Monday, 1 February 2016



Elon Musk has a plan for humanity that covers clean energy, electric cars and spreading out amongst the stars. The billionaire also wants to do away with the tired and slow railways of the past in favor of pushing people around like parcels in a mail tube. That's what Hyperloop is: a series of vacuum tubes that'll enable travelers to get from A to B inminutes rather than hours. But Musk himself didn't have the time to develop the concept beyond his original idea, so in 2013 he open-sourced the project for anyone to have a go. Less than three years later, the first strides toward a global network of near-supersonic travel tubes are being taken.

The Principle

Remember those vacuum tube networks that businesses used to use to send papers across large buildings? Hyperloop is basically that, but big enough to shoot people cross-country at amazing speeds. First, the tube is six feet wide, and is maintained as a low-pressure environment, though not a true vacuum. In order to prevent the passenger pod from touching the tube, it'll float slightly above it, either on a cushion of air or using magnetic levitation. Arx Pax, creator of the Hendo Hoverboard, is working to see if its magnetic field architecture technology is suitable for keeping Hyperloop friction-free.
In many ways, Hyperloop is just a sort of maglev train. But because it doesn't have to deal with as much air resistance, top speeds are much higher. Hyperloop is expected to hit 750MPH, more than twice as fast as the Central Japan Railway's record-breaking 366MPH speed run. California's $70 billion high-speed rail project looks positively tortoiselike when you realize that it'll only reach speeds of "over" 200MPH.
If a network of Hyperloop tubes were built across the United States, it would effectively eliminate the domestic short-haul airline industry. For example, if you want to get from New York to Washington, DC, it'll take you just under three hours on Amtrak's Acela Express -- which is what passes for high-speed rail in the US. You could also take a flight, which would take an hour and 15 minutes, plus the time spent at security, the gate, and baggage claim. That same journey with Hyperloop is expected to take just half an hour.
It was the amount of money thrown at California's high-speed railway project that prompted Musk to launch the Hyperloop idea. He felt that the technology was outdated, the costs too high and the speed insufficient for a modern, 21st-century transport system. In his original outline, Hyperloop would be cheaper for several reasons, including the fact that governments wouldn't need to purchase land to make it happen. Instead, it would be held in the air by a series of pylons so small that they could sit in the median strip of a major highway. Construction would be quick and cheap, too, since the pipes could be fabricated elsewhere and just welded into place when they were delivered.
Hyperloop isn't just about making sure business types can get between meetings faster than everyone else, either. A huge cause of congestion on roads is freight traffic -- eighteen-wheelers carrying cargo containers from ports to warehouses. Los Angeles Port is one of the largest points of entry for containers into the United States, and much of that is taken east by road. Imagine if, instead, containers were pushed via Hyperloop to a new logistics center in Nevada; it would cut thousands of road journeys each year. Yup, Hyperloop could even do something to reduce LA's notoriously awful traffic.

The Contenders

Musk's open-sourcing of the idea meant that anyone who wanted to have a go could try and build their own futuristic transport system. Very quickly, two Los Angeles–based players emerged, ready for the challenge and going by infuriatingly similar names: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and its main rival, Hyperloop Technologies. But while their names are similar, almost nothing else about them is. In fact, when someone comes along wanting to write a David and Goliath movie about Hyperloop, they'll find it remarkably easy.

David: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is a crowdsourced engineering project led by German entrepreneur Dirk Ahlborn. When people think about involving the "crowd" in an enterprise, it's normally in the hope of gaining their money -- but not here. Instead, scientists and engineers have agreed to donate their time and expertise, collaborating with one another online to refine the Hyperloop technology.
You might think that HTT is staffed entirely by amateurs. But last year, Ahlborn assured Engadget that the bulk of his team members have day jobs at legitimate science and engineering outfits like Tesla, SpaceX and NASA. Each person who gets involved is rewarded with the promise of stock options in whatever corporate entity is formed in the future. Ahlborn doesn't believe that they're doing it for the promise of cash, but give their time in the hope of making a difference.

