Thursday, July 27, 2006

“Astroculture” - Space gardens

As civilization advances and populations grow, there is of course an ever increasing need to advance the frontiers of agricultural science in order to feed the worlds growing populations, and hopefully one day bring about an end to world hunger. Agricultural science continues to advance on many conventional fronts, but is also advancing in humanities final frontier – space. And while our immediate needs for advancing agricultural science is down to earth (feeding growing populations), our long term living requirements demand that we learn to develop plant-based life support systems in space, for food, oxygen and psychological benefits.

One day many people will call space their home and they can’t be expected to attain their food that was grown on Earth. The sooner we develop the means to sustainably grow food in space, the better of we will be – both for future residents of space, and current populations of hungry people.

Experimentation with growing plants in microgravity has always been an important objective of many space programs, with early experiments by the Russians proving the ease of off-world plant growth. Since then NASA has conducted experiments aboard the space shuttles and commercial experimentation began with growing plants on the International Space Station.

China has enjoyed success with astroculture, though not through experimenting specifically with growing plants in microgravity, but rather through experimenting with the mutation of plant seeds. The idea is to send a variety of plant seedlings into orbit in retrievable satellites, where the seeds are exposed to cosmic radiation resulting in mutation. China began these experiments in 1987 with more then 800 species of plant seeds [source], resulting in a number of high-yield crops being developed, including II Youhang 1, a super rice that produced a world record yield of 928.3kg per mu (1mu=0.0667ha). The rice is high quality as well as high yield, with “fine grain rate, whole grain rate, amylose, and protein, reach the top standards defined by the national criteria.”

Space-bred vegetables from the experiments tend to have a vitamin content that is 281.5 percent higher than ordinary vegetables, along with raised levels of the microelements ferrum, zinc and carotene.
So far, about 566,600 hectares of Chinese land have been planted with space-bred rice and wheat between 2001 and 2004, according to a government official. It has yielded an additional 340,000 tons of grain for the country.

China’s latest space project, the Shijian-8 satellite will carry more then 2000 varieties of plant seeds including fungi and sequenced molecular biomaterials.

Mutating seeds in space could help to undo the damage done to the DNA of modern produce through poor farming practices, and could result in higher quality and higher yield crops for the future.

Plant growth experiment on the ISS

NASA continues to research astroculture with its recent shuttle flight, studying plant roots and experimenting with varying arrangements of light sources. “The experiment is the third part of a comprehensive study of how crop yields could be increased for missions that could last many months or even years. Plants that will be used for food may well be used to filter spaceship air and produce oxygen.”

The European Space Agency is also performing research in this field with the European Modular Cultivation System designed for various biological experiments under microgravity. The EMCS will automatically perform experiments of seeds to later be returned to Earth for analysis, where plant germination, growth, curvature and DNA analysis will be studied. Insights gained from these experiments aim to help create sustainable plant-based life support systems for long space missions.

I suspect that astroculture has a bright future. It is already big business in China successfully helping to feed a massive and rapidly industrialising nation, and with the development of privatised space laboratories like we are seeing with Bigelow Areospace and others developing similar projects, there will be ample room in the near future for big developments in astroculture. It’s not hard to envision large inflatable orbiting laboratories being rented en mass by commercial agricultural groups seeking to take advantage of these recent developments.

Could space agriculture have a bright future?

Hat tip to Sebadoh’s blog at Really Rocket Science

Monday, July 24, 2006

Printing aircraft

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has manufactured the prototype of its new high altitude unmanned system using parts manufactured through a “3D printing” process known as 3D rapid prototyping. This process has been used in industry for some time now to manufacture basic prototypes, but now the strength of the parts printed in this way is strong enough to be used as working components.

New Scientist has an article about this revolutionary approach to building aircraft, noting that the process allows reduced time to design and build aircraft, and reduced costs.

Printing 3D objects could potentially be of huge importance in the future, as cost reductions, reduction in development times of increasingly complex technology and increases in efficiency and reduction in resource consumption all become essential to continued progress.

Printing objects seems like a natural progression in manufacturing technology. Perhaps one day we will print everything we require with the ultimate in manufacturing technology; molecular manufacturing. Who wouldn’t like to have their own desktop nanotech printer? It’s a step away from Star Trek replicators.

We may be a little while off from having molecular manufacturing, but manufacturing functional parts through 3D printers is certainly a step in the right direction.

