Blogging catchup


I’m just back from a trip overseas on business, so I thought it would be a good idea to catchup.

Trump pulls out of Paris climate treaty


It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would pull out of the Paris climate treaty. He’s rowed back on nearly all of his campaign promises, as inevitably many of these policies were just unworkable or unenforceable. The Paris treaty was one of the few things he could actually change, largely because it will take until nearly the end of his presidency to complete the withdrawal (meaning a few months later his successor might well opt to simply re-enter the agreement).

However it has to be said the main loser is going to be the US. There’s a serious case of deja vu here. When G. W. Bush dropped out of the Kyoto protocol, making the same lame arguments about “jobs”…

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Hydrogen Woo


As a follow up to my article on scam water devices, I thought it would be useful to do one on hydrogen and water powered cars. One of the problems with being involved in renewable energy research, in particular fuel cells, is you’ll occasionally get someone who comes up to you and says, well hydrogen comes out the back of the fuel cell car yes? And hydrogen comes from water, so why not split the water again and feed the hydrogen into the fuel cell and you’ll have a car that can run on water…..hmmmm….,.Because that would be “perpetual motion”.


Now okay, I realise most people reading this will likely say like duh! obviously that won’t work. But I’ve heard this often enough that I really do feel the need to put together a post on it. I mean a year or two ago we had one of our degree students (not exactly the brightest one I might add) come by and ask if he could borrow an electrolysis machine so he could test the idea out (he was advised to start off with a 2nd level chemistry textbook then get back to us). So there is enough of this BS out there that it deserves debunking.

A fuel cell is not 100% efficient, they are usually about 40-60% efficient, although if we capture the heat (in a CHP application) this can jump to 90%. But as regards practical electrical efficiency, you’re talking about 50%, once we account for the balance of plant. By comparison a petrol engine is only about 25% efficient. Making hydrogen from electricity means electrolysis. There are various different hydrogen production processes, some of which can yield efficiencies as high as 75%, but for practical purposes (e.g. something you could fit in a car) you are probably talking about 40-60% efficiency. Let’s assume the higher figure of 60%. You’ll need to compress the hydrogen to get it into the tank, that’s going to be about 80-90% efficient, assuming you opt for a pressure below 350 bar. If you go for a much higher pressure (and most FCEV’s store hydrogen at 700 bar), then you’ll need to expend more energy compressing it. And as the hydrogen will get rather hot, you’ll need an multi-stage compression system with an innercooler. Although its worth pointing out that this step can be skipped if we opt for a static application and run at a much lower pressure.

So adding up our efficiencies we get 0.5×0.6×0.9 = 27%. In other words even if you devoted all of the electricity the fuel cell generated purely to hydrogen production, you’d end up with less than a third the energy you started off with. There is no way such a system could work.

I would note that overall cycle efficiency of hydrogen can be higher than I’ve indicated here. A paper by Bartolozzi etal (2013) illustrates the different options in more detail. But in summary, if we opt for more energy efficient means of hydrogen production, run everything at a lower pressure, recycle the waste heat (given that much of the losses represents waste heat), you can achieve much higher efficiencies. This is the point of static applications such as Fuel cells CHP plants, or simply burning hydrogen in a conventional boiler, as a substitute fuel for natural gas. Personally, I reckon the main use for hydrogen in the future will likely be static applications, mostly for winter heating or backing up the grid, with hydrogen fuelled vehicles essentially filling a niche between electric vehicles and biofuel powered vehicles. The extend to which hydrogen vehicles will be used depends to what extend the range issue with BEV’s can be resolved and how much biofuels we can sustainably produce. Keeping in mind that when I say “vehicle” I extend that to planes and ships. But clearly as regards water powered cars, 27% cycle efficiency is the best you could get…although the term “static energy sinkhole” is perhaps a more accurate description than “water powered car”.