Testbed: Quay Valley, California

Quay Valley is a "new town" that's being cooked up by GROW Projects, an LA-based company that develops environmental projects. Located halfway between San Francisco and LA, Quay Valley is slated to run entirely on renewable, sustainable technology and house 75,000 people by the early 2020s. The project has stalled several times, but GROW Projects signed a deal with HTT to host a five-mile test loop that would encircle the community. This would be used as a proving ground to refine the technology, as well as convey residents from one end of the city to the other in just 80 seconds.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies filed permits with the local Kings County authorities on January 20th. If it's granted permission to begin construction and everything goes according to plan (and that's a big if), HTT will open the facility to passengers by 2018. Then again, there's still no word on when Quay Valley will begin construction, and right now the green city of the future is reminding us a bit of Florida's Babcock Ranch, which has also foundered.

Goliath: Hyperloop Technologies (HT)

If HTT is the scrappy underdog relying on the goodwill of its engineers, then Hyperloop Technologies is the blue chip alternative. Its co-founder Shervin Pishevar is a venture capitalist with stakes in firms like Uber, AirBnB and Warby Parker. His wealth is estimated to be in the high hundred millions or low billions. Pishevar is also friends with Elon Musk and knew about the Hyperloop concept before it was made public.
HT's other co-founder is Kevin Brogan -- now known as Brogan BamBrogan -- who leads the engineering side of the enterprise. Brogan was a key figure at SpaceX and is responsible for designing the Falcon 1 rocket as well as the Dragon spacecraft. Late last year, the company also recruited another industry heavyweight in the form of ex-Cisco presidentRob Lloyd, who became the new CEO.

Testbed: City of North Las Vegas, Nevada

Hyperloop Technologies is building its first test facility at the Apex Industrial Park in the City of North Las Vegas, Nevada. The company has already broken ground on the location and is expected to begin testing inside a two-mile tube by the end of this year.

The Enabler: SpaceX

Private Space
Elon Musk has no interest in building a Hyperloop himself, but SpaceX will act as a sort of evangelist to help push the idea along. The company is co-sponsoring a pod design competition that'll see teams from colleges all around the world build the ultimate passenger capsule. It's also rumored that Musk had a large proportion of his engineers working to refine the Hyperloop concept before he made it public.

Testbed: Hawthorne, California

SpaceX has pledged to build a one-mile test track close to its HQ in Hawthorne, California, where winners of the pod design competition can test their ideas. The firm has recruitedAECOM to build the facility, and construction is expected to begin this spring. The company has always said that the loop will be built next to its headquarters, but that part of LA is heavily developed. It's not clear, at least for now, where exactly there's sufficient space.

The Problems with Hyperloop

Elon Musk's original white paper spoke disdainfully of California's high-speed rail project, which is expected to cost $70 billion. His feeling was that a smaller, lighter, nimbler Hyperloop would cost less. Of course, the sums involved are still eye-watering. Musk's essay on the technology makes it plain: "Several billion is a low number when compared with the tens of billions proposed for the track of the California rail project." Unfortunately, nobody's yet able, or willing, to put a price tag on a real-world Hyperloop.
Then there's the question of who is expected to pick up the bill, since private finance rarely puts in cash for big infrastructure projects without the public's help. Hyperloop Technologies has the backing of some of the wealthiest people in the world, and could bankroll this itself. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies doesn't have the same deep pockets, but it's hoping investors will step up to finance a test track at Quay Valley. If these firms struggle to keep the cash flowing, then help may have to come from governments, which may not be willing to subsidize an untested system.
If Hyperloop does become entangled in the political process, HT has an ace up its sleeve:Jim Messina (pictured, left). Messina was the deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House between 2009 and 2011 and was a key adviser in Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. Messina is likely to be involved with Hillary Clinton's election campaign this year, and also has ties to the prime ministers of the UK and Italy.
If you're working on an experimental but potentially world-changing piece of technology, it helps if you have the ears of some of the most powerful people in the world. But while Messina's involvement may be a blessing, it could also be a curse that'll set back Hyperloop development. His backing of the UK's Conservative Party likely guarantees that the technology will never be adopted in that country. The party is pursuing a policy of de-funding public infrastructure and has no interest in upgrading its transport system -- meaning that there's no money for a Hyperloop.
It's going to be interesting to see what the experience of Hyperloop will be like from the perspective of its passengers. Many of the early concept drawings show windowed pods flying through transparent tubes, but the tubes are likely to be all metal. That means that pods will be similarly enclosed, and it's not clear how that'll affect people who suffer from motion sickness. Dirk Ahlborn has said that it's likely there will be displays inside each pod simulating the journey, tricking people's eyes into thinking that they're in a car. There should be no physical side effects beyond this, since Hyperloop will travel faster than your average jumbo jet, but slower than craft like the Concorde.

