an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘Elon Musk

Boots on Martian ground – crazy or brave?

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One of the last pics taken on the Moon – December 1972. Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt

Jacinta: Recently we attended a ‘Science in the Pub’ session, in which a group of three or four scientists/academics gives talks with Q&A on a topic of interest to the public. The topic the other day was indeed most topical, dealing with recent findings about the surface of Mars and future ventures to uncover more.

Canto: But we were most intrigued by the Q&A at the end, which was a friendly but passionate dispute about the wisdom of a ‘personned’ voyage to the Mars surface. Two of the speakers argued that we were far from ready, and possibly never would be (together with the ‘isn’t stuffing up one planet for us?’ claim) while the other suggested that we should really ‘go for it’.

Jacinta: Yes, and I was all for the more cautious approach, clapping my hands and nodding my head off at their caveats and their bemusement that such a suicide mission should be taken seriously at this stage…

Canto: And I tended to agree with you, but something the other speaker said really struck me. He compared this wild project to the Apollo mission, so daring and unlikely for its time, yet ultimately successful. And – this really caught my attention – that sixties adventure produced, in proportional terms, more PhDs in physics and engineering, in the USA and elsewhere, than has ever been experienced historically.

Jacinta: Need to fact-check that* but it’s more than plausible. So let’s look more closely at the pros and cons of this crazy idea of boots on Martian ground.

Canto: Okay, first we look at the problem of actually getting there. According to Mars One (a Dutch venture that recently went bankrupt but never mind) it takes about seven months, following the route known as the Hohmann Transfer Orbit. Now, we’ve obviously managed this trip with unpersonned vehicles, but a personned one…

Jacinta: Shit that’s a terrible word, but I suppose if ‘manned’ was once acceptable then ‘personned’ now has to be, politically.

Canto: Grin and bear it. A personned one would presumably have to be bigger and more accommodating in various ways. And of course we’ve never contemplated a return voyage for the Mars rovers…

Jacinta: But we’ve done return trips to the moon. We have the technology. But of course the journey to the moon took – what, a day or two? How are these colonists – a bus load of them perhaps? – going to endure, or survive, a months-long voyage?

Canto: We’ll get to that hopefully. First let’s look at any trip. There’s a period called a launch window, the optimum time for starting off. These periods come around every 26 months, but there are high-energy launch windows and low-energy ones, because the Mars orbit is quite eccentric, the second-most eccentric planetary orbit in the solar system. The low end requires only half the energy of the high end, and the next low-energy launch window comes round in 2033.

Jacinta: But Elon Musk says he’ll be ready to launch a humanned (is that better?) mission by 2024. He must have energy to burn.

Canto: A human mission, that’s settled. Actually Musk made that claim about a 2024 mission here in Adelaide just a few days ago. NASA is apparently keeping quiet on the issue – they’re planning a mission in the 2030s, very sensibly.

Jacinta: Or not, if you feel we’re far from ready.

Canto: Well let’s continue with the problems. The first one is radiation – not only on the planet Mars, but in deep space. We know that on the International Space Station, which is inside the protective magnetic field of the Earth, astronauts are exposed to 10 times the radiation that we have to deal with on the surface. I’m not sure if that means the ship is exposed to that radiation or the people inside it. I don’t know how radiation-proof you can make a spaceship, but I do know that exposure to these massive levels of radiation will increase risks of cancer, central nervous system damage, cardiac and circulatory problems, nausea, cataracts and no doubt much else. Presumably SpaceX is dealing with all this somehow or other. The plans seem to shift a bit, but it’s believed that they’re going to send a rocket out in 2022 (sans humans) – and presumably bring it back, so they can, inter alia, check out radiation levels inside and out.

Jacinta: The BFR, it’s called (Big Falcon Rocket). What about the astronauts that went to the Moon? Apollo 10 orbited the Moon about 30 times – that must’ve made them sick, if not from radiation. Apparently the best way to radiation-proof your ship requires adding mass, which requires using additional fuel on launch, etc.

Canto: The SpaceX launch vehicle is called Super Heavy, and that includes the upper-stage Starship, the part that makes the full trip and back, so presumably they’ve thoroughly planned for radiation effects. I do get the impression that Musk and his team are super-smart super-planners. It’s not pie-in-the-sky stuff, as Mars One seems to have been. And they have super-rich backing, I’m sure. Musk has said it’s not unlikely that some will die (just as some first-fleeters no doubt died back in 1788 – but they were only convicts, not cashed up adventurers), but I’m inclined to believe that the percentages will be low.

