostok VI spacecraft. Later she became the bride of cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev.

In the beginning of the 20th Century, almost yesterday in terms of advancement of women’s causes, feminists in England are brandishing their allegiance to Marxist-Leninist Socialism in the hope of advancing their cause. Isn’t Valentina Tereshkova the proof of Socialism’s amicability with feminism or is she just a casualty of the Catholic Church’s exercise of “Posse Comitatus” on Left-leaning views?

“Who Really Invented Radio?”

By: Vanessa Uy

The working title of this article should have been “Please, For The Love Of God Tell Me Who Invented Radio!” If you’re among the sorry, countless individuals who thought that Marconi solely invented radio, this article is not for you. For those with a passing interest for Nikola Tesla, you would find this either enlightening or a bit humbling. So without further ado, let me take you on a journey.of exploration.

Our story starts in the latter half of the 19th Century. The chaps, most of them from the United States, have a very interesting story on how they invented radio. One of them is Nathan B. Stubblefield of Murray, Kentucky. He began working on experiments and devices related to radio as early as 1892. His notable public demonstrations, like the one he performed on May 30, 1902 did not go unnoticed by serious publications and journals like Scientific American. But today this Murray, Kentucky native is a relative unknown to anyone not from his hometown.

At about the same time, Dr. Mahlon Loomis created a crude tuned-antenna circuit. Despite his prolific genius, he never received the grant he sought from congress. If he did, the invention of radio might have advanced a few decades. Even in Virginia, Dr. Loomis is probably known only to history buffs.

Two electricians that are being conveniently left out by the Tesla advocates are Oliver Lodge, whose patent anticipated Tesla’s in 1898 and John S. Stone, a month earlier than Tesla in 1900.

In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell created a device called a photophone. It worked by using a voice signal to modulate a light beam, but this was never more than a technological object d’art exhibited at world fairs. It’s the same principle behind fiber optic laser telecommunications.

One of more significance was the wireless telephone patented in 1886 by Amos Emerson Dolebear, a physics professor who demonstrated it publicly in the United States, Canada, and Europe. At about the same time, John Trowbridge at Harvard was doing extensive experiments in both induction and earth-or water-conduction wireless apparatus. Thomas Edison, the noted superstar inventor and de facto anti Tesla, developed wireless telegraph / telephone systems to communicate with moving trains during the 1880’s. Granville Woods and Lucius Phelps also developed a similar wireless communication system.

A chap called Alexandr Popov, who the Russians claimed invented radio, is also a viable candidate. When the former Soviet Union launched one of her first space probes to explore the far side of the moon. A crater was named after him.

When the United States Supreme Court entered into “The Great Radio Controversy” in October of 1942. A can of worms was opened, luckily its influence only affects history academics and Tesla fans. Though the invention of the radio had long been famously attributed to Gugliemo Marconi, the Supreme Court justices were intrigued by patents and scientific publications which pointed to Nikola Tesla as radio’s true creator. In June of 1943, the Court decided that Nikola Tesla had, in fact, invented modern radio technology. They ruled that Marconi’s patent were invalid and had been “anticipated.” Tesla was vindicated-though far from victorious. Some five months before, alone and destitute in a New York hotel room, the great inventor had passed away. His papers and notes were confiscated by the United States Alien Property Office, and are now housed in the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. I hope to visit there someday.

It’s not easy, but basing on existing proof. I pick Nikola Tesla as the true inventor of radio. To me Stubblefield, Loomis, and Lodge, as well as the others mentioned still await more proof in order to rise above their present status as mere “hometown heroes.” Which is also the similar predicament of Alexandr Popov.

Despite having a heavy metal band named in his honor and being portrayed by David Bowie in the magic show movie called “The Prestige”, Tesla is still a relatively unknown genius even today. Ask most accomplished electrical / electronics engineers today about who invented radio and most of them will answer “Marconi.” It’s one of those things that make you a bit sad, doesn’t it?