Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ship happens.

Read that title carefully, please, wouldn't want any casual quick mistakes...

It says "shiP".  :-)

Having just put up a grouchy post which could seem anti-technology, this may to be a good time to counter that.  I'm not anti; I'm pro "GOOD science", and good technology; well thought out, and well implemented.    That's what I try to do myself, which is possibly why it ticks me off so much when ill-thought out crap gets great press.  I've got two spectacular examples for you here; both potentially  of HUGE environmental significance; both with trials actually in place, and working.

Colin is busy tilting at wind generators today - holding direct conversations with a guy who believes the world has no limits, and everything is going to be fine, if we just invest in new technology.  Personally - there is no way around the fact that the world is FINITE.  Uh - it just IS.  There ARE limits to everything, and pretending otherwise will get you in trouble, every time.  

At the same time, there is no denying that real "breakthroughs" DO happen, from time to time.  There is a chance for a really cool breakthrough technology to happen - but it really is NOT predictable, and not something you want to bet the farm on.  The whole world has been betting that if we just spend another zillion dollars on the cancer research industry, we'll cure cancer soon- for about 40 years now.  In spite of incremental improvements- there's no "cure" in sight; and may never be.  "Investing" in innovation is not a proven pathway to actual results.

Oil burning ships are filthy filthy dirty.  They put out more carbon than the airlines, by quite a bit; and it's way dirtier, to boot.

Since the oil is getting more expensive, it occurred to me to predict (privately alas) that commercial shipping would, in the near future, start going back to sail, and start moving away from oil.  Sure, sail is slower.  So?  Not that hard to put X onto the ship a week earlier.

I predicted, specifically, that the Chinese would be the first- and they'd do it within 3 years.

Wrong, wrong wrong.  It was the Germans- and the ship is on the ocean NOW; hauling containers.   The "sail" doesn't resemble the old clippers - OF COURSE.  I never expected them to go back to square-riggers.  We know quite a few new tricks with wind; I expected a radical system.

It's a kite - not a sail.  It's THREE TIMES more effective than the old sails.  That's huge.

(click on pic for bigger version)

This ain't fantasy; the MV Beluga SkySails is currently at sea; having set out from Bremerhaven, Germany two days ago.  Carrying wind generator parts, to Venezuela.

The SkySail kite on this ship is NOT as big as they intend to make them- it's a little smaller, and flying a little lower, so they can learn, I think; an excellent idea.  They're intending to eventually make them more than 5,000 square meters (!!?? really?); and flying at over 1,000 feet of altitude.  (The numbers I was finding are kind of inconsistent at the moment.)

There is a shipload of wind up there- way stronger, and hugely more consistent than surface winds.  Something to learn and remember- the "power" or force of a flowing fluid (liquid or gas) is not a linear relationship.  Power varies as the CUBE of the speed (or maybe the 4th power, I've been taught at one time) - there's a LOT more available power up there.

The kite is actually a self-inflating "parafoil", which lifts like an airplane wing; generating far more pull than a plain kite - computer controlled and guided for maximizing power.

For the technically inclined, there's quite a bit more info available by googling - but it's kind of disjointed.  This is NEW news- not well digested yet.  

This is a BIG big deal.  This ship uses the kite as an auxiliary power source- it supplies only about 20% of motive force.  I'll bet as the technology matures, and new ships are built specifically to take advantage, (one of the proofs of intelligent design for this system- you can just "bolt on" a SkySail to an existing ship) you'll see that change to 80% - or more.  (Not that I expect all my predictions to come true- but it's fun making them...)

What a fabulously good idea.  Hard to see any downsides to it.  One of the UPsides - any ship relying primarily on sail will be - slower, and just a little unpredictable in its schedule.  Do we need to slow down?  Oh, yeah.  Do we need to be able to wait, for something that's being done right, instead of paying extra for "overnight" instant gratification, extra carbon expended - etc.?  Oh, yeah.  This may open some of those doors, and help generate some of those attitudes.

This technology is far from done developing.  When they get a little more expertise on launching, recovering, managing- I can see - piggybacked sails; more than one on the same rope (that rope has to be darned strong) and  possibly - a sky generator there to provide power for the ship- refrigeration, etc.  All working together.

