Locklin on science

Energy storage and green technologies

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on July 9, 2012

A lot of people are trying to save the world with “green technologies.” Personally, I think the obsession the upper middle classes have with saving the world is misplaced, grandiose and often destructive. Such folks would be better off trying to make their little corner of the planet a nicer place for their fellow citizens. But it isn’t a bad idea trying to get some energy supplies from someplace besides dead dinosaur sauce.

The problem with getting rid of fossil fuels is these are tremendously dense and useful energy supplies. You need to store energy. Energy storage is a hard problem. Anyone who owns a portable computer knows this. Batteries run flat pretty quickly. Basically, batteries suck.

This is a universal technological problem. If you have a powerplant, it probably runs at close to its most efficient output rate at all times. Otherwise, you’re wasting a lot of fuel. If you have excess powerplant capacity, that is a waste of capacity. Power companies deal with this by building artificial hydroelectric installations: they build a big jar of water in a mountain, and use excess power to fill it up using pumps. Then when they need more electricity (when everyone turns on their air conditioners), they let the water fall and spin some extra turbines (which are cheaper than turbines + motors). You get something like 70% efficiency in this storage technique, even though it sounds really silly, but anything which allows a little more output during peak hours without building otherwise idle power plants is useful. This is also the idea behind “smartmeter” technologies, in that power companies think they can make consumers use less power during peak hours. I rather doubt that they can, but don’t blame them for trying, as peak generating plants are expensive infrastructure to have lying around idle most of the time.

The problem is compounded by “green” energy technologies presently under popular consideration. Anything solar, obviously, only works in the day time. Fortunately, peak power consumption also happens in the daytime, so cheap solar could help power companies deliver power more efficiently. Of course, it isn’t cheap; it’s outrageously expensive -so expensive, that nobody has installed large solar installations yet, despite all manner of tax credits and legal incentives to do so. Should solar ever become cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels, energy storage will become a problem. The other popular “renewable” is wind power, which is reasonably cheap and which isn’t strongly correlated with time of day. It is, however, highly intermittent, which makes power storage an important issue in building an electrical infrastructure which relies on “green” energy supplies.

In terms of small scale energy use, such as heating a house or powering a vehicle, chemicals is usually how things are stored on a small scale. Chemicals are a sort of real world crystalization of the electromagnetic force. All the little electron bonds in a chemical are potential energy which can be released by burning the stuff, or, if it is an explosive, letting it explode. Burning is most efficient, as you only have to carry around half of the chemicals. In principle, you could carry around electromagnetic energy in other forms. In practise, hydrocarbons (or some form of hydrogen) are a really dense and helpful way of doing this.

Capacitors store electric charge directly (batteries store electricity as chemical energy) by separating two conductors by a dielectric substance. If you make a big enough capacitor, it can store a lot of charge. Nobody knows how to build such a capacitor such that it beats batteries in energy storage per kilogram, though big capacitors are used to power systems in which the power output must be high and very temporary (like in a surface to air or air to air missile, or engine starter circuit). Something like the state of the art is represented here; as you can see it stores about 2kJ per pound. Lead acid bateries are more like 66kj/lb, and the energizer bunny about 180kj/lb. Nickel Metal Hydride batteries are about 150kj/lb. The most insane kind of battery, which is also explosive (and low in current capacity), is lithium chloride; it stores about 900kj/lb. You can’t generally buy those unless you are NASA or a large industrial firm. By contrast, gasoline stores about 20,000kj/lb. This is why we do not use electric cars on a wide scale; you can store a lot more energy per pound of fuel in a gasoline car. Each gallon is about 6lbs. So a 12 gallon capacity is equal to to 10,000lbs of advanced batteries in terms of energy storage. The next time a hippy tells you “clean electric cars” were destroyed via a conspiracy of oil barons and auto executives, remind him it is really the laws of physics.

