There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Well, perhaps. Via William Gibson and a fair bit of Googling (as the Flixxy page he linked isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d take on trust): Akinori Ito is the CEO of Blest Inc., a Japanese company that sells a device for turning recyclable plastics into petrol. In fact, this story’s been around since 2009; here, OurWorld2.0 republishes it in response to a renewed interest courtesy a mildly-viral YouTube video:

Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.

[…]

Continually honing their technology, the company is now able to sell the machines for less than before, and Ito hopes to achieve a product “that any one can buy.” Currently the smallest version, shown in the videobrief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500). [Note of 30 November 2010: Blest informs us that, since we visited them last year, improvements have been made to the machine and the price is now ¥106,000 (around US$12,700) without tax.]

So far as I can tell from sitting at a keyboard, this is a real working product, though I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been bigger news. Even so, I find my cynical side wondering whether this is some sort of snake-oil gig; as pointed out in the comments in a few different places covering the story, “1kW of electricity” is a unit of power, not energy, and without knowing how long it takes to reduce that kilogram of plastic to “crude gas”, it’s difficult to get any idea of whether there’s any real gain to be had from this particular recycling process.

I rather suspect that if this process were even vaguely profitable at scale, we’d have heard a lot more about it already, and would have people knocking on our doors offering pennies for our recyclable plastics. I have no doubt the gadget works as advertised, but I’m suspicious that it would take a long long time to claw back the purchase price once you factor in the amount of electricity it consumes.

Don’t get me wrong: I want this to be everything it seems to be. I just doubt it actually is.


Thermodynamic demonology: extracting energy from information

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2010

Here’s a potential plot device for one of Charlie Stross’ Laundry novels or, rather more seriously (though perhaps not as entertainingly), as the hinge for a Greg Egan story; a team of Tokyo researchers reckon they’ve managed to summon up a very tiny version of what physicists call “Maxwell’s demon”. Ars Technica breaks it down:

Maxwell’s demon has haunted thermodynamics for well over a century, since James Clerk Maxwell first suggested that a small demon might be able to selectively allow only hot atoms through a small gate, gradually extracting heat from a gas without expending much in the way of energy. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the demon feeds on information: it needs to know which atoms are hot. Eventually, it was recognized that information was being exchanged for energy, and an equivalence between the two was calculated based on theoretical considerations. Until now, however, nobody has managed to build a demon that could help see how well real-world behavior matched the theory.

[…]

The metaphor the authors use is a spiral staircase. A particle placed on a small staircase will be buffeted by energy, and typically go up or down a stair; on average, it’ll go down more often than up, eventually settling at the bottom of the staircase. The demon stands at the side of the stairs with a barrier. When, by chance, the particle happens to move up to a higher energy state, it inserts the barrier behind it, preventing it from dropping down. Given time, the particle will reach the top of the staircase.

Their real-world implementation involves a bead on a tether that is able to freely rotate around a full 360° axis. Below the bead, the authors set up four electrodes that generated electric fields that were shaped like a sine wave. When the bead was in the trough of the wave, it would be at its lowest energy state. If the bead was jostled anywhere else, it gained potential energy that would eventually be lost again when it fell back down to the trough.

Remember, though, that not even demonologists get a free lunch:

If you ignore the apparatus involved, the authors could directly compare the energy gained against the amount of information required to flip the switches involved. And the results appear to agree very well with the theoretical predications.

As far as thermodynamics is concerned, however, you have to consider the apparatus, since it’s necessary to balance the books in order to avoid thinking that we’re getting energy for free. And, as it turns out, the system for tracking the bead and switching currents is rather elaborate, involving “microscope by constructing a real-time feedback system including video capture, image analysis, potential modulation and data storage.” As an accompanying perspective notes, you’d probably also have to throw in the energetic cost of the grad student who was operating the whole thing, too.

So, no chance of heating my garret with information, then… unless I burn all my books. (Not. Gonna. Happen.)


Technothriller plot device of the month: volcano energy

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2010

Here’s a 500-page airport potboiler novel ripe for the writing… a number of Central American nations are looking to meet their energy demands by harnessing their unpredictable neighbours: volcanoes.