It will be interesting to see the effect that this technology will have on the auto industry once it filters down to that level. Wide scale increases in efficiency could be just what the doctor ordered (though personally I would like to see the manufactures of oversized automobiles go bankrupt...).

Al Fin: Ocean Thermal Energy--Energy from the Sea

And while on the topic of alternative energy (well, that's a topic I think I'll always be on...) and attaining energy from the ocean, Al Fin has blogged an interesting piece about the energy stored in the ocean as thermal layers, which is stored energy available for the taking (with appropriate development of course). Yet another form of energy to help fill the gap as fossil fuels decline.

Al Fin: Ocean Thermal Energy--Energy from the Sea

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Wave Power

With the declining of fossil fuel resources and increasing concern of environmental degradation, there is ever growing interest and research into clean and renewable forms of energy. The vast majority of interest is on solar and wind power (and of course biofuels, but I'm talking about electricity generation), however there are other less popular forms of renewable energy that tend to be somewhat overlooked. One such form is solar tower technology, but another serious contender is wave power.

Based on the recent results of a new design by an Australian company Energetech, wave power appears to be one of the most promising sustainable energy sources in development. The results of the Port Kembla project indicate that this design could even be competitive with fossil fuel sources.

Some excerpts from their website:

Past laboratory studies and the analysis of an earlier trial deployment at Port Kembla had indicated the Energetech technology was capable of producing an annual energy output of at least 500 MWh at Port Kembla. However, this latest trial indicates the technology is capable of producing more power and fresh water than has previously been claimed. Based on the recent test results, a full scale project should power up to 1500 homes, or produce three million litres of water per day per production unit.
This is very encouraging, as the outcome of the trial ensures the economics of the design will be competitive not only with other renewable energy forms, but also with full cost fossil fuel sources.
Moderately good wave climates should produce power using first generation systems at a cost of around 10 cents US per kWh, and ideal sites at a cost around 5 cents. Over time, on moderately good sites, with capital cost savings from second generation designs, we can see the technology regularly delivering electricity at around 4 cents US kWh
Wave energy is:
• truly renewable - inexhaustible and occurring from natural phenomenon
• the most consistent of the intermittent renewable energy sources
• non-emitting - no emissions of harmful pollutants result from its use
• consumes no fuel in the operation of the system
Ocean waves contain enormous amounts of energy, but the energy in each crest is generally spread out along it. If all the energy could be transported to one point it could be harnessed far more readily.
It is possible to focus all the energy of a plane surface gravity wave crest, the type you see breaking on the beach, on to a single point using a parabolic wave focusser. The section of the wave is reflected by a parabolic wall and converges on the focus of the parabola. As the wave converges, the crest height grows to a maximum in the focus area.
Approximating what the device will produce in the way of power depends on the amount of energy extracted based on sea conditions on a particular day.
An illustration, however, may be useful. Consider a parabolic focuser with dimensions of 40 metres width, 20 metres length, and a focal length of 5 metres. Assume a coastal wave crest amplitude of 1 metre. This would render in the vicinity of ten million joules of energy for extraction from each wave. This equates to between 1 and 2 megawatts of power.

With the coming energy crisis that the world is bound to face as oil production inevitably peaks, we must actively pursue all avenues of possible solutions. And in countries where there are large costal populations (isn’t that everyone?), wave power looks like it could be a viable component in our future energy needs.

And then there is the issue of fresh water. In places such as Australia where most of the country is in severe drought, and where almost the entire population is located in coastal regions, wave power, with it’s ability to produce both fresh water and clean energy, seems like an essential technology to develop.

Solar power and wind power are great technologies, but perhaps it’s time we started paying attention to all of the available solutions? Wave power, especially with this new design, has the potential to be a primary resource for Australia and much of the world.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bigelow Aerospace launches orbiting habitat

The private-sector space industry and space tourism took another step forward this week with the successful launch and deployment of the Genesis 1 one-third scale prototype space station. Bigelow Aerospace seeks to develop and operate inflatable space habitats for space tourism and private laboratories. From the Bigelow Aerospace website:

In 2000, I announced our original goal of 2015 (and $500,000,000 later) as being the year we would have our first commercial space complex (CSC) in orbit. We might be ahead of schedule. The problem is transportation. We expect to fly two spacecraft this year in 2006 that we are referring to as Genesis I and Genesis II. By 2010, Bigelow Aerospace hopes to have flown 6-10 pathfinder/demonstrator spacecraft. By 2012, Bigelow Aerospace may be ready to fly its first full-scale habitable structure.