For what it is worth, hydrocarbons are about as good as it gets; a factor of 10 better than TNT; and they don’t explode in inconvenient ways. The only simple thing I can think of which does substantially better in terms of energy storage is liquid hydrogen (about twice as good), and that poses difficult storage problems. Probably if we ever develop practical fuel cells, they will operate on gasoline or alcohol. Intelligent people have contemplated building small internal combustion engines with generators for powering laptops; that’s how bad batteries are at this sort of thing.

The other little-mentioned problem with alternative energy supplies taken from the ambient environment: they are sparse. So what, you say? Well, imagine we had a cheap way of harvesting, say, tidal energy. I’ve seen such projects proposed, and they even look fairly cost effective on paper, even if you overlook the potential maintenance costs and environmental damage caused by such gizmos. One of the obvious problems with this is getting the power to someplace useful. How do you do this? You can’t just stick a giant extension cord in the ocean; this is a vast engineering problem. The same problem manifests itself in collecting other kinds of diffuse energy, such as wind power. You need a lot of wires to hook up a wind farm to the grid. Solar is worse (excepting, perhaps, solar-thermal plants, whose major problem is getting enough windex to keep the heliostats clean). All such schemes require, at the very least, large amounts of expensive aluminum and copper. At the worst (the tidal energy idea), we don’t actually know how to move the energy from one place to the other efficiently.

When someone is talking about a new scheme for “green” energy generation, contemplate energy density considerations. Does the energy come from a small place like an electric generator, or is it dispersed over a wide region, like a solar panel the size of Delaware? If the latter, there are hidden infrastructure costs the inventor isn’t telling you about. Is the energy stored as efficiently  as hydrocarbons? If yes, well, that is an important breakthrough which makes all kinds of things possible. Energy density is a simple idea which sorts out lots of bullshit.

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  1. Mark Plus said, on July 9, 2012 at 3:25 am

    Ironically, if we had started out trying to run an industrial society on “green energy” and then discovered billions of barrels of petroleum easily extractable from the ground, we would hail the new fuel as a source of “free energy.”

    I’ve wondered why we don’t use betavoltaics to power more of the electric gadgets we use these days. I’ve read that a tritium cell has a power output of 24 W/kg, so one with a mass a little over 0.1 kg should suffice to run an iPad.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 9, 2012 at 3:30 am

      Well, tritium is hard to make, and even a nut like me would be a little nervous about dopes running around with a big jar of it on their iphone!

    • FredR said, on July 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      Didn’t tritium almost destroy manhattan in spiderman 2?

    • Dick said, on July 11, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      The other issue’s that tritium is a highly regulated substance in the US- it’s used as a “magnifier” in nukes. So you can buy the sexy tubes that glow for 10 years in the UK, but not here (which is clearly why I learned all this).

      • William O. B'Livion said, on August 3, 2012 at 9:18 am

        My watch has some tritium vials in it. Bought it from countycomm.com.

        The sights on my P7 have tritium in them.

        Which means I’m not allowed in Berkeley.

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 3, 2012 at 11:49 pm

          You mutilated your P7 with aftermarket sights? Blasphemy! That’s almost as bad as coating the things in nickel.
          Tritium beta batteries have a significantly larger amount of tritium in ’em than watch dials.

  2. brucecharlton said, on July 9, 2012 at 4:55 am

    Excellent stuff – very memorable. Indeed, Feynman-esque!

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 10, 2012 at 10:08 am

      Thanks! I have to catch up on your stuff; been very busy of late.

