25 February 2010

Steven Chu is the man

Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy (and Nobel Laureate), came yesterday to visit Abu Dhabi and Masdar yesterday.  He gave a speech at the Emirates Palace at a Masdar-sponsered event. 

Although I knew that he has an extensive science background, I automatically expected a politician's speech.  Instead, he gave this really delightful slide show and I learned a lot.  (Found a similar slide show that he gave in China last year.  All of the following figures are stolen from that slide show.)

He presented a riddle: How is a Boeing 777 like a bar-tailed godwit?  The bar-tailed godwit happens to be a bird that looks like this:

The answer is that they can both fly 11,000 miles non-stop without stopping to refuel.  (Bar-tailed godwits migrate from Alaska to New Zealand every year.)  Similarly, when they begin their journey, roughly 50% of their mass is fuel.  Which leads me to this neat graphic that compares body fat to fossil fuels and batteries:

I've heard so much about how batteries are pretty terrible at storing energy, but this is the first time I've seen them directly compared with body fat.  That's pretty incredible how energy-dense nature is.   

Someone better figure out a battery break through fast, because so much renewable energy depends on storage.  The wind isn't always blowing, the sun only shines half the day, if that, and those pesky humans like to use energy all the time.  Maybe those Matrix robots were onto something with using humans as a power source... although why you would feed nutrients into humans instead of just using the nutrients directly for energy is beyond me.

Other interesting things:
The last ice age was only 6 degrees colder on a global average. Most of the US was covered in an ice sheet.  Under a "business as usual" scenario, the earth will become 6 degrees warmer in the next century.  6 degrees is a huge deal.

He also said, "It is our [the US and other developed countries] responsibility to reduce carbon emissions to allow developing countries the headway to grow."  Wow.

Refrigeration efficiency is a nice little success story from the US.  In the following graphic, the red line is the average refrigerator volume.  The blue line is the average energy use per refrigerator. And the green line is the price of a refrigerator, adjusted for inflation.

Basically, following California's lead, the US adopted standards for refrigerator efficiency.  Manufacturers grumbled at first and said it was possible, but the refrigerators would be more expensive.  Nope.  Refrigerators have become more efficient and less expensive while expanding in size. 

The amount of energy saved from refrigerators from this policy is greater than ALL the renewable energy generated in the US.  That is both sad that we have so little renewable energy and impressive that efficiency improvements can do so much.

He also mentioned pumping water up to a reservoir as a way of storing energy.  (When you need the energy again, you run it through a hydro plant) I've heard some vague stuff about this before, but generally that it isn't very efficient.  Steven Chu said it's 70-85% efficient, which surprised me.  Anyone know anything else about this?

Also, he mentioned another reoccurring theme I've been hearing a lot over the past year concerning agriculture.

The Haber-Bosch process is arguably the most important technological advance of the 20th century. The world population could not have quadrupled from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000 if not for the Haber-Bosch process, which produces ammonia for fertilizer, which won a Nobel prize in 1931.  Without this process almost two fifths of the world's population would not be here.

According to Saul Griffith, 21% of the world's energy consumption is for agriculture, and I bet that ammonia production plays a large role in this. 

Also  Norman Borlaug, aka the father of the Green Revolution, is believed to have saved more than a billion lives by developing a strain of wheat that produces more food per acre and is drought-resistant. 

In 1968, a famous book called the "The Population Bomb" argued that global starvation was unavoidable because food production was not keeping up with population increase in developing countries. Borlaug and his colleagues turned that around. For example, they worked in the middle of a war to spread the high-yield grain and took Pakistan from famine to self-sufficient in wheat production 3 years, and India from famine to self-sufficient in all cereals in 6 years.

Towards the end of his talk, Steven Chu also briefly mentioned a carbon nanotube technology that will take 30-50% less energy to desalinate water.  That would be a huge deal for places like the UAE, but also a huge deal for the world in general, as water scarcity is probably going to be a major challenge in the upcoming century.

He also mentioned a liquid battery being developed at MIT that uses molten metals that dissolve into an electrolyte as they release energy, and then reseparate when the battery is charged again.  This is an exciting technology because the batteries can absorb very high electrical currents and you could potentially make them the size of swimming pools (according to Chu.)

At the end, during the super brief question/answer period, Josh asked the following:  The Obama administration is putting $80 billion towards the renewable energy industry.  Obama has also stated that "I do not accept second place for the United States of America."  However, China is putting $440 billion towards renewable energy. How can the US hope to compete when China is going to vastly outspend us?

Mr. Chu's response was along the lines of $80 billion is a start, and once the innovation economy gets going there will be more force behind it. 

Hmph.  Not the most reassuring answer ever.  But I'm glad it's $80 billion and not zero, which is where it would probably be if Bush was still president.

12 February 2010


Another installment from my winter trip...

