Week of December 28

Goodbye, 2008, and a tentative hello to 2009. We shall now complete the first decade of the third millennium.

It is interesting at this moment to re-examine the whole concept of the fin de siecle, end of century, as the French put it. Both the eighteen nineties and the seventeen nineties were very special times and clearly times of transition—gateways to new epochs which really begin more or less with the succeeding century.

The last fin de siecle was in the popular imagination of the time the Age of Decadence—of Art Nouveau and absinthe and a new eroticism and exoticism in the arts. In just a few short years the fin de siecle gave way to the moderne, and modernism and the new century had its new face. Look at a street scene in 1900, and then at the same street in a photograph from 1920. You could be in Paris or New or London, it wouldn't matter. In twenty years you'd have entered a different world with different costumes, different architecture, different modes of transport and everywhere the bright light from electric streetlamps keeping darkness at bay.

The turn of the previous centuries was every bit as disjunctive. The world of Napoleon and the Regency had a very different face than the world of the eighteenth century when men wore small clothes and smallswords, and women were encased in swags of drapery and both sexes went about in wigs and heavy makeup. The makeup and wigs went away, broadcloth replaced silk, and high heeled pumps gave way to boots. Gaslights lit the streets, and steam coaches began to populate them, and all the inland waterways were full of the new steamboats.

A century before one didn't note such changes, however. The world of 1710 was visibly very little changed from the world of 1690—of even 1660 the first year of the Modern Age. The change of the calendar signified nothing—certainly no momentous change in human affairs.

The new century has yet to assume its own unique appearance. Nothing equivalent to Modernism in fashion, the arts, architecture, and industrial design has emerged since 2001, not even the hint of something so radical. Manhattan has become festooned with gigantic video displays, and that may signify the look of other cities some time in the future, but we can't be sure. Electronic communications have changed in revolutionary way but not in such a way to change the way the world looks. A street scene from 1989 and one from this year do not announce their differences very vehemently.

And yet forces have been set in motion that cannot but change the world profoundly through the course of this new century.

Many of those changes have to do with energy. Business as usual cannot continue very much longer, perhaps not even another twenty years. Currently a new government is in place that, at least as regards its avowals, is not committed to business as usual. We shall see what that portends.

A New Study from NASA on Climate Change

NASA's climate division, under the courageous leadership of James Hansen who risked termination by contradicting the rubbish spewed by the Bush Administration on the subject of global warming, has published a new paper which I am looking forward to reading. This paper takes into account the effects of fossil fuel depletion, something not considered in previous publications which rested upon the assumption that consumption of coal and oil would continue to increase unless checked by international public policy initiatives. Now the NASA team sees another check, impending scarcity. Actually, there have been many prior researchers who have engaged in informed speculation on the topic, and the rough consensus is that one cannot rely upon fossil fuel depletion to achieve carbon mitigation any time soon. And even if coal and petroleum become severely depleted, there are plenty of second tier hydrocarbon resources such as methane hydrates, oil shale, deep gas, and peat, which, in toto, have emissions potential exceeding all of the remaining conventional resources put together. Anyone who assumes that these resources will not be extensively tapped, absent a concerted international effort to impose a mostly renewables regime, is apt to be disappointed.

Thoughts on Fusion

Recently I came upon a piece by a science reporter on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an ambitious project for constructing a utility scale magnetic confinement fusion reactor. According to the writer, Chris Lee, who has covered the topic extensively, mathematical modeling of such reactors is at a dead end and the time has arrived for the construction of a full sized model. Lee further indicates that a full sized model made according to the latest concepts would be likely to produce more energy than it consumed according to researchers in the field. This, of course, is the Holy Grail of fusion, something that has never been achieved, and which has to be achieved in order for fusion to become a power source for electrical generation.

I have in fact read recent comments by a number of scientists in the area suggesting essentially the same thing—namely, that fusion can only work when undertaken on a massive scale, and that governments should assume the risks attendant upon building an enormous facility. Maybe so, but Lee also points out some formidable difficulties in managing the energy waste that would be created by such reactors.

Recently, I did some research on the efforts of several well funded American researchers to achieve fusion without magnetic confinement within gigantic vacuum tubes somewhat resembling the thyratrons used to modulate linear accelerators and no doubt inspired by such devices. These researches all took place in the fifties and sixties and enlisted the efforts of some of the ablest practical physicists in the world. Many of the individuals involved in these forgotten projects concluded that practical fusion reactors were fundamentally infeasible, and that the high energy plasma used to sustain fusion reactors simply couldn't be controlled and energized by any conceivable architectures for magnetic or electrostatic focusing. And maybe not. These were smart, creative people who quickly revealed a flair for innovation, but who always came up short nevertheless.

A New Type of Ultra-capacitor

Of late I have been immersed in research involving ultra-capacitors and I've been consulting on a project involving a new device of great promise. I'm under nondisclosure so I can't say much more. I am, however, free to comment upon the activities of rivals in the field.

Recently, a number of companies have introduced what are known as lithium ion ultra-capacitors. Conventional ultra-caps use granulated carbon electrodes and aqueous electrolytes. The lithium ion variety uses an entirely different chemistry and would appear to fall into the category of pseudo-capacitor which is actually midway between a capacitor and a battery.

FDK, which makes one such lithium ion unit, claims a capacitance rating of 2,000 Farads and an operating voltage of 4, both of which are high numbers, and an overall energy storage capacity that is three or four times that of a carbon ultra-cap. The device I'm working on would better that figure by a factor of fifty, but it's not on the market and may never be.

It would be interesting to attempt to create an ultra-battery using lithium ion technology for both the battery and capacitor portions. That would represent a real advance in the art, particularly as regards automotive applications.