Jacinta: Humans appear to be more valuable these days, she said cynically.

Canto: The whole world will be watching, much more than in 1788. Anyway, another problem will be isolation. There won’t be a busload of adventurers on the first human trip. Just focusing on the SpaceX venture, they’ve got an ambitious plan to have something like a city on Mars by 2050. Again, this starts to remind me of the first fleet, and subsequent fleets. Think of Port Jackson in 1788, then think of Sydney Town thirty-something years later, with a population of 12-15 thousand. Hazardous voyages of many months’ duration, with many outbreaks of disease along the way…

Jacinta: Yeah mainly because of dodgy traders in ship supplies, disgusting treatment of convicts, cramped unsanitary conditions and the like…

Canto: So there’s no comparison. The human traffic will be a much more of a trickle, and the technology will be state-of-the-art. The proven successes of SpaceX, by the way, are what is bringing backers in. Which brings me back to isolation. It isn’t even known yet how many passengers will be on the first voyage, and they will have to get along extremely well, as they commence the incredibly arduous process of terraforming the region around their landing site – in the absence of ready food, water, and air! No lifeline to Earth. Terrifically hostile environment with massive dust storms, freezing temperatures, health issues due to low gravity and radiation…

Jacinta: It doesn’t so much sound like a problem of isolation as a problem of community and problem-solving…

Canto: Well it’s isolation from the basic stuff we need for survival and from expert treatment and procedure when things go wrong – health-care, technological fixes, raw materials and the means of transforming them and so forth…

Jacinta: Hmmm – can we look at the positives now?

Canto: Well – the food issue. The diet will have to be essentially vegetarian, based on hydroponics. They’ll be growing this stuff on the ship on the way over, presumably. Those first visitants and their followers won’t be in for a holiday – it’ll be work work work. But you can pack a lot of dehydrated stuff such as spices and sauces to taste things up. That would mean having a water supply of course, and that’s not clearly guaranteed.

Jacinta: Yeah but you’re looking at the practical life-and-death stuff. How boring haha. I’m thinking of the inspirational effect of having live human boots on the ground on another planet. I’ve read somewhere that humans could find out stuff about the planet – whether there’s actual life, what the atmosphere feels like, how actually manageable it might be to terraform the place and create a future there – thousands of times more quickly and effectively than any robot could. And in many ways I’d rather see SpaceX succeed in this than a national organisation like NASA. Okay SpaceX might be seen as quintessentially American, but Musk and his team won’t be looking at it that way I’m sure, they’ll be drawing their expertise from anyone around the globe who can contribute. One of the many things I love about science is its international collaborative character. It’s another bulwark against the petty nationalisms of Trump, Xi, Putin and co.

Canto: Okay, let’s stay healthy and watch what the future brings…



Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2019 at 4:08 pm

How will the super-duper Tesla battery work? And more on the price of electricity

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Image: Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

I received an email the other day from the Australia Insitute. I don’t know how that happened, I’ve never heard of the organisation. Apparently it’s Australia’s most influential progressive think-tank (self-described) and apparently I subscribed to it recently while in a barely conscious state. All good.

Anyway the topic was timely: ‘Rising Energy Bills: Blame Gas’.

In a very recent post I quoted from a few apparently reliable sources on the reason for South Australia’s very high electricity prices. Unfortunately there wasn’t too much agreement among them, though at least none of them blamed renewable energy. But neither did any of them blame gas, though one did point a finger at wholesale pricing. The Australia Institute’s email put it thus:

Yesterday, we released the latest Electricity Update of the National Energy Emissions Audit for July 2017. The report revealed a stunning correlation between domestic electricity prices and gas prices — particularly in South Australia — despite gas making up only 10 percent of electricity generation.

So this is a subject I need to return to – in my next post. This post will focus on batteries and storage.

Neoen, a French renewable energy company, is building a 315MW, 99 turbine wind farm near Jamestown in South Australia. Connected to this project will be an array of Tesla’s lithium ion Powerpack batteries. According to this ABC News article:

The array will be capable of an output of 100 megawatts (MW) of power at a time and the huge battery will be able to store 129 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy so, if used at full capacity, it would be able to provide its maximum output for more than an hour.

It will be a modular network, with each Powerpack about the size of a large fridge at 2.1 metres tall, 1.3m long and 0.8m wide. They weigh in at 1,200 kilograms each.

It will have just slightly more storage than the next biggest lithium battery, built by AES this year in southern California.

