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"A concert on the engineering quad, University of Illinois," explains Tau Zero. "The arcs reproduced the fundamental tones of music played back through a PA system. Part of the Engineering Open House."
The Joule Thief is a way of producing enough electricity to run small, but useful, electric lights using cast-off trash like pop-can tabs and "dead" batteries. It's especially handy in the Himalayas, writes inventor and Google Science Fair judge T.H. Culhane. There, electricity is a precious resource. But the components needed to build a Joule Thief are abundant, thanks to climbers and tourists who leave behind all sorts of surprisingly useful litter.
Last week, Culhane joined a G+ hangout sponsored by National Geographic and Girlstart to talk about the value in things we throw away and walk viewers through the construction of their very own Joule Thief. You can watched the video of the event, or read the instructions for building a Joule Thief at Culhane's blog.
The fact that the Joule thief allows one to run a 3V LED from a 1.5 or 1.2 Volt battery would itself be astounding, because it means you only need half the number of batteries to get the same light.
Some of you are thinking "wait, maybe it enables you to use a single 1.5 volt battery to light a 3V LED instead of the usual two, but doesn't it just make that battery last half as long? Great question, but the answer is that the Joule Thief, which works by building up and collapsing a magnetic field around the torus (which acts as an electromagnetic inductor) actually is more efficient than using a battery directly because it PULSES the energy to the LED. You see the lightbulb shining brightly, but in fact it is turning on and off very rapidly as the magnetic field of the inductor builds up and discharges again and again. That means that though the light appears to be on all the time it is actually turning on and off and saving energy because it isn't on all the time.
It turns out that the Joule Thief enables the battery to keep supplying electrons to the light long after the battery is normally considered DEAD. So the battery actually lasts much much longer than a normal battery. I've observed "dead" batteries working down to about 0.5 Volts. Normally a 1.5 V battery is considered dead when it reaches 1.0 volts. But the Joule Thief can "steal" the remaining energy much below that. And that got me thinking -- could I use other sources of between 0.5 and 1.0 Volts to run a 3V LED?
T.H. Culhane's post on The Joule Thief (includes instructions for making a Joule Thief with batteries and alternative electricity sources)
Backup generators exist anonymously. They are metal boxes, squirreled away on a roof or near a loading dock. You are meant to not see them. The point is that they are there when you need them and, the rest of the time, they do their best to be unobtrusive.
The problem is that this very job description makes it more likely that your emergency generator won't work in an emergency.
On Monday, New York University's Langone Medical Center lost power during Hurricane Sandy, and ended up having to evacuate 215 patients when the generator that was supposed to keep its charges alive and its critical systems running failed to turn on. Across the United States there are about 12 million backup generators. Most only operate during blackouts — times when a hospital, or a laboratory, or a bank, needs electricity and can't get it from the larger electric grid.
But backup generators aren't 100% reliable. In fact, they won't work something like 20%-to-30% of the time, said Arshad Mansoor, Senior Vice President for Research & Development with the Electric Power Research Institute. The bad news is that there's only so much you can do to improve on that failure rate. The good news: There are solutions that could help keep a hospital up and running in an emergency, even if the emergency power system doesn't work.
Read the rest
Salt water is still winning. Unfortunately.
Remember back during the Fukushima crisis, when you heard a lot of talk about why the people trying to save the plant didn't want to use sea water to cool the reactors? There were a number of reasons for that (check out this interview Scientific American's Larry Greeenemeier did with a nuclear engineer), but one factor was the fact that salt water corrodes the heck out of metal. Pump it into a metal reactor unit and that unit won't be usable again.
Now, the corrosive power of salt water is in the news again — and this time it's ripping through New York City's underground network of subways and utility infrastructure. I like the short piece that Gizmodo's Patrick DiJusto put together, explaining why salt water in your subway is even worse than plain, old regular water:
When two different types of metal (or metal with two different components) are placed in water, they become a battery: the metal that is more reactive corrodes first, losing electrons and forming positive ions, which then go into water, while the less reactive metal becomes a cathode, absorbing those ions. This process happens much more vigorously when the water is electrically conductive, and salt water contains enough sodium and chloride ions to be 40 times more conductive than fresh water. (The chloride ion also easily penetrates the surface films of most metals, speeding corrosion even further.) Other dissolved metals in sea water, like magnesium or potassium, can cause spots of concentrated local corrosion.
Via Tom Levenson
Sixty milliseconds is fast. But sometimes, it's not fast enough. That's the gist of a great explainer by Cassie Rodenberg at Popular Mechanics, which answers the question, "Why do transformers explode?"
Before I link you over there, I want to add a quick reminder of what transformers actually are.