  3. Barry Fay said, on July 9, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Oh, I see, “it´s all physics”. Of course there is one part of physics you ignored: when the oil runs out, all of that great oily density will become theoretical! And to just ignore the negative environmental impact of oil in your argumentation is absurd – classic straw-man tactic: nobody ever said alternative energy was more efficient so just who are you arguing with? What alternative energy is all about is SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE ABOUT THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF FOSSILE FUELS. And, of course, your use of the word “hippie” as a derogation reveals your politics perfectly. It was “hippies” – as you, great journalist that you are, should have noticed – who started or at least brought to a meaningful level of prominence, the organic food movement, the environmental awareness movement, the back to the land movement, cooperative business enterprises, the free press movement. Not to mention the cultural contributions (which you probably abhor). Where have you been? And finally, maybe look up the word “sustainability” (more hippie BS) and see where that fits in your “scientific” analysis!

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 9, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      Shut up, hippy. Nobody cares about your self righteous caterwauling.

      • Toddy Cat said, on July 10, 2012 at 4:24 pm

        “Shut up, hippy”

        A beutiful sentiment. If we had had the guts to say this more often back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we would not have an energy crisis today, the Cold War would have ended fifteen years sooner, at least 5 million lives would have been saved, race relations would be much better, and we would have been spared a lot of really crappy “art” and “music”.

        • Scott Locklin said, on July 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm

          I live in Berkeley; it comes naturally.

    • BS Footprint said, on July 10, 2012 at 2:12 am

      “SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE” — even if it’s the wrong thing, or, many wrong things.

      Don’t just do something, stand there!

      • Scott Locklin said, on July 10, 2012 at 10:04 am

        The problem with writing about such things, even something as innocent and irrefutable as what I wrote above, is some yoyo will accuse you of being an instrument of evil for stating the obvious.
        I’m all for green things, so long as they’re not stupid or impossible. Unfortunately, most of them are stupid or impossible, and creatures like the above have turned the stupid and impossible into a moral crusade, rather than an engineering problem, which is what it actually is.

        • BS Footprint said, on July 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm

          I’m all for green things, as long as they can stand on their own, economically speaking.

    • Dan said, on July 10, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      Robert Laughlin theorizes that when the oil runs out, due to its unbelievable efficiency advantage, we will simply make more by converting coal. When the coal runs out, we’ll farm plants for the purpose. It’s hard to get around that energy efficiency.

    • Rod Carvalho said, on July 11, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      If you were serious about sustainability, then you would have arrived at the conclusion that the best solution to all of the Earth’s problems is actually quite simple: population control.

  4. Gabe Ruth said, on July 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks for the post, I’ve been meaning to do exactly this kind of break down for some energy conspiracy theorists I know. However, I think Mr. Fay is right to call you out on your cheap shot at hippies. That their numbers would dwindle significantly if they were honest about the changes needed to get off fossil fuels (or even to stop increasing the rate of consumption) doesn’t affect the truth of many of the honest ones’ complaints.

    A few years ago somebody asked you to share your thoughts on peak oil, and I was a little disappointed in your evasive response (if you addressed it since, I missed it). One thing that gives me pause and makes me wonder if Kunstler and co. won’t be proven correct sooner rather than later is the way global monetary policy has come unmoored from reality. You say, rather glibly, that peak oil hysteria seems to have subsided because people have accepted the new reality of higher gas prices. But to put the idea to bed like that is insane, because the price of gas has so many distortions that its value as a signal is practically worthless (and since when does people NOT worrying about something grounds for believing it’s not a problem, for you?). I begin to wonder whether all the monetary shenanigans aren’t a tactic to prevent the signal from becoming clearer.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 9, 2012 at 8:05 pm

      Kunstler is amusingly misanthropic, but insane. There are all manner of things which would happen before his apocalyptic fantasy comes true; for example, we’d have to run out of coal, gas and uranium first. But before that, we’d have to run out of oil, which doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
      I don’t see how this is relevant to anything I’ve written here: if you want to do things like drive around in a car, it’s going to be hydrocarbons, fossil or otherwise.

      • Joe said, on August 12, 2014 at 7:00 pm

        I know it’s off-topic and a couple years old post anyways, but I just wanted to point out that the median peak oil prediction has been pretty accurate so far: conventional crude peaked in 2005-2007 and the US and EU economies have been in the shitter ever since.