But Tesla’s 100 MW output would be more than three times larger than the AES battery and five times larger than anything Tesla has built previously.

I’m no electrochemist, but a nice scrutiny of these sentences identifies a clear distinction between output and storage. And the output of this planned battery is the pioneering aspect.

So here’s a very basic summary of how a rechargeable lithium ion battery works. Each battery (and they vary hugely in size) is made up of a number of cells, each a battery in itself. On opposite sides of the cell are conductive surfaces, aka current collectors, one of aluminium and the other of copper. Inside and joined to these surfaces are electrodes, the positive cathode and the negative anode. The cathode is made from a lithium metal oxide such as lithium cobalt oxide or lithium iron phosphate, which needs to have the purest, most uniform composition for maximum performance and longevity. The negative anode is made from graphite, a layered form of carbon. The layered structure allows the lithium ions (Li+) created by the current to be easily stored at and removed from the carbon surface. Between these electrodes, filling the cell, is an electrolyte fluid through which lithium ions flow from one electrode to the other, which charges and discharges the cell. Again the purity of this fluid is a vital factor (research is being done to come up with a form of solid electrolyte). Between the two electrodes is an insulating plastic separator, essential to keep the electrodes separate and prevent short-circuiting. This plastic membrane allows the lithium ions to pass through it. The battery is charged when the lithium ions have passed through the separator and become attached to and stored in the layered graphite of the anode. The battery is discharged by reversing the flow.

Lithium ion batteries are found not only in Tesla Powerpacks but generally in electric car batteries and many other devices such as my own iPhone and iPad. They’re lighter and have much less energy density than lead-acid batteries. The technology of lithium ion batteries is described in a number of useful online videos, of which the most comprehensive, I think, is a webinar from the American Chemistry Society (ACS), essentially an interview with Dee Strand, a lithium ion battery specialist and expert. Her talk also provides interesting ideas on how these types of batteries can be improved.

So a fully-charged cell has stored energy, and a discharging cell is producing output. There are variations in lithium ion battery technology, for example variations in the electrode materials, the electrolyte composition and the like, so we don’t know precisely what Tesla will be using for the South Australian battery system, but we have a fair idea.

In any case, there seems no obvious reason why this proven technology can’t be scaled up to meet the sort of need that was identified after last September’s state blackout. Now we just have to wait and see whether Musk will lose his bet regarding completion time come December.

Refs and info

Just type in ‘lithium ion battery’ in youtube



Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2017 at 1:00 pm

What’s Weatherill’s plan for South Australia, and why do we have the highest power prices in the world? Oh, and I should mention Elon Musk here – might get me more hits

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just a superhero pic to rope people in

I’ve written a few pieces on our electricity system here in SA, but I don’t really feel any wiser about it. Still, I’ll keep having a go.

We’ve become briefly famous because billionaire geek hero Elon Musk has promised to build a ginormous battery here. After we had our major blackout last September (for which we were again briefly famous), Musk tweeted or otherwise communicated that his Tesla company might be able to solve SA’s power problems. This brought on a few local geek-gasms, but we quickly forgot (or I did), not realising that our good government was working quietly behind the scenes to get Musk to commit to something real. In March this year, Musk was asked to submit a tender for the 100MW capacity battery, which is expected to be operational by the summer. He has recently won the tender, and has committed to constructing the battery in 100 days, at a cost of $50 million. If he’s unsuccessful within the time limit, we’ll get it for free.

There are many many South Australians who are very skeptical of this project, and the federal government is saying that the comparatively small capacity of the battery system will have minimal impact on the state’s ‘self-imposed’ problems. And yet – I’d be the first to say that I’m quite illiterate about this stuff, but if SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s claim is true that ‘battery storage is the future of our national energy market’, and if Musk’s company can build this facility quickly, then it’s surely possible that many batteries could be built like the one envisaged by Musk, each one bigger and cheaper than the last. Or have I just entered cloud cuckoo land? Isn’t that how technology tends to work?

