flotsam and jetsam

We’re a bit frazzled these days, focusing more on paying writing gigs because the Resident Feline has developed a taste for high-end catnip only available on the organic black market. Believe me, you don’t want to mess with Clio when that monkey is on her back. Anyway, this means our humble blog is feeling twinges of neglect. There are several substantive posts in the works, ranging from more news from the recent Acoustics ’08 meeting in Paris, the “Waterfalls” art installation in New York City, and a piece on arsenic and the history of toxicology. Oh, and on Tuesday, July 15th, Cocktail Party Physics will join more than 50 other science bloggers in posting reviews of the new Randy Olson “mockumentary,” SIZZLE! Good reads, people! They’re a-comin’! So please bear with us in the interim.

In the meantime, what better opportunity to clear out my bulging blog fodder file? There’s always way more cool stuff floating around the Interwebs than I have time to spin into full-length blog posts, and in the case of today’s orphaned items, I detected a subtle theme of quirky approaches to energy-related issues.

Pimp My Porsche. Regular readers know I drive a Prius since moving to Los Angeles. Given the current price of gas, I’m pretty happy with my investment: it’s the perfect car for LA traffic conditions. But last week the Los Angeles Times ran an article about a local photographer named Lefteris who’s done the Prius one better. Fed up the the auto industry’s slow progress on the electric vehicle front, he took the frame and body of a 1971 Porsche 914, added 22 lead acid batteries, a power controller, a charger, and a 150-pound electric motor to create his own electric car. “My wife drives the gas guzzler, the Prius,” he told the LA Times. Sure, it has a limited range, and probably a few other complications, too. But for local driving and/or commuting, it’s an ingenious solution. And the reporter raises the million-dollar question: “If a photographer with some basic electrical and mechanical knowledge can do this in his garage, why can’t the best engineers in America do something similar?” Why indeed?Snail

Gastropod Gusto. Meet Muriel, Austin, and Cecil. They look like every other snail out there, but they’re actually quite special: they’ve been fitted with tiny RFID chips that enable them to send emails on behalf of visitors to their official Website. The messages are routed to the gastropods’ tank to await “collection.” The snails just amble around their tank at a meager 0.03 mph, occasionally coming within range of an electronic reader. When that happens, the mail is “collected,” i.e., the email message attaches to the RFID chip. The snail “agent” then carriers the message around the tank until it passes close to a second reader, and the message is forwarded over the net in the usual way.

I confess, when I first heard about the Real Snail Mail project, I thought it was a joke. It’s not. It’s actually an experiment in “slow art” dreamed up by artists at Bournemouth University in the UK, who set up a Website called Boredom Research. The official launch is August 11, 2008, in conjunction with this year’s SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles. While you’re waiting, you can check out their blog, and even take a peek at Muriel, Austin and Cecil in person via the Snailcam — assuming you have a lot of time on your hands. Don’t be in a hurry for your messages to be delivered, either: only 16 messages have been delivered so far, taking an average of about 4.7 days to reach the recipient. Austin is the star gastropod, delivering 11 messages, followed by Cecil with 5 messages. Muriel, that slacker, has yet to deliver a single message. It’s a novel idea, but one of the artists, Vicky Isley, admits, “It could be quite frustrating for some people.” (h/t: Nothing to Do With Arbroath)

Body Heat. An episode of Bones last fall featured a scene with an organic local farmer who made his own fruit smoothies by hooking the blender up to a stationary bike, using the energy from his exercise to operate the blender. He’s not the first to think of this. I learned from the uber-awesome io9 that there’s a nightclub opening sometime this month in England that features an energy-absorbing dance floor. It’s made from a flexible material that bends under the pounding feet of dancing crowds, squeezing  “special blocks” (made from piezoelectric crystals) that then convert that motion into energy. That energy is stored in batteries, and used to power the lighting and sound system in the club. Ingenious!

There’s even a device under development that uses the kinetic energy from your body while you exercise to juice up your cell phone. It weighs less than 6.3 ounces and straps onto the arm. Personally, I’d like to see more schemes like these two. No, it’s not going to solve all our future energy needs, but harvesting our own kinetic energy that would otherwise just be lost as heat can chip away at excess energy consumption, bit by bit. And over time, it could really add up.