The State of Hyperloop in 2016

Hyperloop Technologies is pledging to have its first working loop by the end of 2016, while HTT is promising that its version will be ready in 2017. SpaceX is planning to have its shorter test loop completed by this summer, to help engineers refine designs for the transport pods. Both HT and HTT claim they'll have passenger-ready Hyperloops by the end of the decade. Given that the concept was unveiled only in 2013, that would be a staggeringly fast turnaround. If everything goes according to plan, we'll be shooting people across cities in futuristic vacuum tubes long before Google can get its first self-driving electric cars in consumer driveways.

[Image Credits: SpaceX (Initial Sketch, Interior Concept), Hyperloop Transportation Technologies/Omegabyte 3D (Quay Valley Concept), Jae C. Hong/Associated Press (SpaceX HQ), Hyperloop Transportation Technologies/Enzo Mazzeo (crowd shot), Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty (Musk), Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty (Obama and Messina)]

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Renewable energy: The future looks bright for Energy Storage

Renewable energy: The future looks bright for Energy Storage 

January 07, 2013 - High voltage testing area and transformer testing area on the exterior of the Energy Storage Lab (ESL), Bay 3 at the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)High voltage testing area and transformer testing area on the exterior of the Energy Storage Lab (ESL), Bay 3 at the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (Image: Dennis Schroeder / NREL)
Energy storage is increasingly becoming a vital part of the deployment of renewable energy technologies, largely because of the intermittent nature of certain renewable energy systems, particularly wind and solar, which rarely generate energy when it is most in demand. Thus the role of energy storage is to counter the imbalances caused by this intermittency.
At present, utilities use baseload plants to maintain supply. Many of these are coal-fired and nuclear plants and they are supported by load-following or ‘cycling’ plants, which are typically natural gas or hydroelectric.
Stored energy has the advantage of being available more rapidly than a turbine powering up, storing excess energy and releasing it when needed. Thus far, the dominant form of energy storage has been pumped hydro, based on reservoirs where the water passes through generators which convert the energy potential into electricity. When demand is low, excess generation capacity is used to pump water from a lower level to a higher reservoir. When demand increases, the water is released back into the lower reservoir, passing through a turbine that generates the electricity. This approach is most associated with countries such as Norway, parts of the US and Wales. In Norway, pumped storage has an instantaneous capacity of 25-30 GW, which can be expanded to 60 GW.
At present, at least 140 GW of large-scale energy storage is currently installed in electricity grids across the globe, the vast majority of which (99 percent) consists of pumped hydro (PSH) with the remainder consisting of a mix of battery, compressed air energy storage (CAES), flywheels and hydrogen. Electricity sector decarbonization would require an estimated 310 GW of additional grid-connected electricity storage in the US, Europe, China and India, according to Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) 2014.
However, there are increasing global discussions going on about, firstly, in which particular circumstances energy storage is actually necessary to support renewable energy integration, and, secondly, what kinds of energy storage technology are we likely to see making it through the research and development process to commercialization.
For example, with regard to the first question, Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, USA, argues that energy storage may not actually be necessary.
Furthermore, despite all the criticism of solar and wind from some quarters of the energy sector, a study by scientists at Stanford University in March 2014 found that wind power can actually produce enough surplus electricity to support up to 72 hours of stored energy.
Wind farm Rio Grande do Sul Eduardo Fonseca FlickrThe wind farm at Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil (Image: Eduardo Fonseca, Flickr)
This means that the wind industry could easily cope with three-day lulls in wind availability and therefore could both grow and maintain itself with the aid of energy storage. However, more work is required for solar in that some solar technologies, such as crystal silicon, are growing so fast that they are becoming net energy sinks, in essence consuming more power than they give back to the grid. The Stanford study showed that most PV technologies can only afford up to 24 hours of storage, but this still means that solar PV systems can be deployed with enough storage to supply electricity at night.
Another advantage with wind is that energy return on investment (EROI) is much better than that of solar, with a wind turbine being able to generate enough electricity within a few months to pay back all the energy required in its construction. With solar energy, the payback time is more like two years.
Even more encouraging is the fact that, should it turn out that energy storage is required, all sorts of novel technologies are in development at present, many of them looking very promising indeed.
In addition to these new technologies, there are some very interesting innovative ideas being presented by a number of highly experienced people in the sector. Take for example the blog by the anonymous Scottish Scientist who advocates a unique storage solution that would store energy from solar and wind by using hydrogen-filled bags underwater.
Scottish Scientist argues that PV panels can be mounted on platforms, either individually or dotted around in the spaces between turbines on wind farms. The PV panels would be kept above the water level but below the level at which their presence would interfere with the wind flow. Hydrogen gas would then be used to store the energy generated by the renewable energy platforms.
deepseahydrogenstorageScottish Scientist’s highly intriguing floating wind, solar and hydrogen energy storage concept (Image: Scottish Scientist)
The way it would work is this. Surplus wind and solar electrical power would be sent down a sub-sea cable to power underwater high-power electrolysis, which would then be used to make compressed hydrogen. This would be stored in underwater inflatable gas-bags, to be piped from the gas-bag up to the platform where it would fuel gas-fired turbine generators or hydrogen fuel cells, generating electricity on demand in all weathers.
Air lifting bags are already used in diving and salvage work and are available at volumes of up to 50 cubic metres. Therefore, Scottish Scientist argues, it should be possible to make much larger gas-bags or rig multiple gas-bags together.
