Category Archives: Energy

Hot Lawns

Just read an amusing article in the Guardian about using your lawn to heat your home, based on the concept of heat pumps.

With fossil fuels becoming alarmingly expensive, this environmentally friendly and low-cost alternative to gas central heating is finally coming into its own in the UK. It is incrediblyeffective, capable of achieving 400% efficiency – giving out more energy (typically 3 to 4 kilowatts) than the householder puts in to run it (typically 1KW). By comparison, an average gas boiler works at 90% efficiency at best.

According to Professor David Reay, of Heriot-Watt University, an expert on heat pumps, little can be said against them. Variants that extract heat from outside air perform less well in cold weather, just when the heat is needed most.

I thought the close of the article was insightful:

So if heat pumps are such a great idea, why haven’t they caught on before? “Gas has been cheap, and the British are capital-averse,” sighs Tony Bowen [president of the Heat Pumps Association, the UK trade body]. “As a nation, we are bad at investing in low long-term running costs.”

It goes far beyond the nation…but it is good to see the UK seeking less dependence on oil as well as more distributed/resiliant sources of energy.


Himawari LightI think this is brilliant (pun intended). It reminds me of the concept of armored spaces that protect the inhabitants while retaining visual/light capabilities, but this adds in a component of also powering itself. Plain glass windows have been ok, but they clearly have drawbacks (ok, sometimes the puns just jump out). In this case the UV is blocked by walls, while a solar panel collects energy and glass fibers distribute the light. So, fiberlight (plus video) should provide a radical reduction in risks while maintaining many benefits from windows.

Wonder what Milton would have said about this fine use of talent to produce technology that might protect those who speak out in favor of a republic and against the supreme executive (e.g. he feared he “lost his light” because of writings like “the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” and his support of Cromwell)…

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
by John Milton (1608-1674)

    When I consider how my light is spent
         Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
         And that one talent which is death to hide
         Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
    To serve therewith my Maker, and present
         My true account, lest he returning chide,
         "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
         I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
    That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
         Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
         Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
    Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
         And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
         They also serve who only stand and wait."

Pirates and Terrorists

US Warship tracks Somali Pirates Recent events in the waters off the Somali coast are probably a sign of things to come. Pirates there have been a serious problem for many years (although historically dwarfed by the waters near Indonesia or even Nigeria), and the modern Navy has tended to only intervene and respond to civilian vessels after a mayday. This means that the Pirates are essentially taking the opportunity to attack highly vulnerable and ill-prepared victims.

The main difference between pirates and terrorists seems to be that the latter is motivated by some political mission, whereas the former are just hoping to increase their wealth by force (motivated by greed). When we heard about the cruise ship that was hit with an a RPG, but managed to repel the attackers with a loud noise, we were led to believe there were just pirates afoot (and not internationally funded criminal syndicates with a political agenda).

While that’s likely, one has to wonder at what (economic) point does the market for pirates give way to the politics of terrorists? Al Qaeda, of course, has been rumored to be discussing the use of vessels, including large fuel tankers, at sea in the same fashion as they had used airplanes on 9/11. Makes sense that they would discuss any vehicle under the sun given the nature of suicide bombing and the need to rapidly and discreetly “insert” themselves into a civilian zone.

Relative spatial density of reported pirate incidents in the Gulf of Aden for 2008
Therefore, if the threat of pirates increases far enough and ships remain vulnerable, eventually terrorists will make the glaringly obvious connection. The question then becomes whether countermeasures will be able to detect and prevent sufficient numbers of attacks to catch all those that might be linked to terror motives, and whether the root cause should/can be addressed rather than the symptoms.

I picked up a morsel of news several months ago that SEALs were actively training to rescue a large ship that had been commandeered in the Indian Ocean. The shipping company decided to pay a ransom (e.g. pirate motives were satisfied) rather than have the US military take it back by force. It’s hard to say more without the full details but it seems lucky to me that all those attackers wanted was money. My guess is the Navy was thinking the same thing, and the Seals were probably extremely disappointed in having their mission cancelled, so it’s no surprise to now hear in the mainstream press that US warships have started engaging the threat more and more proactively. The AP report regarding the latest Somali case notes that:

The Churchill is part of a multinational task force patrolling the western Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa region to thwart terrorist activity and other lawlessness during the U.S.-led war in Iraq

“Thwart terrorist activity and other lawlessness” is exactly what I am talking about. Does this mean the US Navy is now set to enforce the law in International waters? And do they need to mention multinational forces and the Iraq war in order to justify enforcing the law? The article also mentions “The Navy said it captured the dhow in response to a report from the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur on Friday…” but it remains to be seen why this pirate ship in particular was of interest to the US Navy and why this is making mainstream news.

