Chernobyl's deadly Elephant's Foot

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). Read the rest

Amazon Prime Air: drone-based 30 minute delivery

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.

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No one harmed in Whac-a-Mole/Rock-a-Fire band warehouse explosion

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

Cost savings of renewable energy might outweigh costs of adapting to renewable energy

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. Read the rest

Peak plutonium and a fuel shortage in space

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. Read the rest

For the working class and poor, fracking is one of the last bastions of upward mobility

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. Read the rest

Solar pays

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. Read the rest

Nationwide heat wave puts electric grid to the test

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. Read the rest

How to make yourself more comfortable without air conditioning

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. Read the rest

Apple's building a solar farm in NV, for clean energy data centers

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." Read the rest

16-year-old invents prizewinning clean algae-biofuel conversion process

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 (Thanks, Alan!) Read the rest

More earthquakes in Oklahoma

A 4.3 earthquake rattled Oklahoma City at around 1:00 am central today. You may recall that scientists have evidence connecting Oklahoma's sudden onset of small quakes to the disposal of liquid left over from gas and oil fracking operations. Read the rest

Documentary on activist who taught people to make solar cottage industries in 16 countries

Richard Komp has taught people how to make solar as a cottage industry in at least 16 different countries over the last few years.

Thorium, fusion, and other energy miracles

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. Read the rest

Bedouin "solar mamas" can't get backing for solarizing their village in Jordan

Two Bedouin women return from a six-month solar engineering training at the Barefoot College in India as 'solar engineers' to start training other women.

Gimme Some Truth: short doc on fracking, with Artists Against Fracking, and Yoko Ono

A documentary and PSA from Yoko Ono and Artists Against Fracking.

This is why your office feels too cold

There is no single definition of comfort. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explores the different cultural definitions of pleasant living, how those traditions affect energy use in different countries, and how globalization changes both the culture and the fossil fuel consumption. Fun fact: Engineers have a unit of measurement that helps them account for clothing when they're trying to figure out what temperature an office building should be. It's called the Clo, and 1 Clo is equivalent to one full business suit. As I discovered, that fact has a big impact on women, business people in the tropics, and basically anybody who doesn't wear a suit to work. Read the rest

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