        Anyways, you may be entertained to know that Kunstler has finally given us a timetable for the end of the world, albeit in evasive terms: a year, plus or minus a few months. “By my reckoning we have about a year left of the drive-to-Walmart-economy before the public broadly gets what trouble we’re in”
        http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/global-nausea/

        He’s a bit like another of your favorites, Michael Lews; can string a sentence together well enough but completely divorced from reality…

        • Scott Locklin said, on August 12, 2014 at 7:13 pm

          I really like Kunstler for his bile, and his brave stating of the obvious fact that modern architecture is disgusting garbage. When Lewis grows enough of a sack to do something similar, I may go back to liking him, but alas, family men must debase themselves to pay for their kids education. I think he’s probably wrong taking oil as some kind of single factor thing, though obviously the price of oil does matter. I’m pretty sure oil would be cheaper if it weren’t for the extreme unrest in the middle east we’ve managed to achieve through idiotic policies.
          IMO, the fertility crisis and aging of developed economies is a much more important driver: the one that nobody talks about. Though economists *are* starting to catch up with my assertion that one of the big problems these days is the decline in technological breakthroughs which obviously increase economic productivity. People always pipe up and mention cell phones when I say this, though nobody has been able to explain how nerd-dildos increase macroeconomic activity.

          • Joe said, on September 26, 2014 at 6:37 pm

            I guess I was being unfair to Kunstler, I do vaguely agree with him to some degree on many fronts, including his stance on “modern” (bleh) architecture, he just believes a bit too earnestly in his oil=civilization narrative, and so comes off similar to one of the fundy groups that shamelessly divine the end of the world through bible numerology, over and over again. You might be right that ultimately oil prices don’t matter very much, but FWIW oil’s been around 20 bucks/barrel (2010 dollars) since the 19th century (excepting a decade or so for OPEC and Iranian troubles), and if it’s middle east meddling I don’t see why prices suddenly spiked in 2005-2007 instead of say 2002 or 2010. At any rate, prices are guaranteed to stay above at least triple historical norms, since 8 mb/d crude (and counting) are currently produced from unconventional sources (fracking+sands) that are uneconomical to extract at anything lower, if it does turn out to matter.

            The claim that economists are starting to realize we’ve been in a technological innovation desert is interesting, since I would have thought economists are too dense to realize the obvious. Can you point to some papers or economists, etc? Curious as to how they quantified technological innovation per year (I suspect it’s as simple as papers or patents/year though, which can be quite meaningless).

            • Scott Locklin said, on September 26, 2014 at 6:55 pm

              For example:
              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Stagnation

              I suspect he figured it out from reading my blog and Takimag articles on the subject which appeared several years earlier, but maybe he figured it out on his own.

              • Joe said, on September 29, 2014 at 6:50 pm

                Thanks.

                I first came across the idea in a one page article in Discover (Scientific American?) magazine around 2005, I think, so you’re not the first to publish the idea, though. Apparently someone said something similar in some usenet group years prior, and he blamed the rise of television sets in the 50’s; the theory goes that as people shifted their attention and interested from gadgets and working with their hands to moving pictures in the living room the result was a drop in aspiring (and quality of) scientists and technologists and a rise in, say, lawyers. As crazy as it sounds that might be part of it.

