peterman online

I am not sure if this qualifies as a blog.

Fuel for thought

May 18, 2004 — In the US, we use more than 165 Billion gallons of gas/diesel per year.

At around $2 a gallon, that is about $.50 more than last year. If it stays that pricey, and the widely reported conjecture is that it will for some time, that will be a rate of $83 billion dollars per year.

vampirical says:

Yeah but think of the poor oil tycoons. They've gotta be able to afford all those houses and cars, not to mention the planes, land and politicians. And all the time they've got all these damn hippies coming up with better fuel sources which are not limited and don't have the negative side effects of oil, the inconsiderate little whelps. Or that dang bastard who makes oil out of waste products, how does he except them to keep making all those billions by exploiting the entire planet.

rnewhouse says:

It's still cheaper than bottled water.

Wirehead says:

rnewhouse: I was just complaining about that the other day. I used to make fun of people who bought bottled water. Then I spent some time in Philadelphia, where the water has roughly the consistency of Cream of Wheat, and the scent and flavor of diluted raw sewage.

vampirical: Show me an alternative engergy source that is more cost-effective than oil is, and I'll show you an excellent investment opportunity. I like alternative energy as much as the next guy - but the simple fact is that until you can show some kind of compelling advantage (and I think that the last 60 years has adequately demonstrated that "ecological awareness" is not covered under "compelling advantage" for Joe Six-pack) for switching over to an alternative fuel source, no one will. It is a fact of the free market economy, period. Show me something that has a SIGNIFICANTLY lower cost per mile of travel than gasoline, which is readily available, and does not have a HUGE initial investment, and I will GO BUY IT, as will the majority of thinking people the world over. As it is, no one is willing to pay twice as much (or more) for half the performance. The GM EV1 was a miserable failure. The Honda Insight, though spectacularly cool technically, is sold at a huge loss per unit - it's essentially the world's most expensive and long-term beta test of a new technology. Honda has said as much - they sell the cars at a loss so they can get them out on the road and see what breaks. Also, gasoline is, despite what most eco-nuts will tell you, much closer to an ideal form of energy than any current alternative fuel - it's energy density per unit of weight far surpasses anything else available, it does not require hugely bulky and/or heavy storage systems, can be safely (relatively) stored at room temperatures, and, most importantly, the distribution infrastructure is already in place. I look forward to having a fuel-cell powered car the only exhaust of which is pure clean H20 as much as the next guy, but writing off the current dearth of AFV's to "greed of the damn oil tycoons" is just propaganda, and not well-supported propaganda at that.

Another thing that bugs me, as long as I'm in a ranting sort of mood: people who talk about how much better electric cars, hydrogen cars, etc. etc. ad infinitum are for the Earth. Well, that's true...IF you ONLY look at the car itself. What about the massively poisonous and corrosive materials used to manufacture high-efficiency solar panels? What about the electricity that must be used to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen? What about the heavy metals used in fuel cells, high-power batteries, etc?

Also, where is this alternative fuel of which you speak which "...don't have the negative side effects of oil..."? It doesn't exist. That depends on how you define side effects, of course. There is no current source of energy available on this planet (other than solar) which comes without a production price tag. You have to USE energy to GET energy. Oil has an advantage - it's dead dinosaurs boiled down to basic, high-energy-density component parts by eons of pressure and heat (which came originally from the sun and the compression of the Earth's own weight) - so much of the "pre-processing" has already been done for us by natural processes. I am not condeming alternative fuels - on the contrary, I think we need to invest a lot more money and time into alternatives than we are now. Obviously petroleum will run out at some point, or become unattractive enough because of a better, cheaper energy source that it falls into disuse. You have to have something there to take up the slack when that happens. But people who harp on it as though the only reason we aren't all riding around in solar powered golf carts that go 140 mph after charging for five minutes is the greed of corporate tycoons are deluding themselves.

lidge_34 says:

Wirehead, you're correct about it being blown out of proportion, BUT there is some truth to it. Maybe not as much about alternative fuel sources, but certainly more efficient engines. I know an engineer who designed engines, and he had many that were bought by oil companies and shoved in the drawer.