The last few days of my trip I spent exploring Nairobi.  Bernard and Woon also were flying out of Nairobi around the same time, so we all took the bus up together from Arusha to Kenya. 

In Nairobi, Bernard took us to Kibera, Nairobi's most notorious slum.  He worked there before with a World Bike project, so he had friends that he wanted to visit.  I'll admit I was nervous about going to Kibera, despite hearing repeatedly that it's one of the neatest (but perhaps also dangerous) parts of Nairobi.  Anything with "slum" in the name just sounded like a scary place that I probably shouldn't be going.  But it was absolutely amazing. 

Daniel M^2 was right - Kibera slum is full of smart, enterprising people. The type of people that would leave their village and migrate to the city looking for work, only to find that there aren't enough jobs to go around.   

Before I went, the picture I had in my head for a slum included lots of sketchy, scary men slouching on street corners, smoking and drinking, waiting for their next chance to mug someone. (Funny how my mind reflexively makes these half-formed pictures of places I've never been before.) Of course, the picture I found was much different.

Here's some first impressions:

Life. Everywhere.  People moving, breathing, talking laughing.  Kids. Everywhere.  Women selling vegetables, shoes, shampoo, everything you can imagine. Houses. Everywhere.  Patchwork of woven corrugated tin sea of roofs, mud walls, some concrete.  Narrow little turning twisting muddy fractal alleyways.  Doorways.  So many doorways.  The dirt road and branching alleyways are practically carpeted with plastic bags and trash stamped into the mud. So many home made TV antennas leaping up into the brilliant blue sky.

Hygenic nightmare.  Murky muddy channels running everywhere with waste water.  Many alleyways are filled with nasty-looking water, we need to tip toe at the edges and scrape by the walls.  Maze. The first time Bernard's friend came here, he rented a room, left to get his stuff, and when he returned, he couldn't find his alleyway or room.  He searched for hours before he went to find the landlord to show him where it was again.

Here's some Kibera photos I stole from this blog.

Actually what's interesting about the above photo is that it was taken about 5 years ago. When I went in January 2010, it seemed like every house had a homemade TV antenna shooting out the roof made from a pole, a frying pan, and old fluorescent lightbulbs. I have no idea why that particular combination works, but they were everywhere. 

Tons of enterprise. This guy may not have a roof for his shop, but a sewing machine is enough to start a business.  Check out the blog these photos came from for more examples of all the businesses to be found in Kibera.

Kids everywhere.  Plastic everywhere.

The day I flew out of Nairobi, I took a matatu downtown in the morning, spent the whole day walking around town.  Nairobi feels very modern.  It's worlds away from Lusaka in Zambia, and even feels more polished than Accra, Ghana.  I saw only a handful of other muzungus the whole day in the crowds.  And you know what?  Practically no one hassled me.  I walked past thousands of people, I think only two asked me if I wanted a safari, only one said something like "Hey white boy!" (My hair is still short.) Whereas, if I walk in downtown Lusaka, Arusha, or Accra, it feels like a nearly constant hassle, everyone's got something to offer or yell at me.

In the early afternoon, I decided to head back, and grab my bags for the airport.  All I had to do was find the place where the matatu dropped me off in the morning. 

No problem, I know right where it is, right? Eh, rather, my brain decided it would be hilarious to remember the matatu stop as being in a place where it wasn't.  It was a strange kind of being lost.  I knew exactly where I was, but where I wanted to be wasn't there. 

I had probably been circling around the same streets for about an hour, looking for my phantom matatu stop when I received a phone call from World Bike Dan.

"Which part of town are you in?"
"The east side.  Kind of towards your house."
"Oh. Good. There's a riot on this side of town.  You probably want to stay over there.  In fact, you should probably get out and go home.  I think they're moving in your direction."
"Oh.  Great.  Thanks."

The day still seemed normal.  Everyone around me in the street still seemed normal: happy, bored, walking, talking, sitting.

It felt like my nightmares.  There's something looming, something coming.  I can't see it, don't know where it is, but I've got to get out.  Keep moving, keep moving. Same street. I've been here before.  It's not here. Not here. This is so weird.

Finally, I mustered the courage to ask a shopkeeper where I could find the matatu stop.  (I'm really really bad at asking for directions, especially in Africa.  Admitting I'm lost kind of feels like painting a target sign on my back.)

He looked worried. "Well, it's a bit far from here.  And you can't go around asking everyone for directions..."  But he pointed me to a street and told me to walk straight. 

After about 15 minutes of walking, I suddenly recognized a building, and took a few turns and found a familiar line of matatus!  Jumped on, made it back in time to catch my flight, no problem.  Yipes.  Never saw the riot.  Read an article about it later. It's hard to fathom that was happening and the other side of town seemed normal.  I mean, it logically makes sense, but I suppose whenever I read about "hundreds of stone throwing protestors" I automatically imagine the whole place being shaken up.