                • Scott Locklin said, on September 29, 2014 at 7:17 pm

                  I don’t know: the head count for science and engineering is probably larger now than it was for the entirety of human history before, say, 1960, when you could start blaming television. You could come up with all kinds of ideas as to the cause; one of my clients blamed the fact that the military isn’t allowed to fund open ended projects in the US any more; probably a factor. One of my pet peeves is the use of things like CAD, which I have observed slowing projects down preposterously. People doing things like designing impossible to machine washers on the CAD machine, instead of, you know, just making a standard washer on a lathe. There are thousands of reasons, large and small, one could come up with.
                  Just getting people to look up from their nerd phones long enough to notice the fact that the present looks an awful lot like 40 years ago is a huge accomplishment. I’m glad people like Thiel and Cowen are talking about it. For me, it’s always been obvious: it’s obvious looking around you; other than telecom, things have improved only marginally. Looking at the coding world: languages haven’t changed much, and the old ones are often better. In physics: the greatest “breakthroughs” of recent years such as the Higgs thing are just cleaning up ideas we had in the 1960s. Glad to know that there are sourpusses in the pop science magazines who have been saying similar things; if you ever dig up the reference, I’d like to see it.

  5. BS Footprint said, on July 10, 2012 at 2:26 am

    Regarding your observations about diffuse energy collection systems:

    I’ve often wondered, as I drive through the vast (and amusingly mostly idle even on many windy days) windmill farms in Altamont, California: what about maintenance costs and reliability when compared to a centralized, highly-concentrated power source (such as hydro, nuke, etc.)?

    For example, when you factor in all the costs of maintenance and upkeep on the widely-distributed machinery of a windmill farm, how does it compare to a large (and admittedly complex) but concentrated generation system like a big hydro or nuke generator?

    Can we ever expect a high level of efficiency from a system comprising thousands (or more) distributed, mechanical components like a wind-powered generators? Does anyone know what kind of “uptime” or efficiency level is realistic given real-world (actual) performance? Are these actual results factored in to production projections for such systems?

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 10, 2012 at 10:07 am

      It’s my understanding that windmills are fairly competitive if you don’t care about their intermittent qualities. It’s very likely, though, that maintaining them is expensive. I’m pretty sure most of them are there because of tax breaks.
      This issue is what breaks the bank with heliostat solar. In principle, it could work; it’s a big magnifying glass. In practise, keeping the things clean and running entails substantial costs. A friend of mine pointed out a technology along these lines which might work better due to its simplicity:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_chimney

      • bgc said, on July 10, 2012 at 11:01 am

        ” maintaining them is expensive” – I expect so, and they break-down a lot.

        There are plenty of ‘wind farms’ around where I live. On any particular breezy day, half of the windmills will be stationary – presumably because they are broken.

        So I don’t think they even farm their subsidies very efficiently.

        However, I expect that their rationale is based on satisfying the European Union’s calculations of a nation’s theoretical generating capacity, based on optimal potential, rather than anything so crass as actually out-putting, like, electric stuff…

        Thus we get windmills despite that *everybody* loses money from them.

        *

        Note – there are large EU penalties for failing to reach targets wrt recycling, ‘renewable’ energy etc.

        Most of current UK public policy is apprently driven by the imperative to avoid these EU penalties.

        But of course we have to do this, because the benefits of EU membership are so great – for example……………………………………………………………. (*crickets*)………………………………………………………………

        • BS Footprint said, on July 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm

          I suppose it depends on what wind farms are intended to harvest: energy from wind, or subsidies. If the latter, then perhaps its not so important that they be kept running at any given time.

          I’m sure saying such things identifies me as a paranoid lackey of the petroleum industry.

      • BS Footprint said, on July 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm

        @Scott,

        Solar chimney or solar updraft tower? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_updraft_tower

        • Scott Locklin said, on July 12, 2012 at 4:41 am

          That’s the one. Sorry, linked to the wrong thing, thanks.

          • BS Footprint said, on July 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm

            Actually, I thought the solar chimney was pretty cool. So thanks for linking to that, too!

  6. anon said, on July 10, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    You can always make a bigger battery!
    http://www.teslamotors.com/roadster/technology/battery

    Telsa seems to run at about 200kJ/lb.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 10, 2012 at 9:54 pm

      Well, don’t forget my original calculation: 12 gallons of dead dino juice = ~10,000lbs of batteries! And that’s with Lithium thionyl chloride, which is four and a half times better in energy density than the Tesla battery. Don’t know why I forgot to list the energy density of ordinary lithium ion batteries there; they are all as you say, about 200kj/lb.

