Saturday, July 28, 2007

Momentary Schizophrenia

A socialist and a libertarian capitalist are arguing about income inequality in the UK:

S: "Allowing some people to earn many millions of pounds every year is wrong. And, as in the example of private equity fat-cats, paying a smaller proportion of their huge incomes in tax than a cleaner? A menial labourer pays more on every pound of his £15 k salary he earns than a guy earning £1 million? This cannot be justified! I propose a "maximum salary" (as suggested today on Guardian Unlimited's CiF...) - people can only earn a maximum of 100 times the average income (around £1.7 million in the UK) and can only accumulate an estate 50 times this amount! The excess should be paid in tax or given to charity!"

LC: "Why? It's not as if central government gave these people that money - why should it be theirs to take? Wealthy people like Bill Gates, JK Rowling, Robert Dyson etc have contributed to the richness and diversity of the world we live in, should they not be rewarded?"

S: "Overcharging for a second-rate OS, writing overhyped children's books and designing a better vacuum cleaner? Anyway - giving excess income to charity should be mandatory, but which charity you pay into shouldn't be. Then you would be able to choose the reward for your labours: which particular way to make the world a better place. Anyway: "central government" provide the basic infrastructure and commons that allows the free market to exist, also recall that "central government" is democratically elected by a majority (or at least a plurality) of voters."

LC: "That's actually a good point about choosing which charity to give you excess to. Maybe Diab is right, but it still feels like an imposition to me - what happens if the wealth is inherited?"

S: "I guess in this case inherited wealth would also be limited."

LC: "Right, so what about genetic characteristics? What if someone is more intelligent due to the activation of a particular gene that enhances the early development of the hippocampus?"

S: "That would be the part of the brain that controls spacial mapping and influences mathematical understanding?"

LC: "Right, so how do you redistribute genetically inherited traits?"

S: "First off: wealth is not a genetic trait. I would quote "each according to their ability to each according to their needs but we both know that's a broken idea anyway..."

LC: "Agreed."

S: "Secondly the "elite" would still have a (crude) reason to create wealth, beauty, and help people - they could choose how the excess money they spend is spent. They just have to give it to a charity. They could even make their own charity I guess."

LC: "I still think that an "upper limit" on wealth is an area the government shouldn't legislate on. It's like capital punishment, the state has no right to murder people, and it has no right to prevent people becoming ludicrously wealthy. Also, if charity becomes compulsory, it will be less valued generally - it will become just another tax. I also don't think a few extremely wealthy people are a problem, inequality should be solved by increasing the wealth of the people at the bottom by encouraging them to aspire, rather than handing them cash confiscated from the very wealthy."

S: "The problem is that in many cases the people at the bottom of the income scales are there simply because of circumstances beyond their control, like intelligence - a concept I am not entirely comfortable with - but nevertheless there are differences in people's ability to comprehend, visualise, and affect their environment, it is beholden on those who can do so to help those who can't, or at least ensure they are happy."

LC: "Well I can agree with that - I would do so by encouraging aspiration and demolishing the class system - why should a lawyer be considered any more worthy than a plumber? Both perform essential tasks but the former is still thought of as being intagibly "better" - I hesitate to attempt any sort of social engineering, but entrenched class prestige isn't helping anything."

And so on.

I don't personally agree with Diab that there should be a super super tax on the uber-wealthy. There is an article (subscription required) in this week's issue of Prospect magazine on taxing the wealthy. It quotes the eminently sensible comment of Jean-Baptiste Colbert that taxation is the art of "extracting from the goose the maximum amount of feathers with the minimum amount of hissing".

Another intriquing nugget in the article was that for several years the proportion of GDP taken as tax has remained constant at around 37% for several years.

I doubt very much that the kind of super super tax proposed by Diab will be implemented any time soon. And I do believe that the current hysteria concentrates on the rich, when it should be concentrating on the poor - the scandal is that the income of poor people has not increased in the same way as the income of the richest people.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Nuclear Power Debate

I have no opinion as to what the best mix of sources will be for future electrical energy production in the UK.

