Friday, September 26, 2014

Can Mining Change In The 21st Century?

As traditional energy sources are being reevaluated more and more under the context of overall costs versus benefits, ideas that had previously never been able to get out of R&D labs are now being closely analyzed.  Innovation has clearly been regarded as key for businesses moving forward into the century, but with environmental issues becoming more and more relevant to the discussion, there's an even greater incentive not only to discover, but to refine new ways of doing old things.

On this point, there's no better place to start than mining.  Traditional methods of mineral extraction are simply not going to be sustainable on long-term scales, and risk permanent damage to natural landscapes.  But with so much of the US depending on fossil fuel infrastructures, cleaning up mining methods may be a far more efficient choice than eliminating them.  Damien Palin's 2012 TED talk on this subject highlights the potential for combining bacterial manipulation and reverse osmosis desalination to harvest minerals out of sea brine.  While he freely admitted how expensive the process is, there is definitely room to refine it:

Looking at on-the-ground developments, the US Department of Energy just awarded $1.5 million to a start-up company founded by University of Alabama researchers that is developing a clean way of harvesting uranium from the oceans.  The company, 525 Solutions, plans to build bio-degradable nets made of chitin; a material derived from shrimp shells.  The tiny chitin fibers are excellent at amassing uranium on the microscopic level.  While the nets are being developed for nuclear plant clean-ups, UA Chemistry Chair Dr. Robin Rogers points out the logical next step will be the floors of the sea.  From Fish Information & Services:

 "The oceans are estimated to contain more than a thousand times the amount of uranium found in total in any known land deposit,” Rogers said. “Fortunately, the concentration of uranium in the ocean is very, very low, but the volume of the oceans is, of course, very, very high. Assuming we could recover only half of this resource, this much uranium could support 6,500 years of nuclear capacity.”      

Clean, sustainable methods like 525 Solutions' are the major solution for transforming industries like mining to stay safe, relevant, and enduring.

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

South Korean Shipbuilders Make Cyber-Suits a Reality

With each passing day, there's more news from the world of cybernetics that continue to defy our imaginations. Ever since Arnold (aka "Ahhnold") stepped out of an explosion stripped down to his T-100 bones, the cinematic portrayal of human anatomy in robotic frames have been rooted in our minds.  And while movies like Edge of Tomorrow usually frame the growing trend of merging man and machine in the context of war and military might, the actual application of this tech could have alternative purposes.

South Korean-based Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Exploration, one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world, in an effort to find new ways to maximize efficiency, has developed their own exo-skeleton that assists existing workers with heavy multi-purpose lifting.  The prototype can fit a laborer from roughly 5 to 6 feet tall, and help with heavy components weighing up 66 lbs.  While it's far from ideal in the day-to-day tasks- workers have already complained it slows them down and doesn't account for enough weight- the suit's basic concept has proved a resounding success.  Its combination of hydraulics and servomotors actually work to complement the laborer's own strength without hindering natural limb movement. From Daily Tech:

"The exoskeleton is made of a complex mix of carbon fiber, aluminum alloys, and steel alloys.  It weighs 28 kg (61.7 lb.) and is capable of 3 hours of operation via lithium-ion batteries that accompany the control circuitry in the backpack of the suit.  The suit is capable of walking at a "normal" human pace while carrying the 30 kg objects." 

While not the first prototype of its kind (MIT recently unveiled an "Octopus arm" apparatus), Daewoo's in-house exo-suit is the first to be used in an industry setting.  Already, US contractors such as Raytheon are taking notes for their own in-process projects.  There's also a lot more to see before the design is considered a real paradigm shift; it's one thing for an exoskeleton to work, it's another for its application to translate into measurable efficiency.  Still, Daewoo has taken a major step in robotics in the workplace, and the US industrial world should pay close attention to just how heavy this lifting will be.

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Exit Coal/Enter Wind

The accelerating decline of coal has been in the cards for some time, now.  With long-term projections showing the costs in pollution and emissions far outweighing the benefits, the energy sector has clearly shifted to natural gas as its leading resource.

However, the US's distinct advantages in wind resources shouldn't be underestimated.  What wind has been lacking to compete with more traditional resources is infrastructure.  As efficient as an energy source can be, it's useless if it can't be efficiently integrated into the existing grid around it.  While incentives have been set in motion such as the EPA's demand that power plant emissions be cut by 30 percent in the next 15 years, the kind of large-scale system needed to show how powerful an impact wind can have on assuaging the nation's energy grids has been lacking; until now.

Wind Farm off the town of White Deer, TX
The Texas Panhandle, with winds so fast, locals consider them a hindrance more than a help, is now fully connected to the traditional energy landscape of the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin residencies with power lines capable of transmitting up to 18,000 Megawatts of power.  The project is daring on many levels, none more so perhaps than the fact that the infrastructure lines weren't exactly being made to meet existing demand.  The project is one giant $7 billion gamble that wind developers will take advantage of the gaping potential of servicing Texas' major cities under Texas' low taxes and regulations.  So far it seems to be working, as two wind farms have already entered operation this summer, producing power equivalent to a traditional coal plant.

While Texas is a unique situation, other regions of the country are following suit.  Detroit's largest supplier, DTE, recently forcasted $8 billion of their own investments will be spent retooling and renewing Michigan's energy grid.  While natural gas will always be on the table, Michigan's local winds are similar in proportional abundance to Texas.  In addition, when taken with DTE's recent plans to close six of the state's coal plants, it's safe to assume utilities are preparing for a major push into wind power.

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