Archive for March, 2010

Why the yanks are unreliable partners on climate change

If you want a good reason why Australia should and must think for ourselves and act for ourselves on climate change, look no further than a current court ruling from America:

“Nine judges of the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will rehear a climate change nuisance case bought by Hurricane Katrina victims”

Now don’t get me wrong, I have sympathy for the plaintiffs, a large group of Mississippi residents, many of whom are likely lower middle class. They probably lots most of what they physically owned in Katrina, and the preparation and response to that natural disaster could have been far better, I think most reasonable people could agree. But unless the court is actually taking the case in order to set a precedent so that later cases can be won on their merits, I don’t see why they would rehear the arguments on this. This is because the plaintiffs have argued that emissions from the operations of several energy and chemical companies have contributed to global warming, causing a rise in sea levels and adding to Hurricane Katrina’s ferocity.

The merits of the argument, while seemingly logical, do not take into account the chaos generated by the global warming phenomenon, and so tying the emissions of any one company directly to any specific hurricane, or its path or ferocity, is not logical. You cannot make extremely specific predictions (or tie causality) to individual weather events based on general input of CO2. Who is to say who’s CO2 emissions pushed the cycle of hurricane ferocity or frequency to a worse position, or into a positive feedback loop? No one can, at this point. General emissions of CO2 drive average temperature rises in the atmosphere and higher moisture content in the air, and higher ocean levels that in some areas can exacerbate local weather events. But problems (like hurricanes) don’t manifest themselves as averages, they come as extremes, and they come as chaos. No one can reliably predict the occurrence of, or path of a hurricane or tornado, any more than we can predict an earthquake.

Second, the issue of Katrina’s ferocity is of issue. The claim is that the higher sea levels gave support to Katrina’s ferocity leading to the damages sustained, because at the end of the story, that’s where they want to go, right? The money. They (and their litigators) want to make a whole bunch of money out of this disaster, and being able to establish that the severity of damage is worse than otherwise would have been is key to their argument. Katrina was a Category 3 when it made landfall in Louisiana, making it the 6th strongest hurricane in the Atlantic history. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but only in the top 20% of recorded storms. So, making the case that it was particularly ferocious is a bit tough. And while tying the worst of the damage to the storm surge has some validity, one could argue that the particular path had as much to do with the severity of the storm surge as sea level rise.

But all of this is just the detail. The real problem to me seems to be the fact that these people have to attempt to get through expensive tort what they should be getting through reasonable regulation. And virtually any regulation seems to be anathema to the Americans. Unless we in Australia, and the rest of the world, want to become a place where suing someone is the means by which we primarily gain social justice, then we should proceed to get ourselves in order with respect to climate change legislation, so that in addition to the savings on energy efficiency alone, we can also say that we aren’t the major source of the problem, and we won’t be a good target to sue.

Cats, bad news for mice and the environment

Hey, while I am pretty much 100% convinced in anthropogenic global warming, I am willing to listen to well put counterarguments. Finally, after the littany of Sydney Morning Herald columnists and the Loony Lord sideshow from the UK, finally I find a piece of work that makes me scratch my head and go “hmmmm”.
Screen shot 2010-03-05 at 11.42.30 AM

[Bloom Box], Things which are probably bullshit . . .

. . . as our friends at Hungry Beast say. But hey, nobody does a launch of an 18 year old technology like the yanks. A former NASA scientist (to make it sound more sexy, no doubt) has brought us the trendily named Bloom Box, claiming it to be the big thing after ten years of development. Ah, unfortunately, not.

Oh, he has got a planar design, solid oxide fuel cell in those fridge size boxes, to be sure. The problem is, they aren’t new, having been first begun commercialisation in 1992 by companies such as Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited here in Australia, or UTC in America. These companies actually sell now what this bloke is saying you can have soon for $800k and hopefully for $3000 in a few years. Hell, the Australian company had their piece of kit doing demo work on top of the old office I had in the technology park back in 2000.

I don’t know exactly what CFCL sells their piece of kit at, and to my knowledge they are still only selling them to small companies, with a consumer product to be available “sometime in 2010”. My guess is that CFCL would probably offer their unit at a cost a bit less than what Bloom is saying for a similar sized application for small businesses. The big difference is that if you call CFCL or UTC, they actually have something to install when they take your money.

In my opinion, Bloom’s entrepreneur is most likely a hype merchant so insignificant I won’t even look up his name. My suspicions were raised when I first heard his release where he says he has some “proprietary software” that is the key to his Bloom Box. Uh huh, and mine has magic beans.

According to reputable news agencies on science and technology (National Geographic News), based on the information the company has made public, the Bloom Box technology is not revolutionary. They quote Friedrich Prinz, a fuel cell expert at Stanford University, the design of the Bloom Box appears to be fairly standard and that there was nothing obviously revolutionary about it. “They didn’t reveal any new physics or any new principles, but I don’t think they need to do that,” he said.

Note the end of the professor’s statement. What he means by “they don’t need to do that” is that solid oxide fuel cell technology is exciting and very interesting. It’s essentially “burning” something, but not in the physical sense, more in the chemical sense, through a reactor that can be coated onto thin plates. It’s basically a chemical engineer’s wet dream, so I will go on, or you can do your own research elsewhere. The heart of the fuel cell is a high rate chemical battery that produces the electricity

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell

You feed it the same type of stuff you feed an internal combustion engine (methane and air) and it produces electricity (only in DC form as opposed to AC) and it also produces waste heat you can recover at high temperature for other use (like heating water for your house). But the cost of the fuel cell to manufacture is pretty high, because the methane you use to feed it is just a good source of what you really want to feed it – hydrogen. So you basically have to put a miniature stripper and reformer on the front of the rig. Plus, coating the anodes and cathodes of the reactor and getting them spaced out exactly as you require is expensive assembly work.

However, the real current manufacturers (CFCL and UTC) of solid oxide fuel cells do intend to get their equipment down in cost for home application in the next year. And then let them work the kinks out of the technology at their demonstration plants and then we will see whether I will be buying one for my back yard.

But you know, probably I will anyway just to mess around with it. Either that, or I am starting the home nuclear reactor this year. Besides, all the cool kids will have one. I thought so enough at the depth of the financial crisis that I started buying stock in the company. There’s your free stock tip for the day, for those tuning in that made it this far.