Ah, but at this point you’ll be told, that there’s this special “additive that you mix into the water that will solve everything (which no doubt some quack will sell you over the internet). But for that to work the additive would have to raise the efficiency of the electrolysis process to higher than 100% and ultimately impart more energy into the system per unit mass than the hydrogen….and hydrogen has the highest calorific value of any known substance in the universe!…which is kind of the whole reason for using hydrogen in an fuel cell in the first place!

Quite simply put, if this magical “additive” actually existed, you’d be better off ditching the hydrogen tank, the fuel cell and the electrolysis process and coming up with a chemical fuel cell (e.g. like a flow battery) that ran directly off this “additive”. Furthermore our “additive” will have a production cycle, which will involve the consumption of energy. And its pretty reasonable to assume this will not be 100% efficient, indeed its doubtful it could match the efficiency of hydrogen production (again that’s kind of the point of using hydrogen!).


The Quant E car uses a salt water solution to transfer electrolytes around a redux flow battery…but still not a “water powered car

If such a device worked, nevermind powering a car, you could use it to generate electricity, solve world hunger and create a post scarcity society. And as for all the conspiracy theories, would companies hide such a technology if it existed? Of course not, they’d patent it and then make trillions. The fact is that water is basically the left over ashes of a hydrogen fire. Saying you can run a car off of water is equivalent to taking the ashes from a log fire and trying to glue them back together again. If such a simple answer to all of the world’s energy problems existed, don’t you think we’d be using it?

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Vegan Carnage

They have a Vegan movie out on the BBC Carnage, by Simon Amstell. A mockmentary, it imagines a UK in 2067 where the whole country is vegan, meat is banned, but older generations are suffering the guilt of their carnivorous past. I think I’d have to criticise it for going for the hard sell a bit too much and ignoring certain key facts, which means it will merely comes off as too preachy to be taken seriously.

58c8869917ad5e752654759a_carnage vegan doc 2017

Figure 1: Carnage movie premiere 

For example, at the end of the film all the farm animals get freed from the farm so they can live a life of bliss, yes? Ah no! Most farm animals won’t survive long outside of a farm. Decades, if not centuries, of selective breeding means many breeds of chickens, pigs and cattle simply won’t be able to survive for very long outside of a farm environment. If animal products were banned, the kindest thing you could do to them is put them all down immediately.

And while certain breeds of cattle, sheep and deer can survive outside of a farming environment, there would be issues. These animals populations are often sustained by animal feed, which in turn is grown using large quantities of fossil fuel based fertilisers. Without this feed they would literally strip the countryside bare, destroying the ecosystem and then starve to dead. And given how much methane they generate, keeping them alive would negate the main argument for veganism, fighting climate change. So large numbers of them would have to be culled as well.

Suffice to say day one of a vegan world would involve the biggest mass slaughter of animals since the K-T impact. And then there would be the problem of disposing of all those billions of animal carcasses. The sky would glow red for months with funeral pyres….and barbecues!


Figure 2: The mass slaughter and burning of animals during the Foot & Mouth crisis

And we are talking about prohibition here, anyone care to remember what happened when they tried that in the 1920’s? Within 10 minutes of bringing in such a ban they’re be spiv’s down every back alley in the country selling black market meat. And the meat would be produced under the most awful and inhumane conditions. Plus you’d have just put a price on the head of every pet, wild animal, bird and zoo animal in the country, who would start disappearing into back alley slaughter houses.

As a vet once pointed out to me, a lot of those in the animal rights movement have a very naïve view of nature (or politics) and how it works. They don’t seem to understand that life is tough and nature is cruel. Part of her job as a vet involves animal welfare on farms. And if you think things are bad on a farm, go watch a nature documentary sometime. And speaking of which in order to keep animal populations in balance in the absence of hunting, or farming, you would have to reintroduce predators. So you’d be saving lambs from the abattoir, just so they could get their throats ripped out by a wolf or fox.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s major issues with animal welfare that need to get tackled. I would note that I’m writing this while tucking into a vegetarian curry. And as I’ve discussed in prior posts, our food production system and in particular the meat industry needs major reform if it is to become sustainable. Brexit now raises the risk that current UK animal welfare and food safety standards will go backwards, as poorer American style standards are introduced. But equally there is a need for some realism here.