Beyond the threats of lawlessness, we still must face the general issue of vulnerability of ships. Although I’ve seen some improvements, I have to say that things like electrified fences have serious draw-backs. Aside from falling into one yourself, it is a single control point and rather prone to failure (electricity is not plentiful or reliable at sea) as well as somewhat easy to work around (attackers might just move on to the next vessel, but if they are everywhere what would stop them from just developing insulation/shorting equipment?). While naval engineering has made great strides in making boats more seaworthy, this has not translated into innovation in private boating anti-piracy measures. When you think of the boating industry in general, do consumers want to spend money on teak fittings, extra shipping capacity, or surveillance cameras and ammunition? Thus, I think the best answer today actually is a reduction in threats, which means that (multi)national forces will have to find ways to cooperatively police the International waterways before the path of the pirates is joined by terrorists. I hate to say it, but it reminds me of the “great Naval powers”…what would Admiral Nelson do?

Attacks by country

2019: Updated to add UNOSAT maps to replace deprecated links

Go big BlueFuel

After all the hubub this past year about the great advances in Bosch fuel injection technology, it is no surprise to hear about

BLUETEC diesel technology, which will make its U.S. debut this fall on the 2007 Mercedes E 320 sedan. DaimlerChrysler says BLUETEC is so clean it can meet emissions regulations in all 50 states, including the five states where diesels aren’t currently sold because they can’t meet emissions standards: California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Vermont.

That’s encouraging, but of course Mercedes has some of the most advanced diesel engineering in the world. This isn’t your grandma’s grumbling, smelly clunker, we’re talking about. Personally, I’m curious whether the 2.5L V6 turbo-diesel quattro Audi Allroad will finally be imported — talk about the ultimate active-lifestyle high mpg with comfort road-warrior vehicle, it’s almost enough to make you want to move to Canada, eh? Ok, ok, I never said I was good at marketing.

Back to engineering, the article explains…

…diesels are 30 percent more efficient than gas engines, and unlike gas-electric hybrids, which get better fuel economy in city driving, diesels are equally efficient on the highway.

Silent but deadly And diesel-electric hybrid? Even the HumVee is going to DEH (rebranded the Shadow RST-V), according to They wax poetic about “going green”, but let’s face it, dependence on fuel is a giant security vulnerability issue — the more efficient a vehicle the less risk to soldiers from a supply chain.

Special Forces are about the only group that bother with any real concept of environmental friendliness since it plays to their favor, whereas Army is about mowing down and establishing control, Sherman style, but I digress.

The AP article about the Mercedes and new diesel technology also mentions:

…a big boost this October, when U.S. diesel retailers are required to begin selling low-sulfur diesel. In the past, diesel could have a sulfur level of up to 500 parts per million; low-sulfur diesel has no more than 15 parts per million.

The real question for the future is whether car manufacturers will start allowing pure-veg-oil to run in their vehicles rather than whether someone can improve petro production by reducing a toxic additive. The additive was introduced in the first place to get rid of the inherent shortcomings of petro-diesel versus the bio alternative.

Of course less sulfur is better and should have been forced years ago, but the real solution is to move away from overly centralized distribution and refinement and proprietary assets that have artificially high (protected) value.

When information started being pushed around on workstations and PCs it exploded the processing market. When fuel creation can be localized in a similar fashion then we will really see advances in energy technology and a drop in risk. It’s like the shift from mainframes (petroleum production) to the PC (bio-diesel refinement), which again creates a whole new set of security issues (more resilience, but need for managing decentralized controls).

GMC condo of the future


How many “vehicles of the future” really make it to our driveway? I seem to remember something about the rocket-powered highway concept cars from the 1950s. Don’t see many of those around, although I think a home-built version was the basis of the original Darwin Award.

GMC has stepped-up to the plate with their GMC PAD design. The name suggests an acronym of some sort, but actually it so far appears to be a General Motors Corporation (GMC) PAD, as in “hey baby, let’s chill out in my hip pad that looks like a worm on wheels”.

The usual story is that technology brings the elite lifestyle to the masses. You might say temperature controls, food, clothing, transportation, personal hygene, etc. are better now for the average person than for kings and queens of hundreds of years ago. I mention this because the GMC PAD seems like a fancy version of a Winnebago at best, and a fancy version of what a homeless person who lives in his/her car might imagine as something to make their plight less painful. Some might call this the ultimate in homeless living.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the idea of roving homes with little/no attachment to the land is based in rural and expansive cultures that want to explore beyond their own acreage, or who have no hopes of owning a plot (like ocean cruisers). It does not fit the urban cramped-space model at all, where people live 50 stories above ground due to the cost of space. So unless sky-scraping parking garages will become the condo infrastructure of the future this is definitely NOT the direction that most people say we’re headed in terms of efficient use of land and resources. More to the point, the PAD brochures claim that this vehicle has a “skydeck for enjoying the sights and sounds of LA culture”. Wow. They talk as if people today are trying to build observation points on their homes to get a better view of LA. They certainly could do so, but I suspect the thing that’s stopping the vast majority has something to do with the fact that LA is more about subsistance and stripping the land of its value for personal gain, rather than any kind of beautification or public and scenic downtown, let alone a park system for the common folk to enjoy from their back window (without some ultra-intense police flashlight in their rear-view mirror).

