Category Archives: Energy

Honey, please light the Ethanol

< Smart FireA design group has come up with the perfect solution for those people who want the appearance of a fire, while reducing the risk of poisonous fumes and the mess of combustion. It is called “EcoSmart Fire” to emphasize how smart it is to have an Ethanol flame burning in your house.

My first questions were, of course, what is the actual heat output of this thing and whether it is practical to assume a ready supply of denatured ethanol. Unfortunately this is probably the wrong approach to this new technology — finding a way to enhance the ambiance of a space already running on central heat seems to be the main point, with only a very basic level of practicality, safety, and sustainability in mind.

Nonetheless, I found that the FAQ says the flame can “produce 14Mj/h equivalent to 13000BTU”. Not bad for a small room. Come to think of it the average PC power-supply generates about 1500BTU to 2500BTU but even if you ran five or so PCs to keep you warm you would still be on the grid and you couldn’t “safely” burn stuff. On the other hand, if you live in more than a 500 sq/ft bungalow you might need to invest in a lot of small fires, which just begs the question of whether you can run these fires from a centralized control system to manage output, burn-rate, etc. or if you are just supposed to setup a fire on its own in each room, as the Victorians did.

The marketing blurbs claim this really uses a renewable energy as the source of fuel, but burning wood is like burning ethanol in that regard, eh?

In fact I read that Alaska’s Senate passed a law recently (bill 337) to promote creating ethanol by processing waste wood with fish parts. So the comparison must be intended for petroleum or natural gas based fireplaces, not wood fires. Is that a big market?

Come to think of it I’m wondering why someone hasn’t yet figured out a way for restaurants to recycle their own cooking oil into beautiful and firery displays of ambiance. And if ethanol is actually available, then just mix it with the waste oil from food preparation and you end up with a convenient fuel for running your fireplaces as well as your vehicle…biodiesel.

Diesel converts to water

You know the whole water into wine thing? Well, I hate to bring it up but what else comes to mind when the Army announces that their diesel-powered Humvees are going to be outfitted with technology that can return water from diesel exhaust? Just filter the exhaust through some “proprietary carbon filters” and put the results into a handy container in the Humvee and add a spigot. Pretty darn amazing idea, if you ask me, and apparently just one of the innovative things that happens when the chips are down in a desert and water is considered a truly precious commodity, yet diesel fuel is all around. Or as someone in logistics might put it “if you carry fuel, you already have your water”. Well, unless you run out of “proprietary” filters. But I digress…

once you taste the water, you realize the potential.

Great marketing slogan, because before I tasted the water I just thought it would be a convenient place to dump toxic waste from warships and munitions. To be frank, the risk equation being used here to justify the research is simple. The more complicated the supply logistics the more vulnerable the soldiers, so the brass are looking for ways to shore-up a water supply chain. Cleaning domestic superfund base sites? Civilians are vulnerable mostly, so no pressing need for the military to invest in new technology there…remember, the groundwork for the Internet was started by a project funded by the US military to help maintain the command structure during war.

Now, let’s say the situation with risk is different — contaminated water is all around, AND diesel refineries are nowhere to be found. Enter engines designed for bio-fuels? Hmm, maybe the next war, although the use of bio-diesel is known to lower the risk of damage from IEDs since it is less combustible. It also might make the water taste more like yesterday’s freedom fries.

In the meantime fuels like bio-diesel remain non-combat experiments and the ability to recycle the exhaust sounds like a cool use (pun intended) of energy tech that I hope makes it to the civilian world soon.

Grow your own fuel?

Whoa, the Seattle Times reports that Washington state is talking about low-interest loans for “biodiesel factories”. Just the fact that they call them factories instead of refineries means they probably are actually hoping that this will take off on a distributed level:

Gov. Christine Gregoire recently proposed low-interest loans for biodiesel factories, and a requirement that diesel sold in the state contain at least some biodiesel. State lawmakers from both parties are vowing to promote similar plans when the Legislature convenes next month. And Congress last summer included a tax credit for biodiesel in its energy bill.

Frankly, this seems very lopsided compared to the information technology revolution that led to the Personal Computer. Companies like Microsoft that kludged together some flimsy DOS system, sold it to a couple big customers and…the rest is history. But the energy age seems to be struggling with generating a reliable source of energy to be converted, rather than the efficiency of doing the conversion itself.

I think growing greens for oils (or processing fish, meat, etc.) might not be the best approach, since you could actually get another use out of the oil first and then process the remaining waste. We still find that each small restaurant produces 20 gallons of waste oil a week, with larger productions reaching 50-100 gallons a week. I will verify that this Friday, but what if you can tap into the waste issues of resort-towns with their close concentration of hotels and affiliated restaurants, or strip malls, or even large malls? It seems best for municipalities and counties to promote that for every 1,000 gallons/week of waste oils they will subsidize establishment of a bio-diesel station. Thus you are not only focusing production of the bio-diesel around a ready supply, but you are also reducing waste/land-fill issues.