  7. Rod Carvalho said, on July 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    The next time a hippy tells you “clean electric cars” were destroyed via a conspiracy of oil barons and auto executives, remind him it is really the laws of physics.

    People who think that “clean energy” tech was suppressed by oil barons are naive: they do assume perfect information security.

    Let’s imagine that I work at some research lab at some major oil company. Somehow, I manage to develop some truly revolutionary “clean tech” that would make oil obsolete. If the oil company executives were smart, they would patent it and commercialize it. If they were stupid, they would kill the project. Let us assume the latter is the case. Fine. I would then quit the company alleging that I am “burned out” and need to “find myself”. I would open a bar or some small restaurant, so that none of my former colleagues would be suspicious. After a while, I would talk to VC types and start a company stealthily. Then I would patent the technology that the oil company had refused to patent. If they accused me of stealing their IP, they would be exposed as “evil” for having killed a “righteous” technology. If they kept quiet, I would win. Either way, I would gain.

    Yes, I know I am making wildly optimistic assumptions…

    • neutrino_cannon said, on July 12, 2012 at 4:26 am

      They’re also assuming that oil companies are so powerful that they can simultaneously bribe/intimidate *every single government on earth and their respective militaries* into spurning the new technology, as well as being stupid enough to do so. Keep in mind that about half the logistical footprint of a modern army in wartime is fuel.

      If oil companies were so omnipotent they would have long since liquidated all the hippies to convert them into long-strand hydrocarbons.

      • Scott Locklin said, on July 12, 2012 at 4:41 am

        The oil companies also invest in this stuff; after all, they’re fairly well placed to take advantage of any potential breakthroughs.

        • neutrino_cannon said, on July 14, 2012 at 5:17 pm

          A fact that, bizarrely, convinces the conspiracy theorists even more that the oil companies are suppressing existing renewables.

          Do you have any bets on what and when the next big improvement will be?

          I was reading up on the experiments, mostly done in the ’70s on ceramic piston engine blocks. Surprisingly, there are ways to mitigate the tendency for ceramics to shatter in this sort of application, although it was not clear to me that it was perfected or cost-effective by that point. There were also serious problems with emissions, since the temperatures these things ran at bred far more smog-forming nitrogen compounds and the stoichiometry was all wrong for catalytic converters.

          Still, the efficiency gains were impressive. I’m somewhat surprised there isn’t more research into ceramic IC engines by the military.

          • Scott Locklin said, on July 14, 2012 at 9:43 pm

            One of the surprises I had when looking at shuttle design: it’s an aluminum structure, just like an old B-17, with some weird firebrick glued to it. Despite decades of trying fancier things, an awful lot of modern car bodies are plain old carbon steel. I figure it won’t be exotic materials, whatever it is.
            I have a friend who is invested in the Scuderi engine group. Might be some incremental improvements there. It doesn’t look like it requires any fancy manufacturing improvements like, say, wankel rotors did.
            http://www.scuderigroup.com/frequently-asked-questions/#3

            • neutrino_cannon said, on July 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm

              Aha, it sounds like they’re redesigning the engine so the compression ratio isn’t the same as the expansion ratio. This has been done before, with Miller Cycle engines.

              My somewhat limited understanding of the issue is that a higher expansion ratio translates directly to higher Carnot efficiency, since the more you expand the higher the temperature differential. The problem is that in most piston engines compression and expansion ratio are the same thing, and if the compression ratio gets too high the gasoline diesels on you. This is also why diesels have better efficiency.

              So, the Scuderi design improves efficiency by making the cold temperature colder and the ceramic engines did it by making the hot temperature hotter. Or, that’s what my cursory reading of their FAQ suggests.

              You’re probably right about their not being any major shift in materials coming in the near future. I do wonder how much of that is that the current designs are optimal, and how much of that is that is due to a timid society that likes attaching computers to everything and calling it revolutionary.