The suggestion that this vehicle could be used for disaster response and emergency housing makes a bit more sense, but usually people look for rapid-deployment materials that don’t cost several hundred thousands of dollars and include a power-hungry “media rich environment”. You wouldn’t want to drop one of these off the back of a C-130.

There is brief mention of an “endless variety of entertainment, information and security options” but no details. Bulletproof? Encrypted signals? Radiation proof? Air filtering? Speaking of security, here’s a loophole in regulation I’ve seen people use in the LA area — run a business out of a vehicle on private property. The Department of Transportation doesn’t have jurisdiction over the private property and the rest of the agencies don’t have jurisdiction over vehicles, so if you’re clever enough you can drive your GMC PAD right through some kind of crack in regulations, while it lasts. And with those Hummer-friendly tax loopholes this ultra-luxury vehicle becomes a complete “business” write-off. Now that might be appealing to the LA-elite.

VW GX3Well, at the end of the day as the sun sets behind the PAD, the best part is that it runs on diesel-electric hybrid, which is excellent news because it suggests someone at GMC may be contemplating this awesome power-plant for mass production. In fact, if it were up to me, I’d rather put that kind of engine technology in the new VW GX3 “motorcyle”, pictured to the left, and pull a little trailer that transforms into livable space. At least then you could go out for a drive in the mountains without hauling your laundry.


Countries have no justification for secrecy

Every once and a while I read the Economist. I used to be a loyal follower through the early 1990s, but I noticed some slight editorial changes towards the end of the millenium and lost interest. Instead, I drifted back to the library where I would grab ancient copies of the magazine, from the 1940s for example, read a few editorials and wonder “how could they have been so smart?”

Today I noticed an article that reminded me of the glory days of the magazine and it set me right down in my chair. It is called “The curse of oil: The paradox of plenty

I don’t mean to bore anyone with the details but it sets off with the suggestion that the discovery of oil, which is far more desireable as an export than anything else in a nation, can lead to development slow-downs, damaging financial turbulence, or even repression of freedom in a country.

Graham Baxter at BP says “the curse of oil is a problem that BP recognises, and we have a part to play in helping our hosts deal with this wall of dollar-denominated cash coming into their fragile economies.â€? But André Madec of Exxon says: “We don’t like to call it the oil curse, we prefer ‘governance curse’. We are private investors, and it is not our role to tell governments how to spend their money.”

Once you peel back some of the layers of free-market versus regulated-market debate, the issue appears to be whether those flush with cash should be authorized to see where their money really goes. Apparently many are starting to say that the books should be open to review. Does that mean they will really want what’s best for those receiving the money? A representative of the World Bank is quoted as saying “countries have no justification for secrecy“:

The push for greater disclosure is, he says, already leading to demands for greater transparency in the power, water and construction sectors. If push really comes to shove, natural resources may yet become what they should be for some of the world’s poorest people: a blessing.

Really? That seems optimistic, especially when the US Administration is still arguing that national security in a war (related to oil, if not for control of it) must be placed above the public’s right to know. And what guarantees are there, even from a pure market standpoint, that the Exxon’s and BP of the world will actually give a whip about how the world’s poorest people make do? I think that’s a stretch, but you never know. Things do change.

Oh, and another thing: when was the last time that gas/petrol stations were willing to open their books to the public? I’d like to know how much of my money was going where (taxes, overhead, profit, etc.) so how do I go about getting that information? Come to think of it, I think I’d like to know why prices jump up so quickly on market news but take weeks to go down. Do energy companies have justification for their secrecy?

Diesel Motorcycles

Well, everyone in the bio-diesel world has been anxiously awaiting the release to the public of these diesel motorcycles (PDF) developed by HDT for the US military. The word was that they would be available for purchase by civilians sometime early this year, but their site does not yet have purchase information. The engineering (some say it was subcontracted to a Japanese company) of the thing clearly shows that Rudolph Diesel was right about his concept and with a little effort (leave it to the military to subsidize the research) we all could be powering ourselves efficiently with renewable and more secure source of energy.

100 mpg on an indestructable all-terrain vehicle that can be dropped in by parachute and run on nonvolatile fuel you can make yourself…what more could you ask for in 2006?

Black Flag

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.