I strongly suspect that there will have to be a mix of sources. But apart from this I have no opinion. This is rather worrying: I feel it is only responsible to have an opinion and evidence to support this opinion.

The reason I have no opinion is that there is no evidence. I have no idea if building a new generation of nuclear power stations is a good idea. I have no idea if acquiring all the power we need from wind-turbines is feasible or desirable.

I do have an opinion on global warming. It is happening and human beings are causing it. I know this because smart people have told me that it is so, and they have Charts and Graphs and Scary Stories about hurricanes and flooding and melting ice-caps and the Gulf Stream Shutting Down.

Unfortunately there seems to be a dearth of such information concerning the relative merits of nuclear power, wind power, tidal power, and solar power. Everything I do find seems tainted by spin, anger, and uninformed opinion.

There is an interesting article in today's Guardian by Jim Al-Khalili. He is for a concerted research effort into energy-amplifier technology as a way of solving some of the problems with current nuclear power plants.

The benefits of energy-amplifier nuclear reactors over conventional reactors include the reduced threat of runaway nuclear reactions (i.e. a meltdown, or "unrequested fission surplus"), the use thorium as a fuel (which is more plentiful than uranium), less plutonium produced so the risk of nuclear proliferation is less, there is the possibility of the energy-amplifier reactor being fueled by plutonium, reducing the global stockpile of this extremely dangerous material, less long-lived radioactive waste, cheaper once the total cost of building and decommissioning conventional nuclear power plants is taken into account, and the relatively small scale the reactor can be built on.

The main obstacles seem to be technical difficulties, but as no "new science" is needed (i.e. the theory behind the concept is based on sound and well-understood principles) we should be able to overcome these problems.

But that's enough about that. I wonder how George Monbiot will respond to Al-Khalili's article? Monbiot has raised many important points about nuclear power over the years, including the incompetence of the British nuclear industry (2). I've always felt you shouldn't blame people for their mistakes, just make sure they pay for them. If the British nuclear industry cleaned up its act and embraced better standards of storage and general practice, as used by Posiva in Finland, then the strongest arguments against nuclear power in the UK disappear.

Monbiot, like many environmentalists, has been looking at nuclear power anew as nuclear power has been brought up as a possible part of the solution to the problem of global warming and depletion of fossil fuels. He raises good points about the past and ongoing mistakes of the British nuclear industry in this article ten years ago.

I argue that these are stories of human incompetence - they do not affect the central argument over whether to build new nuclear power plants. In fact, building new nuclear power plants would require a plan as to what to do with the waste, meaning that a lot of the problems Monbiot mentions could be solved. People will feel more inclined to look after waste properly if they feel they are receiving an ongoing benefit - electrical energy from nuclear power plants.

Then there is this article from 2004. The first few paragraphs imply a mild resentment that people like George W Bush are finally agreeing with people like Monbiot over global warming. He suggests premier eco-guru James Lovelock is of a generation that will always be disposed to nuclear power.

He then gets to the meat of the issue: "the cruel moral calculus with which we became familiar during the arguments over the Iraq War". This strikes me as a suspect piece of writing: he is trying to subliminally associate nuclear power with something dreadful like the Iraq War. I would say that there is a necessary moral calculus (calculus can be difficult, but it isn't cruel) to be considered when dealing with global warming and energy policy.

Monbiot then admits: "The daily discharges from a plant like Sellafield probably kill several dozen people a year. A meltdown could slaughter thousands, possibly tens of thousands. Climate change has already killed hundreds of thousands, will kill millions, and, if we don’t do something pretty dramatic pretty soon, could kill billions."

He then seems to waver around: he cites Posiva, then worries that it could be used as "a Potemkin village by the rest of the nuclear industry: a showcase project which creates the impression that the problem has been sorted out."

Although this is true, as with the problems with the British nuclear industry mentioned earlier, this is a human problem that we need to solve. Being cynical about it is not helpful.