Figure 3: Global carbon emissions by source [Source: EPA, 2015]

Certainly one of the main arguments for a vegan diet is climate change. Meat is a fairly energy intensive food. About a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions are as a result of farming (all farming, meat production is about 14.5%) and land use changes. And while the carbon footprint of the other main headlines, energy, transport and industry are all stabilising or falling, emissions from agriculture are still rising. So its quickly becoming a priority that needs to be tackled.


Figure 4: Carbon footprint of different foods [Source: BBC, 2009 & Lantmannen foods]

Furthermore, at least a third of the world’s grain supply is also fed to farm animals, food that could be used to end world hunger, and the left overs could probably power more than a few biofuel powered cars too.


Figure 5: Carbon footprint by diet

That said, we need to avoid making unfair generalisations. As I discussed in a prior post on this topic, there is a certain level of meat that can be produced worldwide with a minimum of environmental impact. Once we exceed this threshold, the resources needed increase exponentially. Needless to say this is the problem, we’re producing too much meat and having to devote large amounts of land and energy towards that task in ways that simply aren’t sustainable.


Figure 6: A graph by Simon Fairlie from the recent BBC Horizon program showing the limits to sustainable meat production, via plant products (blue, 40MT/yr), Food wastes (orange, 110MT/yr) & Grazing land (Green, 40 MT/yr). Once we exceed these limits the resources needed increase exponentially [Source: BBC, 2014]

Different types of farming methods have very different environmental impacts. Its been suggested for example that feedlot cattle have a lower carbon footprint. However such studies tend to only consider the outgoings, they often fail to account for land use changes (which represent at least half of all agriculture related carbon emissions and they can be quite high for a feedlot). Or the environmental impact of non grass grazed animals as well as the the carbon absorption of vegetation on traditional farms, in particular the likes of hill farms, which in the UK often have a phenomenal growth rate.

Also there’s the issue of EROI’s to consider. The Tsembaga tribe of New Guinea practice a form of sustainable slash and burn agriculture along with animal husbandry (specifically pigs). They produce a yield of 16.5 times the energy back from food that they put in. By contrast a US corn farm has an EROI of just 2.4 and a US rice farm 1.37 (Aubecht, 1989). So its important to realise its not a simple case of black and white.

Not least because the door swings both ways here. A recent US study took a commonly circulated vegan diet, did the maths on it and concluded that adopting this vegan diet would actually lead to one’s carbon emissions increasing. Why? Well because while crops are generally less energy intensive as compared to meat, that’s not universally true. As noted earlier US grain production barely produces a net energy positive and requires significant amounts of fossil fuels to sustain. Certain crops, notably fruits are quite energy intensive, particularly if they are grown out of season in poly tunnels.


Figure 7: Carbon footprint of Tomatoes under different growing conditions [Source: Carlsson, 1998]

Some fruits and vegetables also can have a relatively large environmental impact. For example, Asparagus has a notoriously high carbon footprint. Its unfortunate that the movie I mentioned earlier chose to highlight coconut milk because the water needed to produce a litre of coconut milk is double what’s needed to produce a litre of cow’s milk. A kilo of rice also requires more water to produce the same amount of chicken or pork. Maybe not a huge problem in the UK, but water shortages are a big issue in other parts of the world. And of course we can’t produce coconuts, soya or rice in the UK, so those would have to be imported (i.e. more food miles).

The Virtual Water Project

Figure 8: Water use of different farming methods [Source: Chapagain, & Hoekstra, 2004]

Clearly the issue here is much as it is with meat. Much as there’s a “carrying capacity” of meat the world can sustainably produce, there’s a carrying capacity of fruit, vegetables and grains that can be produced with minimal environmental impact. Once we exceed these thresholds, the environmental impact increases rapidly, as the example in figure 7 for tomatoes illustrates. Add in long food miles for certain exotic fruit and veg and I think you get the idea.


