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Some Unexpected Stuff From Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

As Japanese officials are attempting to cool the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was damaged after the devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami last week, some unexpected things have been happening as a result of the fear from this situation.

In an effort to help Japan conserve its electricity, game developers Konami and Square Enix will be suspending online access of their games to Japanese consumers for the time being.

Square Enix operates MMORPG games Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, and Konami operates Metal Gear Online.

How much electricity this will actually save is a difficult question to answer, but in times of crisis I suppose that every little bit helps.

In another development, Germany has temporarily shut down 7 of its nuclear power plants.

“We want to look at the risk and safety issues in the light of events in Japan,” the European energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger said.

While I can understand the desire for safety, particularly in light of the media-driven fear of radiation contaminating the rest of the world, I think this action is not only an over-reaction, but it adds fuel to the fire of radiation fears.

This also comes in the face of a massive anti-nuclear protest in Germany, which was already planned prior to the devastation in Japan,

Protesters in Stuttgart formed a human chain reaching 45km (27 miles) for the event, which had been planned before the current nuclear crisis in Japan because it was already a key election issue.

Switzerland has also suspended decisions on its current nuclear power structure to re-evaluate its country’s energy plans.

This is quite baffling to me because nuclear energy is one of the cleanest and safest forms of energy production. It is not exactly fair to use the Japan situation as a case against nuclear power, seeing as it was recently hit by and 9.0 magnitude earthquake AND a tsunami.

The Japanese crisis is indeed serious, but unique. It actually wasn’t the earthquake or the tsunami which directly caused the explosions. It was an unfortunate failure of the backup power systems to the power plant which prevented cooling water from circulating, which then caused overheating and eventually an explosion.

So I don’t believe that blaming the nuclear boogeyman is the right way to react to this scenario. Disasters do happen and there are unforeseeable consequences. And as I write this, the containment structures of the reactor cores have not yet been breached, and the Japanese are attempting to cool them by flooding the structures with seawater.

Much like the Three Mile Island scare, the potential for damage is there, but no large amounts of radiation have been released yet.

Unfortunately, solar and geothermal power are not quite ready to meet the world’s energy needs yet. Wind power is starting to be criticized because of its environmental impact. So for the time being, nuclear power remains our best bet for environmentally conscious energy production.

Feel The Heat! US Approves Thermal Solar Power Plant

September 2, 2010 2 comments

Solar power is the future. There are lots of ideas for renewable energy out there, but I am convinced that solar will be the only energy source truly strong enough to handle our power needs.

So we got some good news to that end! The first solar thermal power plant in the United States just got approval to be built in the great (sunny) state of California.

The approval is for a 250-megawatt solar thermal power plant by the Beacon Solar Energy Project. The approval came as a direct result of the green energy incentives granted by President Obama.

The plant will operate on over 2000 acres of land and will use abut 521 million gallons of water annually.

So, I wrote a post awhile ago on the Physics of Solar Power. That post described how semi-conductors are used to make the more common photovolataic cells used to generate electricity using the sun’s energy.

Thermal solar plants work differently. What happens is that a series of parabolic mirrors are installed in long rows surrounding one large tower in the centre. The mirrors will follow the sun throughout the day they are angled in such a way that the sunlight will be focused on water filled tubes.

Thermal Solar Power uses mirrors to direct sunlight onto a central tower, heating water into steam and driving turbines.

These tubes will then get extremely hot, several thousand degrees in fact, and the steam generated will be used to spin turbines, and thus generate electricity.

Its a bit less fancy than the semi-conducting solar panels, but it produces electricity just the same. And 250 megawatts is nothing to sneeze at either; thats enough to power 200,000 homes!

And lets not stop there! The final approval of a 1000 megawatt solar thermal power plant (The Blythe Solar Power Project) is nearing completion. This plant will also be built in California, be 7000 acres large and will generate enough electricity to power 800,000 homes!

The Physics of Solar Power

July 6, 2010 2 comments

In my previous post, I discussed how President Obama is helping to fund the development of Solar Energy. I thought I would then take the opportunity to explain a bit of the physics behind solar power.

Don’t worry, you won’t find any equations here :)

First, lets start with the sun. That big bright thing up in the sky.

The sun generates light, and light can be thought of as a bunch of tiny packets of energy. These packets are called “photons”. The different amounts of energy in a photon will correspond to the colour of the light that is emitted. For example, photons of the colour blue have more energy than photons of the colour red.

Energy increases from left to right (Source: Opensource Handbook of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology)

 

So how do we harness the energy in these photons? We can use Photovoltaic cells. Put simply, they convert solar energy into electricity. Let’s see how…

A photovoltaic cell is made of special materials called semiconductors, which are made of things like silicon (Yes, that stuff used to make fake boobs. Isn’t science awesome?).

Now, all atoms are made up of a nucleus (which is made of protons and neutrons) and electrons which circle around the nucleus.

Electrons can actually absorb the energy from a photon, but this happens only if the photon has a very specific amount of energy (a specific colour). When an electron does absorb a photon, it causes the electron to “jump”, and sometimes even break free of the entire atom! Electricity is a constant flow of electrons, which we refer to as an electric current.

Silicon structures like to hold onto their electrons. They don’t normally let them move around which makes silicon what we call an insulator. But in a Photovoltaic cell we add impurities, little bits of stuff that doesn’t belong there. The impurities will actually encourage the silicon to release its electrons and let them move around.

Now the magic happens. So a photon (those little packets of energy from the sun) hits the Photovoltaic cell. If the photon has just the right energy, it will knock loose one of the electrons in the silicon atoms. And, because of the impurities, that electron will move around.

If you get enough electrons moving around, you get an electric current which we can then use to power all of our awesome toys!

Thats it in a nutshell. If you want to read about this stuff in a bit more detail, check out the links spread all through this post, or some of the cool sites below.

Hooray for Physics!

Further Reading:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/solar-cell.htm

http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae451.cfm

http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2002/solarcells/

Obama is a Democrat. Who knew?

July 5, 2010 1 comment

 

While being the first Black president in history is quite an achievement, the Obama presidency has not quite lived up to the hype.

This may be about to change though. After getting a watered down version of his new health care bill passed, it seems Obama has grown himself a pair of balls.

Obama has earmarked $2 billion in loan guarantees to help give the solar energy business a kick in the ass. One of the projects would involve building the largest solar power plant in the world, and could generate 5000 jobs.

Obama needs to stick to his guns and do more stuff like this. He needs to do the things he promised he would do back during the campaign.

Sure the Republicans are gonna give you a hard time. They are loud, obnoxious, and now that they are out of power, they are maaaaad.

It can be intimidating, I know. But my god, don’t let them push you around.

And by doing the things he promised, Obama can at least get his supporters back to supporting him. So keep it up big guy. Fund more health care, fund green energy, fund the future of your country. We all know the Republicans are gonna whine and complain, but thats just what they do. Deal with it.