Friday, February 5, 2016

Chile Approves Ambitious Hydroelectric Project in The Desert

About the last place one could choose as a setting for an unprecedented hydroelectricity undertaking would be a desert.

And out of all the deserts in the world, the 50,000 mile Atacama- one of the driest places on the planet- would most likely be the very last one to be considered. Nevertheless, Chilean developers and local business representatives have received a crucial approval from regional environmental agencies to move ahead with a gargantuan project that would generate 300 megawatts of electricity. This was after the project was rejected, to much local fanfare, by the country's government last year. While the design of the plant could prove to be an exceptional blueprint for other countries to use, its purpose is controversial and may prove to illustrate the complicated layers of navigating a new era of energy.

The project, proposed by Chilean energy company Valhalla, depends on the discovery of two massive depressions located 13,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains to the east. Ocean water pumped from 1200 miles away will be stored in these natural reservoirs the size of 22,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The giant capacity means that water can drop from these heights 24 hours a day, powering a total of five hydroelectric plants that are being planned for construction. Even better, the searing sun that beats down on the Atacama desert will also fuel solar cells installed to power the bringing the water up the mountains, making the entire process carbon-neutral with zero emissions.

As much of an engineering feat as it is for green enthusiasts, however, the proposal still faces widespread disapproval from local Chileans. The reasons may have less to do with the technology and more to do with who directly benefits from it. The industries that operate in the provinces slated to receive the hydroelectricity are all mining companies harvesting copper and other metals from the ground. Activists argue that although the companies will be operating on clean energy, their objectives of stripping the land will still have devastating effects on the Patagonia environment. And while developers have, naturally, assured that the trade-offs (no hydroelectricity will mean a doubling down on coal-fired plants) are worth it, there are no details yet about whether the water moved out of the ocean is to be desalinated. If not, it will be crucial to ensure the salt in the water does not permeate into the surrounding wilderness of Patagonia. It's also worth noting the project is currently underfunded, and the solar aspect of the project has not yet been approved by the government.

Despite the risks, if it works, Valhalla's design could serve as a template for cities all over the world currently having to rely on less and less snowfall from their surrounding mountain ranges.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, January 29, 2016

NASA to Fund "Sideways" Flying

2016 has already been generous to NASA, with congressional approval of a 10 percent increase in its overall budget. While this infusion of $1.6 billion could be used for many ideas both existing and new, many experts are hoping the agency spends a portion of it on a concept that could eventually revolutionize air travel as we know it: the bidirectional plane.
Rendering of Futuristic Bidirectional Plane
Although the concept has been around forever, 2012 marks the year when actual capital began fueling the idea for real-world use. Ge-Cheng Zha, an aerospace engineer at the University of Miami, introduced a flying wing design back then that resembled a ninja star, and would turn 90 degrees after reaching optimal altitude. Having used its broad wings to achieve the right amount of lift needed for take-off, the smaller wings enable the plane to achieve supersonic speeds that would cut a trip from New York to Tokyo down to four hours from 15.

Zha's proposal received over $100,000 in grant research money from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. A successful demonstration of feasibility in various tests such as wind tunnel performance and mathematic models will open up an additional $500,000. With NASA's additional budget funding, one can only hope even more money is devoted to this specific concept.

A bidirectional plane not only solves the eternal aeronautic quandary of achieving speed without sacrificing stability, but it will revolutionize both military and private air travel, cutting distance time exponentially.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, January 22, 2016

US Army Invests In Vehicles Powered By Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Despite a decade of interest, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are nowhere near available on a mass scale to the commercial automotive industry. There are multiple reasons for this, ranging from a lack of hydrogen fuel infrastructure to high costs per vehicle. But proponents of the technology may have finally found a market that can not only be a sustainable buyer, but may prove to the rest of the world how superior hydrogen fueled cars could be.

