Thursday, March 21, 2013

Battery Problem Solution?

The “battery problem” refers to the currently poor methods we have available to store electrical energy.  In particular, either by weight or by volume, current batteries (the best electrical energy storage today) cannot store nearly as much energy as hydrocarbon fuels (e.g., gasoline).  The battery problem is the main technological barrier to wind and solar power, and to replacing gasoline powered cars with electric cars. 

The battery problem is a very hard one; so hard that despite billions of dollars invested in research, the very best solutions are still only incrementally better than the batteries used in the late 1800s.

Here's some very early research into an alternative storage mechanism, one that stores electricity as nuclear energy (rather than chemical energy, like current batteries).  This is theoretical work at this point; not even to the proof-of-concept stage – but it stands out to me because it's a fundamentally different approach that promises energy densities far higher than even hydrocarbon fuels can achieve.  That would most definitely solve the battery problem, and would make hydrocarbon fuels looks sort of silly...

Boston Molasses Disaster...

I happened across this in my morning reading, entirely by accident.  On January 15th, 1919, an enormous molasses storage tank burst, spewing 2.5 million gallons of molasses into the streets of a Boston neighborhood.  This created an 8 to 15 foot high wave of molasses, moving at about 35 miles per hour.  It killed 21 people and injured over 150 more; there was a large amount of property damaged (including buildings and railroad).

And I thought I knew my U.S. history fairly well!

Accomplishment is So 1900s!

Way back in the Paleozoic era, when I was going to grade school, the kids who actually accomplished something – whether in academic studies, shop course, or athletics – were recognized in little ceremonies held in the school auditorium.  Those students were lauded for their accomplishments, and quite overtly held up to the less-accomplished others as examples to emulate.  The celebrations were sincere, and the accomplishments real.

That was then.

These days, grade schools seem to be going out of their way to devalue actual accomplishment.  I see two approaches, sometimes taken at the same time. 

One approach is to celebrate everyone, whether accomplished or not.  One common manifestation of that around here are the bumper stickers parents proudly put on their car, proclaiming “My child was student of the month at XXX” (where XXX is some school).  If you drive around any community here, you'll see the same bumper sticker on lots of cars – far more cars than there are months in the year.  I'm not sure how they hand these bumper stickers out, but it sure as hell isn't one per school per month!

Then there's the opposite approach, in the news today: just stop celebrating accomplishment altogether.  We wouldn't want the poor, under-achieving little darlings to feel bad about under-achieving, would we?  It might not be their fault, after all.

What absolute crap.

We're teaching our kids that you don't need to actually accomplish anything in order to succeed.  This isn't exactly preparing them for any corner of the real world that I've seen (except maybe the Post Office or the DMV).  The real world that I know demands actual accomplishment and performance.  Businesses are reluctant to fork over wages and benefits for people that don't actually get things done.

I hear the pealing of the bell of doom...

A Great Moment...

Snopes has identified this as a true story written by Kent Nerburn while he was a taxi driver in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Below is the heart of the story; there's a longer version at the Snopes link...
I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I walked to the door and knocked.. 'Just a minute', answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940's movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.

There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

'Would you carry my bag out to the car?' she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. 'It's nothing', I told her.. 'I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated'.

'Oh, you're such a good boy', she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, 'Could you drive through downtown?'

'It's not the shortest way,' I answered quickly.

'Oh, I don't mind,' she said. 'I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice'.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. 'I don't have any family left,' she continued in a soft voice.. 'The doctor says I don't have very long.' I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

'What route would you like me to take?' I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.

We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, 'I'm tired. Let's go now'.

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

'How much do I owe you?' she asked, reaching into her purse.

'Nothing,' I said

'You have to make a living,' she answered.

'There are other passengers,' I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly..

'You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,' she said. 'Thank you.'

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware - beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

Slightly Used F-1 Engines Recovered...

Readers of a certain age may remember the gigantic Saturn V rockets that launched the Apollo missions to the moon.  If you were fascinated by those missions (as I was), you might also remember that the Saturn V's first stage was powered by five F-1 liquid fuel rocket engines.  These incredible rocket engines used liquid oxygen (LOX) for their oxidizer, and kerosene (RP-1) for their fuel.  Throttled up, each of these engines consumed over 40,000 gallons of LOX and RP-1 per minute (almost 700 gallons per second), while generating 1.5 million pounds of thrust.  They are the most powerful rocket engines every flown by any country.

The F-1 engines have to be on anybody's list of the most amazing machines mankind has ever built.

There's one sad element of the F-1's story, though.  Every one that ever flew is at the bottom of the sea.  After blasting off from Cape Canaveral, burning for about three minutes, and seeing the second stage separate and head to orbit – the first stage and its F-1 engines fell in a roughly parabolic curve until they splashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

But now two of them have been recovered, in a technological feat of an entirely different kind.  Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) operating three miles under the ocean's surface have located, dug out, and retrieved two of the used F-1 engines.  The expedition that pulled this off was financed by Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon).  The video below is from that expedition: