zchen's blog

Smart Grid Could Be Perfect 164th Birthday Present for Edison

Thomas Edison, whose 164th birthday is today, began the electrical age in New York City in 1882 when he turned on electric lights in 58 houses. Within years, his electricity grid had grown to send electricity to thousands, and was the model that we use today to send power to billions worldwide. But, it has major problems: It’s old, prone to blackouts, one-sided, and concealed by complexity. Your power grid…rebooted Now, Ontario and several other regions leading the charge are launching a major upgrade to create a smart grid that combines the most current in energy technology with beefed-up telecommunications and information systems. One of the key advisors on Ontario’s development of a smart grid has been Jatin Nathwani, Professor and Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy, Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (not to mention an advisor for the Equinox 2030 Summit in June.) According to Nathwani, smart grids will have three major benefits: Public becoming “professional” energy purchasers - Increased information can transform customers from passive receivers of energy to active participants, customizing how and when they buy power.” There’s a whole host of devices about to burst onto the public market in the area of real-time feedback for consumers to control usage,” said Nathwani. “It’s not too far away that I could be in my office using an app on my BlackBerry to control the thermostat in my home. But even beyond just thermostat, we will have the ability to remotely control, manage, and understand what energy is being used by individual devices like the fridge or personal computers.” Curbing blackouts with “smart” energy flow - The second major benefit will be building a more reliable (and more informative) energy infrastructure for utility companies and industry: Each year Canada loses about $150 billion due to blackouts that could last from hours to just minutes. The ability to control energy flows more precisely will add flexibility that should prevent large scale blackouts like the one in 2003 that plunged the Eastern seaboard into darkness. Letting solar and wind power do its job - Thirdly, the new smart grid will allow users to more fully provide energy to the grid using distributed energy sources like solar panels or wind turbines. “Policies to implement renewable energy on a larger scale and behind the meter solar photovoltaics on customer roofs for instance has enabled new technologies to interact with utilities in Ontario like never before,” says Nathwani. “We see two-way power flows as opposed to one way and new distributed energy generation such as biogas on farms, photovoltaic cells, microwind farms, even larger industrial scale wind all around the province. The physics of the system has changed, and we need different control technology that only smart grids can offer.” Nathwani also believes that Ontario’s vision for a smart electricity grid will help it get off coal completely as the provincial government has promised, and even replace gasoline with electrons through the growing electric car market. Written by: Graeme Stemp-Morlock     

Can Pond Scum Save the World

In labs around the world, plastic bags of green water are quietly basking in sunlight. The water’s filled with what’s commonly known as ‘pond scum’. Its official name is green algae- a tiny, unicellular organism found in ponds, rivers and oceans worldwide. It looks slimy, murky and just plain yucky. In spite of this, scientists worldwide are furiously trying to figure out how to best grow and process it. If they succeed, they might just save the world. When I first heard about this massive effort, I thought to myself “Why”? Why is so much effort going into something so apparently mundane?  A quick web search later, I had my answer. Put simply, green algae has an unparalleled ability to absorb and store energy. If scientists can harness this power, they just might be able to create a clean alternative to gasoline and other fossil fuels. This potential that has attracted hundreds of researchers and billions of dollars of investment to date.  Green algae is currently one of the hottest prospects in alternative fuels. Green algae is an example of a biofuel — a fuel made from a biological material like corn or sugar cane. What gets scientists — and armchair observers like myself — so excited about it is its tantalizing combination of properties.  Given the right conditions, green algae grows so quickly it doubles its mass overnight. Just try and get corn or any other land crop to do that! As it grows, green algae converts sunlight into oil stored inside its cell walls. If scientists can efficiently extract and process this fuel, they’d generate vast amounts of gasoline and diesel. Critically, the process would be virtually pollution free. If just less than half a percent of the world’s land was devoted to growing green algae, it would produce enough oil to replace fossil fuels entirely. But only if we can extract it efficiently. This ‘if’ is where the sticking point lies. Research into green algae is still in its infancy. Only tiny amounts of biodiesel fuel have been produced from it so far. The technology is unproven and may never pan out.  Green algae growth is highly sensitive to surrounding conditions and the process of extracting oil from it is complex and unperfected. But, with billions of dollars of investment to date, a dwindling supply of fossil fuels and global climate change, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If green algae biofuel can be produced on a large scale, the pay-off would be immense. By 2030, it just might be providing a significant fraction of the world’s energy, helping to free us from the shackles of fossil fuels. This prospect has attracted hundreds of the world’s smartest scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, not to mention significant support from governments worldwide. Who knows, in 2030 you and I just might be filling up our cars with pond scum.   Written by: Damian Pope Damian has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Queensland in Australia. He also has extensive experience communicating science to the public and is currently the Senior Manager of Outreach at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Ever Wonder...What's in a Watt?