Figure 9: Food miles by transport method

Indeed a food mile problem with fruit and veg is its need for air transportation over meat and grains (which can often be shipped more slowly by boat in refrigerated storage) due to its short shelf life. There’s also an issue with large amounts of fruit and veg being thrown out, although this can be a problem with meat as well, as figure 10 shows.


Figure 10: Waste and spoilage of different foods from field to plate

I would argue the solution here is changes to how supermarkets work, i.e. differential pricing, selling stuff close to its sell by date off cheaper (decreasing the chances of it having to be thrown out) and making the same item that’s going to keep for longer more expensive.


Figure 11: Seasonal eating

But what all of this highlights is its not that simple to say “become vegan”. There is a need to try and stick to locally produced food’s, where possible, and those that are in season. Of course this restricts the dietary options yet further and feeds into one of the major complains of those who try to go vegan and give up – that they struggle to eat a balanced diet (this is one of my concerns too and why I’ve never gone fully down that route).

Admittedly some do make the rookie mistake of eating what they always did, but cutting out the meat (often because they live in a non-vegan household). That’s a one way ticket to scurvy. You need to be a bit more inventive. e.g. the veggie curry I’m having is made from a range of UK vegetables….although that said, the one I had the other week was lentils and chickpeas, which I’m guessing aren’t local…nor is the rice! My point is that its not easy and this needs to be acknowledged.

All in all, while there are good reasons to go vegan, but I worry that trying for the hard sell is just preaching to the converted and will just turn most people off. I would rather focus on messages that will get somewhere, e.g. the need to give up beef.

Indeed here’s an interesting idea from Simon Fairlie in which he proposes to put a tax on meat, in particular beef. I think this sounds like an idea that need to be explored, although I’d focus initially on just getting rid of farm subsidies for meat. Also we’d need to tackle the issues I raised earlier regarding the large uncertainty as to the exact environmental impact of meat (or fruit and vegetable production). Otherwise the meat lobby will simply point out how terrible for the environment certain vegan products are and suggest those should be taxed as well.

And making food more expensive is the sort of thing that’s seldom popular. After all, many have argued for a tax on sugary drinks or a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland. Yet its taken several years to get those laws in place. And that’s with universal cross party support. Obviously in a scenario where one side or another objects (and its a given that they will in the case of meat) then would make such legislation a very tall order.

So its important to get your facts straight, vegans need to do some fact checking before they start making claims that aren’t entirely correct, or they’ll end up with egg on their faces (if you’ll pardon the pun). And the hard sell merely makes vegans come across as the sort of fanatics who would ban a woman from bottle feeding her baby breast milk in a vegan shop (and yes this did actually happen). Or the idots who came into my Cousin’s restaurant (they claimed to be fruitarians who won’t eat anything on the menu unless it had fallen naturally off a tree, she’d have taken them a little more seriously if once wasn’t wearing a leather jacket and the other leather shoes!).

So I would focus on smaller more achievable goals (e.g. reducing beef consumption) rather than going to extremes, which will simply be ignored.

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Local election autopsy



With the local election results in, they make for grim reading for labour. They lost several mayoral election and 382 council seats. Should anyone doubt the disaster Corbyn is leading the party into, well here’s the evidence. Indeed you could tell it was bad by the fact that even before the counting had even started labour was already making excuses and had essentially already conceded defeat.

Firstly, the good news, UKIP were more or less wiped out, losing all but one of their seats. This to be honest isn’t that surprising, given that the Tories have spent the last few years turning themselves into UKIP. Voting for UKIP was always a protest, hence why they tended to do well in local elections or EU elections with low turn outs. However, once people had a UKIP councillor and realised what a total nob they’d voted for, they are…

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Water woo devices

I came across this video promotion for a self filling water bottle device, being marketed by a company called Fontus. It supposedly can refill itself by condensing water straight out of the air, being powered by a small solar panel, thus providing water in remote areas. They’ve managed to acquire about $350,000 worth of crowd funding. However there’s a slight problem, it can’t possibly work! Its quite literally “vapourware. Vlogger Thunderf00t, aka Phil Mason does a more complete debunking here, but in short such a device (even if it worked) would deliver such a ridiculously low level of water, that you’d be better off seeking other alternatives.


