Saturday, December 29, 2012

Air-powered cars still right around the corner

The most powerful question you can ask about many new technologies is, “Where can I buy one today?”

That often leads to a response like, “Well, you can’t yet, but you ought to, and soon.”

(Image: MDI's Mini-CAT, hot little three-seater concept car. Credit: MDI)

Various forms of ocean energy fit that category, and commercial quantities of oil from algae, and compressed air cars.

Doesn't mean success isn't right around the corner, but often, it's been right around the corner for quite a while.

Cars running on compressed air have been around for years, but somehow have never made it to prime time, and none of the many firms working on them has put a line of cars on the open market.

One of the leading companies, MDI, has five models on its website, none in commercial production. The French firm is working with the Indian car company Tata to “industrialise a market ready product application over the coming years.” 

ZPM, Zero Pollution Motors, promised in 2009 to deliver an MDI-type air car to the U.S. market in 2011. Not here yet.

And there’s, “the grassroots movement to bring’s air cars to the North American market.”

APUQ, the Montreal firm that promotes its Quasiturbine compressed air engine design, promises it could be the death of the piston engine. APUQ stands for Association d Promotion des Usage de la Quasiturbine, which translates roughly ‘Group Promoting Quasiturbine Use.” It’s a rotary pneumatic engine, operated with an air hose attached. They’ve run a chain saw on it, and there are YouTube videos of carsretrofitted with Quasiturbines (they have compressed air tanks in the trunk and have a tendency to putt like a gocart.) But no commercial car, yet. 

AirCar Factories has a sexy website reminiscent of the desert, but you can’t really make out the shape of the car. Well, and you can’t buy one, either. As with several of the air cars, the website invites investor interest.

Honda unveiled a concept air-powered car in 2010, but no news after that.

Air cars promise great energy efficiency: it's pretty cheap to compress air, and you can get a good energy return from it. But there are bigger issues than you'd think. Not the least is that air cools quickly when it expands--meaning you could air-condition a car cheaply. But also meaning an engine could ice up unless you get every speck of moisture out of it. And dehumidifying air costs energy.

Here at RaisingIslands, we started writing about air cars back in 2007, and even back then, recommended folks not hold their breath.

Hope you haven’t been.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Climate change alert: Hope you like sweet potatoes

Climate change is transforming the world we know, generally in a bad way--but sweet potatoes will do just fine, thanks.

A new study out of the University of Hawai’i says increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can significantly increase the size of the orange tuber crop. (One presumes it also works with the purple variety.)

The study was performed by Ben Czeck, A. Hope Jahren and Brian Schubert of the UH Department of Geology and Geophysics, Susan Deenik of the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, Susan Crow of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management and Maria Stewart of the Department of Agricultural Sciences.

Czeck and his associates studied this particular crop because, while most previous studies have looked at grains and beans, “climate change is expected to have the greatest impact on regions of the world that rely heavily on root crops, such as the sweet potato.”

They grew sweet potatoes in a greenhouse fed with elevated levels of CO2, and found that “sweet potato grown to maturity under elevated CO2 has greater total biomass than those grown under ambient atmospheric conditions." They also found a higher response to conventional chemical fertilizer than organic fertilizer based on steer manure.

The team is now studying the sweet potatoes to determine how high-CO2 crops differ in nutrition from those grown under standard conditions.

There are some caveats to the study. The sweet potatoes were grown in conditions with far greater CO2 content (more than double) than the current high atmospheric CO2 levels. It will be years before carbon dioxide levels get that high, if they do, but the high levels are within the range of some projections.

The study was presented at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union-Biosciences.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Asteroid impact threat averted: UHawaii team

There is space stuff crashing into the Earth all the time, which is not a problem as long as it’s small stuff.

Big objects, like the asteroid 2011 AG5, are more of a problem. Big objects can create big craters, can throw immense amounts of material into the atmosphere, which can block the sun, and change the climate, and cause mass extinctions.
(Image: Asteroid 2011 AG5, as viewed by the Gemini Multi-Object. Credit: UH IfA, Gemini Observatory.)

But 2011 AG5 won’t be one of those big objects, according to new research from the University of Hawai`i’s Institute for Astronomy and the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea. It will come close, but will miss the planet by about a half million miles, they said.

