This is a photo of the Chernobyl "Elephant's Foot", a solid mass made of a little melted nuclear fuel mixed with lots and lots of concrete, sand, and core sealing material that the fuel had melted through. The photo was taken in 1996. At that point, the Elephant's Foot had cooled enough that a human being could stand directly in front of it for an hour before receiving a lethal dose of radiation. When the Foot was first discovered, shortly after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl power plant, it delivered a lethal dose in just five minutes. You can read Kyle Hill's interesting history of the Elephant's Foot at Nautilus. And be sure to check out this 1991 video that shows how people were able to rig up robotic camera systems to safely take photos of the thing (though, as Hill points out, not all the photos of Elephant's Foot were taken safely).
Jeff Bezos took to 60 Minutes to announce Prime Air, a drone-based 30-minute delivery system for densely populated areas that comes with its own video design-fiction illustrating how it might work. The vision is an exciting one, but the designfic elides some important questions like the regulatory framework under which thousands (millions?) of drones might share the sky as businesses compete to do airborne delivery; whether that framework would be sufficient to actually maintain public safety (hello midair drone collision over a busy highway with attendant plummeting shrapnel into the path of speeding cars!); and what the energy and carbon footprint of drones would be, especially with comparison to conventional delivery logistics.
Read the rest
Thankfully, no humans were harmed by last week's explosion in Aaron Fechter's warehouse in Orlando, FL, but it did leave "robots scattered around burning rubble."
Fechter invented both the Whac-a-Mole machine and the animatronic, coin-operated Rock-A-Fire robot musicians who delighted audiences in Chuck-E-Cheeses around the world. Lately, he had been experimenting with carbohydrillium, a cleaner-burning alternative to propane, which was apparently the culprit in yesterday's explosion. His warehouse was described by one witness as a "Joker's lair," and a video tour posted to YouTube shows it full of computer models, animatronic creatures, and carbohydrillium gear.
Read the rest
Producing power from the wind and sun isn't as simple as just swapping a wind turbine for a coal-fired power plant. Every source of power we use has to work with our electrical grid, an old, imperfect, complex system that wasn't put together with the needs of renewables in mind. For instance, because renewable generation is intermittent generation, using it goes hand-in-hand with ramping production from traditional generation up and down. When you don't have enough wind, you turn up the gas-fire generators. That kind of treatment can put stress on machinery and rack up costs in maintenance and repairs. But new research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
suggests that, at least in monetary terms, those costs are dwarfed by the cost savings you get from using more wind and solar power and, thus, not having to pay for fuel sources. — Maggie
Whether or not Voyager I has actually left the solar system, one thing is certain — it never would have made it far enough to have a debate if it weren't for the help of plutonium-238. The isotope has been crucial for powering spacecraft — there's 10 pounds of the stuff in the batteries of Curiosity. But supplies are very, very limited. In fact, the US scientific stockpile is down to 36 pounds. All of it spoken for. What happens to space exploration when there's no more plutonium-238?
Dave Mosher investigates at Wired. — Maggie
There are many downsides to hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas it's used to harvest, but for the people who work in America's booming oil and gas fields there's a positive that outweighs a lot of the problems other people worry about. At High Country News, Jonathan Thompson writes about the financial benefits fracking holds for families, especially those where the people working don't have a college degree. With fewer and fewer well-paid manufacturing jobs, hydrocarbons are one of the few industries left where your job can improve your kid's chances of reaching a higher income bracket
. — Maggie
Redditor Tufflaw has been running a central air-conditioning system "24/7" during the New York heatwave. But the bills were offset by 26 home solar panels by Sharp that took three days to install and were subject to state and federal tax-credits, and will take 7-8 years to pay for themselves. Here is the most recent bill: $6.05. Tufflaw says that there are sometimes months that go by with no bill at all (and one year generated a $20 rebate from the power company!), and adds, "There's also an intangible benefit, feeling good about using a free renewable source of power."
Been running my central air 24/7 lately, especially with the recent heat wave. This is my most recent electric bill. Damn I love my solar panels.
