This post attempts to share my enthusiasm about space, energy and everything in-between.
I don’t know if all FOSS lovers love space science or fiction or not but I for one had been bowled over the since I saw William Shatner as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek Universe. The Series was the only thing which I used to look forward to for every week-end. It used to come on DD National (the only channel at the time) every Sunday at 10:00 a.m. As time moved on, came to see the latter series with Jean Luc Piccard as the Captain but somehow he wasn’t ever able to get the feeling/charisma as William Shatner. Perhaps also because that William Shatner’s role was something like one of the earliest colonists who came to the States to settle and live on the Frontier. It had that kind of a feel.
Years later, I again felt the stirrings of the Fiction world as its 2010 and we were supposed to be living in Starships like the ‘Enterprise’ but as one of the NASA blogs tells us Real Life is Not Like Star Trek . While I have been following what NASA,ESA and ISRO are doing it seems just perhaps that in my lifetime some people would be able to do space tourism but nothing on the scale that ‘Star Trek’ promised. One of the things is surely Energy as can be seen from the Kardeshiev scale . Of course if we are thinking of going the low-carbon way then we have to consider solar and an interesting article which tries the same question came up few days ago.
In this regard, I have always been a fan of distributed computing projects and the Clean Energy Project is something to look at. The problem statement which they have given and which is true is that it takes the equivalence of two years of Energy collected by Solar for an equivalent Solar panel to be built. Also the efficiency and the area coverage to have some meaningful solar energy is still not there. Plants which do the same thing every day are 1000% and more efficient than what we do today. So they want to compute different molecules of materials and look at which would do a better thing than the materials that are today. They also have to see that they don’t decay easily. The only problem I see with the project is the news isn’t much till now. The only interesting news has been published last year. Look at the October 27th,2009 entry. Its going to be a long haul 😦
Let’s get our hands dirty as to what really would be needed to make alternative energy work. While clearly solar has the biggest potential going forward, to my mind it has few challenges that it would have to overcome.
a. Materials need to be low-cost. Silicon-based solar panels are expensive to make taking equivalent 2 years of energy generated by solar panel to make existing solar panels.
b. Organic solar cells , the only alternative in solar they suffer from organic photovoltaic cells are low efficiency, low stability and low strength compared to existing silicon-based photovoltaic cells as explained in the wikipedia article.
c. The solar cells of today occupy a large area and with the population of earth ever-increasing pressures of using available land space as well as monetization of space, they have to do the generation is as little space as possible.
You would find an interesting analysis of where we are heading in the Thin-Film cell article. You should also look at the other third-generation solar cell competing technologies. It is a fascinating field. In the near future the Hybrid cell seems to be a good bet.
While generation of energy is one thing, storage of the converted energy is another. Storing energy for a long time is again something which also needs to be bettered.
Let’s take the e.g. of lithium-ion batteries. I am using that as an e.g. as its one of the most used batteries. The humble mobile phone which is used by the millions in India travel on the lithium-ion batteries. So its clearly interesting to note where they are and where we hope to see the near future opportunities in them and similar technologies around them.
a. As of today Lithium-Ion and Lithium Polymer batteries which are used in variety of electronics are okish.
b. The charging time of the above batteries is still an hour + which is not good.
c. Also they need to become more lighter than they are at the present.
d. An interesting product is Toshiba’s SCiB where charging time for the battery comes down to 5 minutes for 90% (the rest 10% time is till not told on the site). Apart from knowing how much it takes to fully charge the battery, the other hitch I see is that the battery is large and hence applications are veered towards those products where space is not so much of a consideration. I wish I knew of some more interesting products like these. Came to know that Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony PS2/3 controllers are powered by Toshiba’s SCIB which was interesting to know.
e. One of the other issues I see is today’s lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries tend to get hot quickly. As both mobile phones and laptops use it, people who use laptops/notebooks/netbooks etc. must have felt heat when working for more than an hour. Of course some issues may be due to thermal design of the processor, the casing, design of the laptop some is also due to the batteries own limitation. One also hears of mobile phones exploding. A part of that issue is also due to the batteries own limitations as well. Its doesn’t behave well when overcharging is done or if its hot.
f. One of the dangers when such challenges would be overcome, if and when they are overcome, the mobile phones would have more features. More smartphones and OSes at lower prices. Also possibility of bigger displays. All of which would lead to more apps and more IP-based wireless networks and access. Good as well as bad as more energy would be consumed as people use them for more things and longer time-frames.
The last point is interesting in the aspect that even if we do become more efficient it would just lead to more use and abuse of technology.