This kind of approach is much better performed in deeper seas because the water pressure is proportional to the depth, thereby allowing the hydrogen to be compressed more densely. This would allow more hydrogen, and more energy, to be stored in the inflatable gas bags. Meanwhile, the oxygen from the electrolysis process could either just bubble away or be stored so that it could increase the efficiency of the system while also reducing the nitrogen oxide combustion by-products produced by the hydrogen-fired generators.
The undersea electrolysis would have to use a custom electrolyte solution in order produce oxygen as the anode gas, because direct electrolysis of sea water produces chlorine gas at the anode. This is poisonous and difficult to dispose of. Therefore, the concentrated electrolyte solution would have to be separated from the sea water by a semi-permeable membrane, allowing pure water to pass through it by osmosis from the dilute sea water.
Given the pressure exerted by the sea underwater, there would be no need for a high-pressure containment vessel for the electrolyte, as required by high-pressure electrolysis systems operating on the surface. The semi-permeable membrane would be sufficient to keep the electrolyte solution contained.
Scottish Scientist suggests that offshore solar power could be deployed off the west coast of Africa, between the Canary Islands and the Caper Verde Islands. Another potential area for deployment of this system could be somewhere around Spain or in the Mediterranean. The electricity would be transported from these areas by undersea interconnectors, as with offshore wind farms.
Deep seas, required for hydrogen storage, say of a depth greater than 4,000 metres, can mostly be found in particular areas of the Atlantic Ocean, to the south-west of the Bay of Biscay. On this basis, Scottish Scientist argues that one area particularly suitable for this type of operation, could be just to the west and south-west of the Canary Islands and to the north of the Cape Verde Islands. However, this may not be close enough to supply Western Europe, given the costs of longer interconnection cables.
Inevitably, this idea has met with some criticism. For example, one of the comments on the blog suggests that the air bags would leak. However, Scottish Scientist argues that the pressure outside the bag being the same as inside would prevent this. In essence, the only way for gas molecules, or atoms in the case of helium, to leak through the air bag, would be by diffusion, which requires a pressure gradient to overcome the energy barrier. The same comment objects that the counter-pressure of hydrogen, also present in the water, would be very low and that because hydrogen molecules are so small, they will diffusethrough most materials.
densityofhydrogenwithdepth_50Density of hygrogen with depth (Graph: Scottish Scientist)
In response to this, Scottish Scientist suggests that experiments with hydrogen-filled diver’s bags could be used to assess this possibility and to gather further data. Another comment on the blog observes that there are patents already in existence for ionically charged polymeric membranes that would overcome any problems involving diffusion of gas out of the bag. Furthermore, the challenges associated with hydrogen storage are being addressed by metal organic frameworks (MOFs), compounds consisting of metal ions or clusters coordinated to organic molecules forming one-, two- or three- dimensional structures which could be used for the storage of gases such as hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Scottish Scientist goes on to state that the pressure difference across the wall of the bag would vary from “none at all, at the bottom of the gas-bag, to the difference in water pressure between the higher water pressure at the bottom of the bag to the lower water pressure and the top of the bag, according to the difference in height at a rate of one atmosphere difference per 10 metres. So for a 5 metre height difference between bottom and top of the gas-bag, the pressure difference would be 0.5 atmospheres at the top of the bag.”
In other words, the pressure gradient would be fairly low.
Another potential problem would be the distance over which the electricity is to be transported. Scottish Scientist suggests this would be overcome by the development of even higher voltage transmission lines. Furthermore, the integration of solar PV with wind turbines and energy storage at a remote location would also make possible the development of a combined electricity generation system which itself would provide the maximum power capacity of the transmission line.
The discussions and debates around ideas such as this are inevitably going to continue for many a year yet. However, this discussion in particular is illustrative of the innovative thinking currently going on with regards to energy storage, and this is just hydrogen being discussed here – there are many other promising ideas being researched using a whole variety of different approaches. Add all that up and it looks like there’s going to be a very interesting market developing for energy storage technologies in the years to come, if there isn’t already.
But let’s look at this in a little more detail. What is going on out there already?
Just recently, on January 19th this year, IHS announced that reductions in battery cost, along with government funding programs and utility tenders, have led to a 45 percent increase in the global energy storage pipeline over the course of the fourth quarter of 2015 (Q4) compared to the previous quarter, reaching 1.6 GW in Q4 2015.
The announcement of several large projects at the end of 2015 shows that the storage industry is beginning to transition from the research and development stage, involving demonstration projects, to commercially viable projects. These included a 90 MW order by STEAG for the primary reserve market in Germany and 75 MW of contracts awarded by PG&E to a range of companies using various established and emerging technologies.
IHS expects approximately 900 MW of global grid-connected battery projects to be commissioned in 2016, supporting a predicted doubling of global installed grid-connected energy storage. Of the planned installations, 45 percent of them will be in the US with another 20 percent in Japan.
Unfortunately, this is a truly vast subject, and one which, with regard to most technologies outside batteries and pumped storage, is still in its infancy. Therefore a truly comprehensive overview of what’s going on in the energy storage sector would occupy several more pages yet. Therefore, expect some more articles on energy storage before too long, looking at a deeper level of some of the research going on out there.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Most Amazing Offerings At This Year’s Tokyo Auto Show

