Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hydrogen Production

Interesting article here at PhysOrg, entitled "Engineers perfecting hydrogen-generating technology". Judging from the article, an alloy of aluminium and gallium (which is conveniently produced as a byproduct of aluminium production) could potentially be used to convert water into hydrogen, whilst oxygen bonds with the aluminium to form alumina, which can be recycled back into aluminium.

When water is added to the alloy, the aluminum splits water by attracting oxygen, liberating hydrogen in the process. The Purdue researchers are developing a method to create particles of the alloy that could be placed in a tank to react with water and produce hydrogen on demand.

From the article:

"The gallium is a critical component because it hinders the formation of an aluminum oxide skin normally created on aluminum's surface after bonding with oxygen, a process called oxidation. This skin usually acts as a barrier and prevents oxygen from reacting with aluminum. Reducing the skin's protective properties allows the reaction to continue until all of the aluminum is used to generate hydrogen, said Jerry Woodall, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue who invented the process.

I wish they made an effort to give more context to these articles: it would help if someone who knew more about this sort of thing were to draw up a "score sheet" showing the relative energy-densities, cost, benefits and problems with each of the various auto-powering technologies.

Lots more quotations:

"The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of developing alternative fuels that possess a "hydrogen mass density" of 6 percent by the year 2010 and 9 percent by 2015. The percent mass density of hydrogen is the mass of hydrogen contained in the fuel divided by the total mass of the fuel multiplied by 100. Assuming 50 percent of the water produced as waste is recovered and cycled back into the reaction, the new 80-20 alloy has a hydrogen mass density greater than 6 percent, which meets the DOE's 2010 goal.

Aluminum is refined from the raw mineral bauxite, which also contains gallium. Producing aluminum from bauxite results in waste gallium.

"This technology is feasible for commercial use," Woodall said. "The waste alumina can be
recycled back into aluminum, and low-cost gallium is available as a waste product from
companies that produce aluminum from the raw mineral bauxite. Enough aluminum exists in the United States to produce 100 trillion kilowatt hours of energy. That's enough energy to meet all the U.S. electric needs for 35 years. If impure gallium can be made for less than $10 a pound and used in an onboard system, there are enough known gallium reserves to run 1 billion cars.""

One of the problems with the predicted hydrogen economy is the difficulty of transporting and storing hydrogen safely and efficiently. Because this aluminium/gallium alloy can be transported as easily as oil: ""Particles made with this 80-20 alloy have good stability in dry air and react rapidly with water to form hydrogen.""

Another interesting idea is the possibility of converting conventional internal-combustion engines into hydrogen burning engines.

It also has obvious applications for boats: you wouldn't have to haul the raw water around with you.

The Purdue researchers had thought that making the process competitive with conventional energy sources would require that the alumina be recycled back into aluminum using a dedicated infrastructure, such as a nuclear power plant or wind generators. However, the researchers now know that recycling the alumina would cost far less than they originally estimated, using standard processing already available.

"Since standard industrial technology could be used to recycle our nearly pure alumina back to aluminum at 20 cents per pound, this technology would be competitive with gasoline," Woodall said. "Using aluminum, it would cost $70 at wholesale prices to take a 350-mile trip with a mid-size car equipped with a standard internal combustion engine. That compares with $66 for gasoline at $3.30 per gallon. If we used a 50 percent efficient fuel cell, taking the same trip using aluminum would cost $28.""

So the energy is generated somewhere, and "stored" in the aluminium/gallium alloy, which would produce hydrogen when needed, which could be used to power an engine.

This solves the problem of safely and efficiently storing and transporting hydrogen. For automobiles it does mean you'd have to lug around water and metal. 6 % hydrogen mass density doesn't seem like much to me, but it'll be interesting to see how this does genuinely compare with petrol.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Antique Tech at the Science Museum

The BBC have a little gallery of stuff from one of the Science Museum's warehouses. The gallery reads like a list of cool antique technology, including a de Havilland Comet (IMO the greatest aeroplane design ever), an assortment of analogue computers, ERNIE, a Unimate, hovercraft, aqua-cars...

Hyperventilating aside, I hope the Science Museum get their Lottery grant, as it would be lovely to be able to see all this stuff in person.

Science and Technology #5

Almost every day I come across something that reminds me that I am living in what Bruce Sterling from the 1980s would consider to be a distant and exotic future. This screed is intended to address some of the areas in which the future is now, but just not evenly distributed.