The entire country is in the red (and orange) today
. At 10:20 am, it was hotter in Minneapolis than southern Florida and the only places that looked remotely comfortable were all on the Pacific coast. Those temps don't just strain your patience. They also strain your electrical grid, as millions of Americans simultaneously crank up their air conditioners and test the grid's ability to match supply of electricity with demand
for it. For grid controllers, a day like today is akin to the Super Bowl. Will there be brownouts? Blackouts? Awkward flickering? Place your bets. The peak in demand will happen later this afternoon. — Maggie
I'm not a big fan of AC. It's not an ideological thing for me (although it's hard for me to not be aware of how much energy those systems draw). Instead, it's mostly about comfort. Air conditioned spaces usually feel too cold to me, and too stuffed up. I'd prefer to have the fresh air and the open windows. Of course, there are some days when that's not exactly comfortable, either. Treehugger has a slideshow that can help
. It's filled with tips for changing your lifestyle and your home to make things more comfortable at higher temperatures, reducing the number of days when you actually need the AC. This isn't all stuff you can do in a day — for instance, it will take a while to get a good shade tree outside your house — but the suggestions are interesting, and helpful, and most of them are focused cheap and simple, rather than high-tech and costly. — Maggie
Reuters reports that Apple will build
a new solar farm with NV Energy Inc, to power the computing giant's new data center in Reno, Nevada. The plan is seen as "a major step towards its goal of having its data centers run on renewable energy." — Xeni
Alan sez, "Evie Sobczak, who is presently 16, appears to have invented a completely chemical-free process for turning algae into a biofuel. Along the way her process appears to be about 20% more efficient than current chemical-heavy (and thus potentially polluting) processes. Her project just took first place and best in category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair."
Teen's biofuel invention turns algae into fuel
Gmoke sez, "Richard Komp has taught people how to make solar as a cottage industry in at least 16 different countries over the last few years.
There's a documentary called "Burning in the Sun" about his work in Mali and he's even got an Introduction to Photovoltaics series on YouTube.
Reports from his 25 international trips available here"
Solar as a Cottage Industry
There are existing solutions to our the energy crises facing us today, but they all suffer from being frustratingly imperfect, complicated, and not particularly easy to implement (at least not quickly). Some even require us to change our behaviors. And, most likely, we'd have have to use lots of these solutions all at once, further adding to the complication involved. It's no wonder then that, in our heart of hearts, most of us are holding out for a miracle — some new technology that could provide all the power we want, with few drawbacks, and few changes to our current infrastructure or social status-quo. But is that a good idea, or a waste of time and resources? In the first edition of a new monthly column for The New York Times
, Justin Gillis writes about the allure of energy miracles
, what they actually look like in reality, and whether there's really a dichotomy between using what we have and developing something better. — Maggie
Gmoke sez, "Two years ago, two Bedouin women, Rafea Al Raja and her aunt Seiha Al Raja (Um Bader), returned from a six-month solar engineering training at the Barefoot College in India as 'solar engineers' to start a training center for other women. Although they solarized 80 houses in their village, the government of Jordan, NGOs and international organizations have shown little or no interest in their work. Even with a documentary on their training and projects at home, 'Solar Mamas', there hasn't been enough funding to sustain their work and their dreams.
“We are still not working and the training has not started either,” Rafea told The Jordan Times in an interview on Saturday.
They came with hope, she said, but this hope is fading away. The government, NGOs and international organisations are showing little or no interest, according to FES officials, leaving the project stranded in the desert.
“Now even our fellow villagers have started to make fun of us because they see nothing is happening on the ground,” said Rafea, who with her aunt were received with festive firing and an “official” ceremony upon their arrival from India.
The situation took a dramatic turn for both Rafea and Um Bader. Although they provided solar energy to 80 houses in the village, they are now facing the darkness of personal problems that have plighted them since they completed their training in India.
Hopes fade for two bedouin ‘solar engineers’ [Gaelle Sundelin/Jordan Times]