Earlier research had estimated that there was a small chance—1 in 500—that 2011 AG5 could hit the planet, on Feb. 5, 2040. And since it’s a big one—a couple of football fields across—that could be a big problem, they said.

“If this object were to collide with the Earth it would have released about 100 megatons of energy, several thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs that ended World-War II. Statistically, a body of this size could impact the Earth on average every 10,000 years,” says the Institute for Astronomy release on the subject.

The Gemini’s Multi-Object Specrograph snagged views of the asteroid low in the sky in late October.  The University of Hawai`i’s 2.2 meter telescope on Mauna Kea spotted the asteroid two weeks earlier. From those views, researchers were able to refine its orbit.

The calculations were initially made by Institute for Astronomy researchers David Tholen, Richard Wainscoat, Marco Micheli, and Garrett Elliott, with further analysis by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

NASA reported that based on their work, the possibility of an impact has been eliminated.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tern Island team safely back in Honolulu

Here is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release on the Dec. 9 storm damage at Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals.

RaisingIslands has covered this story in two previous posts, here and here. This press release was issued today (Dec. 21, 2012), in association with the return of the five-person Tern field crew to Honolulu after their evacuation from the island Tuesday.
 Photos of the damage to the remote atoll can be found here.

The images suggest that, if anything, the initial reports of the damage were understated.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Biologists Evacuated from Remote Pacific Field Station
                             Storm damage to Tern Island facility is extensive

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and four volunteers arrived safely in Honolulu early Friday after being evacuated from their research station on Tern Island, which was extensively damaged during an intense storm December 9. The experience was frightening but no one was physically injured.

The pre-dawn morning storm produced high winds that damaged all facilities on the field station 490 miles northwest of Honolulu within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The living quarters, storage facilities and boat sheds suffered extensive damage as did the communication systems and solar panels.  Damage to nesting birds and habitat will be determined after photographs and eye witness accounts are assessed.

The Tern Island biologists arrived in Honolulu around 1 a.m. Friday after a two-day voyage in high winds and rough seas aboard the M/V Kahana. The biologists were safely evacuated from Tern Island December 18 with help from Fish and Wildlife Service employees traveling from Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The Tern Island residents had sufficient food and water while waiting for the boat.

“We are extremely grateful for everyone’s safety and well-being first and foremost, including those involved with the shore-to-ship evacuation under very stiff wind conditions,” said Barry Stieglitz, Refuge Supervisor for the Hawaiian and Pacific Island National Wildlife Refuges.  “It was a harrowing experience for our employees, including four young volunteers, as they were awakened by a freak wind burst that shook their living quarters.”

The residents told Stieglitz everything started “popping” as wood panels and windows blew out and a boat shed was completely destroyed.

“With their normal internet communication seriously compromised and a satellite phone connection that often dropped, they no doubt felt isolated,” Stieglitz said.  “We are very glad to have them home.”

Located on Tern Island within French Frigate Shoals, part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field station provides critical shelter and a touchstone with wildlife for biologists to do research, student-based education and restoration projects and to monitor hundreds of albatross, wedge-tailed shearwaters and Bonin petrels, including a population of Tristram’s storm petrels.  These biologists are also the eyes and ears that provide a year-round presence to help protect marine and island ecosystems that provide life support for most of Hawai‘i’s green turtle nesting population, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and extraordinary native marine life.

The first chance Monument employees in Honolulu will have to view the damage will be from photographs the biologists carried with them onboard the Kahana.  Upon assessing the impacts to facilities and habitat, the Service will begin to determine next steps.

To learn more about Tern Island see

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tern Island team evacuated, likely arrives Honolulu tonight

The crew from the research station at Tern Island on French Frigate Shoals, which was severely damaged by a storm Dec. 9, has been successfully evacuated, and at this writing they are pounding through rough seas on their way back to Honolulu.

A message from the rescue vessel Kahana at 8 a.m. Dec. 20 said: “We are 154 miles from Honolulu. Weather very ugly. Wind east 35-40, swells east-northeast 10-12 feet.”

