Flying Where The Sun Don’t Shine

As most already know, solar energy is the energy released by the sun, which is used to heat and light Earth’s surface.  However, it is less likely that many of us know much specifically about the invention of the solar-powered aircraft!  I recently was intrigued by this phenomenon after coming across an article titled, “Solar Powered Aircraft: A Flight Of Fancy?” written by Anmar Frangoul, that focuses on the exciting journey of two “innovators” (paragraph 1), as Frangoul puts it, who plan to fly all the way around the world (beginning in Abu Dhabi) aboard the “Si2” or the “Solar Impulse 2”.

“The Solar Impulse 2”:

Figure 1: Nighttime                                                    Figure 2: Daytime:

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Figure 3: Carbon Fiber:


The Si2 (shown above in Figure 1 and 2) was built with a 72-meter wingspan (designed using carbon fiber- see Figure 3 above), and receives its power to charge its 633-kilogram lithium batteries by use of sunlight energy.  Therefore, it can be inferred that the batteries for the solar-powered aircraft are only able to charge during the daytime when the sun is out and shining.  Remember, the plane’s wingspan is 72 meters – that’s more than 220 feet!  This giant wingspan is covered with cells that collect the sun’s rays.  With the help of its 17, 000 solar cells, the plane actually receives enough charge throughout the day, and the powerful batteries charge quickly enough, so that the plane could continue to successfully run during the entire night, without help from the sun.

The solar powered aircraft is interesting to me mainly because it is different from other vehicles that run on sunlight energy.  For example, in comparison with solar-powered cars, the aircraft is not hybrid. Instead, it is completely electric and solely powered by solar energy.  This means that it really is totally clean when it runs, and emits no pollution.  And because it’s efficient enough, with enough charging capability and capacitance or storage, it can go seemingly forever.  I wonder about the lithium batteries, if they need to be discarded now and then replaced, and what the pollution impact is from one of these batteries. In addition to its uniqueness, the future capabilities of the solar-powered aircraft (such as the Si2) excite me because of the potential benefits.

Figure 4: The “innovators”- Bertrand Piccard (left) and Andre Borschberg (right):

Test flight Pilot equipement

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg (pictured in Figure 4 above), who invented the plane’s technology, are currently flying it around the world. One of the goals of this flight is to demonstrate the amazing storage power of the batteries, and that the plane can fly across an entire ocean overnight, with no sunlight.   If this Si2 mission is successful, then a whole new window will open up for solar energy.  Solar energy, which is currently determined to be clean, but extremely inefficient and costly, (low percentage of solar energy actually gets converted into electricity and used, especially compared to energy powered by gas or coal), will suddenly be deemed a cost-effective form of energy.  The Si2 plane is quite large, but if we can make the solar cells be twice as efficient as they are now, then we only would need half those cells.  If solar energy were made more efficient, we could do a lot more with it, for other than the efficiency issue, solar energy is quite remarkable!

Solar Energy: Abundant, but Inefficient!

This week I read an article from the University of Colorado website, “Solar Power”, which focused on the abundance and cost of solar energy. What intrigued me about this article was its description of how much solar energy is available, but not really useful to us now. This is due to the fact that the solar panels are simply not efficient enough. However, there is so much solar radiation in our atmosphere, the article claims, that we have 16,000 times our current needs of energy available to us. The only problem is that we cannot efficiently convert solar energy to electricity, or store it cheaply. This class has looked a lot at new technologies springing up around coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Coal is very dirty, and hydraulic fracturing presents many dangers of its own as well. In fact, just last week, a train carrying oil from a fracking industry, blew up in West Virginia. This was because it was carrying both coal and oil, which are polluted and non-renewable resources. People around our country are praising the fossil fuel industry for bringing the cost of gas down in recent years. On the other hand though, this article actually informed me that there is far more renewable energy available from the sun than we will ever need. Our current problem in this area comes from photovoltaic panels (See below in Figure 1)

Figure 1: Active Solar Photovoltaics:

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A solar panel uses two layers of silicon with different charges, sandwiched between other kinds of metal to produce an electric current from sunlight. Right now, most solar panels available are only 10% efficient: if the panel absorbs 100 joules of sunlight energy, it only produces 10 joules of electric energy. Therefore, the technology is also expensive! The article shows how 1 kilowatt hour of electricity from coal can cost as little as 10 cents, and the same electricity from a solar panel can cost 50 cents, or as much as 85 cents on a cloudy day.

There has been such a focus of money and energy on coal and oil recently. If those same resources were put towards solar efficiency, solar panels might look a lot more attractive to consumers, and we might be able to tap into the vast resources from the sun.

Could Cheaper Oil and Energy Be Dangerous?