              • Scott Locklin said, on July 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm

                Yeah, I think that’s right. Atkinson cycle engines do the same thing, and are widely used in hybrid gizmos, where I think they help a little. They have performance downsides; low torque I think. Supposedly the Scuderi motors don’t have the torque problem. I didn’t follow it closely; it was pointed out by a pal. Looks like it has potential if it works the way they claim.
                I can’t figure out why carbon fiber type stuff isn’t more widely used. People have been talking about it for decades, but the fact that it isn’t indicates there’s some reason why. More generally, things like cast iron are actually pretty good for making engines. Better in almost every way than aluminum, except for weight. Ceramics? I’ve tried to machine ceramics; it’s not easy! I mean, even if it was … cooling channels are pretty important. When I hear futurologists talk about … I dunno … silicon carbide engines, well, I don’t think so!

                • neutrino_cannon said, on July 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm

                  I assume that future ceramic piston engines would be made by bulk powder sintering with final dimensions achieved by wire EDM, perhaps. Certainly not by conventional machining practices.

                  That’s assuming the prestress techniques were good enough to prevent it shattering into a billion pieces like a dish dropped on the floor, and I’m honestly not sure they are. Come to think of it, pistons and ceramics might not be a happy marriage. Too much vibration and reciprocation. A wankel and ceramics though, that might be something. A pity about the sub-par specific fuel consumption wankels have to begin with though.

                  I’m pretty sure that moving ceramic elements are used in turbines, so a ceramic wankel would appear possible at first blush, if not necessarily cost-competitive without some more investment and research.

                  I worked for a little while at a company that made stuff out of high-performance polymer composites. The engineers were often ooing and aahing over the carbon-fiber filled polyamide stuff, and other even more exotic engineering plastics with carbon fiber or aramid fill. Some of that is crazy strong; I remember one proprietary blend that had the tensile strength of 6000 series aluminum alloy. That’s not bullshit pound for pound strength you see a lot to make composites look good, that was an honest ~280 MPa tensile strength. The strength to weight ratio was just bonkers, naturally.

                  Much of this ooing and aahing consisted of trying to think of anything we’d need anything that exotic, expensive and strong for.

                  Carbon fiber composites also have some weird properties that can be annoying. They’re very sensitive to the direction the fibers are running in, and the failure modes can be catastrophic. So, like everything else that’s high-performance and weird, they’re basically relegated to aerospace applications and toys for rich yuppies.

                  • Scott Locklin said, on July 16, 2012 at 8:37 pm

                    Wire EDM is …. spendy. My thesis project was almost sunk because it’s expensive and kind of sucks. The guy who worked on it before me had to drill holes in the damn thing and stick taper pins in it to compensate for the fact that EDM doesn’t make simple cartwheel flexures in a proper plane. Might have been a simple indexing problem, but whatever: I wasn’t impressed considering how much it cost.
                    I know modern military airplane turbine blades are still cast out of metal, using the lost wax method. That always cracked me up. 3000 year old fabrication technology. Googling up ceramic turbine blades nets these lolz: http://www.sbir.gov/sbirsearch/detail/15887

                    I figure the motivation of carbon fiber in a car is to make it lighter and possibly cheaper. I think a few sports cars have had such things, but I’m guessing the tooling and ratio of duds to good ones when you cook up a body panel means it ain’t cheaper.

  8. On the apocalypse « The Myth of Sisyphus said, on December 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    […] fitted to support a theory, all validity of that theory must be called into question and that most half-baked solutions generally have a clear beneficiary who is not, broadly, us and often do more harm than good by […]

  9. LJR said, on September 1, 2015 at 3:20 am

    Have you read “Life Itself” or “Anticipatory Systems” by Robert Rosen? I find his ideas very interesting. He’s a serious man in the manner of Rashevsky. His life was his work.


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