A common research theme in robotics at the moment is the creation of small, flying devices that imitate biological life. A prime example is this ingenious robotic insect being developed at Harvard University.

A related area of research is the creation of software that models a planned robotic swallow. This article seems to indicate that two cameras mounted on the wings would allows the planned robot to be piloted remotely (read Sterling's Heavy Weather for a reference to a similar remote-controlled surveillance ornithopter).

I should also mention how impressive the work of Robert Wood and his team at Harvard actually is - they have essentially had to develop the process for manufacturing the device from scratch, from Technology Review:

"Using laser micromachining, researchers cut thin sheets of carbon fiber into two-dimensional patterns that are accurate to a couple of micrometers. Sheets of polymer are cut using the same process. By carefully arranging the sheets of carbon fiber and polymer, the researchers are able to create functional parts."

Both the robotic insect and the robotic swallow have in common an aim to observe discretely. It is reasonable to expect the technology in the labs now to be on the battlefield within two decades. Once mature it would then seep into the wider market. Then we would have our participatory panopticon, and there would be very little anyone could do about it.

I expect that if and when I reach my 50th birthday privacy will probably be a luxury, and one that most people can't afford. Widespread and ubiquitous observation from various sources will result in everything that ever happens being observed and recorded. I can even begin to empathise with the generation for which this will be normal, and loss of privacy will be seen as just another (minor) personal sacrifice to the comforts offered by states and other authorities.

Once this information is recorded we can assume that it will be stored in a large, communal location, like a virtual library of all types of media.

Just such a construct is already in development. This story describes the Open Library. Although at present the central goal is to create a virtual card catalogue, rather than record all the information in all the books ever written, let alone all information.

It will be interesting to watch which of the various similar services is most generally used, out of Good Book Search, the Open Library, or Project Gutenburg.

There is currently something unsatisfying about the provision for ebooks generally. They seem to be occupying the same technological cul-de-sac as videophones and flying cars. A mixture of consumer disinterest and technical difficulties (exacerbated in the case of ebooks by the usual tiresome issues of copyright and content control).

Charles Stross wrote a thorough analysis of what was wrong with the electronic book industry a few months ago, and (now that I check his blog) has also written an update concerning an experiment whereby The Atrocity Archives (which is very good - like Len Deighton with computers, magic, demons and Nazis [at least more Nazis than in most Deighton books, see SS-GB for the exception]) will be available in ebook format for £3.00, less than half the price for the wood-pulp version.

I feel that it will only be the development of true epaper that will allow the development of cheap ebooks and ebook technology. News of developments in the area of ePaper is common (1, 2, 3, 4). But what I want is something functionally equivalent to real wood-pulp, only with memory storing and wiping capabilities. I'd like it to have the same feel and texture as normal paper.

I can already see that this is a pretty tall order from a technical perspective. Apart from wanting to avoid the standard plasticky feel of most displays and touch-screens, I associate electrical technology with a different sort of entertainment to printed books. In as much as a technology can be perfected, books are perfect. Electrical and mechanical technology still has a wide space to grow and occupy before it becomes ideal.

However, it is entirely possible that all this research into epaper will be superseded by HUD displays - rendering all energy-intensive and space-intensive visual displays obsolete. I suspect that books as a cultural artifact will remain with us for a long time though.

Monday, August 20, 2007


The excellent online news magazine The First Post has published a right-on article on climate change and the attitudes of environmentalists, the article is brisk and to the point: if we are to deal with climate change we must adopt the attitudes of wartime, from TFP:

"...if they [environmentalists] really are sincere about acting on global warming, they must follow the example of wartime scientists, and give politicians solutions, not problems.

They must drop the notion that a perfect answer exists out there somewhere - if only enough time was spent dreaming it up. For example, no-one thinks nuclear power is the perfect solution to energy generation – but it beats the hell out of letting the lights go out.

There must also be an acceptance that there's neither the time nor resources to tackle every aspect of climate change. And that means drawing up invidious priority lists and building coalitions of the willing to tackle them. Self-indulgent campaigns aimed at making us all feel guilty – about, say, using cheap air travel, which is of trivial importance for climate change – are no way to do either."

