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.


Sean Yamana said...

I'm pretty sure pumped storage is like the only large-scale energy solution that actually happens ever. Wikipedia has some cool pages that list all the big hydro plants that use it. It's of particular interest in Ontario because of the massive influx of renewables coming in through the Green Energy Act.

Sean Yamana said...

Energy storage solution, I mean.

Ken said...

Why were market forces alone not enough to increase refrigerator efficiency? Surely consumer would prefer a more efficient one to a less efficient one, even if slightly.

How does one actually prove that it was the regulation that CAUSED gains in efficiency, as opposed to just a convenient correlation? The cynic is skeptical of Big Government (more regulation).

The microchip industry has Moore's law, in which efficiency (certainly computation per dollar, and I think computation per watt as well) has increased without need for regulation.

My guess is, in the refrigerator industry, and in the contemporarily relevant car industry, there is insufficient competition between manufacturers, perhaps implicit agreements not to invest in improvements in technology, or barriers to entry in the market (perhaps patents). But rather than address the root of the problem with anti-trust, the government chooses to set efficiency standards (e.g., car fleet MPG targets).

Stupin said...

I'm so thrilled someone actually read this! I had no idea there were comments here, apologies for delay in reply. Yamana! Thanks for wikipedia lead, I definitely should have thought to check there...

Ken, the value of microchips is directly related to their efficiency, so it makes sense that microchip manufacturers would be pushed to make them more efficient. However, most consumers have no idea how much energy their refrigerator uses, so refrigerator efficiency is not directly linked to its value. It's also counter-intuitive these days that energy-efficient appliances can be less expensive, so I really doubt that refrigerator manufacturers would have moved as quickly in this direction without regulation.

Ken said...

I've been refrigerator shopping twice in the past 20 years, and both times I distinctly remember their estimated cost per year being extremely prominently marked on the front of each fridge on a giant yellow sticker. While I don't remember the actual numbers, it was easy to go down the aisle scanning for the one with the lowest energy cost.

Stupin said...

Good point. (I clearly have not ever purchased a refrigerator.)

However, do you think companies would voluntarily post the lifetime cost of their refrigerator without a regulation telling them to do so? (I'm pretty sure the giant yellow sticker is a gov't regulation...)

In the case of microchips, I feel like consumers/market inherently strongly demand the efficiency information, whereas with refrigerators, consumers will now use the yellow stickers to choose, but at least in these times, I doubt consumers would drive companies to drive this info.