In any case, the battery storage facility is designed to bring greater stability to the state’s power network, not to replace the system, so the comparisons made by Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are misleading, probably deliberately so. Frydenberg well knows, for example, that SA’s government has been working on other solutions too, effectively seeking to becoming independent of the eastern states in respect of its power system. In March, at the same time as he presented plans for Australia’s largest battery, Weatherill announced that a taxpayer-funded 250MW gas-fired power plant would be built. More recently, AGL, the State’s largest power producer and retailer, has announced  plans to build a 210MW gas-fired generator on Torrens Island, upgrading its already-existing system. AGL’s plan is to use reciprocating engines, which executive general manager Doug Jackson has identified as best suited to the SA market because of their ‘flexible efficient and cost-effective synchronous generation capability’. I heartily agree. It’s noteworthy that the AGL plan was co-presented by its managing director Andy Vesey and the SA Premier. They were at pains to point out that the government plans and the AGL plan were not in competition. So it does seem that the state government has made significant strides in ensuring our energy security, in spite of much carping from the Feds as well as local critics – check out some of the very nasty naysaying in the comments section of local journalist Nick Harmsen’s articles on the subject (much of it about the use of lithium ion batteries, which I might blog about later).

It’s also interesting that Harmsen himself, in an article written four months ago, cast serious doubt on the Tesla project going ahead, because, as far as he knew, tenders were already closed on the battery storage or ‘dispatchable renewables’ plan, and there were already a number of viable options on the table. So either the Tesla offer, when it came (and maybe it got in under the deadline unbeknown to Harmsen), was way more impressive than others, or the Tesla-Musk brand has bedazzled Weatherill and his cronies. It’s probably a combo of the two. Whatever, this news is something of a blow to local rivals. What is fascinating, though is how much energetic rivalry, or competition, there actually is in the storage and dispatchables field, in spite of the general negativity of the Federal government. It seems our centrist PM Malcolm Turnbull is at odds with his own government about this.

So enough about the Tesla-Neoen deal, and associated issues, which are mounting too fast for me to keep up with right now. I want to focus on pricing for the rest of this piece, because I have no understanding of why SA is now paying the world’s highest domestic electricity prices, as the media keeps telling us.

According to this Sydney Morning Herald article from nearly two years ago, which of course I can’t vouch for, Australia’s electricity bills are made up of three components: wholesale and retail prices, based on supply and demand (39% of cost); the cost of poles and wires (53%); and the cost of environmental policies (8%). The trio can be simplified as market, network and environmental costs. Market and network costs vary from state to state. The biggest cost, the poles and wires, is borne by all Australian consumers (at least all on the grid), as a result of a massive $45 billion upgrade between 2009 and 2014, due to expectations of a continuing rise in demand. Instead there’s been a fall, partly due to domestic solar but in large measure because of much tighter and more environmental building standards nationwide as part of the building boom. The SMH article concludes, a little unexpectedly, that the continuing rise in prices can only be due to retail price hikes, at least in the eastern states, because supply is steady and network costs, though high, are also steady.

A more recent article (December 2016) argues that a rising wholesale price, due to the closure of coal-fired power stations in SA and Victoria and higher gas prices, is largely responsible. Retail prices are higher now than when the carbon tax was in place in 2013.

This even recenter article from late March announces an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into retail pricing of electricity, which unfortunately won’t be completed till June 30 2018, given its comprehensive nature. It also contains this telling titbit:

A report from the Grattan Institute released earlier in March found a decade of competition in the market had failed to deliver better deals for customers, with profit margins on electricity bills much higher than for many other industries.

However, another article published in March, and focusing on SA’s power prices in particular (it’s written by former SA essential services commissioner Richard Blandy), takes an opposing view:

Retailing costs are unlikely to be a source of rapidly rising electricity prices because they represent a small proportion of final prices to consumers and there is a high level of competition in this part of the electricity supply chain. Energy Watch shows that there are seven electricity retailers selling electricity to small businesses, and 12 electricity retailers selling electricity to households. Therefore, price rises at the retail level are likely to be cost-based.

Blandy’s article, which looks at transmission and distribution pricing, load shedding and the very complex issue of wholesale pricing and the National Energy Market (NEM), needs at least another blog post to do justice to. I’m thinking that I’ll have to read and write a lot more to make sense of it all.

Finally, the most recentest article of only a couple of weeks ago quotes Bruce Mountain, director of Carbon and Energy Markets, as saying that it’s not about renewables (SA isn’t much above the other states re pricing), it’s about weak government control over retailers (could there be collusion?). Meanwhile, politicians obfuscate, argue and try to score points about a costly energy system that’s failing Australian consumers.

I’ll be concentrating a lot on this multifaceted topic – energy sources, storage, batteries, pricing, markets, investment and the like, in the near future. It exercises me and I want to educate myself further about it. Next, I’ll make an effort to find out more about, and analyse, the South Australian government’s six-point plan for our energy future.

References and more reading for masochists

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2017 at 10:55 am