(my bold print - I agree with that assessment of nuclear power entirely)

The miserabilist, holier-than-thou, and puritan-sounding PR of climate change activists hurts their campaign more than any amount of opposition from big business, like BAA. To quote some of the protesters (via Johann Hari's report in The Independent):

"Do you know the connection between your flight and the hurricanes and the floods and the droughts we are seeing intensify across the world? Do you care?" and "We are on a trajectory towards the extinction of life on earth. In the main, people have done this unwittingly, so it can be excused. But now we know what we are doing, and it cannot be excused."

I agree entirely with the sentiment of the people at the Camp for Climate Action: but I suspect that if the problem of climate change is to be solved it will require a certain amount of deviousness, compromise, sacrifice and propaganda.

SF-writer Karl Schroeder echoes some of these anti-progressive sentiments in an article on the WorldChanging blog. He posits the challenge facing us in terms of an opportunity to colonise Earth "as though it were a planet with no ecosystem resources to exploit".

Scientist and futurist Freeman Dyson (he of Dyson Swarm fame) also has something to say at Edge.org about climate change, how we could repair the damage caused by global warming, and why "global warming" is a ridiculous oversimplification of something we're nowhere near understanding, from the article:

The biosphere is the most complicated of all the things we humans have to deal with. The science of planetary ecology is still young and undeveloped. It is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreement about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values. The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tunafish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet."

Dyson has a lot to say: he also comments on the necessity of heretics when it comes to scientific debate - people need to keep asking questions and keep being sceptical.

Again the emphasis is on the challenge and the opportunity for expansion, rather than emphasising the negative aspects of our response to climate change.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


I consider myself a liberal.

I do not consider myself left wing.

I don't actually think the old left/right way of looking at political beliefs works very well. However I do recognise what "left wing" means as opposed to "right wing".

The left worships the collective. The left promotes greater state control. The left believes higher taxes should pay to support the poor and ill and the education of all children. The left thinks the USA is an imperial power determined to achieve total hegemony over the peoples of Earth. The left believes crime is a symptom of poverty, and that personal wealth is largely down to luck. The left believe any problem can be solved by state spending. The left believes multiculturalism will lead to social cohesion. The left don't like nuclear power. The left want to protect the environment. The left constantly tries to reduce personal liberties, except when it comes to murdering foetuses.

The right worships the individual. The right promotes less state control. The right believes taxes should be lowered and state spending reduced. The right support personal responsibility and harsh punishment for criminals. The right believes personal wealth is the reward for working hard. The right believe any problem can be solved by the free market. The right think immigrants steal jobs. The right don't like wind turbines. The right wants to protect the countryside. The right constantly tries to increase personal liberties, except when it comes to women's sexual organs.

...Which is nonsense of course. None of these issues are about right or wrong, they're about finding the right balance, and being moderate in all things (including advocating moderation).

I feel like I've arrived late to some petty argument that has reached the stage where people have started shouting at each other.

The waters of the debate have been muddied by too much ideological nonsense. The only worthwhile way of thinking about politics is by returning to some fairly basic philosophical principles: utilitarianism (it is morally right to try to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, given that happiness is good [see below]), the ethic of reciprocity (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the meme of enlightened self-interest, and the belief that happiness is good.

Then look at problems and propose solutions. Test the solutions. Find out what works and what doesn't.

There are various valid reasons why this approach isn't widely advertised by politicians. I can't think of what they are, but I suspect it has something to do with people not voting for politicians who propose to treat people like lab rats.

(The people at the Camp for Climate Action are not right wing or left wing. Reports by Johann Hari and George Monbiot indicate diversity amongst the protesters: anarchists and statists sharing a common goal. It is mentioned in several reports that there are many people with qualifications in scientific disciplines.)

So what does it really mean when I say I'm a liberal? It means I believe in the freedom of the individual, that we should find the correct balance between the power of the state and the power of the market, that we should all work to make ourselves happier and help each other to make each other happy, that we should treat each other in a way that we'd be happy being treated ourselves.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Cyborg Eye Implant

I have a particular interest in the progress of potential artificial eyes or eye-implants. It is wonderful to see that progress is being made.

The device that is the subject of the article linked to above will be a little weird:

"Once implanted, the device protrudes 0.1 to 0.5 millimeter beyond the surface of the pupil but does not touch the corneal endothelium, a layer of cells lining the back of the cornea."

The article suggests that it will be largely invisible to observers. I wonder at what point someone will develop an artificial implant for the eye that improves the eye in some way - and how it will be adopted.