Monbiot goes on to assert that "we certainly can’t expect Britain’s nuclear generators to behave as responsibly as Finland’s." Well why not? Is there some universal law that says Anglo-Saxons are wasteful, lazy, stupid, and irresponsible and Scandinavians are universally thrifty, hard-working, environmentally-conscious and conscientious (although TBH Scandinavia does seems to be a brilliant set - kudos to the Scandinavians!)?

My point is that if there are problems with the British nuclear industry then it is a problem with how the industry is run and operated, not a problem inherent in the technology.

He goes on, citing various horrific examples of the state of the storage of nuclear material in Britain:

"...the European Commission took the British government to court over Sellafield’s refusal to let European inspectors examine one of its dumps. (Didn’t we go to war over something like this?). Some 1.3 tonnes of plutonium has been sitting around in ponds there for about 30 years. On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed that British Nuclear Fuels has secretly buried 10,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste from other countries. This sort of thing goes on all the time. The UK Atomic Energy Authority used to chuck its waste into two open holes in the cliffs beside its power station at Dounreay. One of the shafts exploded in 1977, scattering plutonium over the beaches, but the authority didn’t bother to tell anyone for 18 years."

He then asserts "This, rather than Posiva’s expensive method, is the kind of disposal we can expect from most of the world’s nuclear generators. So it’s probably fair to say that the nuclear industry WILL kill tens of thousands. If, as seems ever more likely, terrorists get hold of some of this stuff, the deaths could run into millions."

Again, the problem is with how the industry is run, both here in Britain and worldwide, and if a concerted effort is made on a technical front (c.f. Al-Khalili's energy amplifier technology) and an organisational front then the twin problems of storing the waste and terrorists stealing plutonium would diminish over time.

I agree with Monbiot that saving energy and increasing energy efficiency everywhere in our economy and technium (neat new word coined by Kevin Kelly over at - required reading) is an obvious step, but I'm sceptical that we can close the gap between reduced need through improved efficiency (and bear in mind we still need to promote standards of living in the developing world) and renewable energy technology.

In another article Monbiot deplores the lack of clean facts and goes for a rough-and-ready back-of-the-envelope calculation. After going over various measures of electricity demand and estimates from increased efficiency and renewables he concludes thus:

"...the choice then comes down to this: we make up the shortfall either with nuclear power ... or with gas or coal accompanied by carbon burial (pumping the carbon dioxide into salt aquifers or old gas fields). The first option means uranium mining, nuclear waste and the threat of proliferation and terrorism. The second means insecurity (gas) or open-cast mining and air pollution (coal) and a risk (though probably quite small) of carbon seepage."

I agree. I may well change my mind about nuclear power, but at the moment I still don't see any reason why it shouldn't be adopted as a method to reduce CO2 emission. But I really want to see reliable, solid, comparative data.

Unfortunately the whole arena of debate is full of propaganda, barely-concealed political and ideological ulterior motives and snide ad-hominem bickering.

I want a thorough and quantitative study concerning the relative benefits of wind-power, solar-power, nuclear-power and CO2-sequestration techniques. Please.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wealth and Taxes

I am deeply uncomfortable about the ongoing debate in the UK concerning the ultra-wealthy. Polly Toynbee criticises the extremely rich in her column this week.

I've always generally agreed with Toynbee on poverty, feminism, religion, and her advocacy of the Scandinavian model of social-democracy.

But her recent obsession with the extremely wealthy is puzzling, especially as she is a liberal/social-democratic commentator. Individual freedom, personal dignity, and the right to extend you own frontiers are all integral parts of liberalism and necessary in democracies.

Extreme wealth and a tendency to avoid paying taxes seem to go hand in hand. After all, if you are the sort of person who dedicates time and effort to becoming wealthy then you are also likely to resent the state taking 40% of your earnings.

But is it fair that partners in private equity firms can pay tax at 10% rather than the standard top rate of income tax of 40%?

