Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sticky rice: an ancient Chinese construction secret

This will make sense to anyone in Hawai'i who has ever cleaned a rice pot that has stood overnight.

The ancient Chinese used the sticky qualities of rice in mortar. And many of the buildings they erected with this stuff still stand today.

Romans are credited with developing cement, which was often mixed with volcanic ash, brick dust and other materials to make concrete. The Chinese in the same era also had a very similar compund. But as the Roman era ended, the Chinese were also making a unique mortar of a combination of organic and inorganic compounds.

A study was performed by Chinese researchers Fuwei Yang, Bingjian Zhang and Qinglin Ma, a team of chemists and cultural researchers. Their “Study of Sticky Rice-Lime Mortar Technology for the Restoration of Historical Masonry Construction” was aimed at finding ways to repair some of China's cultural treasures, but in the process, they identified the surprising recipe for Chinese sticky mortar.

Here is a press release on a sticky rice research program, published in the American Chemical Society's publication, Accounts of Chemical Research.

Early Chinese builders experimented with a number of organic compounds in developing construction materials: “Via addition of natural organic compounds like sticky rice soup, the juice of vegetable leaves, egg white, tung oil, fish oil, or animal blood, the performance of lime mortars can be greatly improved, and these mortars are believed to play an important role in the longevity of ancient Chinese buildings,” the paper says.

The sticky rice mortar was made by adding a rice soup to mortar materials. The resulting material was used in tombs, bridges, temples and many other structures.

“In 1978, the tomb of Xu Pu and his wife was found. This lime compartment tomb built during the Ming Dynasty is so firm that a bulldozer could do nothing about it,” the paper says.

The technology is dated to about 1,500 years ago.

Studies on sticky rice mortar showed that an addition of 3 percent rice soup to the compound significantly increases its compressive and flexural strength. And not surprisingly, perhaps, it doubles the adhesive strength.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

Getting electric cars through merger and acquisition

In what may be a major shift in the electric car world, the world's biggest automobile manufacturers are buying into small electric car firms.

Is it part of a larger trend? Hard to say, but two of the world's biggest car makers are now in the ecar business by virtue of partnerships rather than native invention.

Within the past month, Toyota jumped into the space with a big ($50 million) investment and partnership announcement with Tesla. Tesla builds the supersportscar, Tesla Roadster, which is all electric.

They plan a car with the drive train to be built by Tesla, and the rest of the car by Toyota. And they'll build it in California. Here's the release announcing Toyota's investment in Tesla.

Now Daimler, the parent of Mercedes Benz, has signed on for an $80 million stake in a joint venture with the Chinese electric car and battery firm, BYD. Here is Daimler's press release on the move. Here's how AllCarsElectric sees it.

In their collaboration, to be called Shenzhen BYD Daimler New Technology, the firms will build a car for Chinese consumers that is also built around the electric car manufacturer's drive system.

There have been a lot of missteps in the electric car space, largely in promises unkept.

Daimler, for instance, in 2008 announced it would be selling an all electric version of its Smart car by 2010. Then in 2009 it said it would be producing the Smart fortwo in 2012. Apparently Daimler is building test models, but hasn't been able to get large-scale manufacture and distribution going.

Subaru in 2007 said its R1e would be on the market in 2009. Well here it is 2010, and it's still not up there on the Subaru website.

A couple of big car companies are designing and building their own ecars, like Nissan's Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-Miev.

Chevy's Volt is a little closer to a hybrid than a pure electric car, since it carries an on-board gasoline-powered generator. And in fact, the big car companies generally seem to like the hybrid model a lot more than pure electric cars.

If you want to buy an electric car right now, most of your selection is from among smaller car manufacturers, like Tesla , Zap and GEM .

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Solar panel efficiency shines

Solar photovoltaic panels are not only getting cheaper, they're getting better.

The big blue panels that power remote homes, civil defense sirens, some street lights and all kinds of consumer electronics, are moving more and more into the mainstream.

Part of that is economics. Solar panels a couple of decades ago cost as much as $10 per peak watt (meaning a 100-watt panel cost $1,000). Today you can pick them up for $3 to $5 a watt. And the price continues to drop.

The site SolarBuzz has some stats on pricing.

The holy grail of solar panels is getting prices down to $1 a watt. A number of systems have promised such pricing soon, but nobody's there yet.

With any panel system, the panels are just part of the bill. There are additional costs for permitting, roof mounting systems, inverters, wiring and contractor expenses. But a whole system can now often be installed for prices in the range of $7 a watt.

And with state and federal tax credits, that number can be cut by 65 percent.