As for the price of gas, we're up to about $2.30 here in Oregon--around Portland it's $2.35-$2.40. Then again, we have a dumbass law that makes self serve illegal.

Dylan says:

DataBind() says:

In general, I agree with you, but your opinion is so far to one extreme that it ends up being as faulty as your opponent's.

rnewhouse says:

Gas prices are not dependent on who is doing the pumping. California has self-serve and their gas prices are nearly double those in Oregon.

rnewhouse says:

And, NOBODY is going to make ME pump my own gas. I might break a fingernail, or get my shoes dirty. Eeeuuuw.

DataBind() says:

I'd rather drive a Sparrow and pay a penny a mile. Sure, I'd have to plug it in every night, but kW are cheaper than gallons where I live.

Wirehead says:

Eh. I do tend to go to extremes because it seems like it's the only way I ever get anybody to get somewhere near what I was originally trying to say. Obviously there has been interference by the oil industry at various points, but I firmly refuse to believe people who tell me that Big Oil is virtually singlehandedly responsible for everything from inflation to unemployment to venereal diseases. Every industry has its share of unsavory characters.

I can't believe you guys still aren't allowed to pump your own gas. I've been pumping gas since kindergarten, and usually actively enjoying it (I'm a car geek, gimme a break). Prices in Clearwater are currently around $1.85 or $1.90 for regular, and around $2.20 for premium - which is WAY high for around here.

Of course, you all know in ten years we'll look back on the good old days when gas was only two bucks a gallon (shudder). Maybe I should switch my car to methanol...I could probably get another hundred horsepower out of it. Of course, I'd get about 6 MPG, but since it's totally renewable, all those extra greenhouse gases and oxides of nitrogen don't matter, right?

Wirehead says:

If you want a Sparrow, you'd better buy it now. Corbin what's-his-name has been in and out of bankruptcy court for YEARS - and last I heard, Sparrow production was ending in ~6 months or less.

Of course, that's disregarding the fact that that car is a death trap in anything other than a kiddie pool.


Oh, it also tends to roll over if you try to do anything untoward, such as GOING AROUND A CORNER at more than walking speed.

Wirehead says:

It occurs to me to point out that I've been a cranky son of a bitch the last 24 hours or so. Must investigate. Sigh.

vampirical says:

Heh. As far as I know there are much are effecient OVERALL ways to power anything rather than burning hydrocarbons. One of my favorite has always been a sattelite and or space station approach to solar energy. It's technologically possible and actually financially feasiable apparently. The problems associated with space stations are just way to many so the satellite approach would be the way to go. All of tech to accomplish it is pretty established, non of it is really ground breaking yet it would work. All you have to factor in is the effects and costs of building and launching something like a dozen sattelites and corresponding receiving stations and that's it you've got an enegry system with will operate virtually without cost (either financial or ecological) for a damn long time. This tech could then be implemented into our existing infrastructure and everything would be bloody powered by it.

I'm not saying we need to hug trees and swtich from gas power to foot power but I'm sure big oil looks out for itself. Heheh, the first thing that comes to mind is Mission Earth and the specs locked in a file cabinet somewhere for a car which runs on water.

peterman says:

Cheap fuel is definitely one of the major components of the massive economic growth the US has sustained over the last 100 years. It's obviously an addiction.

I think it is interesting to note the amount of hoopla the $400 per child tax credit cash advance we got last summer, how it (and subsequent tax relief) was going to be such an important boost to the economy. There were about 24 million of those checks. That makes less than $10 billion. About enough to offset a dime increase in the price of gas.