I’m not suggesting that farmers shouldn’t grow their own fuel, but it seems to me that it would be better to convert to plain oil and retain flexibility by diversifying output options — they might be able to do a minor conversion to sell to restaurants, manufacturing, energy, etc.

One thing is for certain, beware the opportunists who pose as engineers:

“You have seen a lot of snake-oil salesmen come through with the next best thing,” acknowledged Conklin, the Palouse Biodiesel president.

Both examples in the story (straw-board and beets) illustrate what happens when a concept is marketed and sold as ready for production before it even has been properly tested (quality problems and equipment failures). And because that brings me back to the issues of security in a system development lifecycle (SDLC), I think I’ll categorize this post as security too.

TDI Passats appreciate in value

USA Today reports today that the ’04 and ’05 VW TDIs have appreciated in value, unlike most cars which have depreciated as much as 26%. And when you consider the diesel option actually made the car cost less up-front than the gas engine, bio-diesel powered Passats have turned out to be not only one of the most fun cars to drive but also a good financial and environmental investment.

sunbrella

sunbrella

This red-dot winner seems like a good idea at first glance. It’s a sunbrella/solar-panel. Perfect for beachgoers who need to power those portable air conditioning units or giant portable beer coolers. In fact, this seems like the just the right thing for small villages in the desert that suffer little or no wind, which brings me to my second glance; what happens when the breeze picks up the disc and launches it like a monster frisbee into the monster-truck parked next to the guy with all the muscles? And how do you collapse/store the thing when you don’t want every bird in the harbor to use it for target practice? Ew, messy. Oh, well. At least it looks a lot prettier than the CIA’s new solar and wind energy units, shown below, made by SkyBuilt Power.

The CIA plop and drop

The Petroleum Gap

The latest EPRI* Journal (PDF) has an interesting article about the future of hybrid vehicles and the benefits of new plug-in technology, which has led to the ungainly name of PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles). New York, Kansas City and LA are apparently testing a Dodge Sprinter PHEV and seeing some pretty amazing results.

At current U.S. energy prices — that is with the cost of gasoline at $3 per gallon and the national average cost of electricity at 8.5c per kilowatthour — a PHEV runs on an equivalent of 75c per gallon. And given that half the cars on U.S. roads are driven 25 miles a day or less, a plug-in with even a 20-mile-range battery could reduce petroleum fuel consumption by about 60%.

A PHEV passenger car is said to be able to recharge in three to four hours on a regular 120V (well, regular for the US) outlet, and ideally would be charged at the end of the day when “40% of the generating capacity in the United States sits idle or operates at reduced load overnight.”

I hate to ask but will the diesel version of the Sprinter (based on the Mercedes engine) have a PHEV option? The electric-city/biodiesel-highway vehicle seems like the perfect high-performance low-cost solution to help drive the US economy and military away from the impending petroleum disaster.

* Electric Power Research Institute

Here is one of the graphs from the report, which actually mentions increasing security risks due to petroleum-based energy:


EPRI chart of the US Petroleum Gap

The Hertfordshire oil depot investigation

The BBC report about this massive catastrophe starts off rather ominously:

The man in charge of investigating the massive fires at a Hertfordshire oil depot on Sunday says the flames may have destroyed all clues to the cause.

Further along it adds a bit more hope:

A police investigation into the incident has begun, including investigations by anti-terrorist police.
But Chief Con Whiteley said there was “nothing to suggest anything other than an accident”.

In a classic risk matrix the volatility and demand for petroleum is going to continue to add significant security costs. The value of the fuel has skyrocketed, the threats are clearly higher, and therefore the vulnerabilities must be addressed. In this case the vulnerability involved “20 petrol tanks…each said to hold three million gallons of fuel”. Even if you use the American fuel average price of US$2.50/gal that means US$150 million in fuel assets exposed, let alone the equipment value or the cost to the economy when the fuel supply is disrupted and the sky filled with toxic thick smoke.

Compare that to the almost inert properties of stored bio-diesel. Unlike many other forms of stored energy, the pollutive and combustive values of bio-diesel are incredibly low, which makes it a far safer fuel. My sense is that the military is already exploring this for obvious reasons (an ex-SF recently explained to me that the Humvees running bio-diesel are nowhere near as explosive since their fuel tanks can not be “weaponized” by IEDs). From a civilian market standpoint I have to wonder whether the petroleum companies will be able to find a way to reassure their respective governments that they are capable of resolving the inherent national security deficiencies of their industry. Will their record profits be spent on reducing the asset value (lowering the price), reducing the vulnerabilities (lower volatility, build giant fortresses around tanks), or can they help reduce the threats (ban smoking, help stabilize democracies, fund education)? How many people will face serious health risks from the burning petroleum?