Figure 1: The Fontus self filling water bottles, camping and bike versions [Source: Fontus, 2016]

And this is merely one of a number of similar devices doing the rounds. There’s also the Waterseer device. This has also attracted quite a bit of publicity and funding, claiming to be able to deliver as much as 14 gallons of water a day. But again it can’t possibly work and it has been debunked by Thunderf00t and quite a number of others online. Quite clearly those behind these devices are either scammers, or yet another proof of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


Figure 2: The Waterseer scam device [Source: Treehugger/Waterseer 2016]

What initially tickled my spidey senses was the solar panel on the bike version of the self filling bottle. Its stuck between the legs of the rider. Solar panels need good sunlight to be effective, if they are shaded they’ll provide negligible power output. Even the larger panel is simply too small (and curved, so it will shade itself if its not stretched out properly and thus not deliver any significant power). Furthermore the thermal properties of water involve some rather large numbers. Its specific heat capacity is about 4200 J/kg/K. That means that in order to heat 1L of water (roughly 1 kg) from 20ºC to 100°C you need to apply 336,000 Joules of heat. And that doesn’t boil the water, you’d need to overcome the latent heat for that, meaning you need to add a further 2260 kJ per kilo (i.e more energy than it takes to get it to boiling point!).

And condensing water out of the atmosphere requires a lot more energy than simply heating it up, especially if you are using a Peltier type device. Using Fontus own data, Dave Jones from EEVblog points out that under ideal conditions you could only generate 1L of water per 250 Wh’s of energy (about 900 kJ, enough to make nearly three litres of tea and keep Mrs Doyle happy). There is simply no way a small badly shaded solar panel is ever going to output anything like that sort of power. Indeed he goes on to work out the size of solar panel you’d need (again under ideal conditions) and as you can see, it ain’t small. And the actual performance of Peltier effect dehumidifers in more normal conditions will be a lot worse than this.


Figure 3: The estimated size of a solar panel you’d need to actually operate a self filling water bottle under ideal conditions [Source: EEVblog, 2016]

And similarly the Waterseer can’t possibly work, indeed on the porky scale of 1 to 10, if Fartus Fontus are a 9, Waterscamer Waterseer are a 12. It relies on the temperature gradient between the air and the soil (which is generally around about 10-15°C in the UK) to cool and condense water. However, this ignores just how much energy it takes to actually condense water from vapour to a liquid (again 2260 kJ per kg). And ground temperature conditions vary worldwide, with soil temperatures generally higher in hot countries.

Furthermore, you start dumping kJ’s worth of heat into the ground, its going to start heating up (especially if there’s 30°C of air above and thus nowhere for the heat to go). This is a problem with ground source heat pumps, if you pump too much heat out, you can end up freezing the ground. So essentially a Waterseer faces the opposite problem, eventually the ground temperature will equal the air temperature. Indeed given the better insulating properties of soil compared to air, at night the temperature gradient will reverse! Keep in mind that for the 11-14 gallons they talk about it supplying, that works out at a need for the ground to absorb heat at a rate of between 1 – 1.4 kW’s. To give you some idea of how hard that is consider the image below of the ground coil for a GSHP with a level of heat abstraction in the kW range. And this is a forced convection device, in which we are circulating water via a pump.


Figure 4: Ground source heat pump coils in the kW scale

And this presents another problem for Waterseer, its wind turbine driven pump won’t work all of the time. A small vertical axis wind turbines, particularly one that close to the ground is going to have a very low capacity factor, 10-20% by my estimate. And furthermore, the amount of water in the atmosphere is tiny, a few ml’s of water per cubic metre of air, so you’d need to pump a significant quantity of air through the system. Even if we assume the higher figure for wind turbine capacity factors and we assume it works 50% of the year (i.e. during the day) that implies a year round capacity factor of 10%. And remember, the lower the capacity factor, the higher that rate of heat loss needs to be (the estimates I gave earlier assumed a 100% capacity factor). So the reality is that such a device will only work relatively infrequently and with a level of output a fraction of what’s advertised.