Just flick a switch and let there be light (or boiled water, or Blu-ray, or a night’s charge for your smartphone):  A lifestyle that would have seemed like magic to many people even 100 years ago is now something we pretty much take for granted. In all your daily hustle (and – likely – bustle) have you ever stopped to wonder what it takes to keep you in the electrified, digital lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed?  One of the easiest ways to see it all in action is to uncover just what’s in a watt… Electricity unraveled To put it most simply, the watt (W) is a standard unit which you can use to measure your personal power consumption.  Named after James Watt (1736-1819), the Scottish inventor who refined the steam engine, a watt (W) is a unit of power that describes the rate at which energy is converted (i.e. the rate at which you are using energy).  As you may remember from high school physics:      1 watt = 1 joule per second      (note: energy is measured in joules)            OR      1 watt = lifting 1 deck of cards from the ground onto a poker table So what about 100 watts?      100 W = lifting 100 decks of cards from the ground onto a table in 1 second            OR      100 W = the power of the incandescent light bulb that’s illuminating my       workspace as I write this (I know, it needs replacing) We may be most familiar thinking about watts in terms of light bulbs, but not all of our power consumption comes conveniently stamped with a wattage number. So how do we determine the rate at which we are using energy? Your monthly energy bill could be a place to start. It provides you with a measurement in kilowatt hours (kWh). Note that a kilowatt is simply 1000 watts.       1 kWH = wattage in kilowatts x hours used So if I left the 100 W light bulb that’s shining on me right now burn all month (730 hours), it would require 73 kWh:      73 kWh = 0.1 kW x 730 hours If I replaced my 100 W incandescent light bulb with a 25 W compact fluorescent, I would cut down my electricity bill to 18 kWh:       18 kWh = 0.025 kW x 730 hours Unfortunately, your standard energy bill doesn’t provide a detailed breakdown of where all your kilowatt hours are coming from. Making the system work for you Enter watt calculators: While these types of tools are still being refined, like carbon footprint calculators, they can provide a surprising perspective on the energy intensity of your lifestyle.  For example, WattzOn.com features a free tool to quantify your personal power consumption which uses crowd-sourcing to increase accuracy. It uses watts instead of kilowatt hours in order to simplify the calculations by taking time out of the equation. You can use such online tools to get a sense of your own energy consumption and compare yourself to others to see how you fare.  Energy reality More than looking at the kWh total on your monthly energy bill, the specific outputs of power-consumption tools can provide you with a real sense of your actual power use.  This sort of detailed understanding of your personal wattage can help you make more energy-efficient lifestyle choices when the wattage isn’t listed on the box. What’s your wattage or your new wattage goal? Figure it out using WattzOn and post to our Facebook page.   Written by: Lisa Lambert