In case you can't tell- I'm enthusiastic about it all.  Maybe it's just because I used to sail when I could, and I do play with kites a lot still - in any case, we'd better go on to the next possible breakthrough -

NanoSolar photovoltaic panels.  That's their corporate website- there's lots of info there, but quite a bit of it is aimed at engineers; not always accessible to the layman.

They may have a REAL breakthrough here- and they also are not fantasy; they're shipping solar panels now.  No- you can't buy one- 100% of current factory output has been bought by a German utility, to put up a really big solar generator plant.  But they're expanding.

Here's the thing- current price for solar panels averages around $5/watt for small consumers; $4/watt if you're a big customer.  NanoSolar says they can sell panels for $1/watt- and still make a profit.  Wow.  As Crunchita was noting a day or so ago, solar still gets listed as "too expensive" (though life span isn't included in those cavils) - but $1/watt is scary cheap.

And they say the panels are not inferior.  They give a 25 year warranty, just like the best single-crystal silicon panels.  Here's the breakthrough- NanoSolar panels aren't silicon.  They're based on a different semiconductor, long considered very promising, known as CIGS - copper-indium-gallium-selenide.  And they don't grow crystals - they PRINT the cells, as ink.  On copper sheets, eliminating one whole conductor connecting process.

Very seriously cool- not widely publicized at the moment, because you can't actually buy any - but people are paying attention; they've raised over $100 million in capital for building production plants.

And- again, this technology is not mature- there's a good deal of room for incremental improvements on what is already a major breakthrough.  If it really holds up.  (It looks good, but the track record is short.)

Breakthroughs in technology CAN happen- and do.  But they're not predictable- and they're subject to easy distortion; like the whole biofuels nonsense.  Biofuels like ethanol were always an obviously bad idea- but the promoters managed to con a huge number of farmers and politicians by selling HOPE - not facts.  (I've talked about that before here- like the current fantasy of cellulosic ethanol...)

We just have to be very very hardnosed about requiring facts before we start doing a lot of hoping.  

And meanwhile- we can't count on breakthroughs.  We have to do what we can; where we are; with what we have.  (Teddy Roosevelt, I think.)


Crunchy Chicken said...

Wow, the NanoSolar photovoltaic panels sound really exciting and promising. I'm a little dubious about the giant kites - they sound like an accident waiting to happen.

Thanks for bringing these things to our attention.

Greenpa said...

Crunch- what kind of accident are you envisioning? The ocean is a big big place- as long as folks don't try to use 4 of this sailing right into harbor all at the same time- what could happen? If you cut it loose- it falls- ?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the nano technology, a friend who sells and installs solar power equipment said that it will be 10-15 years before this is available for the general public. Given the life span of the current technology (25-30 years) and pay back (12 years in CA) I guess it makes sense to invest in traditional solar and not wait for the nano stuff to be available.

DC said...

"What kind of accident are you envisioning?"

I know this question was directed to Crunchy, but I am envisioning an accident involving a certain world leader who thinks of himself as an adventurous cowboy and hates green energy. Here's what I think could happen: This unnamed individual from Texas gets duped into believing one of those humongous things is for parasailing. When he's about a mile up in the air in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, someone "accidentally" cuts the cord holding the sail, and he goes flying off into never-never land. That's the kind of accident I'm envisioning.

You put very evil ideas into my head, Greenpa.

Crunchy Chicken said...

What kind of backup power does that thing have? Some sort of propulsion system, right? I'm just envisioning 5,000 square meters of kite wrapped around the axle.

Or what if the thing just drops out of the air (not likely but stastically feasible). It's probably not very light and could do some damage, no?

Of course, I know nothing about boats or kites.

But it would make for a great 200 million dollar movie: The Sinking of the Beluga... [cue in orchestra music here]

Greenpa said...

Lisa- if it's really as big as we hope, I think it will be sooner. But- I'm not waiting.

DC. naughty!