Speaking as a state-defined "poor person" I can only comment that in this case it is not a question of fairness. It is the duty of every citizen to pay tax at the appropriate rate. Private equity firm partners have found a loophole and parliament will work to close the loophole.

In the case of private equity this capital-gains-tax-not-income-tax loophole will be closed eventually. I only hope closing it does not adversely effect the entrepreneurial spirit of the country (I doubt it will though).

The extremely wealthy will always find ways to reduce the tax they pay. One very straightforward way is to hold wealth in the form of large and valuable companies, or shares in companies, and simply borrow millions of pounds on your unlimited credit rating and not pay any tax at all (an oversimplification I admit, but debt is a very effective way of avoiding tax).

I also take exception to Toynbee's idea that some have "more money than is decent". Decency is not a useful term in this context.

As difficult as I find it to agree with Mick Hume and disagree with Polly Toynbee, I can't help but agree with Hume's recent article over at Sp!ked (I've given up trying to understand where the hell Sp!ked lies on the political spectrum...[at a guess: old-school liberalism, enlightenment values, progressivism, freedom, equality of opportunity, justice, brotherhood - stuff I can get behind, even if I sometimes find their contrarian stance on global warming irritating]).

I agree that most of the objections to private equity are the result of "grandstanding moralism" (i.e. showing off how good you are by attacking a target that the gullible and foolish will agree is worthy of attack by such a fine and upstanding person as you want the gullible and foolish to believe you to be). I also agree that private equity is a symptom of the problems with our current flavour of global capitalism, rather than a problem in itself.

But here's the main cause of my discontent: I would like to do something entrepreneurial. I'm not exactly sure what my skills and talents (if any) are at the moment, but I suspect I am not academically proficient enough to be any kind of medical professional, I don't have the inclination to be a lawyer, banker, or actuary.

Journalism is something you do - not something you get paid for. I want to do something useful and creative and that allows me to have some kind of control (however illusory) over what will happen to me. Setting up a business of some description is the obvious way to go.

I want to go to university, It'd be fun to become a professional and enjoy the associated prestige, and if I'm going to be totally honest with myself this is probably what I'm going to end up doing.

But I'd also like to do something new and interesting and useful and remarkable.

I don't think becoming wealthy is a bad thing, or morally wrong. I'm happy to (and am aware of the necessity to) play along with the social contract I never signed. I'm happy and proud to be able to pay tax, and the more tax the better.

If we have an aim as a species, it should be to ensure the happiness of everyone, and I, as a well-off westerner am in the enviable position of being able to help other people achieve happiness. Either by paying taxes or giving to charity.

Fairness should be subsidiary to how much money ends up in the treasury - tax should be levied on the wealthy to the extent that they continue to live here and pay taxes here, but not so much that they go to some other tax haven. I'm prepared to take some billionaire's £10 million, even if his wealth increased by £100 million in the year. It's unfair, but life is unfair, and I might even get to like said billionaire if he pledged £1 billion to charity over the course of his lifetime.

Anyway. Now for a brief round up:

Private equity: parliament should get itself into gear and do something and stop scoring cheap points off people who are only doing their job (and doing it quite well, it seems). Parliament should be careful to distinguish between private equity capital gains tax and start up capital gains tax, as suggested here.

Wealthy foreigners: Britain was declared (video link) a "tax haven" by the IMF. This means rich people from abroad, who provide jobs abroad, and mainly live abroad are benefiting from our tax laws. So what? If they do live here for any length of time they will spend money to fund their (presumably) lavish lifestyles, and if they do then they are contributing substantially to our economy anyway. If they don't live here for any length of time then it is the people in the countries they lived previously who are getting screwed, and it has little affect on us either way (though we do get a load of money from the [comparatively] small amount of tax they do pay]).

Hedge funds: quants and alternative-investment funds generate wealth for pension funds, as well as for rich people. Hedgies often become very wealthy themselves - and often give generously to charity. Hedge funds aren't massively-polluting entities, and only a very few people work for them - they don't take much of what we have, and they help create wealth.

