The Cleanest Way to Power Cars

Question: How efficient is the electrical production of energy?

Felix Kramer: Electrical production is pretty efficient when you compare it to a gasoline vehicle. If you look at the conventional emissions for instance it’s much easier to clean one power plant’s smokestack than a million tailpipes. In terms of CO2 emissions the electric motor is about four to five times more efficient than a gasoline engine and so for that mile that you’re driving you’re using a lot less electricity. You’re using a lot less fuel to drive that mile. Now if you take for instance, some people say we should have… be fueling our cars from ethanol. If you power a car by ethanol you’re still using an inefficient gas… If you power a car by ethanol you’re still using an inefficient internal combustion engine vehicle, but if you take that ethanol and put it in a power plant and make electricity out of it and run it into a battery for the car, an electric motor you’re getting twice as efficient a process. So the… basically power plants into car are cleaner than any other way of getting power into cars.

Question: Are there any fears that the lithium used to create so many batteries is an unsustainable resource?

Felix Kramer: Lithium is one of many chemicals used in…. Lithium is one of many… Okay, lithium is one of many materials used in batteries. You can also have nickel, metal hydride and there is other technologies in the future, but right now it looks like the auto industry is settling on lithium. It’s very plentiful. It’s mined in various places. It’s also in sea brine. It’s a benign element. It’s safe for landfills, so it’s not going to poison us when it’s disposed of. In fact though lithium batteries when they’re no longer used for cars can be recycled and reused as secondary use in stationary facilities. You could take those used lithium batteries that maybe are only working at 80% capacity and put them in the basement of office buildings and pump them up at night with cheap power and use it in the day for another decade or two. Eventually then you can extract the lithium and reuse it, so there is… Some people say we don’t have enough lithium, but the carmakers seem very confident we have enough lithium for billions of cars.

Question: What are the advantages of hydrogen fuel cells?

Felix Kramer: Hydrogen for cars has been around the corner or five to ten years away for about twenty or thirty years and it looks like it’s going to continue that way because the hydrogen car no longer is competing against the gasoline car, but against the plug in hybrid and against the flex fuel plug in hybrid, which is maybe all the local driving is electric and the extended range driving is 85% cellulosic ethanol and 15% gasoline, so the…. It gets higher and higher a goal for hydrogen to be better than that. We don’t have a hydrogen infrastructure and hydrogen is not a fuel. It’s an energy storage. It’s a carrier, so you have to get the hydrogen from somewhere and you can get it from two places. You can get it from water and you electrolyze the water and split it into H2 and O and you use… you waste about half the energy to do that or you can get it from natural gas and then you’re starting with a fossil fuel. So in either case you end up with something that is inferior to a battery.

Is the electrical production of energy all that efficient? What are the limits of lithium for battery powered vehicles? Will hydrogen fuel cells take over the market? The Founder of Cal Cars explains why the automotive world will never be the same.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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Image: NASA
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To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."