Looking at Energy from Above for Earth Hour

Switch off the lights and get your candles ready because Earth Hour happens tomorrow, Saturday, March 25, from 8:30 to 9:30 in your local time-zone. During the event, WWF invites you and over a billion people worldwide to turn off your lights in support of a global environmental cause. In honour of this year’s Earth Hour, we’re giving you a glimpse of our world’s energy circumstance from above. Have you ever pondered where your electricity comes from, who uses the most of it in the world, or where all of the world’s nuclear reactors are? Well, scroll down to find out! 1- Here’s a map of what the Earth looks like at night. The brightest areas on the map show the Earth’s most developed and urbanized areas, but not necessarily the most populated. Can you spot where you live on the map? Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited that emissions from electricity generation accounted for the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions over agriculture, commercial, industrial, residential, and transportation categories. 2- This map from the UK Guardian shows the world’s carbon emissions by country as of 2006. Over this period, China overtook the United States as the largest emitter of C02. Click on the map below to explore the interactive version where you can learn more about each continent.   Map courtesy of Christine Oliver (UK Guardian) 3- If you’ve ever wondered where the world’s electricity comes from, the chart below shows the total world electricity generation by type of fuel as of 2008. Coal still fuels over 40% of electricity worldwide. The ‘other’ category includes solar, wind, combustible renewable, geothermal, and waste. If you’d like to look up the energy mix of your country, click here.   Chart courtesy of the World Coal Association 4- These maps show electricity consumption. The first map shows total electricity consumption, and the second one shows electricity consumption per capita. Where do you fit in? Find your country’s ranking in a complete list of countries by electricity consumption by clicking on the maps below. Total electricity consumption: Map courtesy of World Sites Atlas  Electricity consumption per capita: Map courtesy of World Sites Atlas 5- This map gives you an idea of where nuclear power stations are located worldwide (represented by blue markers). As of the year 2000, there are 248 recorded atomic energy plants. MapTD, a blog about maps, overlaid 37 years of seismic activity in response to the recent nuclear scares in Japan. Click on the image below for an interactive map to learn more about global reactors. Map courtesy of MapTD, United States Geological Survey, and the International Atomic Energy Agency 6- What if we could generate all of our electricity through solar photovoltaics? The map below shows the total surface area needed to generate all of the world’s electricity by solar panels. The small red and yellow rectangles represent land area needed to meet the world’s electricity needs by the year 2030. Click on the map below for a larger version with detailed information. Map courtesy of Land Art Generator Initiative   Written by: RJ Taylor

Power Plants That Eat Their Waste? What's Not to Like?

When the atomic age dawned in the 1950s, we were promised clean, abundant, safe energy. Instead, the splitting of the atom locked us into an endless debate over nuclear waste, meltdowns, inefficiencies, cost over-runs, and the weaponization of plutonium. Decades down the road, what if we could solve all these problems? What if a new technology could completely reshape the nuclear debate? Enter Yacine Kadi, an applied physicist at CERN in Geneva and a confirmed participant in this summer’s Equinox Summit. He’s designed a new type of reactor that uses a particle accelerator to jumpstart nuclear fission in an element called Thorium (aptly-named after the Norse god Thor) that can burn nuclear waste inside an old Russian submarine reactor. It’s an ambitious idea for the current nuclear industry, but many argue the benefits are pretty straightforward: Safety High energy neutrons shot from the particle accelerator power the reaction, so turn them off and your nuke turns off too. No runaway chain reactions or meltdowns. Nuclear waste Spent thorium produces vastly less radioactive waste materials and no potentially weapons-grade plutonium. Moreover, spent uranium fuel rods from conventional nuclear reactors can be burned in thorium reactors to turn that uranium into less harmful elements. Efficiency A current nuclear reactor is about 30% effective, versus the best gas-fired power plants that are 40-50% effective. Thorium reactors could be 50-60% effective. Added benefits Thorium reactors must operate at very high temperatures to be effective, around 700 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, lead must cool the reactor instead of the traditional water. However, lead is highly inert and would require no pumps that could break or be disabled in a power outage. Plus, such a high temperature makes it possible to warm entire neighborhoods with extra heat or even crack water molecules to make hydrogen. …And did we mention that thorium is far more abundant and easier to find than uranium? Of course, Kadi is aware that there will be challenges to get this technology developed, the biggest being a stagnant nuclear industry. As well, developing a particle accelerator able to run without interruption in the necessary energy level will require some additional work. Better living through Thor? But, using a reactor developed for Russian nuclear submarines, Kadi believes a prototype could be up and running within five years for about $400 million – less than the billions convention nuclear reactors cost. Such a prototype could power a city of about a million people. This new type of reactor is interesting countries like India that have a lot of thorium deposits and would like to build 200 nuclear reactors in the next 20-30 years. Environmentalists and industry representatives have fought heated public campaigns over nuclear safety. Thorium could end those debates with a new technology that produces highly efficient energy, reduces waste, and is largely meltdown-proof. Isn’t that what the atomic age was supposed to look like? Thorium Reactor Diagrams (courtesy of Yacine Kadi): Principle of an Accelerator Driven System (ADS): Schematic view of the energy amplifier system for electricity production: A combined incinerator and thorium energy generator: Technologies involved in ADS are already in use elsewhere:   Written by: Graeme Stemp-Morlock Photo credit: Rob Lavinsky | www.iRocks.com  