Entrepreneurs: these are a Good Thing. Enuff said.

To summarise: when I am faced with the immense complexity of the world I can either latch onto one of the many available ideologies (I like: liberal, social-democratic, enlightenment, utilitarian, Epicurean, practical, humanistic) or I can try to do good (as defined by the ethic of reciprocity) and do the job in front of me - make the world a better place.

Therefore my attitude to the rich is tainted by pragmatism: you don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Karma and Whuffie

Some ideas are so superbly good that when you first hear about them you wonder why no one thought of them already.

In the case of RapLeaf Cory Doctorow already did. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom he speculates how status will be determined in a post-scarcity civilization.

George Orwell points out in Animal Farm that "some people are always more equal than others". Presumably this will continue to be the case in a post-scarcity society. After all, if there is no measure of prestige, then what incentive do people have to excel?

In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a person's "wealth" or prestige is dependent on "whuffie" - a constantly updated measure of the regard other people have for that person, based on a network of neural-implants.

The RapLeaf project is an example of this sort of thing happening on the web. This also has the potential to be genuinely useful. If you meet someone online or stumble on an interesting weblog you can find out what everyone else thinks of them.

OK. From that point of view it might not be such a good idea. For the same reason we have representative democracies. Large groups of people who have not spent considerable time studying proposed laws cannot be expected to vote on them sensibly.

This is a problem with demarchy. But in the context of the web, it would mean that someone would be tainted with a "bad reputation" simply because their opinions don't chime with those of the majority of people who come into contact with them on the web.

I suppose this comes down to whether we can ever really trust "the wisdom of crowds".

I suppose in this context, and as long as it remains largely directed towards private profit-making interests, and as long as the majority of people who use it are reasonable and not there simply to cause trouble (Wikipedia works fairly well, after all...) then RapLeaf could be on to something big.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Science and Technology # 4

There is something amazingly satisfying about this cutting-edge, brass-alloy, white-enameled sextant, made by Cassens and Plath.

Improvements in efficiency in solar panels based on organic solar cells is good news. Keep up the good work, I guess.

In chemical engineering news: some guys at Rutgers have developed a method of spontaneously segregating two sets of mechanically identical sand-grains.

This sort of spontaneous organization is based on electrical charges. Another sort of spontaneous organisation is the Brazil nut effect. This is where, to quote Wikipedia: "the largest particles end up on the surface when a granular material containing a mixture of objects of different sizes is shaken".

It's a weird little corner of physics: it's fairly straightforward-seeming and simply, but gets more complicated the more you consider it.

I indulged in a little Web 2.0 goodness by downloading There are various irritations: like not being able to pause on songs you like, but most of my current irritations are based on ignorance.

It's fun to play but I can already feel myself feeling underwhelmed by the current state of the technology. It's always worth bearing in mind how hard it is to make anything work on a computer.

For me Web 2.o is the gradual removal of the distinction between "my" computer and "my" mobile and the embrace of a mode of existence where you access all your personal data anywhere and in any place.

Ideally, everything should be intuitive and porous: drag and drop, grab and alter etc. I suppose we still have a long way to go until this Platonic ideal is achieved.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Rich

There is something in the zeitgeist. The middle classes in Britain are stirring in their resentment of the rise of the super-wealthy: Russian oligarchs, Asian industrialists, hedge fund wizards, private-equity privateers, and London’s growing collection of non-dom tax-refugees.

These UHNWIs have helped push house prices in and around London off the charts; they have lead to a rise in inflation in the luxury goods market and have generally pissed off the chattering classes.

I have a couple of things to say about this. One is that this affects the London-based middle classes more than any other group, and has little or no effect on poor people like myself.

It is infuriating to hear the likes of Polly Toynbee complain about the super-wealthy, as if she wasn’t extremely well-paid and comfortable, holding a prestigious job and making influential friends.

The other point is the old problem with taxing the rich: there are many people who object to “super taxes” on the extremely wealthy (people with incomes in excess of one million pounds a year) not because they are wealthy, but because they one day hope to be wealthy. I count myself amongst these people.

