Sunday, November 18, 2007

What can engineers do about global warming?

On Saturday the UN released the final report of its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group that won a Nobel Peace prize last month for their work. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon—normally a practiced practitioner of polite prattle—described climate change as “the defining challenge of our age.” and warned that “In Bali”—where the world’s energy ministers meet later this month to begin talks on a post-Kyoto climate treaty—“I expect the world’s policymakers to do the same.” Yeah, right.

In a less-than-enthusiastic response, James L. Connaughton, the chairman of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality—a prodigious pusher of political piffle—responded with the damp squib that the administration agreed that “the issue warrants urgent action, and we need to bring forward in a more accelerated way the technologies that will make a lasting solution possible.” Regarding how bad things are or what to do about them right now, “We don’t have a view on that.”

The solution to global warming is both political and technical. Let’s leave the political swamp aside for the moment—there are plenty of blogs on that—and look at possible technical advances where EEs can contribute to the solution. I don’t mean obvious things like sell the Hummer and buy a Prius; switch from incandescent to mini-florescent light bulbs; and teach your kids to turn off the lights. I mean things you can incorporate into your next designs, or design areas you should consider embracing. Al Gore threw down the gauntlet at last April’s ESC, when he challenged embedded designers to come up with innovative solutions to conserve energy. There’s a helluva lot of room for improvement there, with large short-term payoffs.

As John East of Actel pointed out in the October cover story in Portable Design—“The Electronics Industry: The Power to Change”—more than 50% of the 4,055 billion kWh of electricity consumed in the United States each year is used to power electric motors. By simply adding intelligent load matching or variable speed control—and, in small appliances, simply switching from AC to brushless DC motors—efficiency can easily approach 95%. According to East, if implemented broadly these measures “could result in an annual reduction of U.S. energy consumption of as much as 300 billion kWh, saving billions of dollars and reducing greenhouse gases by more than 180 million metric tons.” Maybe then we could forgo a few dozen additional coal-burning power plants.

Then there is something as simple as the ‘wall warts’ that power portable electronics devices when they’re not on batteries. I’ve got 14 of these things in my house alone. They reportedly consume four percent of the electricity used by the average U.S. home, or over one percent of total U.S. power consumption. If the energy usage were extrapolated to a national scale, the total would be about 52 billion kilowatt hours, or the energy produced by 26 average-size (coal-fired) power plants.
They’re simple linear supplies with transformers that suck electricity 24/7 whether anything is connected to them or not. It would be dead-bang simple, and not expensive, to lose the transformers; go to a switching architecture; sense the presence of a load and decouple from the mains in the absence of one, using just enough energy to be able to power back up quickly on demand. Portable designers are experts in power management. Just move a little of it closer to the wall.

Next get on your company to look into alternative energy sources. Cypress and Google have led the charge in Silicon Valley to solar, getting them off the grid as far as possible. Austin has become a hotbed of wind power startups, since wind is one thing they have plenty in the Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast.

Speaking of wind power, if only we could harness all the hot air coming out of Washington on the subject of climate change, the politicians would finally be able to claim that they were contributing to the solution and not just the problem.


Lou said...


First a comment on you "power warts." Here's what I do. Locate an outlet in your office/home to serve as the charging station. Plug in a surge-protected power strip with a switch. Plug all your "warts" into that strip. Turn it on only when you are charging a device. Turn it off when you're not. That way, you can leave all your chargers in a common place where you know where they are, and yet have them disconnected easily.

Now, on to global warming.

Engineers are all about efficiency. Once you figure out how something is done, you want to be able to do it even better, faster, and with less power. Don't concern yourself with global warming but with making the technology more efficient.

I recently got my issue of Men's Health with the 2007 Gadget review. They had a hand held wind generator in the list that can plug into multiple portable devices. Now that's thinking.

John Donovan said...

Hmm, getting organized couldn't hurt, but it's easier to fix the technology than to change people's habits. Now about that wind generator...

Anonymous said...

For you to reference a fraud like Al (starts with a Wh and rhymes with Gore) on Global Warming seriously discredits your blog. Men of his ilk tell us little people how to live while they jet around the globe or rush around town in their huge SUVs.


From Chris Booker

The scare over global warming, and our politicians' response to it, is becoming ever more bizarre. On the one hand we have the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change coming up with yet another of its notoriously politicised reports, hyping up the scare by claiming that world surface temperatures have been higher in 11 of the past 12 years (1995-2006) than ever previously recorded.

This carefully ignores the latest US satellite figures showing temperatures having fallen since 1998, declining in 2007 to a 1983 level - not to mention the newly revised figures for US surface temperatures showing that the 1930s had four of the 10 warmest years of the past century, with the hottest year of all being not 1998, as was previously claimed, but 1934.