Most Amazing Offerings At This Year’s Tokyo Auto Show

One of the biggest auto shows of the year kicked off in Chiba, Japan on January 15 and as usual, the car manufacturers didn’t disappoint. The Makauri Messe convention center in Japan where the upcoming concepts in cars were displayed saw a huge influx of auto enthusiasts from around the globe eager to see what the industry and designers had in store for them. Here are some of the best performers of the car show:
A Lamborghini for She; Lamborghini Murcielago with pink Swarovski crystals. 
Tokyo car show14
Nice bouquet of a car. Must have come with a built-in “Just Married” sign….
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This cool reptilian gold engraving on a Nissan GTR-35 is surreal.
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Two young onlookers appreciate the subtle beauty of the incredible custom audio system. It extends to the back seat with sparkling colors and swirling galactic design.
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This odd-looking thing from the Tsukuba Institute of Science and Technology is called March 718 Speed Ster. I guess rain wasn’t considered in the making of this car!
Tokyo car show8
1949 Mercury appears to come out from the garage of a classical villain. It broke sales records when it was first released, and this impressive paint job takes it to an entirely new level.
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Mazda LM55 Vision from the video games Grand Turismo 6 is seen here in full scale. How cool is she?
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A Mercedes-AMG GT that will probably be released commercially this summer. 
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Mazda RX-Vision concept with a rotary engine!
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Mercedes-Benz G550 4×4 that has a compact design and very low gas exhaust emissions. 
Tokyo car show2
The car show ended this Sunday and what an amazing one it was this year!