In the article titled, “Preserving Ancient Art In Land Marked For Solar Energy Development” by Jeremy Miller, we get a look at the dangers that come along with the benefits of the new fracking industry that has boomed in the US. Cheaper oil and energy seems to be a good thing, but there are prices to pay, including increased carbon in the atmosphere, which only speeds up climate change.  In fact, Figure 1 shows a chart of all the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by the United States alone. (2)  As you could have guessed from Figure 1, carbon dioxide is the most popular greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere by humans, harming the environment.

Figure 1: All U.S Carbon Dioxide Emission Estimates (2)



Alternatives would give us a brighter future, but they also come with problems. One example is the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, almost operational on the southern border between California and Nevada. This will be one of the larges utility facilities in the United States, “supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours.” (1) This means 400 million joules of electrical energy every second. Compared with fracking, and the damaging pollution that it brings, an array of solar panels seems like a great idea. However, a whole list of issues has come up in the recent months while the solar panels were being installed. For example, the air around an active solar panel becomes heated. A large array of panels can create a “solar flux” (1), which is a pocket of super heated air that could rise and kill birds. This utility is built in the remote Mojave Desert, and may be endangering a rare species of desert land tortoise. This article shows that there is no easy answer to our energy needs. Even though peak energy consumption dropped off slightly after the 2008 recession, our country still needs to find clean, new, and efficient sources of energy that will have minimal impact on the environment. 

I always assumed that solar energy was good, and I was surprised at how many problems were arising from one energy plant. Another one that really struck me was the cultural impact: the land contains some ancient rock art from early Aztec people. Now the archeology is endangered. The descendants of those first natives still live in the area, but their communities are cut across by the array, and some of their native languages, which are only spoken by a handful of people today, are also now endangered by the solar panels. The result is that any new source of energy comes with problems, and these problems and issues need to be weighed against each other.




The Dark Side of Fracking

This week I read an article from InsideClimate News by Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones. The article looks into the dark side of “fracking”, but especially the problem that comes when the oil is transported in unsafe railcars. There is a huge oil boom happening right now in North Dakota, on top of a formation called the “Bakkan Shale”.  There is a large amount of oil locked into this shale rock.  For many years, people have known this, however we have never known how to extract the oil.

A process called “fracking” has been developed in just the last few years.  It involves high-pressure jets of water, shot into the shale to fracture it.  Below in Figure 1 is an image that shows the actual process of fracking. Figure 2 shows a real-life example of fracking. Fracking is when you take a drill and drill down into an area of the Earth’s surface prior to a high pressure water formula gets inserted into the rock.

Figure 1:                                                                                     Figure 2:

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.32.14 PM                Gas Drilling Western Politics

This is the reason why our gas prices have gone down so much recently!  Two years ago, it was common to find gas above $4.00 a gallon.  Today, much gas is under $3.00 per gallon.  The fracking craze has given the US a giant shot of oil, and for the first time we are out-producing most other countries in the world.

Sounds good?  Yes, of course! However don’t forget that there are some downsides: Fracking is very dangerous and extremely polluting.  The water that comes out of the mines, after being shot in at high speeds and pressures, is contaminated with all sorts of heavy metals and petroleum byproducts.  It is a very dangerous process and also it is quite difficult to dispose of.

Second: once the oil is extracted, it has to be transported.  That was the issue brought up in the article, that when a train full of crude oil was going through Canada, it blew up and basically destroyed the entire town of Lac Magantic.  This resulted in 47 people being killed.  Also, this happened just last year!  Transporting oil is always a dirty, filthy job.

Some other instances where this was a problem was in Aliceville, Ala.;Casselton, ND.; New Brunswick, Canada.; and Lynchburg, VA. However, I find it interesting that I haven’t heard of any of these explosions on the nightly news. Why is that? In fact, many of us today probably are not even really aware of how extensive the fracking industry actually is, as well as we probably don’t realize how much pollution derives from it.

Finally, even if more oil was invited by a clean wizard with no waste or pollution at all, whenever a fossil fuel is burned it creates more CO2 for the atmosphere.  This contributes to climate change.



Images: (Google images):

New and Useful Organisms Discovered in a Surprising Place!

This week I found an article from Discover Magazine (“New Life in a Death Trap” by Edwin Dobb), in the year 2000, about a polluted mining pit outside Butte, Montana.  Butte was one of the greatest mining areas in the world for almost a hundred years.  The article says that at one point, its mines produced one-sixth of all the copper used in the world.  However, the decades of mining changed the local ecosystem forever.  A large pit began to fill with runoff from the mines.  Now, this place, called the Berkeley Pit, is one mile long, half a mile wide, and filled with mining runoff that was so polluted that almost nothing lived in it.  The water, which is as deep as 1780 feet in the pit, has a pH of 2.5 (as you can see in Figure 1), “about the same acidity as Coca-Cola or lemon juice.”  The entire ecosystem has been changed drastically by the acidic water present in this pit.  Before I read the article, I would have thought that long stretches of time would eventually help the surrounding ecosystem clean itself up.  But, as I read on, I learned that these rules don’t apply in the Berkeley Pit.  The ecosystem has changed so dramatically that is has created a positive feedback loop:  The acid from the mine water runoff now leaches into the rocks that form the walls of the pit.  These walls are made from stone layers rich in sulfide mineral deposits.  However, when the rock dissolves and the sulfides are released, they create sulfuric acid and the water gets even more acidic.  The positive feedback loop cycles again, with a more polluted pit than before.

