Thousands of inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs gathered in a suburban Washington convention center on Monday for the annual three-day meeting of ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. It wasn’t quite the Oscars. At the registration desk, attendees received a goody bag that included a report on clean energy from the Pew Charitable Trusts and a refrigerator magnet that showed the periodic table of the elements.Judging by what follows in the article, the goody bags should have included copies of "Metal Refining for Dummies", "Photosynthesis for Dummies" and "Greenhouse Gas Absorption for Dummies", and you'll soon learn why.
But the breakout sessions held true to ARPA-E’s tradition: there were lots of swing-for-the-fence ideas. These included finding a high-efficiency, low-cost way to turn surplus natural gas into liquid fuel for cars and trucks, and identifying something to burn other than hydrocarbons so that carbon dioxide is not one of the byproducts.
One researcher proposed burning aluminum instead. One challenge is that the “ashes,” or oxidized metal, would be hard to recycle back into aluminum without big releases of carbon dioxide.That's a great combo - use natural gas, a hydrocarbon, as fuel for vehicles (it's already being done and is being refined), while at the same time "identifying something to burn other than hydrocarbons". That's just priceless. Even more priceless is the idea of burning aluminium, which uses (in comparison with other metals) a vast amount of electricity in the refining process. Turning the oxide back into aluminium would likely use even more. All this to achieve what? Getting a bit of heat out of it, at a vastly lower efficiency than in the refining process. It'd be much cheaper (and easier) to burn the dollar bills and sequester the CO2, but I've just had a brilliant idea - use just a little of the electricity instead of burning the aluminium. I'm not just a pretty face, you know,
Talking of CO2, there's a scientist who doesn't appear to know much about its effects on plants. In fact he doesn't appear to know much at all.
One particularly ambitious idea presented on Monday was to re-engineer plants so that their leaves reflect rather than absorb more light. In an age of global climate change, with shifting rainfall patterns, changing reflectivity holds appeal. The technology would save water, which means saving energy because the water that the plants need often must be pumped. It could prove a way to help crops grow with less rainfall.
Some of those crops can be used to produce energy as well. And increasing the amount of light that bounces back into space would help to limit global warming.
The notion is that crops will absorb light in the visible spectrum yet reflect some of the infrared and ultraviolet light, which heats the leaves. “Plants have a maximum efficiency of about 6 percent,’’ said Robert Conrado, an agency scientist. And plants regulate their temperature much the way people do, by giving off water, which cools as it evaporates. “All energy that is not able to be captured is dissipated as heat,’’ he said. “And that’s a lot of water.’’
In a hot climate, a cornfield can give off the equivalent of eight inches of rainfall in a month, he said, and agricultural irrigation accounts for 81 percent of water use in this country. The proportion is even higher in poorer places, which have fewer dishwashers and washing machines.
And some of that energy would radiate back into space, reducing global warming, Dr. Conrado said.Whether butterfly wings or fruits, he said, “nature has already evolved mechanisms for tailored light reflection.”Re-engineer plants so that the leaves reflect some of the infrared and ultraviolet? Pull out the copy of "Photosynthesis for Dummies" and turn to the page which explains that plant leaves absorb UV in photosynthesis. As far as plants and UV are concerned, more UV is better. Remind yourself that a number of studies have shown conclusively that higher levels of CO2 reduce the time that plant stomata (pores) are open, thus reducing evapotranspiration, which means that plants loose less water to the atmosphere.
Pull out the copy of "Greenhouse Gas Absorption for Dummies" which explains that most of the shortwave infrared from the Sun is absorbed by water vapour in the atmosphere, and not much reaches the surface, so re-engineering plants to reflect some of that "not much" will have little effect. Remind yourself that most, if not all of that reflected infrared will be also absorbed by water vapour, and not that far above the surface either. Remind yourself that a short while ago, other scientists were pointing out that infrared absorbed by off-the-ground vegetation (trees to you and me) absorbed infrared and kept the ground below cool whereas grassland tended to reflect it and warm the atmosphere immediately above when it was absorbed by water vapour. Not a good thing as they saw it, just an interesting fact as I saw it.
Dr. Conrado should peruse both volumes and read a few more published abstracts on topics he ought to know more about. For the final words, back to the article
So far the agency has invested $770 million in 285 projects, “and we’re proud of every single one of them,’’ said Cheryl Martin, the agency’s deputy director, in opening remarks to several thousand attendees. Although most will never be commercialized, the strikeouts are not as important as the home runs.Most will never be commercialized because, judging on present evidence, most don't work, can't work, or if they do work, have negative cost benefits (if they actually have any benefits at all). Perhaps the "home runs" will also turn out to be "own goals". Crazy people with crazy ideas who can't see beyond the top row of their keyboards. Even idiots have the right ideas some of the time.