Although giant robots that turn into trucks do also explode from time to time, in this case we are talking about those cylindrical boxes that you see attached to electric poles. (Pesco posted a video of one exploding last night.) To understand what they do, you have to know the basics of the electric grid.
I find that it's easiest to picture the grid like a lazy river at a water park. That's because we aren't just talking about a bunch of wires, here. The grid is a circuit, just like the lazy river. Electricity has to flow along it from the power plant, to the customers, and back around to the power plant again. And, like a lazy river, the grid has to operate within certain limits. The electricity has to move at a constant speed (analogous to what engineers call frequency) and at a constant depth (analogous to voltage). This is where transformers come in.
Read the rest
Barring a seriously crazy shift that plunges us quickly into an especially cold winter, 2012 will likely go down as the hottest year on record in the United States. More importantly, this broken record is part of a larger pattern that affects the whole world—record-breaking high temperatures are becoming, themselves, a bit of a broken record. On a global scale, counting average land and water temperatures, 2012 is (so far) the 11th warmest year on record—almost a full degree hotter than the 20th century average. Of the 12 warmest years on record, all of them have happened since 1998 (and the top 20 is made up of years since 1987).
Over time, that kind of long-term trend takes a toll. But for those of us who are lucky enough to live with relatively high levels of wealth, air conditioning, supermarkets, and all the luxuries of modern life, that toll is not always obvious. Sometimes, you have to look a little deeper to see how climate change is already affecting the American way of life.
So, what's climate change ruining today? How about electricity generation? Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post has a story about how a consistent trend of high temperatures and drought has affected water reserves, and how those diminished reserves affect our ability to produce electricity.
Exit signs are so ubiquitous that they're almost invisible. Every public building has them. In fact, they are so common that, taken together, these little signs consume a surprisingly large amount of energy.
Each one uses relatively little electricity, but they are on all the time. And we have a lot of them in our schools, factories, and office buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are more than 100 million exit signs in use today in the U.S., consuming 30–35 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually.
That’s the output of five or six 1,000 MW power plants, and it costs us $2-3 billion per year. Individual buildings may have thousands of exit signs in operation.
To put this into a bigger context: This is just one small part of what makes buildings, in general, incredibly energy intense. In the United States, we use more energy powering our buildings—from the lights, to the heating, to the stuff we plug into the walls—than we use to do anything else. Because of that (and because of the fact that electricity is mostly made by burning coal or natural gas) buildings produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cars.
Read more about the energy consumption of exit signs and how we can use less energy, while still getting the same services, at Green Building Advisor
Take a look at some stats on energy use in buildings at the Architecture 2030 website
Via Jess McCabe
It began with a few small mistakes.
Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data. The problem was quickly fixed. But nobody turned the program back on again.
A little over an hour later, one of the six coal-fired generators at the Eastlake Power Plant in Ohio shut down. An hour after that, the alarm and monitoring system in the control room of one of the nation’s largest electric conglomerates failed. It, too, was left turned off.
Those three unrelated things—two faulty monitoring programs and one generator outage—weren’t catastrophic, in and of themselves. But they would eventually help create one of the most widespread blackouts in history. By 4:15 pm, 256 power plants were offline and 55 million people in eight states and Canada were in the dark. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 ended up costing us between $4 billion and $10 billion. That’s “billion”, with a “B”.
But this is about more than mere bad luck. The real causes of the 2003 blackout were fixable problems, and the good news is that, since then, we’ve made great strides in fixing them. The bad news, say some grid experts, is that we’re still not doing a great job of preparing our electric infrastructure for the future.
Read the rest
Power was restored today in India, where more than 600 million people had been living without electricity for two days. That's good news, but it's left many Americans wondering whether our own electric grid is vulnerable.
Here's the good news: The North American electric grid is not likely to crash in the kind of catastrophic way we've just seen in India. I'm currently interviewing scientists about the weaknesses in our system and what's being done to fix them and will have more on that for you tomorrow or Friday.
In the meantime, I wanted to share a chapter from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electric infrastructure and the future of energy. If you want to understand why our grid is weak, you first need to understand how it works. The key thing to know is this—at any given moment, in any given place, we must have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand. Fluctuations of even fractions of a percent can send parts of the system towards blackout.
More importantly, that careful balance does not manage itself. Across North America there are people working, 24-7, to make sure that your lights can turn on, your refrigerator runs, and your computer works. They're called grid controllers or system operators. Most utility customers have never heard of these guys, but we're all heavily dependent on them. They keep the grid alive and, in turn, they keep our lives functioning—all without the benefit of batteries or any kind of storage.