I have always felt slightly guilty about this desire. One point raised in a recent article in The Guardian is that Adam Smith, according to what he wrote in Wealth of Nations (apparently) would disapprove of our current public-limited-corporation model of capitalism. Smith argued that limited-liability laws would mean that owners of businesses would behave in a less responsible fashion to their workers, investors and creditors.

I disagree: if you set up a company you want it to succeed, but you might not want to take the risk if you’re liable for the debts if the company folds (despite your best efforts). I think irresponsible PLCs and faceless shareholders are one of those nasty side-effects of living in a free and pleasant civilization (other examples being rampant consumerism and environmental degradation). You can't have social justice without freedom, and that includes the economic freedom and equality of opportunity offered by public limited companies.

When I read books like Richistan, Rich Britain, and The Rich: A New Study of the Species I am struck by how resentful the middle classes in general and the chattering classes in particular have become to the new super-rich. These books are full of middle class types (like I wish I was), many of them journalists, whining about how much other people have and how pissed off they are about it.

The problem is we shouldn't be indulging in jealousy-induced rants about a minority of ostentatiously wealthy Russians or sly usurers, we should be demanding that we, all of us, haul those below us in the income ladder up, and work to carry ourselves up.

We need to realise that our aim as a civilization is to make a billionaire lifestyle available to all. This may sound unbelievably optimistic, but how would be respond if you told Epicurus about aeroplanes, the Internet, vaccination, mass-education, plastic, the NHS, cars, satellites, nuclear reactors and cheap clothes? If you were not able to provide evidence of these things he would have dismissed them as the fevered dream of a madman.

This is what we have built: a world were many more are comfortable than would have been possible in the past. Ours is a world that supports six and a half billion people, and the resultant beauty and rich diversity of human experience and achievement that this number entails.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Evidence of Aeroplanes

The new Boeing 787 is a step in the right direction as far as the organisers of Live Earth are concerned (although I suppose they'd probably prefer that no one flew at all unless it was absolutely necessary).

However it is interesting that the two big players in aircraft manufacture seem to be traveling in opposite directions as far as solving the problems facing air travel are concerned. Boeing is going for a smaller, lower carbon-dioxide emitting, aircraft, and Airbus are going for a bigger-is-better approach.

Airbus claims the A380 is more "fuel efficient" than a car, averaging an equivalent of around 90 mpg.

Meanwhile Boeing claims the Dreamliner offers "unmatched fuel efficiency, resulting in exceptional environmental performance".

Of course my preference for a 21st century aeroplane would be a scaled-up version of the non-polluting Smartfish hydrogen-powered plane.

I've commented before that I feel that the idea of a "hydrogen economy" is overrated as far as automobiles are concerned. I reckon there is a great deal of potential in electric cars of various types.

However for aeroplanes hydrogen-power makes sense. It is light-weight and as kerosene (which is normally used as aircraft fuel) is fairly hazardous, there would be less of a jolt as far as transport and storage are concerned compared with replacing petrol in cars.

Anyway the Smartfish looks great.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Electric Cars

There are three basic problems facing the nascent electric car industry:

  1. How to find a device to store electric charge that can be charged to full capacity so that the time taken to provide a full charge is comparable to the time taken to full a tank with petrol.
  2. How to find a device to store electric charge that can deliver energy rapidly enough to the motors of our hypothetical car so that the car can accelerate as well, and haul loads as well, as cars powered by internal combustion engines.
  3. How to find a device to store electric charge that has an energy density and longevity similar to that of the same mass and volume of petrol.
The first two problems are linked: if you can find a way of getting energy into a electric charge storage device (ECSD) quickly then you also have a way of getting it out quickly.

As far as getting energy in and out of an ECSD is concerned the most obvious choice is the ultracapacitor. Capacitors are basically two sheets of conducting material held a short distance away from each other, with a layer of insulator between them. The two conducting sheets are attached to a circuit, connected to a potential difference.