Where Does Energy Come From? (And Where Is It Going?)

Word is there’s a worldwide energy problem. Apparently, if we don’t change our ways, worst-case-scenario pundits talk about an ELE (for non-texters, that’s an Extinction-Level Event). Not a big deal considering that life on Earth has already survived several ELEs, but it would be a shame if humans were responsible for a preventable ELE. In talk of potential solutions to such a crisis, it might help to step back and look at the big picture: To first understand what energy actually is, so we can talk more sensibly about where it comes from. Energy insight in a coffee cup Fortunately, Einstein helped a lot by discovering that E=mc2. What does this mean?  That energy and mass are equivalent. Consider a cup of coffee: It has more energy when it’s hot than when it’s cold. This means it has more mass. It weighs more, and is harder to move around. (In this example, the difference is so small it would be hard to measure. But nature doesn’t care about human practicalities; for nature, it’s a matter of principle.) As the coffee cools, energy flows into the surrounding air, warming it up, and causing it to have more mass. That was Einstein’s insight: any flow of energy is actually a flow of mass. “Wait a minute…doesn’t E=mc2 mean just nuclear energy—reactors and bombs?” Not so. It applies to all forms of energy: solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, fossil fuels, bio-fuels, nuclear fission and fusion, etc...It’s universal. It’s just that nuclear processes involve millions of times more energy than chemical processes (e.g., burning gasoline), making the mass differences big enough for humans to practically measure. Eating sunlight (and nuclear energy all around us) Here`s my favourite example: In the heart of the Sun, nuclear fusion converts mass into light (and other particles we’ll ignore), which, together with carbon dioxide, is absorbed by plants, forming sugars (in physics terms, certain molecules form that have extra energy, and hence extra mass). This extra mass comes from the Sun. The food energy in that apple you had for lunch is really a bit of the Sun’s mass. We are literally eating the Sun. We are that connected to the physical world! (As a physicist, this is one of my “happy thoughts.”) Thus we arrive at a little-appreciated but very cool fact: the bottom of the food chain is not phytoplankton in the oceans. It’s the Sun itself! Physics trumps biology! (OK, now I’m being petty.) From this perspective, virtually all energy is nuclear. (One of the few exceptions I can think of is geothermal, which is partly nuclear and partly gravitational energy from way before the solar system was formed, but that’s another story...) Nuclear energy is the King. Either the Sun itself—a gigantic nuclear reactor nature has kindly provided, from which we get solar, wind, hydroelectric, fossil fuels, bio-fuels, etc. Or nuclear reactors humans build. Getting a lift from a little star-power Of these there are two types: fission (splitting large atomic nuclei) and fusion (fusing together smaller atomic nuclei). Today we have only fission reactors. They can have some nasty side effects, especially if things go wrong.  But fusion reactors are different. One of the largest science and engineering projects in human history, ITER, is our latest attempt to build a fusion reactor. “The power of the stars!” Much cleaner and far safer than current fission reactors, and – depending on reactor design – with enough raw fuel in the oceans to outlast the planet many times over. So what am I trying to say? Nuclear is a seven letter word, not four.   Written by: Richard Epp Richard Epp has a Masters degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Manitoba. He held postdoctoral research positions around the world working in general relativity before becoming Scientific Outreach Manager at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Are Electric Cars Finally in the Fast Lane?