The launch of the Genesis 1 orbital module is a step (or giant leap) towards the privatisation of space, something which I believe to be essential if humanity is going to effectively utilize space.

In the search for a suitable private space craft for the commute into orbit, Robert Bigelow has set a $50 million prize to the team that builds the first orbital vehicle capable of carrying up to seven astronauts to one of his inflatable modules by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galatic is planning to begin test flights in 2007 for its space tourism program, where they plan to send passengers paying the $200,000 ticket price on sub-orbital flights. Apparently they already have a long waiting list of paying cliental. Virgin has chosen Scaled Composites, the winners of the 2004 Ansari X-Prize, to build their fleet of passanger space craft.

Also, the company that sent the first tourist into space aboard Russian rockets, Space Adventures Ltd., is about to start offering its clients a new option while staying at the ISS: a spacewalk for and extra $15 Million.

I think it’s great to finally see the space tourism industry on its way to success. With an ever increasing line of rich customers wanting to experience the final frontier, I believe that space development will continue to expand, and eventually a private space industry will exist that is sustainable and ultimately beneficial for all humankind. has an exclusive article about Genesis 1, and there is an interesting article on the Genesis 1 mission on Cosmic Log.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

EnviroMission Solar Tower

EnviroMission is an Australian based group building the worlds first large scale (200MW) solar tower, capable of generating enough clean electricity to power around 200,000 typical Australian households, with no greenhouse gas emissions. The equivalent energy produced conventionally would pump over 900,000 tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the environment.

Originally the plan was to build a much larger structure 1 kilometre tall, though mid 2005 EnviroMission announced that they plan to build a smaller scale version. Of course this announcement was met by pessimists as evidence of failure of the project, however the project is still on track and appears to have strong potential, even if the planned large scale tower is delayed in favour of establishing wide scale commercialisation.

Building smaller towers may look like a simple downsizing of the technology, but the reality is that smaller towers offer far greater potential for the technologies future. Thanks to several developments in the technology (namely increased efficiency of the collector zones and greater storage capacity allowing constant energy generation), the smaller scale towers are now economically viable. Where once it was thought a megalith tower was required to be economically viable, it now appears that smaller towers are viable, greatly increasing the technologies scalability.

The company is still focused on building the large facilities, but is developing smaller 50MW facilities for demonstration purposes consistent with the LETDF Grant application, which is focused on allowing wide scale commercialization of low emission technologies through technology demonstrations.

Waterville Investment Research has a thorough review on the technology and the company, and things are looking promising for the future of solar towers.

The Discovery channel has an interesting documentary about solar tower technology.

Renewable Energy World also has an interesting article on solar towers published last year.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An analogy on Peak Oil optimism

The peak oil community love their analogies. Although analogies are generally overly simple and often highly inaccurate ways of looking at things, given that the peak oil community seems to respond so well to obscure references to things such as setting suns and shrinking pies, I thought I’d write a little analogy of my own that might help describe the peak oil situation from my point of view; that is, an optimistic point of view.

Modern civilisation is like a chronically over-weight fat man who has just found out that if he keeps going with his way of life, he will die well before his time, within 10 to 20 years. His doctor tells him that his lack of exercise, poor diet and over eating is going to kill him. The fat man is obviously concerned and asks his doctor what he can do about it. Unfortunately, it seems his doctor is a phoney, because the doctor informs the fat man that there is nothing he can do to avoid an early death. The doctor insists the man is doomed.

The fat man then suffers through a period of depression, believing that his life is certainly about to end. However some friends of his try to encourage the fat man. They tell him that there are options, and that he could survive. They tell him about a range of high-tech solutions that could extend his life span, such as liposuction and weight loss pills.

And so the fat man goes back to his doctor and enthusiastically asks about the techno-fixes to his problem. Unfortunately, his hopes are soon dashed by the doctor who tells him that liposuction is not a safe option, and that weight loss pills will only ever remove a tiny fraction of the mans excess weight. And all the while, the doctor points out, the man’s weight is continuing to increase as he continues to eat more and more junk food.

“Face it fat man, your doomed.” says the doctor. “Oh, and before you leave, I suggest you purchase a copy of my latest book, which outlines your condition in more detail. And I’ve got some weight loss pills you should buy, which might delay the inevitable a bit longer.”

At this point the fat man begins to suspect his doctor of having a hidden agenda, and he begins to question his doctor’s competency. And so the fat man decides to go and seek a second opinion.