‘Twixt Wind and Water. I’m often struck these days at how much natural energy there is all around us: in the wind, ocean waves, even the sun relentlessly beating down on our heads during LA’s recent heat wave. And now a retired engineer in Ontario, Canada, claims he’s built a tornado-powered generator (h/t: io9). Louis Michaud proposes to pump hot air into a massive cylindrical arena some 100 meters high, thereby creating a raging tornado in something resembling a controlled environment. He thinks one of his Atmospheric Vortex Engines could generate enough energy to power a small city. Harvesting the energy from natural phenomena is easier said than done, of course, especially if you’re trying to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Michaud’s scheme relies upon a reliable supply of hot air, and that in itself requires energy to create, hurting his cost-competitiveness (unless we can figure out a way to harvest it directly from blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly… hmmm….).

Over in Britain, scientists are experimenting with a scheme to harvest energy from ocean waves using an enormous snake-like rubber valve (h/t: Physics Buzz). They call it the “Anaconda.” Really. The valve supposedly sucks energy out of the waves and feeds it through a turbine, thereby generating power that can then be conveyed to land via underwater cables. The scientists figure that an Anaconda measuring 200 meters long and 7 meters wide could produce about 1 megawatt of power, sufficient to meet the energy needs of about 2000 households.

It’s still very much in the laboratory prototype stage, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Anaconda concept translates to larger scale tests, and the brutal real-world environment of the ocean. The tremendous pressures and insufficient lubrication of conventional wind turbines is a chronic challenge familiar to anyone working with this type of renewable energy, and it requires ingenious solutions — including breakthroughs in new materials. A Swedish chemist named Saeid Esmaeilzadeh accidentally cooled down a ceramic substance too quickly and ended up discovering a new kind of ceramic: a “super glass” that is harder than steel, with a very high index of refraction. He’s since founded a company called Diamorph to commercialize his breakthrough, focusing at the moment on developing stronger and lighter bearings for — you guessed it — wind turbines.

Step Into Liquid (Film). On a much smaller scale, microfluidic devices have their own energy challenges, particularly for industrial tasks like mixing. An intriguing abstract hit the arXiv back in May about a startling discovery made by Iranian physicists at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. They started with a thin film of water in a square cell, and then applied two electric fields, perpendicular to each other. That’s when things got weird. The two electric fields at right angles caused the film of water to begin to rotate — a liquid film motor. They found they could even control and direction and speed of rotation just by changing the angle and direction of the electric fields. They don’t have a clue what’s causing the rotation: it’s not convection (what happens when a field is applied to thin films of liquid crystals). And since adding sat water has no effect, that rules out ion movement for directing the flow. Right now, the suspicion is that it has something to do with the intrinsic dipole moment of the molecules, since the rotation only occurs in polar liquids, and not in non-polar ones. Weird! And potentially very useful on a small scale.

Okay, that takes care of the backlog of fodder items! Of course, a portion of my blogging energy these days is being diverted to Twisted Physics, my new blog over at Discovery News. In my first five weeks, I’ve written about such things as testing quantum entanglement aboard the space station; using LIDAR to map the surface of Mars; why astrophysicists love their Standard Candles; what Hawaiian lava can tell us about the origins of the Moon; an odd scheme to use neutrinos to detect messages from alien life forms; why teleportation is my superpower of choice (Nightstalker rules! Go ahead — prove me wrong!); what forensic astronomy can tell us about Caesar’s landing site when he invaded England; and a tongue-in-cheek debunking of the Tesla Shield, which claims to use “tachyon fields” to enhance one’s life-force energy.

Um, yeah. Whatever. I offered to get Clio a Tesla Shield to help her break the catnip habit, but she’s having none of it. Apparently, even tachyonic fields can’t compete with the blissed-out effects of high-grade catnip.


5 thoughts on “flotsam and jetsam”

  1. Addressing the most important point in your post — our cats’ favorite catnip toy is a yellow banana. I think it is organic, and we did not have to buy it on the black market — Google Shopping lists lots of places that sell them.

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