Wind turbines: useless
On the other hand, we had Gordon Brown last week, in his "first major speech on climate change", airily committing his own and future governments to achieving a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 - which is rather like prime minister Salisbury at the end of Queen Victoria's reign trying to commit Winston Churchill's government to achieving some wholly impossible goal in the middle of the Second World War.

Mr Brown's only concrete proposal for reaching this absurd target seems to be his plan to ban plastic bags, whatever they have to do with global warming (while his government also plans a near-doubling of flights out of Heathrow).

But of course he is no longer his own master in such fantasy exercises. Few people have yet really taken on board the mind-blowing scale of all the "planet-saving" measures to which we are now committed by the European Union.

By 2020 we will have to generate 20 per cent of our electricity from "renewables". At present the figure is four per cent (most of it generated by hydro-electric schemes and methane gas from landfill).


As Whitehall officials privately briefed ministers in August, there is no way Britain can begin to meet such a fanciful target (even if the Government manages to ram through another 30,000 largely useless wind turbines).

Another EU directive commits us to deriving 10 per cent of our transport fuel from "biofuels" by 2020. This would take up pretty well all the farmland we currently use to grow food (at a time when world grain prices have doubled in six months and we are already face a global food shortage).

Then by 2009, thanks to a mad gesture by Mr Blair and his EU colleagues last March, we also face the prospect of a total ban on incandescent light bulbs.

This compulsory switch to low-energy bulbs, apart from condemning us to live in uglier homes under eye-straining light, is in practice completely out of the question, because, according to our Government's own figures, more than half Britain's domestic light fittings cannot take them.

This year will be remembered for two things.

First, it was the year when the scientific data showed that the cosmic scare over global warming may well turn out to be just that - yet another vastly inflated scare.

Second, it was the year when the hysteria generated by all the bogus science behind this scare finally drove those who rule over us, including Gordon "Plastic Bags" Brown, wholly out of their wits.

Lou said...

Jeez, lighten up dudes. Regardless of your views on AG and GW (Al Gore and Global Warming) John has posited a very interesting question: WHAT CAN ENGINEERS DO ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING?
Everyone is bitching about where the jobs are and where the economy is's your chance. It's a real engineering problem and the last time I heard, that's what engineers are supposed to be concerned about.

John Donovan said...

Thanks, Lou, that WAS my point.

I fail to see how wind generators are useless. Their main problem is that the most wind usually occurs during times of least demand, so they can cause a big surge into the grid, causing some countries (Ireland) to ban further hookups. Sweden uses the electricity from wind generators to pump water into the lakes formed by hydro dams, which act as a sort of storage battery for their hydroelectric system.

As for low-energy bulbs, ask yourself this: if a Martian came down and saw an incandescent light bulb that dissipated 95% of the power it takes to run it as heat, what would he think it was? Obviously, a heater. Mini-flourescents are 15% efficient, so you can exchange a 60W bulb for a 15W one that delivers the same number of lumens--with a choice of soft or brighter tones and a form factor that will fit into any light bulb. It's a no brainer.

As for Gordon Brown's smoking something, he's hardly alone in saying what people what to hear and hope the science catches up later (if they even know what they're talking about).

Which brings me back to my point: forget the politicians and work on the technology. It's less frustrating and will have more impact.

Lou said...

What everyone has to do is start thinking outside the box. No one alternative energy source will be the be all and end all. I'm working with a small company that is trying to apply multiple technologies (wind, solar and biomass) to urban areas with the goal of making each building a net producer of energy rather than a consumer. But getting people to think outside of massive solar or wind farms is very difficult. Technology exists today that can make it possible for urban centers to become energy plants that eliminate carbon-burning production. But you have to think of multiple possibilities.

By the way, Wind generators have great potential if you consider designs beyond propellers . There is some very interesting work being done with corkscrew designs in Chicago. They turn no matter which way the wind blows.

John Donovan said...

When I lived on a houseboat, we had a community Clivus Multrum privy that used sawdust instead of water. The contents were stored in 55-gallon drums in the sun for several months (with suitable vector-proof vents), and the results sent to a worm farm on the coast. Made damn good fertilizer. I don't know how you'd implement this in a sanitized urban environment, but the technology works great.

Also, I had a friend who had a small dairy ranch in Northern California. He set up a biomass collector under the milking area--gravity feed into a closed container in back of the barn. He used the resulting methane to power a generator. Last I heard he was powering his whole farm from the generator.

Cow poop--who knew?!