Wirehead says:

Space-based power is a great idea. But you speak as though it's practically already an accomplished fact. Realize that the maintenance issues associated with keeping fleets of solar satellites working are nearly impossible to concieve of. The satellites need fuel to maintain their orbits, they need replacement parts when gyros, solar panels, transmission components, or telemetry fail (see any recent article regarding the Hubble space telescope, for example). Space is an extremely unforgiving environment and there are problems there which simply do NOT occur on Earth - like components welding themselves together through vacuum cementing. Now, suddenly, instead of a bearing you have a paperweight.

This is all also completely disregarding the big question: how do you get USEFUL amounts of power to Earth from space? The most common method suggested is through microwave transmission. Great. So you need a large area of collectors (preferably out in the desert somewhere far from a population center). What happens if it's really overcast? That interferes with your power transmission. What happens if your transmitter satellite(s) gets nicked by a piece of space junk and starts pointing a few degrees too far to the left, beaming a gigawatt of microwave energy into downtown Los Angeles? This is not far-fetched and it would not take a big error to do so. Geosynchronous orbit is around 26,000 miles of altitude from Earth, as I recall. At that distance it would take aiming wrong by a small fraction of one degree of arc in order to miss the target by hundreds or thousands of miles, and I know of no technology now extant which would allow a beam of microwaves to remain that tight over that distance anyway, which means you'd have to have in-orbit relay stations to transfer power from geosynchronous to low-Earth-orbit satellites, and then from there to the ground. But LEO needs much more fuel to maintain correct positioning and is much more vulnerable to various other problems like the aforementioned space junk, etc.

Note also that satellites in geosynchronous orbit are very expensive to perform maintenance on, simply because it takes so much energy to GET there that half the time it's cheaper to put up a new satellite rather than trying to fix the old one.

You also are overestimating the power possibilities here - do you have ANY IDEA how large a solar array would be needed to power even a small fraction of one medium-sized city? The best solar cells made today approach 25% or so efficiency of power conversion. In SPACE, the total power arriving is about 1400 watts per hour per square meter (at the edge of Earth's atmosphere - it would be infinitesimally higher at geosynchronous altitudes). The power you actually END UP WITH from that is (let's be generous and give it a 33% efficiency, which might be possible in ten years or so) only about 450 watts (462 to be precise, but we're just ballparking all this stuff anyway). Ok, so for one square meter of solar cells IN ORBIT, you get 450 watts of energy. Note that a SMALL home generally uses 2-3kw even when nobody's home - refrigerators cycling on and off, A/C, water heater, stuff like that. Yes, homes can be designed more efficiently but you're talking about saving a few percent here, a few percent there. To make space-based solar power workable you'd have to have at LEAST an order of magnitude increase in efficiency of home design and construction (think running the whole house on maybe 500 watts - that's about what my computer uses, not including the monitor). Also realize that even GROUND BASED solar power costs about 3 times what power from the grid costs, and you have to replace all major components regularly - panels about every 25 years, batteries about every 4 or 5 years, plus various electronic components that seem to live or die on their own, unrelated to any timetable understood by humans. If it costs 3 times more to just stick a panel on your roof than it does to take power from the grid, what do you think it will cost to put that same panel in space? It costs about $16,000 for a solar power system capable of MOSTLY powering a medium-sized home. Take that and multiply it to 8 million - enough to supply the needs of Denver and its suburbs (note that this does NOT include the various HUGE office buildings, industrial areas, water treatment plants, traffic lights, street lights, TV stations, radio stations, or any public buildings at all - one radio station can use in excess of 500,000 watts for transmission ALONE - not counting just keeping the lights turned on). Figure out how much that system will weigh. Now, multiply that weight by the FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS PER POUND that it costs to get something into LOW EARTH ORBIT.