But there's still the issue of how much space it takes to put up significant quantities of solar power.

That's where efficiency comes in.

The most efficient commonly available panels are monocrystalline silicon units, which can convert somewhere between 15 and 24 percent of the energy sunlight into electrical power. Polycrystalline silicon does a little less well, at 14-18 percent. And amorphous silicon gets 6 to 13 percent.

The higher numbers tend to be what they can get under perfect conditions in a laboratory, while the lower numbers are closer to actual field experience.

Understandably, the more efficient units cost more, and for many solar aficionados, a cheaper inefficient array simply takes up too much space for the power it produces.

But in laboratories around the world, scientists are using new compounds and new geometries to develop panels that can turn dramatically more of the solar resource into electricity.

A pair of German researchers, Andreas Bett and Frank Dimroth of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, report they have achieved 41.1 percent efficiency with what they call a metamorphic triple-junction solar cell, using gallium indium phosphide, gallium indium arsenide and germanium.

“This special structure makes it possible to optimize the use of almost the entire solar spectrum for energy production,” they say in a press release.

One key to their success is working in three dimensions. They have stacked solar cells 20 layers thick. Another key is concentrating the sun's power using a fresnel lens, so they get more sunlight onto each expensive photovoltaic surface.

The researchers concede that the 40-percent efficiency is a laboratory number. In the field, they're looking at 25 percent or so. They hope to have panels built this way on the market as early as next year (2011).

Theirs is not the first photovoltaic system that has been able to surpass 40 percent in the lab, but many of the others are fairly complex systems that don't lend themselves to being converted for casual rooftop use.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The sun, the relentless sun, how constant

For most folks, the sun is a constant. The day follows the night, predictably, relentless.

We have learned, though, of the solar temper. Its solar flares and coronal mass ejections play havoc with electrical gear on Earth. Its cyclical sunspot cycles can invigorate the planet's magnetic field.

(Image: The sun's disk showing active region 10486, which became the largest sunspot seen by SOHO, the satellite Dr. Kuhn and collaborators used to monitor the sun's diameter. Credit: SOHO/MDI consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.)

But in some ways, the sun remains stunningly constant.

That's shown in research conducted by University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy astronomers Jeff Kuhn and Isabelle Scholl, and colleagues Marcelo Emilio of Brazil's Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa and Rock I. Bush, of Stanford University's Solar Physics Group.

They set out to determine whether, with all its activity, the sun also undergoes any kind of expansion and contraction, like a human chest, breathing in and breathing out.

To do so, they measured the sun's visible radius, using a device called the Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) on board the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite.

They followed the sun over a 12-year period, to track the orb's visible size over an entire sunspot cycle.

This had been tried earlier from Earth, but observations were complicated by the planet's atmosphere. And sure enough, they write, “A significant discrepancy between ground-based observations and these results is clear.”

But the essence of their finding was that the sun is, sure enough, amazingly constant. It doesn't expand and contract significantly—less than a part in a million over the dozen years.

And was a surprise, according to Kuhn.

"This constancy is baffling, given the violence of the changes we see every day on the sun's surface and the fluctuations that take place over an 11-year solar cycle," he said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Auto X-Prize narrows efficient-car field to two dozen

To see the future of transportation, you'd do well to avoid conventional auto shows and check out the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize competition.

Here, a remarkable universe of energy-efficient passenger cars has been developed by domestic and international teams that range from urban young people and university students to backyard mechanics and high-tech engineers.

(Image: The X-Tracer tandem. Credit: Progressive Automotive X-Prize.)

The draw of the X-Prize is a $10 million award to the team that develops a 100-mile-per-gallon car that goes fast, meets safety standards and has a design people are likely to buy. In the mainstream class, the car needs to have four wheels, seat four people, get the equivalent of 100 miles to the gallon of gasoline, and have a 200-mile range.

We say fuel equivalent because many don't use gasoline. There are cars in the competition running on hydrogen, electric, diesel, ethanol and even one that is partly powered by steam.

Some of the cars look downright spacey, but others look like cars that wouldn't turn your head going down the street. You'd need to look under the hood to find the “Wow!”

Initially, there were three dozen entrants, but after the first of three on-track competitions, two dozen will move on to the second track test, the Knockout Qualifying Stage to be held June 16-30 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. A report on the initial testing is here.

Some of the cars are built new from the ground up. Others used a mix-and-match approach, taking existing frames and modifying them to achieve the X-Prize goals.

An example of the latter is the West Philly Hybrid X Team (EVX Team), kids from West Philadelphia High School.