The crew at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service station on Tern, four men and a woman, was not injured when a 5 a.m. weather event smashed into the island. Initial reports suggested a downburst within a low-pressure system caused destructive  winds that tore away walls and windows, and caused significant damage to the island’s minimal infrastructure.

Our previous post on the situation reported that the system “sounded like an oncoming freight train. It blew out walls and windows in the main barracks, destroyed the boat shed, impacted seabird populations, and caused other damage still not tallied. The team members were not injured, and they have food and water.” 

Ann Bell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service incident commander, reported by email that the team was evacuated nine days later by the supply vessel M/V Kahana, which was diverted from where it had been working at Johnston Atoll. 

Bell reported the evacuation went quickly. There is no proper harbor at Tern, so it is likely the team was brought off the island on small boats while the Kahana waited offshore.

“Safely evacuated quickly off-island in very stiff 30 knot winds midday on Tuesday, Dec. 18th.  Very tired bodies and personal gear safely on board currently headed slowly to Oahu due to weather conditions,” Bell wrote.

She said the Kahana was scheduled to arrive in Honolulu late tonight or early tomorrow.  More details should be available when the crew is debriefed.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tern Island research station destroyed, crew evacuating

The remote research station at Tern Island on French Frigate Shoals will be evacuated next week after a devastating storm Sunday destroyed buildings, displaced and harmed some seabirds and wiped out the island’s communications and electrical systems.

The five-person U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team on the island described a 5 a.m. Dec. 9 event that sounded like an oncoming freight train. It blew out walls and windows in the main barracks, destroyed the boat shed, impacted seabird populations, and caused other damage still not tallied. The team members were not injured, and they have food and water.

The island’s communications system is gone, and the on-island team has only been able to communicate via a portable satellite phone, said Ann Bell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service incident commander.

“We’re pulling everyone out,” she said.

Photographs with this report were taken before the event. The Tern team is unable to send photographs. More details will be available when the supply vessel M/V Kahana, diverted from Johnston Atoll, arrives, perhaps by Monday, to evacuate the team.

(Images: top to bottom: Albatrosses with Tern Island barracks, note solar panels that are now destroyed; credit USFWS. Lightning strikes at French Frigate Shoals two weeks before the storm; credit Mike Johns/USFWS. Tern Island viewed from the air; credit Andy Collins/NOAA.  )

Tern Island is a small island on the reef at French Frigate Shoals, 450 miles northwest of Kaua`i, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was built up during World War II using dredged material  and most of its surface employed as a landing strip until two years ago, when the coral runway was abandoned and converted to wildlife habitat.  It was a Coast Guard station until the late 1970s, after which it was converted into a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research station.
The team on island now includes one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and four volunteers, three men and a woman. There are also thousands nesting seabirds. French Frigate Shoals beaches are also the main nesting site for the Hawaiian green sea turtle population, and constitute significant habitat for Hawaiian monk seals.

Bell said a severe low pressure system crossed the shoals last weekend with gale force winds, but there appeared to be no particular cause for concern until Sunday morning. Two of the team members were awake and working in the old Coast Guard barracks when they heard an incredible noise.

“They said it sounded like a freight train, and then things started popping,” Bell said. The barracks building has a massive concrete frame, but the walls are wooden panels with windows.  She said windows blew out and wall panels ripped open or blew out, particularly on the south side of the building.

All the solar panels that provide power either blew off the roof or were so severely damaged they were inoperable, Bell said. The team was able to start an emergency generator for power. A boat shed was destroyed. Most structures were compromised in some way, and the damage to wildlife has not yet been tallied, although it is not believed to be extensive.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had the motor vessel Kahana at Johnston Atoll, several hundred miles to the south of French Frigate Shoals. The ship, which has a team of biologists on board, is being diverted to Tern, and its biological team will help assess the damage on the island.

The future of the Tern research station is yet to be determined, she said.

It is difficult, since the catastrophic event occurred in darkness, to know exactly what happened, Bell said. It is clear that an intense low-pressure system with gale force winds was crossing Tern. Storm conditions continued through Tuesday mid-day

The Fish and Wildlife Service team is not sure whether the damage Sunday morning came from an intense downburst or perhaps a waterspout or tornado confined within the larger storm.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012