Space based solar power will NEVER make it. It is TOO expensive, TOO difficult to maintain, TOO prone to disastrous failures, and NOT efficient enough. Even at 100% efficiency, you'd need hundreds or thousands of square miles of solar panels at 26,000 miles of altitude to power a good sized-chunk of America alone - forget about places like China where they have 5 times our population in a similar area. Note to those who say "but China uses far less energy than the USA per capita!": Yeah, but wait ten years. BMW just built a plant in China and they're selling them there now to actual Chinese people. China is not energy-efficient because they're ecologically conscious, they don't use much because up until now they've practically been living in the Bronze Age, other than a few high-tech centers and large cities. That is now changing, and China will most likely pass the US as the largest user of energy in the world within 25 years.

Individual solar plants (one per home) eliminate TONS of other problems (not least of which is the expense of putting together a large system). You also eliminate transmission losses, cost of strining power line to new areas, cost of repairing same when it is destroyed by a storm or whatever, risk of wiping out huge areas due to failure of one important component, risk of generalized power surges (since if homes generate their own power they don't need to be connected to a grid at all, so there's no possibility of sudden power spikes affecting a large number of homes, etc).

All this said, I DO believe that solar power is the best long-term solution - but the efficiencies are NOT there. The cost per kwh is NOT there. If I installed a solar system, my power costs over the life of the system (call it 20 years) would end up being the equivalent of $240 a month to run a 900 square foot apartment. I pay about $80 a month now IN SUMMER with the A/C on. When someone invents a cheap, 75%+ efficient solar panel, give me a call and I'll be second in line. Until then, get off it and figure out how to get better gas mileage out of the technology we already have.

vampirical says:

Woah there. I can see how it sounded like I was saying do it, do it now but I wasn't. I'm talking about a solar arrays feasbility in the long term. I'm not saying we need to launch some tomorrow but that it's worth investing in. I'd like to see this sort of work coming out of NASA instead of being dismissed because at the moment we've got plenty of oil. This concept is not unworkable and has been seriously investigated by NASA and various serious organizations over the years.

The problems you bring up are pretty major issues except for one. The miss-aiming of the microwave beams is easy to safe guard against, systems on both the satellite and the ground could easily keep a constant laser lock-on with any unacceptable deviation leading to a temporary power beam shutdown. The rest are all the major issues involved but they are not exactly insurmountable. Use of petroleum based products have their own history of problems and advances don't forget. Just because you do have a method which is mature does not mean other infant technologies don't have the potential to be much better and therefor worth the work now to pioneer it. I really did come across as talking not about it's potential and future benefit but it's current usefullness which I will admit is nill. That's part of what I'm complaining about. I don't feel that alternative energy sources are receiving the money/energy/attention they deserve.

(I'm sure this is now how I'm going to be known on the forum, as the nut job who want the solar array.)

Wirehead says:

Found this site which seems to have pretty much the straight dope on orbital solar power stations.

As it turns out, some of the issues I mentioned are not issues, and others have some solutions:

1. peak intensity of the microwave beam from a 5 gigawatt station would be about 20mw/meter2. This is not enough to do anybody any damage in the short term - US industrial exposure limits are set at 10 mw/meter2, so it's "not a death-ray" as the author of the above page states.

2. Recent studies of moon soil indicate that up to 98% of the material needed for the collector/transmitter satellite could be mined from the moon. This is good, since the approximate weight for a 5Gw station was estimated around *50,000* tons. This still leaves around 1000 tons of mass to manufacture on earth and get into geosynch orbit. This also assumes that there is already a moon base with which to extract the raw materials, refine them, and manufacture them into what is needed - so a HUGE, HUGE part of the cost is hidden, since building a moon base is a HIDEOUSLY expensive undertaking, when you are talking about an INDUSTRIALLY CAPABLE moon base (or even if you're talking about a bubble tent and a water distiller, for that matter). Anyway, assuming that in the next 50 years we end up with a moon base capable of mining and refining raw material into something useful, you could end up with a solar generator large enough to run a couple of medium sized cities (equivalent to a large nuclear power plant). You'd spend about $30,000,000,000 to transport 2% of the material needed to orbit (just the stuff that can't be made on the Moon). The moon has about 1/6th of Earth's gravity, so you'd still have some EXTREMELY hefty launch expenses from there, not to mention the expense of building a moon-base in the first place.