Their approach: “The EVX Focus is a parallel plug-in hybrid built on the Ford Focus chassis. This vehicle uses a two-cylinder 80 HP Harley-Davidson engine coupled to a 60 HP Azure Dynamics electric motor driving the front wheels. The electric motor is powered by a 15 kWh Lithium Ion battery pack from International Battery. This vehicle is a four-door sedan that seats five people. The custom designed control system optimizes the efficiency of the vehicle. The EVX Focus is a true flex fuel vehicle, capable of burning both gasoline and biobutanol.”

These kids also have an entry in the alternative car category, which allows two-seaters and fewer than four wheels. That entry is a very sporty (four-wheel) biodiesel-electric hybrid.

In the X-Prize altenative class, there are all kinds of odd-looking and sexy-performing vehicles. A Swiss entry, the electric X-Tracer, has two seats, one behind the other. It runs on two wheels at speed, and drops additional wheels at slow speed for stability.

The cars in your neighborhood garages may not look just like some of these vehicles, but it's likely that in coming years, there will be similarities under the hood.

Here are the designs still in the race.

Mainstream Class Teams:
Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200-mile range.

American HyPower, Centennial, Colorado (Gasoline, Hydrogen)
BITW Technologies, Palmyra, Indiana (Biodiesel)*
Cornell 100+ MPG Team, Ithaca, New York (Biodiesel)*
Edison2, Charlottesville, Virginia (E85)
Enginer, Troy, Michigan (Gasoline + Steam)**
Global-E, Mandeville, Louisiana (Gasoline & Electric)**
Illuminati Motor Works, Virden, Illinois (Electric)*
Liberty Motors Group, Botkins, Ohio (Gasoline)
West Philly Hybrid X (EVX), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Gasoline)

Alternative Class Teams:
Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100 mile range.

Side-by-Side Seating
amp, Blue Ash, Ohio (Electric)
Aptera Motors, Vista, California (Electric)
Tata Motors Limited, Coventry, United Kingdom (Electric)
Edison2, Charlottesville, Virginia (E85)
OptaMotive, San Jose, California (Electric)
RaceAbout Association, Helsinki, Finland (Electric)
Team EVI, Mooresville, North Carolina (Electric)*
Team EVX, Dallas, Texas (Electric)
West Philly Hybrid X (EVX), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Biodiesel)
Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington (Gasoline)**
ZAP, Santa Rosa, California (Electric)*

Tandem Seating
FVT Racing, Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada (Gasoline)*
Spira, Banglamung, Chonburi, Thailand (Gasoline)
Tango (Commuter Cars), Spokane, Washington (Electric)
X-Tracer Team Switzerland, Uster, Switzerland (Electric)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Honolulu-built electric car by 2012, the e-Zone

The Korean company CT&T plans to invigorate Hawai'i's manufacturing base by building its lines of electric urban cars in Honolulu.

You haven't heard of this firm, but it's been a player in the electric car business for some time. It finished its first electric concept car in 2003. If you're Googling or Binging, another term for this class of vehicle is is neighborhood electric car, or LSV, for low-speed vehicle.

(Image: The CT&T e-Zone. Credit: CT&T.)

We'll talk a little about the car shortly, but as to the Honolulu announcement, the company said it plans to build the cars at several U.S. locations. In Honolulu it's looking at a 100,000 square-foot plant on three acres at a thus-far undisclosed location. CT&T hopes to be open and pushing out cars in just two years.

It figures it could create employment for as many as 1,000 people, 400 of them in the main manufacturing plant and 600 more in the shops of local companies that will provide parts for the car. The state government has promised incentives for buyers.

Honolulu Advertiser writer Greg Wiles has a comprehensive report here. HawaiiNewsNow report here.

CT&T makes several vehicles, and while some look like golf cars (some indeed ARE golf carts), its urban vehicles are independently designed street cars, the company says. Not just golf carts with turn signals, although you could be forgiven for making the comparison.

The company vehicles come in various iterations, including a distinctly golfcarty c-Zone, selling in the $10,000 range. Top speed 25. Marketed as a multi-purpose vehicle.

The one you're most likely to consider for trips to the store, or to the soccer field, or to work—presuming you live near where you work—is the e-Zone. It's a two-seater. YouTube here. Some more details here.

Be warned that the CT&T English language website isn't quite ready for prime time—some links don't work, there are spelling errors and you'll find some endearing if quirky phrasing. Like this about headlights: “Safety improves because these cute little headlamps reinforce the excellent outlook in the night.”