The electrons flow into one of the sheets, so that each plate has an equal and opposite charge. The magnitude of the charge grows until the capacitor reaches a critical threshold and a current forces its way between the two plates.

Ultracapacitors (AKA: hypercapacitors, or supercapacitors) are simply capacitors capable of storing a very, very large charge in a small volume (compared to traditional capacitors). As there is no chemical reaction involved, as in cells, the discharge and charge times can be very short (so capacitor-based cars would be very powerful and very quick to charge).

Capacitors are the basis of the company EEstor's project to produce a low-cost, high energy-density, rapid-recharging, and rapid-delivery capacitor.

Meanwhile elsewhere, lead-acid batteries are being given a new lease on life by a company called Firefly Energy. Their idea is to take the 19th century technology and use 21st century manufacturing and processing methods to make the surface area of the lead electrode greater, whilst also making it more stable (traditional lead-acid batteries tend to crystallise over time, particularly if they are not being used). Firefly have replaced the lead plates found in traditional lead-acid batteries with a carbon graphite foam that contains the lead.

The company boasts that the greater surface area afforded by the lead-impregnated graphite foam means recharge times are smaller, energy delivery times are smaller, and the whole shebang is more stable.

The soon-to-be-more-famous Tesla Roadster uses lithium-ion batteries, the kind (I assume, wait... yes, hang on... yeah) used in my laptop and many other portable electronic devices.

Li-ion batteries also have problems, as they sometimes catch fire.

So there are three different technologies competing for the title of automobile ECSD:

  1. Lithium ion batteries.
  2. Improved lead-acid batteries.
  3. Ultracapacitors.
Eestor promises an awful lot (from TreeHugger):

"Among EEStor's claims is that its "electrical energy storage unit" could pack nearly 10 times the energy punch of a lead-acid battery of similar weight and, under mass production, would cost half as much.

It also says its technology more than doubles the energy density of lithium-ion batteries in most portable computer and mobile gadgets today, but could be produced at one-eighth the cost.

If that's not impressive enough, EEStor says its energy storage technology is "not explosive, corrosive, or hazardous" like lead-acid and most lithium-ion systems, and will outlast the life of any commercial product it powers. It can also absorb energy quickly, meaning a small electric car containing a 17-kilowatt-hour system could be fully charged in four to six minutes versus hours for other battery technologies, the company claims."

EEstor seem to be very secretive (if they can back up their promises they have every reason to be suspicious of someone stealing a march on them), but I am attracted to the elegance of the ultracapacitor. It is the hydrogen-fuel-cell problem writ on a smaller scale: why go to all the trouble of juggling chemicals (hydrogen for fuel cells and lead-acid and lithium for electrochemical batteries) when you can store the charge directly?

EEstor seem to be ready to ship this year. Again from TreeHugger:

"The first commercial application of the EESU is intended to be used in electric vehicles under a technology agreement with ZENN Motors Company. EEStor, Inc. remains on track to begin shipping production 15 kilowatt-hour Electrical Energy Storage Units (EESU) to ZENN Motor Company in 2007 for use in their electric vehicles. The production EESU for ZENN Motor Company will function to specification in operating environments as sever as negative 20 to plus 65 degrees Celsius, will weigh less than 100 pounds, and will have ability to be recharged in a matter of minutes."

Neat. At the moment, if I'm asked to place a bet - I'd say the inheritor to the internal combustion engine automobile will be hybrid-electric/electric cars, rather than vehicles based on hydrogen, bio-ethanol, or other biological sources. And I'll also wager that the successful technology out of the ECSD set will be the super/ultra/hyper-capacitor.

Ultracapacitor-based electric cars strike me as much more elegant, and much more sensible. I suspect that when people turn to bio-diesel and bio-ethanol, they're thinking about what fluid they could use to replace petrol in their tanks - rather than what is the most effective way of storing energy.

But the best technology isn't always the most marketable technology. I look forward to finding out how things pan out.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007