The article focuses on a husband and wife team of scientists, Dr. Andrea Stierle and her husband, Dr. Don Stierle.  They research samples of the water in the Berkeley Pit to find out what is surviving in the water.

Most of us would be concerned as to how this ecosystem could get back on track. The normal consumers and decomposers are killed by the toxic water in the pit. Another scientist at the Montana Tech School of the University of Montana, Grant Mitman, is also studying what new decomposes have evolved in the face of the modern pollution in Butte. He found “some rope coated with brilliant green slime.” He identified it as “Euglena mutabilis”, a single celled green algae that is new to this pollution site. Algae have actually evolved so that it thrives in the acid and heavy metal ecosystem.

Don and Andrea Stierle have called this an example of “biorational serendipity.” That means that out of a terrible ecological disaster like the Berkeley Pit, scientists can make educated guesses and hypotheses about the new organisms that may evolve there. If their predictions are correct, then some of these new “extremophiles” can actually be beneficial. For example, one substance called taxol, found in the pit, can be used to treat ovarian and breast cancer.

The Stierle’s favorite story about their research comes out of a tragedy. In November, 1995, a flock of hundreds of Canadian geese were flying in stormy weather, and needed a place to land for the night. The geese all flew down and settled on the water of the Berkeley Pit. By morning, more than 350 geese were dead, floating in the acidic water. In just a few hours, their digestive tracks were full of blisters and lesions from swimming in and drinking the water. By the time this article was published in 2000, the Steirle’s had made an amazing discovery. There were new “microbes” breaking down some of the heavy-metal toxic compounds in the lake. Some of these had evolved from organisms that had previously only been found in the large intestines of geese. When the 350 geese died by landing in the pit, they accidentally released microbes that might some day clean the lake up.

Figure 1:


Sources: “New Life in a Death Trap” by Edwin Dobb

Figure 1- Bing Images-

Life Expectancy vs. Quality of Life

A new issue of the Atlantic Monthly came out this week, and it is all about aging and life expectancy. The main article is called “What Happens When We All Live to be 100” by Gregg Easterbrook. There is a detailed graph (see Figure 1 below) showing life expectancy in the United States. The graph starts at 1880, and goes until today. At first, the life expectancy in the U.S was under 40 (39.4) The graph immediately reminded me of the Demographic transition chart we constructed and annotated in class last week. In 1880, the United States had a much higher birth and date rate, but a lower population than today. The graph shown in the article also projects ahead to the year 2080. If the average rate of growth that we’ve had in this country since 1880 continues, life expectancy will pass 100 by 2080. This figure would be lower if we continued at the growth rate of the last twenty years, but it will still be over 90 years old. The article then goes on to list all the areas of research that have grown in this country around preventing or slowing down the effects of aging. The author, Gregg Easterbrook, is somewhat skeptical of most of them. For example, near San Francisco is a company called the “Buck Institute”, founded by a family of wealthy oil industrialists who wanted to find out why we age. Researchers at the Buck Institute experiment with DNA modification: if a gene can be found that is responsible for telling cells to slow down and begin to die, then a mutation of that gene may stop aging from occurring. Easterbrook interviewed a scientist at Buck, who never eats any bad foods, runs roughly 20 miles a week, and takes all kinds of supplements that may have extended the life of lab rats. The scientist, however, still looks as though he is aging at a normal rate as someone who isn’t taking these precautious measures. Another trend that the author of this article critiques is caloric restriction. Mice, who are fed very low calorie meals may live longer, but are in a state of near hibernation. Easterbrook wonders if living to 100 means we will be hungry all through the day. One idea keeps coming up again and again in this article: if we live so long, will it actually make our lives better? From the standpoint of evolution, an organism that has gotten too old to reproduce anymore is no longer important in the big picture. An aging organism cannot contribute to a changing and evolving gene pool anymore. This means that the changes in CBR, CDR, life expectancy, and other Demographic trends are new in human history and in the history of life on Earth. These are questions raised by the class, but also something we will have to deal with in the future.

Figure 1: (picture was found in same article on “Atlantic Monthly”) 



“What Happens When We All Live To Be 100” by Gregg Easterbrook.