I think this would be at least a trillion-dollar project, given current launch tech.

For it to become even SOMEWHAT plausible, you'd have to have at LEAST an order of magnitude reduction in launch costs from Earth, and there would need to be a moon base already in place for other reasons. I'd love to see it in my lifetime, but I don't think I will.

vampirical says:

From a strictly pragmatic point of view I would think fusion or even the atomic power we have now is a better solution. Which sucks because I want microwave beams damnit. I think part of my attachment is the fact that using the already massive energy production of our sun seems like such a good solution. Instead of waiting until we development beter atomic energy we should be taking advantage of the already occuring generator we've got. Okay how about this we build a huge reflector satellite which basically unfurls a big ass tin foil sail once it's in position, then it just reflects the light to a ground based array. And then it could always serve a double function with a few controls for focusing the resultant beam of light, I've always wanted SDI damnit.

Wirehead says:

Heh. SDI is t3h r0x0r.

There's actually a large article in Popular Science this month about future space-based weapons systems. I haven't gotten to it yet but it looks neat - orbital harpoons a la Night's Dawn trilogy and stuff like that.

Anyway, solar power is obviously the best solution from just about any viewpoint you care to take - no toxic results, no poisonous byproducts, etc. etc. - the problem is that the best place to GET it is in space, but that is PROHIBITIVELY expensive. Solar power is about eight times more intense (effectively) in space due to the fact that a ground based system loses 50% just due to night/day cycles, diffusion of the atmosphere, and other effects.

That said, if we could get solar cells up to some kind of halfway decent conversion efficiency, a ground-based system becomes perfectly plausible. You can get a system TODAY that will power your whole house (assuming it's at least somewhat energy efficient) for most of the year - but the panels are only like 25% efficient so you need 4 times more than you should, which of course increases expenses 4x, and decreases reliability somewhat, not to mention making a big ugly mess out of your roof and/or backyard.

The tinfoil sail idea might have some merit as far as weight savings and stuff go, but now you're back to "what if we accidentally irradiate Los Angeles" territory, among other problems. Also it really would have to be HUGE to work...prone to being hit by things and thrown off course and/or destroyed.

vampirical says:

That's the grace of a huge light weight non durable solution though, things hit it they go right through. I don't know about irradiating LA, I doubt the light could get through the atmosphere. Generally though you would need to able to turn off the reflector to be able to prevent against burning people and such (though I doubt if the intensity of light would do much to non-biological things). Maybe a sort of spin off of OLED tech with a sort of variable albido material acting as the reflector, then you just hook up a laser or two and you can turn the sucker off if it gets out of alignment.

HARPOONS! Sounds odd. I've never read any of Night's stuff, any good? Right now I'm finishing off The Mote in God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle. (Sadly the last of the three books I bought only a short while ago, you can hardly fault me for going through I, Robot and The Flying Sorcerer so quickly though).

Wirehead says:

The Night's Dawn trilogy is the ne plus ultra of modern science fiction, in my opinion. See this old thread for my rant on it a while ago. Also mboffin and Joe checked it out and both were mightily impressed.

I spent about 40 minutes trolling through the old forum threads to try to find where I gave a brief summary of the universe the story occurs in, but I can't find the damn thing. Mboffin, when are we getting a search feature?

DataBind() says:

...but now you're back to "what if we accidentally irradiate Los Angeles" territory...

Would that be such a bad thing? Maybe they could nail Florida at the same time. :)

vampirical says:

Well damn and I just placed an amazon order to. Guess I'll have to stop by the local Barnes and Noble and pick up the first book.

vampirical says:

Some waste-to-oil setups are finally getting into operation.

Wirehead says:

Mboffin very nicely linked the thread I was referring to.

It's LONG. Longest thread EVAR. But if you search for the text "dysfunction" you'll find the right section.

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