Geothermal energy has a high initial outlay, but after that it (theoretically) keeps pumping out current for years to come with very little interference. All well and good… but just add some Deepwater Horizon-style corner-cutting, skate over a few safety margins, write in a few scenes featuring the POTUSA, and bam! Topical technothriller with an exotic setting.

Of course, I’m a little too busy to write it myself at the moment, so if you’d like to make me an offer for full rights on the synopsis as it stands, please get in touch… 😉


Thorium: the new nuclear?

Paul Raven @ 31-08-2010

Via NextBigFuture, the UK’s foremost conservative middle-class broadsheet hopes President Obama can leapfrog red tape and stop the momentum of the fossil fuel industry dead in its tracks (without any explosive dissipation of said momentum, one assumes) by rushing through research on thorium-based nuclear reactors:

There is no certain bet in nuclear physics but work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday – produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

“There are (obviously!) no magic bullets, but this might just be a magic bullet.” Riiiight. Nonetheless, onwards:

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. “It’s the Big One,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,” he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.

OK, sounding reassuring so far. So why haven’t we been doing anything with this before?

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. “They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology,” he said.

Those dastardly French! I might have known! Where’s Churchill now we need him most blahblahblahlingeringcryptoracismandEuropanic

And now, having revved up the patriotic emotions and ecological consumer-guilt of the reader, here’s the venture capital pitch:

The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation.

Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.

Yeah, I know, I’m being snarky… reading The Telegraph just has that effect on me, I’m afraid. But beneath the coded writing is a story we’ve covered before: thorium really is (at least in theory) cheaper and safer than all the other nuclear fission options, and much less sci-fi-pie-sky than fusion. But as pointed out above, someone needs to invest big money (and/or big political backing) to get it working and viable.

So, The Telegraph gamely suggests Mr Obama kick-start a modern-day Manhattan Project to that end… forgetting, perhaps, that the impetus for the Manhattan Project was somewhat more pressing and politically expedient than the abstract and contentious doom du jour of Peak Hydrocarbon, that there weren’t massive entrenched business interests lobbying and obfuscating against it, and that America as a nation actually had a few cents to rub together at the time.

Though, to their credit, they do invite the US to team up with China to get the job done. The Telegraph staff and readership will doubtless cheer on from the sidelines; if that’s not enough to get things moving, well, I don’t know what is.


Energy independence for sewage-eating robot

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

This story’s all over the place, at venues as diverse as Hack-A-Day and Mike Anissimov’s blog… and with good reason. Here’s the lede from PhysOrg:

UK researchers have developed an autonomous robot with an artificial gut that enables it to fuel itself by eating and excreting. The robot is the first bot powered by biomass to be demonstrated operating without assistance for several days. Being self-sustaining would enable robots of the future to function unaided for long periods.

Yup, you read that right – this machine eats a kind of organic slurry, digests the nutrients in it and then craps out the waste. Not quite so elegant (or do I mean sinister?) as the proposed rat-eating household bot we mentioned a while back, eh?

Joking aside, this is quite a big deal – energy-autonomous machines could do all sorts of amazing things, and some scary ones too. It also stirs up the same arguments about “artificial life” as the Venter announcement, albeit coming from a very different angle: if I remember my GCSE biology right, eating and excreting are two pillars of the scientific definition of biological life, and there’s a machine that does both as well as being capable of independent movement. Interesting times, people, interesting times.

Speaking of sewage and energy, we could probably be getting some of our household wattage from human waste, and there’s a pilot scheme for biomethane recapture from sewage here in the UK at the moment. But gas is tricky and dangerous to store and pipe – why not cut out the middle man and just get the energy out of the sewage directly? To be truthful, there’s still a middle man… billions of them, in fact. Apparently certain nanoparticle coatings applied to graphite anodes in sewage tanks encourage certain bacteria to proliferate, eating sewage and releasing electrons all the while. Your biowaste gets cleaned up, and you produce electricty at the same time! Sounds almost too good to be true… but they’ve got it working in a lab environment, so you never know.


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