Chevy Colorado selected by military to test effectiveness 
of hydrogen fuel cells
The US military will begin field test runs of GM's hydrogen fuel line truck: the Chevrolet Colorado,  for scouting and reconnaissance divisions. Through the US Army's Tank Automotive Research and Engineering Center, (TARDEC) the Chevy truck will be used in a variety of situations that call for its advantages. Hydrogen fueled vehicles are dead silent, do not need daily refueling, and make water as a by-product (which could be handy in a number of ways in many desert combat scenarios)Hydrogen vehicles also have a high low-end torque power, enabling them to carry more of a heavy load.

As TARDEC Director Paul Rogers stated, "The potential capabilities hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can bring to the war fighter are extraordinary, and our engineers and scientists are excited about the opportunity to exercise the limits of this demonstrator."

With already over 3 million miles run by this previous summer, the Army, who collaborated with NASA in developing the technology years ago, clearly believes in hydrogen fuel cells as a reliable alternative to fossil fuel engines. While this should naturally be considered a sign that commercialization is not far behind, the lack of freeing up substantial government or private subsidies for building hydrogen fuel storage infrastructures all over the nation has proven to be a considerable obstacle. This could be for a variety of reasons, some of them as legitimate as a real worry over the dangers of individual vehicles powered by hydrogen on public roads, some of them as unfortunate as the technology not having a personality such as Elon Musk to devote resources and media appearances touting its benefits.

Yet, the US military's continual fidelity prove hydrogen fuel cells are not fading into obscurity anytime soon. And in a time where there is growing consensus that the status quo of fuel resources must change, the climate for vehicles like the Chevy Colorado to garner appeal is real.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Mexico City's Pod Proposal

Los Angeles and New York get a lot of national grief over their respectively nightmarish traffic experiences. Indeed both could use improvements in how to address issues of congestion and bottle-necking. Despite all the bad press lower Manhattan and the 405 get, however, neither towns can begin to compare with the insanity that is being a commuter in Mexico City.

Number two in TomTom's traffic index behind Istanbul, Mexico City's residents are trapped in traffic between and home and work that makes their trips 55 percent longer than average. This is not merely a problem centering around the automobile, as 61 percent of residents take public transportation already, and only 16 percent drive individual vehicles. Clearly, the sheer number of population means no one transportation method can fix this, and even a combined network needs to consider alternatives that think outside traditional infrastructure models.

The city's transportation department- Seciti- seems to have arrived upon a consensus on one possibility: gondolas. Lightweight, considerably cheaper to install and maintain than more subway systems, gondolas would actually directly serve the majority populace that does not drive while also providing a rather enjoyable commuter experience. Each pod would hold two people, and move on tracks over traffic routes, hovering over already existing gridlock. Even more innovative, passengers can program a direct path to a destination platform. This may pose certain issues of bunching (one would think tourist-heavy stops would demand more individual pod queues than others), but a carefully analyzed map could create "exhaust valve" routes to bypass any potential crowding risks, just like added lines on existing metro systems.

Seciti's recent proposal was unveiled at a press conference, complete with an animated video (above) showing how the concept will be applied. Although funding still needs to be sought after from both private and public sources, the ecological, locally-manufactured project could serve as a template for the growing global city of the 21st century.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Power Out of Thin Air

Get ready to never lag around a power cord ever again.

While the design of how to do it has technically been around for quite sometime now (since Tesla), two-year start-up, Energous, has claimed to crack the code of wireless power charging. If their model sustains itself in real-world applications, phones, laptops, and any other devices will be power-charged via wireless routers from now on.

The solution was counter-intuitive but simple: make charging less powerful, but steadier. A typical 5 watt outlet will charge your battery faster but at the price of limited mobility. A 2 watt charge coming from Energous' wireless routers, however, will "trickle-charge" a battery from up to 15 feet away without a charging pad or the need to plug in to a traditional outlet.
New technology offers wireless charging of devices.

The Energous wireless router (named "WattUp") is capabale of charging a number of battery powered devices including cell phones, tablets, wearables, cameras, wireless keyboards and mice, headsets, sensors, LED lights, remote controls and toys. Each device must contain a WattUp receiver that converts the signal from the router into battery power. Up to 12 devices can be managed by the system simultaneously.