Joel Mickey has worked behind the curtain for twenty-five years, controlling the flow of electricity first for the Houston Light and Power utility company and now for ERCOT, where he’s the director of market operating systems ... Like a lot of controllers, he worked his way up the pole, literally, starting out as an eighteen-year-old lineman —one of the people who show up on your block whenever a rogue tree branch takes out an electric wire. On Mickey’s desk at ERCOT, there’s a black-and-white photo of a very young kid in a hard hat, with a leather harness cinched around his hips. Linemen are a noticeable part of the electric system, but, at least when Mickey started working, they weren’t considered terribly special. Along with maintenance workers at substations and power plant operators, entry-level jobs such as this were lumped together under one bad pun—“Plant Life,” the single- celled algae at the bottom of a Great Chain of Being, which regarded the wizards of system control as the epitome of creation. It was pos- sible to evolve your way up the chain, but it wasn’t easy.
Read the rest
The other day, someone asked me what the most surprising thing was that I learned while writing Before the Lights Go Out, my book about America's electric infrastructure and the future of energy. That's easy. The most surprising thing was definitely my realization of just how precarious our all-important grid system actually is.
There are two key things here. First, the grid doesn't have any storage. (At least, none to speak of.) Second, the grid has to operate within a very narrow window of technical specifications. At any given moment, there must be almost exactly as much electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If that balance is thrown off, by even a fraction of a percent, you start heading toward blackouts. There are people working 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, making sure that balance is maintained on a minute-by-minute basis.
That's a long way of explaining why I find Blackout Tracker so fascinating. Put together by Eaton, a company that makes products that help utilities manage different parts of the electric grid, this little web app shows you where the electric grid has recently failed, and why. The Blackout Tracker doesn't claim to include all blackouts, but it gives you an idea of the number of blackouts that happen, and the wide range of causes blackouts can have. For instance, in the picture above, you can see that Wichita, Kansas, had a blackout earlier this week that was related to a heatwave—hot weather meant more people turned on their air conditioners in the middle of the day, and, for whatever reason, there wasn't enough electrical supply available to meet that demand. The result: Blackout.
One major flaw: Most of the time Blackout Tracker can't tell you how long a blackout lasted. But that's probably got more to do with what information the utility companies are willing to release than anything. Still, I think this program is a nice primer for people who aren't aware of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure electricity remains flowing, nice and steady.
Check out Blackout Tracker (Also available for the UK, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand)
Learn more about how the grid works (and doesn't work) in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.
I don't remember where I picked this link up from, so if you're the one who sent it to me, please give me a little tap and I'll make sure you are properly thanked!
I'm completely fascinated by stories from the early days of electricity ... specifically, stories of experiments that went horribly (and sometimes, comically) wrong.
For me, it's a great reminder that, no matter how much of a sure-thing a technology like electricity seems in retrospect, there was always a point in history where the future was uncertain, where mistakes were made, and where even the "experts" didn't totally know what they were doing. In general, I think it's good to remind ourselves that the real history of innovation is a lot messier than high-school level textbooks make it out to be.
In this short video, retired University of Missouri engineering professor Michael Devaney tells the tale of how a group of engineering students—armed with an early-model Edison electric generator—burned their school's main academic building to the ground. At the heart of the disaster: An attempt to see how many light bulbs the generator could light at once. To paraphrase Devaney, everything was going okay until the fire reached the ROTC's supply of cannon powder.
Read more on my thoughts about the messy history of innovation, published in last weekend's New York Times Magazine.
Thanks to Robert Solorzano and The Missourian for the tip on this story!
Where did our electric grid come from? It's a complicated question to answer. That's because the grid we have today didn't come from any single place. Instead, its origins are scattered, distributed geographically, technologically, and philosophically.
Different people built different parts of the grid in different ways and for different reasons. For many years—up until the 1970s in some places—individual towns and cities were independent grids that weren't connected to anything else around them. They functioned as little islands, incapable of reaching out for help when things went wrong.
More importantly, the grid wasn't designed. It evolved. Nobody ever really sat down and thought about how to build the best grid possible. The grid as we know it was assembled from bits and pieces, from mini-grids that were often built to be cheap and to go up quickly. Quality wasn't always priority number one.
I think the story of the electric grid in Appleton, Wisconsin—the second centralized electric grid in the world and the first hydroelectric power plant in the world—is a great example of all of this history in action.
Last month, I got to talk about Appleton at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. The video of that talk went up on CSPAN Book TV yesterday. It's not available for embedding, unfortunately, but I encourage you to give it a watch. The talk covers not only history, but also the importance of writing about science online, rather than in print. You guys, as commenters at BoingBoing, have made my writing better—and for that you get a shout-out. (Plus: At the 5 minute mark, you can see a little cameo of Dean and Pesco in the audience.)
Learn more about the history of the electric grid, and how the grid works today, by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.