We’re reaching a moment similar to when the mid-range systems started to steal cycles away from the highly profitable but totally unflexible mainframe, later to be replaced themselves with personal/distributed computing. Fuel production is ripe for the same sort of reorganization, with more widely distributed cells of production at lesser individual capacity providing a system more aligned with popular values….

The M1 is closed down

Edited to add:

    The BBC also reports that “The Buncefield depot is said to supply a third of the fuel for Heathrow. Some aircraft are only being allowed 40% of the fuel they would normally take on board and airport company BAA said restrictions could last some weeks.”

End of the line for London’s Buses

I find it quite sad that the historic “Routemaster” red double-deckers are being put out to pasture, instead of updated and maintained as part of London’s heritage and gift to the world of transportation.

Something about the trust model of an open back entry space always intrigued me, as well as the fact that the driver was in a completely different role than the ticket-taker (similar to a train). I have known several people who spent their early years serving in either or both roles (rural routes often only employed a driver) and they shared many funny anecdotes about the security system used to keep passengers honest. In some sense the group of passengers themselves provided a baseline of behavior and could intervene if someone was out of line. I suspect it is the opposite today, with a driver relying on a surveillance system and virtual law enforcement techniques to protect the passengers from themselves.

There are some legitimate issue with the 50-year old design, which probably could have been improved. Similar to historic buildings that are updated and retrofitted to modern standards, at least some of these buses deserve to continue their services rather than be deprecated and wholly replaced by a series of economically driven short-term visions of the future. Fortunately, it appears a group is working on just that kind of mission, which they call the Heritage route.

Incidentally, London is scheduled to host an international transport security conference in central London, November 13-15, 2005. I wonder if anyone will cover the issue of domestic and secure fuel sources? With all the greasy fish-and-chip shops, one would think England’s public fuel supply-chain could be dramatically improved.

Bio-Diesel and the Military

I just ran across a report by Wired, published on September 28th, called “Green Berets Prefer Biodiesel“. I am thus happy to correct myself and say my earlier post on this subject, as well as the follow-up, were a bit hasty. Wired says that the military has been steadily increasing bio-diesel use for several years now.

This is great news for several reasons. The military move towards diesel motorcycles may quickly prove the viability of a robust yet small consumer engine. In addition, the fact that the Army, Navy, US Postal Service, Department of Agriculture, and NASA are all looking at bio-diesel means a more acceptable alternative to petroleum-based fuels could be on the precipice of mass adoption in a country that has been virtually blind to the importance of alternative fuels.

“That’s important to the military’s role as a public citizen, says [fleet manager for Marine Corps vehicles in Camp Pendleton] Funk. ‘We operate our vehicles on the public highways,’ he says. ‘Biodiesel sends a signal to the American public that we’re working to keep the air clean, and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.'”

Admittedly, while it is nice to hear fleet managers give a kinder-gentler environmental message, the realist/security practitioner in me says bio-diesel is a more secure and sustainable fuel for domestic as well as foreign troop deployments. The article even mentions that waste oil from the mess halls is now used to fuel the transport vehicles. No matter how you slice it, bio-diesel is the fuel that just keeps giving — engines run longer (better lubricity) as well as cleaner (less smoke) and can take just about any fat/oil you can scrounge up, which leads to far less vulnerability in storage and transit. It stands to reason, therefore, that special forces would go this route given the obvious reduction in vulnerabilities compared to traditional petroleum supply-chain and storage.

Just imagine if consumer-grade Diesel engines today had half as much development and innovation effort put into them as other engines (like the new Corvette Z06 powerplant). I look forward to a diesel-hybrid in the (near?) future for the ultimate in efficiency and performance without the inherent security risks of petroleum.

Diesel Motorcycles

HDT USA announced that they are producing Diesel Motorcycles for the US military and they will be on sale to the general public in March 2006.

I’ve written before about the odd fact that the US military relies heavily on diesel but doesn’t seem to have domestic-diesel production strategy. The reliance on foreign oil is a conversation piece for most of us, but one would think the US military would see something like biodiesel production as a hugely influential factor in supply-chain dependence and security.

Imagine remote units converting local fats and oils into fuel rather than requiring vulnerable fueling convoys to follow them around.

I am putting a proposal together to present a domestic-fuel strategy to a VP of a logistics / distribution division for a major American company. A year ago bio-diesel production was hovering around US$3/gallon, which was a bit high for most execs to swallow and so we used to also talk about the environmental benefits for the air, landfills, etc., but those don’t incite change on their own, yet. However, today the import-oil companies charge as much if not more for their fuel, making the transition to a more secure (and cleaner and more efficient) domestic source somewhat obvious, no?