And this is an important point to be made when dealing with water. Whether you are pumping water or heating it up, you need something with a descent power output for it to be effective. Generally you want something in the range of a few hundred watts. So a couple of square metres of PV or solar thermal collectors would do the trick. Anything smaller than this (a tiny wind turbine or a 10-20 Watt PV panel) will struggle to produce any meaningful output. They are designed to charge phones or run a few low voltage devices. Pumping, heating or condensing water is generally going to be outside of their pay grade. I don’t mean to be rude, but you could literally generate more water and energy peeing on either of these devices!

And why reinvent the wheel? It may have escaped people’s attention, but we live on a planet covered by water. Unless you’re in the middle of the Sahara, there’s always going to be water available somewhere nearby. The problem isn’t so much a lack of water, its a lack of clean drinking water. Its always going to be a lot easier to just purify water than to trying to conjure it out of thin air (or indeed easier to simply sink a well or collect rain water). Already a whole bunch of water purification kits aimed at hikers are available. These can involve use of water purification tablets, or filters (which often come with a hand operated pump) or simply carrying a big gas cylinder and boil everything. Which of these is the best option largely depends on the circumstances. Indeed, I’m forced to conclude that the developers of our self filling bottle have never actually been on an expedition to a water scarce area, so they hadn’t even done the most basic market research.


Figure 5: A variety of water purifier kits are now on the market, with some being supplied to developing world countries which lack good water supplies [Source: Go Outdoors ND]

For the purposes of desalination, or more static applications, there’s a solar still, which in good sunlight can deliver 4-5 litre’s of water per day per m2 of area. Although that’s obviously not going to be portable and takes time to set up, but an option to consider for static applications (again I’m forced to the conclusion our Waterseer lot have never even visited a village in the developing world!). If you want more significant levels of water delivery on a more reliable basis and a still, well or rainwater harvesting aren’t really viable options (e.g. you are on a boat), then you can use reverse osmosis or the MSF method (Multi Stage Flash, basically boiling it). The energy consumption rates aren’t small, about 3-4 kWh/m3 and 10-25 kWh/m3 respectively (so again, you need a decently sized source of energy). But that’s still a level of performance that’s 10 to 80 times better than either of our water woo devices can offer (and that’s comparing practical real world values to our water woo devices running under ideal conditions!).

Of course, I’d have to point out that the Fontus designers appear to be arts students and product designers. If there’s anything more dangerous than a Trump presidency, its art and design students who think they know something about physics and engineering.


Figure 6: How great products are developed [Source: Scott Adams ND]

The normal route for product development is you start off with the marketing department asking the engineers to come up with some device (our customers would like to be teleported to important world events, or the theatre). The engineers respond by suggesting the marketing department stop smoking crack, then propose that as an alternative they can build this box through which you can view faraway events. The engineers develop their gizmo, which they call a TV (engineer’s like acronyms, you’re lucky we didn’t invent the fork or it would be called an MPF), which turns out to be a massive steel box that weights 2 tons, requires a 3 phase supply, two PhD’s to set up and can communicate with alien races if required. It is at this point that the product designers get involved and the product goes through various design iterations until you end up with something a customer might actually want to buy.

In effect the development of both of these products worked in reverse. The product design/arts students started off with an idea, did a slick advertising campaign and sold the device before considering any of the technical questions, or even conducting the most basic market research. Its only now, after they’d done all the pretty sketches and collected lots of awards that they’ve paused to consider the engineering. I mean its not as if engineering is complicated, its not like it involves maths or science or anything like that! Unfortunately, this is a trend I do see occurring more often, we engineers tend to get consulted much later in a product design process, usually after the arty types have painted themselves into a corner.