The second doctor comes to the same conclusion; the fat man will die within 10 to 20 years if he keeps with his current way of life. But the good news, the new doctor informs him, is that obesity is a completely curable condition. The doctor writes up a plan for how the fat man can turn his life around, involving a change to a healthy diet, and regular exercise, and through the help of the fat man’s family and friends, they force him to make the necessary changes in his life.

But the fat man doesn’t want to change. He’s fine with the way he looks, and he hasn’t thought too much about the future – 10 to 20 years sound like a long time to him. But most of all, the fat man really doesn’t want to stop eating all the unhealthy foods he loves so much, and he especially doesn’t want to start exercising. Ugh, the effort!

But he no longer has a choice. His family and friends don’t want him to die, regardless of the fat man’s wishes to keep on living his unhealthy way of life. And so his family develop an alternative diet for him to eat, and his friends develop a training regime that will get him on the path to a healthy and long life.

At first the fat man finds the transition unbearable. He’s lived his entire life on unhealthy food, his body is accustomed to it, and suddenly eating a healthy diet is something he not only finds repulsive, but his body doesn’t initially respond well to the strange new foods. At least that is what the man tells himself over and over, effectively making himself sick.

“I need soft drink with this!” he cries, as his family gives him more water to wash down the nutritious meal. But with all his kicking and screaming, his family who love him do not give up on him, and they maintain the healthy diet.

While the fat man thinks the new diet being forced on him is painful, he doesn’t yet know the meaning of pain as his family hire a personal trainer and force him to exercise for the first time in his life.

Between the healthy diet and the regular exercise, the fat man is in a world of pain. He bitches and whines constantly, he is frequently sick, he is unhappy and sometimes angry, and he wants nothing more then to go back to his old way of life. He even attempts to maintain his old habits, but fortunately his friends and family care too much about him and force him to keep up with his new lifestyle for his own good.

And so, several years later the man returns to his original doctor, the hack that told him to give up on his life because he was doomed. But now he is no longer the unhealthy fat man with a drastically reduced life expectancy, but a fit, strong and healthy man full of life and energy. He’s no longer the depressed SOB who once spent all his time sitting around in front of the television eating junk food, but a happy and productive individual with a highly active and healthy lifestyle.

The man’s old doctor is amazed at the improvement the man has made to his life. He estimates that the man should now live to a ripe old age. The now fit man smugly asks the doctor; “So, what was all the garbage you told me that I was doomed and had no chance to live a full and healthy life?”
“Oh, that.” says the doctor.
“Well, uh, you know, I was actually just saying that to give you a wake up call. Of course it was possible to change your life around, but you couldn’t do it without the proverbial splash of cold water in the face. Oh, and now that your fit and healthy, would you be interested in purchasing a copy of my latest book about living a fit and healthy lifestyle?”

Civilisation facing peak oil is like an over weight man facing death, and getting civilisation off the fossil fuel and automotive drugs are like the fat man adopting a healthy diet and regular exercise. It may be a painful transition at times, but ultimately it will be a great thing.

Oh, and along the way we will have to deal with people with hidden agendas, trying to sell their ideas so they can make an easy buck. But what else is new?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

On advancing progress

Many in the peak oil community feel disheartened with technology and consider progress to be slowing. No doubt there are various reasons for this perception, the most rational of which may be a general loss of confidence with science.

Progress may indeed appear to be slowing when one considers the amount of new innovations and advances made during the first half of the 20th century, only to see the second half of the 20th century ‘merely’ improving upon earlier advances instead of continuing to come up with all new innovations and breakthroughs. Greenneck summarises this position nicely in recent comments:

I recall when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon and back then, the future looked bright indeed.
Well, 35 years later we haven't got back to the Moon.
What went wrong?

This is why some people believe PO will lead to some kind of doom: they have lost confidence that science will solve it.

I suspect that if one were to travel back in time and grab someone from 1900 to take them on a quick trip of the 20th century, they would likely adopt a similar position on civilisation’s progress as many of the PO pessimists do. The jump from 1900 to 1950 would be a remarkable leap for them. They might feel amazed at how much we have progressed, seeing inventions that were in their infancy in 1900 become highly advanced and wide spread. They would see the remarkable leaps forward made in almost every aspect of scientific endeavour, and they would see some of the greatest achievements in human history. And while they may at first feel disorientated with the level of progress made, they would soon fit in with society – after all, social structure and culture in 1950 really wasn’t that different from 1900.