The devices can be charged even if they are in motion, like when someone walks around a room while talking on a cell phone. According to the company, the WattUp technology gives the user "the ability to make low battery anxiety a thing of the past."

So if you've ever been exasperated by a dropped call or a lost document due to a drained battery, take heart. You can rely on this new technology to save the day (and your data) as easily as breathing the air around you. 

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Mealworms and Styrofoam: How Nature Once Again Proves It Can Save Us

Researchers from both Stanford and China Beihang University have successfully proven that beetle larvae- commonly referred to as "mealworms" are an efficient way to break down polyethylene plastic: by eating it.  The discovery  does one important thing right away: it negates the classification of polyethylene plastics as "non-biodegradable", opening a huge door to research in how to eliminate the estimated 33 million tons of plastic waste the US produces annually (and that's only the US).

Using beetle larvae from various sources, the researchers fed them a daily diet of Styrofoam. According to their published results in Environmental Science and Technology:
"The Styrofoam was efficiently degraded in the larval gut within a retention time of less than 24 h. Fed with Styrofoam as the sole diet, the larvae lived as well as those fed with a normal diet (bran) over a period of one month."
Mealworms chow down on Styrofoam. The creatures break down the material
much faster than it normally takes for Styrofoam to break down on its own

The findings go on to report about half (47.7%) the byproduct of the mealworms' digestion was carbon dioxide and the rest biomass and non-toxic fecal matter. The average biodegradation was found to take 16 days; an astoundingly fast measurement compared to the eons Styrofoam takes to break down on its own.

While carbon dioxide as a byproduct will produce its own challenge of how to responsibly introduce it back into the ecosystem (it's not out of the realm of possibility to imagine a mealworm farm integrated into a controlled forest, is it?), the hope is with further research, labs can isolate the bioenzyme that enables mealworms to do this and utilize it on a grander scale to break down plastic waste en masse.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Permeable Pavement The Key To New Water Infrastructure

Recently, we wrote about one of the ways California is addressing its drought-afflicted water systems: a multi-millions dollar city-wide push for capturing urban runoff by Los Angeles's Department of Water & Power. The effort will demand many innovations that need to be implemented to existing infrastructure as quickly as possible.

One new company has provided an excellent option for that innovation; UK-based Tarmac has introduced its new Topmix Permeable pavement. The material is capable of absorbing an astounding 880 million gallons of water in a single minute. That's fast enough to keep up with most rainfall averages but the real value is not merely in preventing flood accumulation on city streets; it is in the many ways the pavement can supplement current water storage systems that already exist:

While storing rainwater is not a new feature, the average American city still relies an astounding amount on water melted from the snowpack of nearby mountains (the Cascades of New York, the Sierras of California, for example). But with shifting weather patterns all over the nation, the traditional methods of water capture yield less and less amounts, and it has become clear 21st century urban designs must take these changing nature patterns into effect in order to survive.

Topmix Permeable not only serves as an excellent alternative to traditional snowmelt systems (if heavily invested in), but is also pliable enough to be applied to a variety of existing models. TechInsider breaks it down:
"The system can accommodate three designs: full infiltration, partial infiltration, and full attenuation.

Full infiltration refers to a system where all water goes through Topmix to flow into the soil underneath. It's particularly useful in wet areas that don't need to collect the rainwater.
Partial infiltration involves a semi-permeable barrier beneath Topmix that acts as a drainage system into nearby sewers or waterways — useful when the layer beneath Topmix can't pass the water through on its own.
Full attenuation uses a capture system to store all the water that flows through Topmix. This option is most useful in areas with unclean water and high recycling rates, since the captured water can be reused later."
The variety of applications means Topmix has the chance to replace existing pavement areas immediately. And judging by the drastic changes in weather around the nation- specifically in the Southwest- immediate and widespread changes are definitely in demand. Its only shortcoming is that it risks cracking if the absorbed water expands in cold weather. That may rule out a few urban markets, but not nearly as many as those that stand to benefit the greatest.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.