A Possible Breakthrough in Energy Storage?

The Institute of Mechanic Engineers says that turning air into liquid may provide a solution for energy storage. At present most energy is stored in batteries, but battery production and disposal is an extremely messy and polluting affair, and so experiments are underway to look into this alternative.

One of the problems particularly with renewable energy sources is that energy is produced at times when it is not needed. The system cannot just be turned on or off, so this excess energy must be stored. Scientists believe that with improvements the liquid energy solution could be 70% efficient, less than batteries but at a much lighter cost to the environment.

To give you an idea of how the process works, it follows a number of stages:

“Wrong-time electricity” is used to take in air, remove the CO2 and water vapour, which would otherwise freeze solid.

The remaining air, mostly nitrogen, is chilled to -190C (-310F) and turns to liquid – this provides a compact storage medium that can later draw energy in the form of heat from the environment.

The liquid air is held in a giant vacuum flask until it is needed.

When demand for power rises, the liquid is warmed to ambient temperature. As it vaporizes, the expanding gas drives a turbine to produce electricity – no combustion is involved.

One particularly interesting thing about this development is that it comes out of a garage in England.

Peter Dearman in his garage

Inventor Peter Dearman in his garage lab

Peter Dearman made the discovery while looking for a way to power his car using air. I have written about these types of experiments before in my Health of the Planet series. Take a look at this video on Youtube to see Dearman at work. Real Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stuff.

The BBC also has an article in its Science and Environment section that you can read here.

One conclusion to draw is that world changing technological innovation has to start somewhere, and it is not always in a sterile lab. Sometimes it is in a garage behind a house in Hertfordshire.

Data Storage Problems

This week the New York Times published a long article about the problem of data storage, and I would like to summarize some of their findings. The article is available here in Saturday’s technology section.

The article is an attack at what the author sees as wasteful use of resources in data storage centres. There are now hundreds of thousands of these huge centres spread throughout the world, and the problem is they use an incredible amount of electricity. The servers have to be kept cool and they have to have spare capacity so that we can download whatever we want whenever we want.

Inside a US data centre

Inside a US data centre

Worldwide these centres use about 30 billion watts of electricity, and that is about 30 nuclear power plants worth of power. A single data center uses about the same amount as a small town, and the main criticism is the nature of the usage.

In the US 2% of all electricity used goes to these data centers, but the vast majority of this resource is wasted. Typically many servers are left to run 24 a day but never or rarely used (more than half in this study), and the average machine in operation uses less than 10% of its capacity. Servers are left running obsolete programs or in ‘comatose’ because nobody wants to risk a mistake and turn them off.

All of this means that any data center might use 30 times as much electricity as is needed to carry out the functions it performs.

All of these centres also have to have a back up in case of power failure, and so are surrounded by diesel generators and stacks of batteries, and many have been found in breach of environmental regulations and fined. The article gives details but the companies are names that we all know and use.

If you read the more than 300 comments however you will discover that a lot of people do not agree with the findings as reported. Many technicians argue that the companies cited are investing huge amounts of money into making the storage of data more efficient, and are constructing wind farms and using solar power in an attempt to cut costs and emissions. The article has its agenda and exploits it fully, but the problem is real.

I personally believe that we are witnessing the results of a digital culture change. We no longer have to store data on our machines, we can store it in some mythical cloud out there in the cyber-universe. This makes us think that it somehow exists without the need for a hard drive, but this is not true. As a result we keep things that we do not need. I have 500 e mails in my inbox, with attachments, photos that I will never again look at and other useless things, and they are all in storage somewhere.

Technology advances, storage gets cheaper and uses less space, but the amount of data created is growing at an incredible rate. My question is, can we do anything about it? Are we not the ones who should take some responsibility and think about the consequences of our actions. We think about not using paper to print emails but we don’t think about not sending them!

Has Geo-engineering Moved On?

Last year I wrote a series on this blog about the environment entitled ‘Can We Improve the Health of the Planet?’ Read all of the posts and report on the series here through the Bassetti Foundation website. The posts received a lot of comments, and one of the most commented was a post about geo engineering called ‘Engineering a Solution to Global Warming’.

To summarize the argument we are talking about ways of cooling the planet using technological intervention.

One of the modes put forward and that I addressed in the post is to remove carbon from the atmosphere in an attempt to minimize the problem of global warming due to heat retention.

This week in Nature magazine a short article appeared that described an experiment that according to the researchers that conducted it seems to be the first time large amounts of carbon have been removed from the atmosphere and stored.

In the case in question scientists have used iron sulphate and the ocean. The iron is dropped into the water which causes a chain if events that pulls the carbon from the atmosphere, hopefully for good.

Ocean Fertilization Technique

The iron in powder form stimulates the growth of algae that lives for about 3 to 4 weeks. Their growth relies on carbon from the air, drawn through photosynthesis. When the algae dies or is eaten and excreted it sinks to the bottom taking all of the carbon with it.

One of the scientists involved in the experiments states that a single atom of iron draws 13000 atoms of carbon from the air, a large proportion of which finds its way to the ocean floor.

Many scientists are skeptical however. The amount of carbon removed is quite literally a drop in the ocean compared to that produced, and critics argue that this insignificant result could open the gates for other geo-engineering experiments, some of which (as my previous post outlined) seem rather unwise.