Saturday, December 29, 2007

Here Comes the Sun - Solar Energy

This year the Edge asked its impressive collection of smart people what they were optimistic about. Solar energy came up several times.

The Edge, Oliver Morton:
New materials and new material-processing techniques should allow the cost of installed photovoltaic capacity to be halved in the next few years, and there is room for considerable further improvement after that: while wind power, nuclear power and dams are not going to become radically cheaper to install, solar power capacity is. It is also going to become more flexible, both physically and metaphorically, with new applications on new surfaces, from windows to clothing. Some of these applications may well be gimmicky and unsustainable, but one of the great advantages of the coming solar power boom is that it offers the possibility for a wide range of technologies both to compete for the main prize—cheap domestic and light industrial electricity in developed and developing countries alike—and also to find and to create new niches. Link.

According to a company called Nanosolar, solar energy will soo be as cheap as that derived from coal:
"Our first solar panels will be used in a solar power station in Germany," said Erik Oldekop, Nanosolar's manager in Switzerland. "We aim to produce the panels for 99 cents [50p] a watt, which is comparable to the price of electricity generated from coal. We cannot disclose our exact figures yet as we are a private company but we can bring it down to that level. That is the vision we are aiming at."
Nanosolar is one of several companies in Japan, Europe, China and the US racing to develop different versions of "thin film" solar technology. It is owned by internet entrepreneur Martin Roscheisen who sold his company to Yahoo for $450m and, with the help of the founders of Google, the US government and other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, has invested nearly $300m in commercialising the technology. Link.

Every school should copy this project--a home-made solar-powered car built by designer and high-school students:

The Edge’s, Alun Anderson discusses alternative fuels:
First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce useable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bioethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials. Link.

Hybrid solar lighting:

Gregory Cochran envisions solar-powered self-replicating machines:
Right now the human race uses about 13 trillion watts: the solar cells required to produce that much power would take up less than a fifth of one percent of the Earth's land surface—remember that the Earth intercepts more solar energy in an hour than the human race uses in a year. That's a lot of solar cell acreage, but it's affordable as long as they make themselves. We could put them in deserts—in fact, they'd all fit inside the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. As I understand it, we like depending on the Saudis for energy.

But there are better ways. Solar energy works better in space—sure, the weather is better, but also consider that the vast majority of the Sun's energy misses the Earth. In fact only about one part in two billion warms this planet. Space-based self-replicating systems could harvest some of that lost sunlight—enough to make possible a lot of energy-expensive projects that are currently impractical. An interstellar probe is a bit beyond our means right now, and the same is true of terraforming Venus or Mars. That will change within our children's lifetimes. Link.

More here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Good Stuff From the Last Few Weeks

Seven pages of LOL Chairs for your amusement

The weirdest conspiracy theory ever

Look at this for 30 seconds and then look away – Oh my!

Sicko visits Norway, where even the prisons rock

Waterboarding: “I could feel my lungs going tight with fluid and felt like I was drowning. I thrashed in panic as darkness took over. As I passed out, thinking I was dying, I remember thanking God that we had made a stand against this kind of society.”

Better Business Bureau generates surprising number of complaints

Victoria’s Secret’s secret world of imprisonment, beatings and exploitation

Reading Anna Karenina in Zimbabwe: Doris Lessing on the hunger for books

Prince Philip’s greatest foot-in-the-mouth hits

Jack the Ripper speculation refuted by fabulous anagram

The gospel of supply-side Jesus

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

O Holy Night

I don't believe in God, but I'm a big fan of Christmas. I think my favorite carol is O Holy Night. Here's a touching country-style version by John Berry:

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Could the US Learn from the Australian Healthcare System?

The Aussies seem to have a rather brilliant universal healthcare system based upon a few rather simple ideas.

There is a 1.5% flat tax on everyone’s taxable income for healthcare.

Individuals earning (in Australian dollars) over $50,000 per year ($100,000 for couples) are strongly encouraged to purchase private hospital coverage: if they do so they get a 30% premium rebate, but if they don’t they have to pay an additional 1% income tax.

Private health insurance in Australia costs a family between US $539 and US $1,078 per year.

Those who purchase private hospital coverage can lock in low rates for life by purchasing while they are young (this discourages people from waiting until they are old to purchase hospital coverage). Charges go up by 2% each year after the age of 31.

More here, here, and here.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Future (Some Good Ideas)

Soon the world will be like a physical manifestation of the internet: ordinary people will be able to set up simple-but-comfortable residences in all sort of remote locations and have instant wireless connection that will enable them to communicate with friends and family, make financial transactions, and do business from wherever they are.

I’ve been following some links from Vinay Gupta:

Here’s a good idea: Appropedia--a wiki devoted to sustainable living and international development.

Here’s another good idea: a sun-absorbing coating that can be applied like paint to all kinds of surfaces and transform them into energy sources.

Here’s another good idea: a build-it-yourself two-hundred dollar shelter that can be used for refugees, or for disaster relief, or just for the hell of it.

Here a post with some more promising ideas, like precision agriculture for the developing world that uses GPS technology to track farmers’ cellphones and then provides them with customized farming recommendations, and this:
. . . to develop an integrated set of medical practices (these 24 drugs which don’t require refrigeration, don’t produce overdose easily, and are less than $10 per course) with an expert system which can be accessed both by patients themselves to figure out if their symptoms are problematic or not, and by slightly trained health care workers who would use the systems to figure out what to prescribe from their standard pharmacopoeia.

It’s not much, but for the poorest two or three billion, this could be the only health care service they ever see. None of the problems are particularly intractable, but you better bet there’s a VAST - and I mean VAST - distributed call center application at the core of this. Link.