But then the jump from 1950 to 2000 would be a different story. Our friend from 1900 might think that civilisation had slacked off. The technology, while improved upon, is still basically the same. There have not been the giant leaps forward in theoretical science that the first half of the century enjoyed. A few industries have made impressive advances, most notably electronics and computing, but over all it would appear to our time travelling friend that progress has slowed considerably.

After a while though our friend would begin to perceive the true advances civilisation has made, however he would not easily understand them. Unlike the jump to 1950, the jump to 2000 would see a change in society he would be virtually incapable of comprehending. People of different races working together and treating each others as equals, women in leading roles in large corporations, he would see scantly clad men and women with strange high-tech sports gear zipping through the streets, people communicating with other people on opposite sides of the world using difficult to see technologies. He would see people assimilating astonishing amounts of information quickly and easily, people conducting business from all parts of the globe and at any time of the day or night. He would see communities of like-minded individuals finding each other from remote and widespread locations and clustering into virtual communities. He would see organisations and corporations employing individuals from all corners of the Earth and working together without ever leaving their homes. He would see people playing when he thinks they should be working, and yet they are never truly away from work as they often work when he thinks they should be resting.

The changes to society and culture are long and varied, but in short, our time traveller friend from 1900 would be overwhelmed by the pace and the capabilities of society circa 2000. In the year 2000 he may not perceive the same obvious degree of technological advancement made from 1900 to 1950, but he would be incapable of comprehending the progress made in the way people live their lives from 1950 to 2000. He would fail to understand the considerable advantages of the new globalized and digitised world community, and perhaps would think that the world has gone crazy.

Not unlike our PO doomer who craves the more quiet, simpler times…

The point of this little time travel exercise is to elaborate on human progress. To understand how civilisation is progressing, we must look at all of the aspects of civilisation, not merely a single part of the equation. For example, some people merely look to the continued use of a single resource as proof that civilisation is not progressing, as a doomer recently put it so elegantly in the comments:
If technology is advancing so fast why are the computers you jackasses typing on most likely powered by COAL!

It should be obvious that we can not merely measure the progress civilisation has made in the resources or materials it uses, nor the inventions patented per capita, as some people foolishly do, nor can we even measure progress purely as a technological aspect.

To consider human progress, I could easily point to the plethora of technological advances made recently. I could comment on the fact that civilisation appears to be on the verge of a new technological age based on all new materials – just as iron and bronze revolutionised the world with new unforseen technologies thanks to the widespread adoption of new superior materials (bringing about the iron age and bronze age), so too will our new found capabilities of structuring carbon at the molecular level (commonly known as nano-technology) herald in a new technological age of unforseen advances with the widespread use of superior materials. We may only just be entering what may come to be called ‘the carbon age’, based on molecularly perfect carbon materials that offer massive increases in strength, reduction in weight, transference of heat and ultimately massive increases in efficiency and reductions in waste, and many other possibilities not yet perceived.

However to elaborate on the considerable progress civilisation has made, we must not solely focus on the technological. Social and cultural advances are also of vital importance, and are intimately bound with our technological advances. And in many ways, the advances that we have made socially and culturally are far more important then the technological advances we make.

Consider Wendell Phillips famous words:
“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.”
It’s unquestionable that this simple technological advance, first developed over 500 years ago, had a tremendous impact on society and culture. Now consider the modern evolution of the printing press and what it has done for the mind. The internet is arguably one of the most important social revolutions in history, and is what has allowed such wide-spread awareness of peak oil issues to be assimilated by society in the first place. If it were not for this technological and social advance many people would likely still be unaware of the peak oil issues. It may be powered by an old power source, but it is still a deeply impacting advent radically altering civilisation as we know it.

While technological change over the past 50 years may be difficult for some people to perceive, especially given the considerable about of improvement over innovation, the radical social and cultural change we have experienced should be obvious. Society has radically transformed and continues to do so, and this effect must not be so easily dismissed. Civilisation today is far more adaptable and capable then ever before, and assuming that we are incapable of dealing with complex issues such as peak oil simply because we still use antiquated power sources is imprudent. We may have considerable challenges ahead with transitioning to new ways of life, but transitioning to new ways of life is one thing that we have become ever more skilled at doing.

Don’t dismiss our adaptability; it’s what allowed a once weak, defenceless and insignificant little species to conquer the world, and we’ve been accelerating our adaptability capabilities ever since.

Peak oil: we will adapt.