Crunch. axle!!?? The props are on the other end of the ship - quite a ways off. Pretty hard to do. Falling out of the sky - sure, it's heavyish; but also big, and slow. And falling into - empty water, 99%. We'll find out!

Crunchy Chicken said...

I was thinking more along the lines of it falling into the water, getting "run" over, and then stuck in the props. If the sail is that big and the boat can't exactly turn on a dime, well, maybe you can see what I was thinking.

Or maybe I should just get back to work now...

Greenpa said...

Crunch- yeah, what ARE you doing, lollygagging around the blogs like this? :-)

anyway- I think what you're imagining would be pretty hard. As I understand it, it's on a computer full time- and a winch. If it's not pulling the ship; the ship will winch it in, pretty quick. The whole sail system is about an 800K investment- somebody will be watching it pretty close! And just remember, big diesel engines can go haywire, too!

DC said...

Crunchy, there's really no reason to be concerned. I heard that the federal government has just established the Department of Big Sail Safety (B.S. Safety, for short) to oversee the navigation of these new vessels. There are two finalists being considered to head the new agency, both of whom are well qualified: there's this guy and some guy who used to work at this place. So as you can rest easy.

These type of ships will be more and more important in coming decades as the Administration's plan to have the oceans rise a whole bunch comes to fruition. The only other type of boat I think we might eventually need is one like this. I've got dibs on the seat next to the hippo.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the kite system is pretty cool; posted to my blog earlier this week. Hope the prototype works out as well as they'd like.

Meantime, I also thought it was great that, Right Now, some shipping companies (and at least one long distance ferry company in Europe) are starting to simply slow down their ships -- cutting down on C02 and fuel use by quite a bit. Given how much they're saving, I'd expect other companies to follow suit. Their fuel went up in cost by 70% over last year, so they have incentive.

DC said...

All kidding aside, I really do think using sails to help power ships is a smart green thing to do. It's amazing how some of our best "innovations" come from ideas that are thousands of years old. We can learn a lot from looking at our successes and failures from the past. Thanks for posting this Greenpa.

BoysMom said...

What about storms?

If it gets tangled up in the wind, do they have spares on board? Are the spares properly rat-proofed? Mold-proofed?

How fast can these turn if they see something coming at them?

Personally, I wouldn't trust the computer to control anything that important. (My husband repairs computers, so I have a natural bias against them.) What happens when the wretched computer gets fried? Will there be a backup non-computerized system? (EMPs, power surges, and viruses, in order of least probability but greatest danger, could take down a backup computer just as happily as the main.)

Unknown said...

If I recall my fluid mechanics correctly, in a compressible liquid, such as air, power varies as the cube of velocity. In an incompressible liquid, such as water, power varies as the 4th power of velocity.

Oldnovice said...

I'm glad Colin and (forgot his name) Michael? are communicating. There's a real danger, IMO, when limiting our conversations to only those of one opinion, of groupthink replacing individual thoughts.

There are many fascinating (and scary, IMO)technological ideas involving the ocean that I've seen just from checking out Digg (environment). Makes sense to me that solar panels will take the same path as other items that became popular through time. Wasn't that long ago that computers were HUGE, costly, and too complex for the average person to use. Once a lot of folks decide they're interested, the price will come down to something they can afford and then go lower until everyone can afford them. Human ingenuity at work.

katecontinued said...

I am of the school that says build it, do it and let it screw up. That way we will know.

Inhabitat(dot)com is a weblog devoted to the future of design, tracking the innovations in technology, practices and materials that are pushing architecture and home design towards a smarter and more sustainable future. That's their mission. At Inhabitat I love to see the new designs and read the comments. I discovered over the years that it must be human nature to reflexively anticipate the worst.

The danger is we are crippled if we want perfection first. As with all of the challenges we share here in the blogs, we just dive in and do it. This sail thing sounds brilliant. And like windmills of this new age, it is thrilling to think about utilizing the power at really high altitudes. This is something that the technology of this century has brought us.

katecontinued said...

My comment fails to address the dead children of Greenpa's post about the stove. So, take my glib response with a grain of salt. Life safety, as the commenters here have voiced, should be considered. (skulks off with head lowered)