When I first saw it, I thought it was a parking ticket machine. It was big, shiny and rectangular and sat on the pavement next to the curb. But, as I got closer, I made out the words on its sign: ELECTRIC VEHICLE CHARGING STATION The moment I realized what it was, I broke into a grin and got a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Maybe there was hope for humanity after all. My social media phenomenon It was last summer and I was in Portland, Oregon on a work trip. I was walking through the downtown area and came across the public charging station. Next to it was a dedicated parking space for electric vehicles. I did what anyone else would have done in such a situation: I snapped a photo of it with my cell phone and posted it to Facebook (see photo to the right). It was a hit. It got half a dozen ‘likes’ and multiple positive comments. The last time I had such big a response was when I posted a picture of my cat sitting in the sink. Not a new idea Electric cars have been around for a long time. The first prototypes were built in the 1800s. They were even more popular than gasoline-powered cars until the early 20th century when advances in internal combustion engine technology led to the latter taking over. But they never completely went away. A small number of brave inventors kept working on them while the rest of us were happily driving around in our gas-powered vehicles. Over the last decade, they’ve made a comeback even Rocky Balboa would have been proud of. As the price of oil has climbed and the world has become more and more concerned about pollution and smog, electric cars have become increasingly attractive. Electric cars on the market Today, you can take your pick from a number of electric cars on the market. The Telsa Motors’ Roadster, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are perhaps the best known examples. On top of this, the big commercial car companies will be selling electric cars within the next year. Look out for vehicles like the Aptera 2e, the BMW i3 and the Hyundi Blue2. The buzz surrounding the technology is palpable. Yet questions remain: At present, electric cars mostly get their electricity from carbon-intense sources such as coal. And some people worry about the ultimate environmental cost of their heavy-duty batteries. The road to 2030 Today, electric cars are at the crossroads. They may take over, or may ultimately fizzle. Only time will tell if they’ve finally entered the fast lane. If so, they have the potential to help transform the world and just might be the dominant type of vehicle by 2030.   Written by: Damian Pope Damian has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Queensland in Australia. He also has extensive experience communicating science to the public and is currently the Senior Manager of Outreach at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

6 Alternative Energies You'll Only See in Movies (So Far)

When in-doubt, we could do worse than asking “what would they do in the movies?”  While some of Hollywood’s most imaginative plot devices may not offer anything more than fun entertainment and a lot of scientific dead ends, others “just might be crazy enough to work”…  Take a look below at six movie energy sources, some of which are simply fun to consider, some of which might actually become real-life science solutions by 2030, ... or earlier: Powering up cities with pig…um...leavings (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome)   The central desert city in this 1985 post-apocalypse Mil Gibson flick is powered by the by-products from a giant pig sty under the city.  In the movie, the pig poop left in the sty powers a methane plant.  Powering an entire city from barnyard droppings is still the stuff of fiction, but maybe not for long.  More: Waterloo Region captures landfill gas Human electrical impulses (The Matrix) Turns out that although our bodies actually do produce an electric current, the prospect of putting those currents to use as a power source is a little goofy, given the energy required to make this whole process happen.  "It would be smarter to use that energy in the first place to do what you want to do, instead of feeding it to humans and then harvesting energy from them," Treehugger.com editor Michael Graham Richard mentions on Treehugger. More: A much more modest proposal for harnessing the energy of human bodies Inexhaustible energy from narcotics (Southland Tales) In this occasionally-interesting sci-fi flop starring everyone from Justin Timberlake to The Rock, a deadly hallucinogen called "fluid karma" is lauded as an inexhaustible replacement for gasoline.  Ultimately, the substance is complete make-believe from a scientific perspective and the energy properties of this narcotic are never fully explained.  An even more improbable energy scenario develops when the fluid karma generators alter the world’s currents and cause the Earth to slow its rotation and the quantum entanglement-driven transmission of energy to power plant receivers begins to rip holes in the fabric of space and time. Antimatter (Star Trek, though it’s not the first work of fiction to propose its use) iframe title="YouTube video player" width="600" height="366" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/sHyy6F_GgsM" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen> The prospect of travelling faster than light has been around since we found out that light had a speed.  Since Einstein first posited that you would need infinite energy to accelerate something made of matter to the speed of light, science fiction has delighted in ways to get around that science creatively side-stepping this physical law, often proposing anti-matter as a power source.  Though our antimatter reserves remain at only a few scant atoms and no one has successfully created a warp-field or perfected Heisenberg compensators in real-life, scientists have speculated that a tiny (we’re talking grams, not tons) space probe could be accelerated by laser to part of the speed of light for a trip to the nearest star past the sun. Miniature ‘arc reactor’ (Iron Man)   Playboy genius Tony Stark creates this oscillating electric power source that presumably channels plasma in a way that allows for huge energy output with little heat or radiation and no waste.  Could antimatter in plentiful amounts allow for such as superhero-power device to both thwart evil and solve our energy crisis?  Maybe, but who’d want a miniature photon torpedo in their chest? (Or – for that matter – their backyard?) Igniting Jupiter into a small star (2010: The Year We Make Contact) The ultimate solar power: creating a new star by igniting a gas giant planet to burn as its own nuclear furnace.  Though it’s made of hydrogen and helium, you couldn’t just “light a match” to the king of our solar system, secondly, at 1,300 times the Earth’s volume and 318 times its mass – believe it or not – Jupiter has only 1 per cent of the material needed to initiate nuclear fusion. More: Why can’t we just light a match (or a nuke) to Jupiter?   Written by: Peter McMahon Award-winning science journalist and kids science author Peter McMahon has written and produced for Discovery Channel, CTV, The Toronto Star and Canadian Geographic. Currently serving as media centre co-ordinator for Equinox Summit: Energy 2030. Bio