This little car has a 35-mile range with flooded lead-acid batteries and twice that with lithium-polymer batteries. (You'll hear about a 100-mile battery range, but that would be a mistake. It's 100 kilometers—more like 60 miles. Still, that's a week of 10-mile round trips between recharges.) It'll go 25 miles an hour, (or maybe 40, depending on the source, but that's likely another miles-kilometers error.)

It keeps you dry in the rain, has sporty styling for a mini-car, has good storage space in the back, can be ordered with a skylight and is pretty darn cute. Hydraulic disc brakes, a rigid aluminum frame, and this electricar will save you a significant pile of cash in fuel bills, even at Hawai'i's high electric rates.

It will cost you in the neighborhood of $16,000, give or take $4,000 depending on features. A little more detail here.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Oil spills: dead birds, bleeding seals...a Kauai example

A dozen years ago, an oil spill off O'ahu from Tesoro's single-point mooring off Barber's Point on O'ahu headed across the Kaieiewaho Channel to Kauai.

Within two weeks, gobs of tar started fouling the shorelines, oiled dead birds began washing up on Kauai beaches and monk seals displayed disturbing signs of respiratory distress, gagging and one appeared to be bleeding from the mouth.

To understand the immense damage posed by the current BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, consider the impact of a comparatively small spill of thick bunker oil from the August 24, 1998, Tesoro spill.

At the recent projected spill rate of 210,000 gallons a day at the BP well site, the 1998 spill was tiny. At 4,900 gallons, it was the amount of oil released in just a half-hour of the BP spill.

A lot of the focus of the BP spill is on the coastline, and the impacts of oil in the coastal marshes and beaches, but the oil is killing animals offshore as well. The International Bird Rescue Research Center reported treating 33 birds from the spill, of which 14 died before release. It's not known how the released birds did. It's also not known how many other birds were impacted but never recovered.

One estimate is that less than one in four oiled birds ever gets found: “General recovery rates for oiled birds on shorelines range between 20 to 25% or less... the breeding and foraging behaviors of tropical seabirds increases the possibility that these birds could encounter oil and that oiled birds may not be observed or recovered,” says the final restoration plan from that spill.

On Kauai's shore, the oil impacted the reefs and nearshore marine life, from opihi and crabs to the gobies in tide pools. The impacts are outlined in the Final Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment for the Tesoro spill.

Teams collected samples of the edible limpet, opihi, and found there were detectable oil compounds in their tissues: “Samples gathered … at the oiled boulder areas of Kipu Kai had total polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) concentrations ranging from 140 to 410 parts per million (ppm). This range of concentrations was higher than background levels. Several tissue samples had no detectable PAH's. A second round of representative sampling from the same location at a later point in time suggested that the impacts were not persistent,” the plan said.

The teams noted an oiled turtle as well as oiled monk seals, and some of the oiled seals appeared to be suffering trauma from the oil.

Trustees observed three Hawaiian monk seals during the first survey. The first monk seal (KK01) appeared relatively normal. The second (KK02), which may have been oiled, had its entire oral mucosa coated with a red, blood-like fluid. This animal also acted agitated. The third monk seal (KW01) appeared less than 10% oiled and acted normally.

The Trustees observed the first (KK01) and third (KW01) monk seals again during the second survey. The first (KK01) again appeared normal. The other (KW01) appeared normal initially, but later during the survey showed signs and behavior consistent with an upper respiratory tract infection. Such infection could be an effect of the oil, but neither the infection nor the presence of oil could be confirmed. Although the Trustees did not resight the other monk seal (KK02) from the first survey, they did observe two additional monk seals during this second survey. One (KK03) appeared possibly 1-5% oiled and relatively normal although it did exhibit some "gagging" behavior. The other monk seal (KW02) appeared possibly oiled, but seemed unaffected.”

The 1998 Tesoro spill was a small one, and presumably only a portion of it washed up onto Kauai shores, but its impacts were significant. It is difficult to imagine all the effects of the BP Gulf of Mexico spill on the marine and coastal environment.

Terrestrial reporters often display a sad misunderstanding of the marine impacts of an oil spill. The New York Times refers to the “imminent environmental disaster,” as if it's only going to be a problem if it hits the shore.

The Gulf fishing industry, including the famous shrimp and oyster fisheries, are already suffering. The Associated Press quoted one fisherman, Jimmy Rowell, 61, of Pass Christian, Mississippi.

"'It's over for us. If this oil comes ashore, it's just over for us,' Rowell said angrily, rubbing his forehead. 'Nobody wants no oily shrimp.'"

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010