June 17, 2014

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Power grid networks in Scandinavia

Power grid designs for the future

Planning electrical grids in a steady environment is not overly difficult. A number of large power stations are connected to urban population centres, where much of the power is consumed. Typically, such power grids would look like meshes with  interconnected distribution points that make sure that if one power station fails, others can compensate .

However, as electrical demand grows, the solution is that new power plants are built and linked to the net at various places, but often with only one connection to the network. These dead ends make the network very susceptible to blackouts, even if many of them are connected by two parallel power lines for redundancy.

In future, the use of renewable energy will pose even greater demands on such network architectures, because the distributed generation of power makes the power generation very dynamic. If the sun shines in certain parts of a country, or the wind blows strongly in one area, large amounts of power will need to be shifted between regions, and the power grids need to be capable of handling that. [...]

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June 13, 2014

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Researchers joining forces to buy helium

Whenever I meet researchers working in low-temperature physics, the worry are helium prices. When I did my PhD a long time ago, I was able to buy 100 litre dewars of liquid helium without thinking too much about its price.

Since then, times have changed a lot, and prices have multiplied over the past years. The reason is that helium is a scarce commodity. In the atmosphere, helium is impossible to catch and most of it comes from underground, created by the radioactive decay of heavy elements. The United States have a large stockpile underground in Texas, which when depleted will mean the end of most usable helium sources.

To combat the rising prices, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society and the US Defense Department’s procurement agency are now planning to bundle their forces and to buy helium for researchers at volume discounts. Nothing wrong with that, this is certainly a good idea that will make it easier for US researchers to do cryogenic experiments.

Regardless, we should not forget that helium is not a renewable resource. One group of scientists using more of it at a cheaper price ultimately means shortages elsewhere. Whether it is for science and researchers elsewhere on the globe, for medical NMR equipment, or in other areas. This is where we still need to work on. Either through improved cryostats in research, or by avoiding unnecessary uses of helium, such as in helium party balloons, which incredibly are still being sold to be released into the atmosphere for nothing.

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December 8, 2013

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Graphene and the innovation gap

This week some rather pessimistic articles on graphene’s commercial potential appeared in the UK press. On Tuesday, Aditya Chakrabortty commented in the Guardian on “How UK wonder substance graphene can’t and won’t benefit UK“, highlighting some pretty poor statistics when it comes to the innovation in graphene here in the UK, where Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov carried out their pioneering research:

Our record with graphene has been similarly dismal. Consultants calculate that China has taken out more than 2,200 patents on the material; the US more than 1,700; South Korea is closing in on 1,200. And the country that discovered it? Just over 50.

One of the problems, Geim is quoted in the article, is that there isn’t industrial sponsorship for his research:

Here is one of the world’s great scientists, pointing out that British businesses are either incapable or unwilling to use his inventions. The effect is rather like James Watt complaining that he can’t find any takers for his new steam engine.

This negative picture from a research perspective has been contrasted from the industrial side with a commentary by Jonathan Ely in the Financial Times this Saturday, saying there is too much investment into graphene: “The growing graphene investment bubble” (reading this link requires free registration at the FT). For Ely it seems the problem is not the industrial side – several companies now are on the market aiming to commercialize graphene – but that there is just nothing interesting about graphene (even though the Guardian continues to call it a ‘wonder’ material):

Graphene has been around since 2004, and many patents connected with it have been filed around the world (the Koreans are especially interested). Bill Gates has suggested it be used to make indestructible condoms to prevent the spread of disease in the developing world. But so far there are no widespread commercial uses for it.

How to consolidate these contrasting views? Perhaps the problem is that companies do not see the potential of graphene in the same way as Geim does. Graphene came from blue sky innovative research done by Geim and Novoselov, born more out of curiosity than because of commercial aspirations. Still, when the Nobel prize was awarded to these pioneers, commercial applications featured prominently in the comments of the Nobel Prize committee. This even caused me to call for caution on the technological potential. And it is fair to say that the promised broad-sweeping applications particularly based on graphene’s electronic properties have not yet materialized.

But this does not mean that all is bleak. [...]

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June 26, 2013

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The Flammarion engraving http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flammarion.jpg

How sustainable is future technology growth?

This is a cross-posting of my first post over at Medium, as I was curious to try out their site…  

We certainly live in the future. The smallest features on computer chips are reaching atomic dimensions. At the same time, biotechnology has advanced so much that molecular biologists are working on synthetic biological cells. One of the promises behind these efforts is that perhaps genetic engineering could deliver tailor-made cures for diseases. But in a world of seven billion people and growing, how realistic is it still that such advanced technologies from atom-sized computing to genetic engineering could benefit all mankind? [...]

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