Wal-Mart, Catholic Church among Organizations Using Alternative Energy

When we set out to see what major organizations are making serious use of green energy, the last folks we thought we’d run into were the world’s biggest company and the world’s oldest Christian church – albeit one location in Toronto. But that’s exactly who we found playing a role in leading the way for green energy use in major organizations. Your natural assumption might be that bigger companies have been lagging behind when it comes to green energy. Believe it or not, in some cases, they are making major contributions.  What’s more, a large percentage of companies that already produce their own energy or buy renewable energy are exploring the option of increasing the amount, notes a 2010 Enterprise Renewable Energy Adoption survey. And half of U.S. companies that aren’t yet using renewable energy are considering generating, buying or at least purchasing renewable energy credits. Companies making largest use of alternative energy According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some of the largest current users of alternative energy at the largest companies in North America include, starting with the highest: Intel: The chip-maker used 2.5 billion kWh of biomass, geothermal, small-Hydro, solar, and wind power in 2010 – 88% of its total electrical use Kohl’s Department Stores generated all of its 1.5 billion kWh of power in 2010 using biomass, small-hydro, wind, and solar Whole Foods makes headlines due to the fact that 100% of their 817 million kWh of power consumption came from solar and wind power isn’t really a headline…Not for them anyway. The grocery giant has been doing so for half a decade now, since 2006  Starbucks: Feel bad buying a latte from the big, bad mega-corporation? It might soothe your soul to know that in 2010, Starbucks drew more than half its 573 million kWh of energy consumption from wind power. Johnson & Johnson, Staples: In 2010, each of these companies used about 400 million kWh –roughly half of which was serviced via biogas, solar, and wind Bet you didn’t know that the companies above are among the largest users of green energy on Earth (and that Google didn’t make the list.) In the case of Wal-Mart (#12 on the list) which many took as a poster child for green washing – the world’s largest company is now making surprising strides with a nationwide recycling program aimed at reducing waste to zero by 2025. As a pilot program, the initiative already saw an 80% drop in garbage sent to landfill from its California stores.  When it comes to use of green energy, the retail giant isn’t just unscrewing every-other light bulb in its stores, it’s actually using solar, wind, and biogas to power 8% of its U.S. operations on-site via North Carolina’s Duke Energy. Believe it or not, Wal-Mart is even using fuel cells (via California-based Bloom Energy) and will provide power to surrounding homes. With Wal-Mart, scale is everything. In the case of the Catholic Church, prominent Toronto location St Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in 2006 became the first church in Canada (and one of the first in the world) to receive LEED Gold certification. The building – which can best be described as Dan Brown meets Gene Roddenberry – features passive solar heating, a living green wall, and underground parking to reduce the structure’s footprint and leave more room for landscaped gardens outside. (Carpool and hybrid spots are reserved next to disabled parking at the underground entrance.) See the full list of the top corporate green-energy users: http://www.epa.gov/greenpower/toplists/top50.htm Others making a difference Lockheed-Martin http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-10-26/news/bs-ed-lockheed-20101026_1_energy-efficiency-energy-costs-renewable-energy Philadelphia Zoo http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/131703/20110407/philadelphia-zoo-to-be-powered-by-green-energy-ecotourism-renewable-energy-wind-energy-solar-energy.htm Green business summit goes 100% neutral http://www.startupbizhub.com/green-business-summit-to-be-zero-waste-100-powered-by-renewable-energy.htm More companies using green energy to lower pollution: http://www.bloomenergy.com/customers/customer-story-coke/   Written by: Peter McMahon Award-winning science journalist and kids science author Peter McMahon has written and produced for Discovery Channel, CTV, The Toronto Star and Canadian Geographic. Currently serving as media centre co-ordinator for Equinox Summit: Energy 2030. Bio