Figure 7: Bad product design can lead to things like this $400 dollar juicing machine that can be replaced by simply hand squeezing the bags it comes with….or a $50 blender! [Source: BBC, 2017]

Now if this was simply a tale of how a couple of fraudsters/morons managed to con a lot of naive people on the internet out of their money via scam starter kick starter, I’d leave it at that. However, both of these water woo devices have been heavily promoted by a wide variety of popular science articles, very few of whom really gave either device any sort of critical review. By way of example, here’s an article from Time and another from Popular science (after being exposed by EEVblog Popular science deleted their original Waterseer article, the one I’ve linked too is the replacement).

Fontus won a design award from Dyson and Waterseer has the backing of Berkeley university and the US peace corps. I mean science is under attack enough from anti-vaxxers & climate deniers, without us adding BS like this to the mix. Sooner or later the Daily Fail or some other right wing rag is going to pick up on this and have a field day. And for once they’ll be right.

That said, I do know people who work for Dyson…..and lets just say they do a good show of pretending to be boffins (he backed brexit….yet believes in Britain so much that he’s fired lots of brits so he could move a factory to Asia).

As for Berkeley, well you need to understand that universities, particularly those in the US and England, have gotten pretty mercenary over the last few years. Frankly, if I wanted to execute someone in the most painful way possible, I’d attach dollar bills to them and then throw them into a pit full of university vice-chancellors. The units of universities responsible for prostituting themselves bringing in private capital are easy to identify, they usually have words like “innovation” or “entrepreneur” in them, or they are named after some rich guy (rather annoyingly one uni I was working for won an award for being “entrepreneurial university of the year”, which is a bit like being called the best brothel in town). These institutes are the hide out for academic staff who are too dumb to teach, or too incompetent for any funding body to give them access to public money. Well I think you can guess which part of Berkeley is backing Waterseer.

Certainly what this saga shows is the need for people to undertake due diligence. Any website allowing a company to crowd fund should require that they undergo some level of professional scrutiny. You get a lawyer and an accountant in to go over the books and the contracts and make sure they aren’t a bunch of scam artists or bull$hitters (such as the guys behind the recent Fyre Festival in the Bahamas). Bringing in a few engineers and technical experts to review the proposal is another important step.

And if you are going to be a science journalist, you have a responsibility to do some sort of fact checking too, don’t just report verbatim what anyone says. I mean if any of the science journalists who promoted these devices wants a good technology story I know a bloke down the pub who reckons he can run his car off of water. Are you going to shortlist him for a Dyson award?

And the first question you need to ask, when it comes to assessing the technical merits of any proposal is, has somebody tried this before? Because I can all but guarantee you someone will have. And if someone hasn’t, then there’s probably a good reason why. Which leads us to the second question, why did the product or idea fail the last time? This should give you a clue as to whether or not its worth pursuing.

For example, electric cars were quite popular back in early days of the motor car. However, they were quickly superseded by petrol powered cars due to the range issue. Obviously since then concerns about climate change and advances in batter technology means that electric cars are back on the agenda. While I’m personally doubtful we’ll ever see a like for like replacement of petrol powered cars, certainly there’s a wide range of roles they can perform and thus a wide avenue for research and development here.


Figure 8: Rocket man…..for about ten seconds, then you’re out of fuel!

By contrast a jet pack was a bad idea when it was first proposed, and given that the laws of physics haven’t changed, its still a bad idea today. Anyone working on one of these is wasting their time. Advances in battery technology makes a flying car a bit more plausible. But only if we can ignore the fact that they would be very expensive, have a very high rate of energy consumption and are much more challenging to fly. There is no way they could ever replace existing aviation or land vehicles (save one or two niche roles). Indeed most “flying cars” under development aren’t really flying cars, just high Cooper-Harper scale aircraft with an extended taxi capability.

By I digress, the irony is that public bodies get a lot of stick for wasting public money (in particular the EU), but if you applied for research funding for either of these water woo devices you’d get shot down in one of the many layers of peer review. And this is what worries me, because such silliness threatens funding for real researchers who are trying to make a difference and solve the world’s water crisis.