As an aside it's worth pointing out that all things considered, the planet is far richer for the continued success and wellbeing of the United States of America. If China is the workshop of the world, then the USA is the ideas factory of the world.

This mini-eye-telescope-implant device was designed and built in the USA and most of the world's drugs and medical advances also originate from that country.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The New Solipsism

The Simulation Argument is the most recent form of old solipsistic arguments.

George Dvorsky puts forward "the dark side" of the Simulation Argument, basically that the Creator/Maintainer beings are at best ambivalent towards the plight of humanity - they don't care if we blow ourselves up or torture each other or die in hideous agony.

If we're not in a simulation then it means that it is much harder than we presume to create simulated intelligence - an assumption that runs counter to My First Millennialist Cult: Singularitarianism.

I've always seen it from a glass half full perspective anyway. We're not in Hell, and things are getting better. This suggests that the Game has rules and that ambivalence on the part of the Creator/Maintainer beings is something to be thankful for (paradise precludes free will [which probably doesn't exist anyway] as in Genesis, so I'd rather live with my quasi-free will than without even the illusion of independence). It also raises the possibility of an afterlife. This would be good.

And like all solipsistic arguments, there's not much we can do about it anyway.

If we aren't in a simulation then Everything is As It Seems. In this case rational arguments for a singularity event remain as strong as ever they were.

I suspect an argument against both the Fermi Paradox and the Simulation Argument would begin with the fallacy of taking one example, assuming that the example is representative with no additional information, and then asserting generalities based on only one piece of data (our existence).

Things are almost always more complex and weirder than at first they seem - I suspect that if we do find out the basics of our universe then we will be surprised.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Manchester University

Just a personal note: I have been given an unconditional offer to study chemical engineering with business management at Manchester University.

This is excellent news for me. I have various other posts to write up (the hiatus was because I was on holiday for a week) and will put them up over the next few days.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Gripping Hand

Kudos to the devlopers of the new bionic hand that will soon be available on the NHS.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


I know shamefully little about China. This short slideshow/documentary shows just how irrelevant what goes on here in the UK actually is (see also these pictures from Wired).

The UK, along with most of the rest of Western Europe, has become a dormitory nation: a place for people to live their lives. I love life in the UK, and there are few other places I'd rather live.

That said: we in Western Europe do not build, we do not create. The great success story in Britain in recent years has been the finance industry, and even that seems to be largely foreign-owned.

I am not so parochial that I do not value the knowledge economy, but I believe in the dependency principle: don’t allow yourself to lose control of the fundamentals. We still have a decent handle on agriculture, but our energy-security is starting to look a bit wobbly. I still think we need to invest in nuclear power – like the Chinese.


I watched Garden State today. I agree with this guy, Zach Braff is completely underrated. It is an extremely good movie: very good indeed. Armed with only my AS-level in English language, I would say the essential theme is that of alienation, and of finding where you can be happy (“alienation” is a good word when dealing with arty subjects, another good word is “juxtaposition”). Analysis of the meaning of the film aside, the soundtrack was excellent, the acting was low-key (and excellent), and it was generally very good.

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It was OK. It occurred to me that HP is the seminal cultural event of our generation. That and The Simpsons, the movie of which I have yet to see. In 30 years time comedians as-yet-unknown will pontificate on their experience of “growing up with Harry Potter” on a nostalgia-based programme-equivalent on an as-yet-uncreated media – probably hosted by Jimmy Carr.

I’ve been exploring the world of online webcomics. There are many, and many are surprisingly good. I may have already mentioned Questionable Content. There is also the superlative xkcd, Shortpacked, and a recent find: Dresden Codak.

The artwork and content of Dresden Codak is sublime. The creator occupies a similar headspace to myself: a strong regard for philosophy, singularitarianism, secular humanism, transhumanism, the epistemology of technology, technology in and of itself, and a mild interest in Jungian psychology, especially the Myers-Briggs personality test (I may have mentioned I persistently score INTJ, not that I think it's not a load of rubbish...). The artwork is whimsical and the draughtsmanship is excellent. The storylines are engaging and the characters are great. I look forward to the next instalment.

It is seeing things like this that make me want to forget about university, buy a tablet, Photoshop software, and just make cartoons for the rest of my life. But that's what mid-life crises are for...