One more thing, while I do hope and dream that solar cells do happen and we have a more sustainable living I am also aware that there are large vested interests at heart. There is another thing which perhaps can be termed positive that large energy companies are looking at the whole area of Renewable Energy as a good business prospect. You can see the tension of the old and the new ways with the entry and exit of Shell into Renewables.
One of the interesting ideas from a GNU/Linux perspective is the monitoring and feedback solutions for this power generation and storage. There is possibility of changes as before it used to be the state’s prerogative as well as responsibility to provide power or/and Independant power producers who produced significant power for self-industrial purposes rather than individuals to power homes and give a little extra to the grid. The kind of monitoring solutions I am talking about IBM is an e.g. has a model called ‘The smarter Planet‘
One use case where such systems are needed are when conventional solar photovoltaic cells are put up. The theoretical lifespan of such a system is close to 25 years whereas inverters have proven to have a 10 year lifespan (average branded low-cost inverters costing Rs. 4000- Rs. 7000/- or roughly $100-$150 therein) . Now obviously the solar panels would be connected to the grid in a two-way manner where people would be giving extra energy generated on good sunny days and taking energy from the grid on cloudy days when there is nothing in the inverter, both ways the energy flows through the inverter. I am assuming here that these sort of systems work and are flawless in their day-to-day working as well as low-cost.In this scenario there would come a day when the inverter stops functioning and instead of taking energy through the inverter the customer takes
from the grid and is in a loss for no fault of his own. This would be a classic case scenario where a monitoring system could very well call or give SMS to the customer who has deployed to the system. The idea is very much similar to Computer Server outages and the systems therein.
One of the more interesting applications would also be analysis software which could take a variety of measurements and give more accurate energy forecasting/usage scenarios. Do something similar like the ‘Freakonomist’ books. Would make for some interesting future paths to take. Of course, there are hosts of privacy and who has the right to data kind of questions which are also there today.
In the Indian scenario, I am realistic enough to presume that it would take atleast a decade for this to pan out. A small beginning has been made by a firm called Indosolar. I say this as they just have put up an IPO . Another one is Orient Green but they are into biomass, they also are going through an IPO shortly. You need good listed companies dealing in the entire value chain for the alternative energy market to work. Till you don’t have at least a dozen or so well-known branded solar system sellers people are not going to buy them in large numbers. Apart from Indosolar and couple of others who are manufacturers of this, don’t know of any good branded solar systems in whole. Although people have been saying to be cautious for the IPO Listing. Azure is another biggie in the fray but it all falls in the IPP category. There are lots of small-scale units who do this but then there is no guarantee and possibility of interoperability issues would be high.
One interesting article I read was about the other day is how its becoming a reality in India and specifically Pune. What was interesting to read was :-
The transmission and distribution losses from solar electricity will come down by 30-40 per cent even if it is grid-connected as the bulk of energy gets consumed at the source.
– Naren Kothari, secretary of Pune Construction Engineering Research Foundation (PERF)
What I liked about this review was that it said
The company is a non-integrated player in the value chain and depends on suppliers and integrators for demand.
– Business Standard.
It stands to reason that you need huge integrated players who do lots in the whole value chain. A la Reliance who does it all.
Till the much needed policy and things don’t come into play one can never know.
On another note, such hybrid solar-inverter kind of generation and storage systems as given above might not have any intelligence built in them or if they it might be a walled garden approach thing. From what little I know it takes anywhere from 3-7 years for a brand name to get reflected in the nation’s consciousness.
Apart from this good regulation and arbitration infrastructure would be also needed as it would be a customer-producer thing. People would also need to have some sort of niche magazines for people who might want to invest and save earth as well in the long run too.
One of the more interesting things there would need to be a whole army of maintenance engineers who would check as and when issues happen or routinely. That would be good. It could be a good way to also give tips for more energy conservation so people give more and more energy to industry and other big users of energy.
One another alternative which has been talked about in India specifically is the energy which can be generated from the waste of Rice husk.
I don’t have any ideas as to how the whole thing would pan out. At the end this is just one of my passions, something that lot of engineers might be looking at. Also its a kind of crystal-gazing which is fun in the sense you could look at it 10 years down the line and see what your perception at a certain point in time was and how it worked out.
A sobering thought
I don’t wanna be a scare monger-er as some people would read it, but if such a possibility even exists then we should be prepared for it. One way to look at it would be its a ploy by the renewable energy companies/industry to lobby as a whole and it does have some powerful arguments. A book on the same topic also gives some depth to the arguments as well.
All the pictures in this post are courtesy wikipedia. Till later, Adios.