Property of Electricity You Didn't Learn in School

Electricity – the cleanest and most versatile form of energy the world has ever known – is not what you were taught in school. (It’s actually much cooler…) You won’t believe this… Let’s take the simplest example of electricity I can think of: a flashlight. How does it work? Well, you flip the switch and energy flows from the battery to the light bulb. Yes, but how does the energy flow? Through the wires, of course! WRONG! In any electric circuit, the energy actually flows through the empty space outside the wires. The wires guide the flow of energy through space, but don’t carry any of the energy themselves. In a flashlight, the battery sprays energy into the surrounding space, and this energy is then steered by the wires to enter the light bulb. Energy flows into the light bulb’s filament not through the wires connected to it, but from the empty space around it, heating it white-hot. I’m not making this up! So how can this possibly make sense? It’ll make sense as soon as you think about how energy flows from the Sun to the Earth via sunlight: Sunlight is waves of electric and magnetic field lines, like the static magnetic field lines that surround a magnet, except undulating. Wherever the electric and magnetic lines in sunlight cross each other, energy flows in the direction perpendicular to both lines. I really want an image here. The wires in our flashlight circuit serve to set up these same conditions of crossed electric and magnetic field lines in the space around the wires, and then energy flows by exactly the same principle. (For a fun animation on this, check out the Alice & Bob in Wonderland episode titled “How Does a Flashlight Work?” If you still don’t believe me, check out Eric Giler’s demos on wireless electricity on TED.) Why didn’t I know this?? If you found this surprising, you’re not alone...  A guy called Poynting figured this out way back in 1884, when Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism was still a hot topic, but then the analogy of electricity as water in a garden hose took hold and this knowledge was lost to most of civilization. Now it’s mostly physics-keener-types who keep the torch lit. So don’t worry, it’s not your fault. (So what?) Poynting’s discovery is at the core workings of a staggering amount of technology, from light bulbs, washing machines and electric cars to computers, cell phones and satellite HD. Related to this is the even more basic idea that electric and magnetic fields store energy in space. Energy storage is a hot topic these days: One cool example is supercapacitors currently used in some hybrid vehicles that store energy in an electric field for rapid acceleration and regenerative braking. Another is superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) devices that may one day be used by electric power utilities; the SMES device would charge up at night (storing vast quantities of energy in a magnetic field) to meet peak loads during the day. It all goes to show; sometimes analogies and stories help us see the wonders of nature. At other times, though, nature’s even more fascinating than some of the simplified stories we use to explain its fundamental concepts.   Written by: Richard Epp Richard Epp has a Masters degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Manitoba. He held postdoctoral research positions around the world working in general relativity before becoming Scientific Outreach Manager at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

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