For example, lets suppose I applied for a grant too drill a few wells in Africa, or maybe develop a more efficient reverse osmosis device, or perhaps I want to design some sort of low cost solar still. Would I get funding? Well you could just see some populist, Trump/Brexiter appointee pointing to the Time article above and say, oh that’s a waste of money, why these boffins will soon develop a device that conjures water out of thin air. And similarly, will any of the suckers investors who’ve backed either of these devices ever donate or invest in system that could theoretically make a difference after getting burned in the spectacular fashion they are about to be? This stops being a joke when the world’s growing water crisis is made harder to solve.


Figure 9: Some things never change! The gullible will always be exploited

What these examples show is just how easy it is for style to triumph over substance. It shows just how technically illiterate people have become these days, even so-called science journalists. Far too many people these days view technology like its some sort of mobile phone app, have a problem? install technology. Well it ain’t so, if the world’s problems could be solved so easily, don’t you think someone would have already done it?

We are truly in the “post truth” age when you see devices like this being openly promoted by university departments and in the national press, and it then falls to vloggers and bloggers on the internet to call them out. As the line in the play Juno and the Paycock goes “when ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise”.

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A day without coal


Figure 1: Contribution of coal to the UK national grid 15-21st of April 2017 [Source: National Grid]

On Friday, the UK went a full 24 hours with all of its coal fired power stations turned off. The first time the UK has operated without coal since the industrial revolution. Indeed coal has been an important energy source in the UK since the 1600’s. So this is a bit of a mile stone.

That said, it needs to be put in the proper context. The UK coal industry has been in decline for quite some time now. Even before Thatcher’s confrontation with the unions, coal was in decline. More recently quite a few of the UK’s coal fired power plants have begun to convert to co-firing with biomass. And coal fired power stations are increasingly used only for load following or peak load power. And naturally, late April is a time of low electricity demand.


Figure 2: The UK’s energy mix for electricity production, 1920-2016 [Source: Carbon Brief, 2016]

Certainly some credit must be given to the rise in renewable energy. Over 2016, more UK electricity was generated by wind energy than came from coal. And Scotland closed its last remaining coal plant last year and has been steadily running at about 59% renewables for its electricity for some time now.

But of course, this is not to suggest the UK is 100% renewable, there’s still a lot of fossil fuels on the grid, notably natural gas. Generally natural gas is cleaner and has a lower carbon footprint than coal, although there is some controversy with regard to shale gas and its carbon footprint. And the Tories recent cuts to renewables, as well as their attempts to tax solar power, means the grow of renewables in the UK has slowed somewhat. And brexit is inevitably going to make the situation worse. So its not victory cigar time yet.

My comment would be, great news, but what’s the long term plan? Cutting coal out of the equation is one thing, but not if it means creating a gap in the grid. Because my concern would be that if something doesn’t fill that gap, it will be all too tempting to fill it with another generation of coal or gas fire power stations at some future date. There is still a lack of joined up thinking in the UK with regard to energy policy. And until we get that sorted out, I worry that the progress made might end up being reversed if we aren’t careful.

But certainly this is an historic mile stone. One of those things we were assured could never happen, has just happened.

Posted in Biomass, clean energy, economics, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The libertarian slavery paradox


Nolan_chart The Political compass as libertarians see it

I happened to be watching the remake of the TV series Roots recently (based on the Alex Haley novel) and it did occur to me how it creates a bit of a troubling problem for libertarians. They like to see themselves as the ultimate liberals at the opposite end of the political compass to nazi’s and authoritarians. However I would argue that logic would dictate that any libertarian society would inevitably eventually become a slave owning society.

Think about it, in a libertarian society if someone owes you money or compensation for something, how do you get them to pay? Let’s suppose someone did a shoddy job tiling your roof, or he ran over your 6 year old kid and she’s now paralysed for life and needs expensive treatment, or someone simply defaults on their loans to a bank…

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