Flights of Fancy – Part 1

I have been thinking a lot about the possible technological, ecological and social consequences of a really robust investment in solar energy production.  Much of what will follow is not based on specifics – I am not an engineer, and I don’t have easy access to the numbers, but I will refer to many existing technologies and the extrapolations are not outrageously unlikely.

To begin, let’s assume that you can generate a lot of electricity via a solar power installation.  There are a few ways to do this – photovolaics are very commonly seen these days, but you can get better efficiency out of mirror-based, thermal plants.  These plants are really neat, in that they use salt to absorb the focussed heat of the sun, and use that molten salt to drive steam turbines all night, so that a solar plant can generate electricity around the clock.  There is a lot of maintenance in any power plant, but this maintenance is the only ongoing expense in a solar plant – no fuel needed and no waste to dispose of.  This part isn’t fiction – these plants exist, and they are generating power right now.

Here’s where my thoughts diverge from what people are doing with solar power right now.  Right now, people are mostly generating power with solar plants – power which competes in the same market with nuclear, wind, hydro and combustion power plants.  This creates the opportunity for the incumbent players in the power generation market to manipulate that market, by supplying power more cheaply to discourage an outsized investment in surplus solar power generation.  Here’s where I think investment in solar power can diverge from the problem of contributing to a power grid that must be balanced across the loads of half a continent.  If your goal is to generate as much power as possible, perhaps with many plants clustered together, what is possible with unlimited free electricity – not truly free of course, but not defined in price based on the rest of the grid.

The answer, to my mind, is carbon.  Specifically, carbon nanotubes and nanowires.  These are materials with amazing properties, but they are scarce because they are difficult to make.  They are microscopically fine filaments that are incredibly strong and, when combined, incredibly tough.  They are an ideal product to produce with a surplus of solar energy – because their scarcity can demand a higher price per watt than exporting the electricity.  There is another cool side effect – the carbon feedstock for this process can come from the air.  Sandia National Labs has demonstrated a process that captures atmospheric carbon on a cobalt-iron ceramic element.  There is a significant challenge to industrialize the process to convert atmospheric carbon to high-quality carbon nanotubes and nanowires, but for the rest of this series, I’m am going to take it as a given.

As an aside, the process demonstrated at Sandia National Labs used the carbon captured to create synthetic fuels that are carbon-neutral, because the carbon they release when burned has already been removed from the atmosphere.  This is another secondary benefit of a solar-based energy surplus.

Part 2 of this series extrapolates from the above and discusses what might be done with carbon products if they were available in industrial quantities.

Technical Solutions to Public Health Problems

Public health problems are large, various, and generally difficult to solve, both technically and politically. Examples of public health problems are cigarette smoking, bias towards sugar-fat-starch rich foods over fresh fruits and vegetables or the abuse of narcotics. The inclusion of each of these examples as a “public health problem” is debatable – many would argue that people should be allowed to choose to eat unhealthily and that narcotics abuse is a criminal problem rather than a public health problem. I would argue that a public health problem is a health-related problem caused by a combination of convenience/pleasure and social/economic/legislative pressure.

There is ample opportunity for debate about public health problems, not just in which problems to include in the category, but how they can be approached, and in some cases whether any attempt to solve them is an untenable intrusion on individual liberty.

The public health problem I want to look at is the Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrest (OHCA). In the case of OHCA, the generally accepted solution is medical intervention as soon as possible. After a cardiac arrest your survival goes down approximately 10% per minute that you do not receive oxygenated blood flow. Modern Emergency Medical Services (EMS) have a well-defined set of tools to combat the effects of an OHCA, but even the most optimistic response times are measured in minutes. Some researchers in Sweden have been experimenting with a system that uses the mobile phone system to dispatch CPR-trained bystanders to people experiencing an OHCA [1][2].  Briefly, their work sends a message to any CPR-trained volunteer on the system who’s cell phone is within 500m of the person in cardiac arrest.  They arrived before the ambulance most of the time, and in a situation where minutes save lives, this is a way to use technology and a widely-diffused skill (CPR) to earn those minutes.

Reading about this experiment it was immediately obvious to me how this same approach could be used in any high-density environment, like cities and even highways. What occurred to me next is that a similar technical solution could help connect people experiencing an OHCA with an amazing piece of technology, the Automatic External Defibrillator (AED)[3]. These are briefcase-sized boxes that can be used to correct an arrhythmic heart through the application of electrical current. They are remarkably easy to use – several models actually give audio instructions when activated and have been shown to be usable by children. The problem is that even as they continually come down in price and are available in more places, when you need one you may not know where one is.

A technical solution is to include a cellular radio in the AED, which can periodically broadcast its location to EMS dispatch, as well as respond to a signal from a bystander cell phone or EMS call. This would mean that the moment EMS is contacted and determines that there is an OHCA, they could issue directions to the nearest AED to the people on the scene. An AED could also be configured to respond to a message from EMS and emit an alarm so that it could be more easily located. It could also be used to ensure that the AED is given proper maintenance, as the batteries and contact pads in these devices degrade over time – if they could send automated messages to an administrator of the AED there would be less chance for a responder to go in search of an AED only to find it inoperable due to improper maintenance.

Certainly this is not a magical solution, but I think it is interesting to look for ways for the advances in technology to serve unaddressed needs. A big advantage of the purely technical interventions is that they are more likely to resist political objections than say, behavioral interventions or changes in laws, regulations and taxes.

Installing an SSD

This fall I decided to spend a little (very little – $60) on a small SSD to act as my primary hard drive – for /, /tmp, /var, /usr – basically everything except /home.  I had heard a lot about them, and though my motherboard does not support SATA3, it does support SATA2, so I thought it might be worth a try.  At worst, I knew I could put it into an old, enfeebled laptop that would then be rejuvenated by the new drive and the installation of linux.

I put the drive in and started the installation process – I chose to manually partition so that I could specify a bigger swap partition.  I don’t actually have much RAM in the machine, so I thought that a big-ish swap might pay off.

The first thing I noticed was how fast the installation went – I haven’t installed on the same hardware in a couple of years, so I don’t have metrics, but it happened too fast to leave unattended.  I found myself staring at a root prompt on the rebooted machine in something like 10 minutes.

I install Debian, and once I get the stable distribution up and running I install a few key things (sudo, vim-full) and then I change /etc/apt/sources.list to use Debian testing and do an apt-get dist-upgrade.  I like the compromise between stability and recency in the testing distribution – most upgrades work perfectly, with perhaps one every 3 years that requires post-upgrade intervention.

I figured this upgrade, which typically involves hundreds of packages, would be a good test of the new hardware.  It was, in that it happened extremely quickly – downloads seemed to happen at the same speed (unsurprising) but the unpacking and installation of packages happened at blazing speed.  In an hour I had my machine set up with all the same software I previously used, from playing with screwdrivers and mounting rails to looking at the web in Iceweasel (Firefox).

Launching Firefox is particularly telling – it used to take about a three-count, but now it happens before I can exhale.

Installing an SSD in my desktop machine makes a *huge* difference – it is the best upgrade I’ve made to a desktop since I hooked up an LCD monitor.

One thing of note – I did not realize that Mushkin shipped their 2.5-inch drives with mounting rails, so I bought mounting rails with the drive, which was a waste.  Live and learn.