Friday, October 19, 2012

In today's news (October 19, 2012)

Hey everyone,

Post writing edit: This actually turned out way, WAY longer than I had intended. Sort of got carried away again. I will try to tone it down a little bit. I really do want to do this every day, but keeping up this pace would be a little bit ridiculous. Anyhow, I may try to make something a little bit smaller for 5 PM as I suggest in the paragraph directly underneath this one. I hope you do read this, and the second half is actually more interesting than the first, even if you have to suffer a little, we can all do with a little more reading in our lives. </edit>

In an effort to actually sit down and write something every day, I would like to try varying formats a little bit here. I still intend to pump out big posts every once in a while, but I'm hoping to stick to a shorter, daily digest type format wherein I share what I've found interesting. Ideally these will go up around 5 PM, coinciding with the end of the work day for most people, but I may also try something smaller in the morning in case people are looking for interesting things to do at work. I will do my absolute best to avoid the trivial in these pieces, but instead stick to things which should be of general interest.

First off, how many of you are users of the Microsoft Office suite? I'm hoping nobody actually raised their hands, but I'm guessing most of you thought "yes, I am one of those people". Well boy do I have a great new way of using Office to share with you. Most of you probably don't know that there is a product out there called Office 365, which is essentially a subscription-based, business version of Microsoft Live (MSN, Windows Live Mail and various other services encompass the free versions of this software). Another piece of technology many of you probably already have access to, but almost certainly didn't know about, is SkyDrive. This is a free service that keeps documents you have and stores them online, so you can access them wherever you are. You may recognize this as being something that already exists on your computer, in the form of Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive, SugarSync, or any other syncing service. All of these platforms have their various strengths and weaknesses, but one very good reason to use SkyDrive is the inclusion of something called Microsoft Office Web Apps. These are online versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel which allow you to view and edit documents in a way that is much more convenient than carrying around USB sticks with important documents or worry about having Microsoft Office installed on any computer you wish you use. The beauty of using this service as opposed to something which is a little more widely known like Google Drive, is that you have access to your documents in their original format, which is incredibly useful knowing that formatting, font, spacing and the like are preserved.

Now, you're probably thinking, none of this is actually new. While it may be something I have never heard of, or even care about, all of this already exists and has for some time now. What I would like to tell you about, now that you have a little context, is a new program called Office 365 University. This service combines Microsoft Office, Microsoft Web Apps, Office 365, and SkyDrive into one affordable package. The service (which requires authentication, typically an academic email address) costs only $80 for a four-year term (which you'll recognize as the length of a typical university degree). The program includes Microsoft Office (plus updates and new versions for the length of the term, and the ability to install Office on two computers), it comes with 60 minutes per month of Skype credit and gives you an additional 20 GB of storage on SkyDrive (which is a LOT of pictures, video and documents). Where software like Microsoft Office would typically cost $150 and you would get Word, Powerpoint and Excel which weren't updated, this $80 package for 4 years is an incredible program. It is worth at least looking into.

The way we pay for software is changing, and that's a very good thing!

(Office News Blog via The Next Web)

Second on the list of topics this morning is a more scientific story, one which certainly raised my eyebrows, having done a fair bit of learning about carbon dioxide and organic chemistry. The story (seen here on the Telegraph) seems very sensational and like it is a revolution that will change the world if it can be done on a large scale. What has been proposed and put into service is a system that takes carbon dioxide, and through a series of chemical transformations, turns (like magic) into viable gasoline. What the article neglects to mention, or at least fails to really explain, is just how much energy goes into making this fuel.

First of all, the idea of taking carbon monoxide and dioxide from the air or from industrial processes to make gases or fuels is absolutely not new technology, and they admit that openly. But what they are saying is new is that they have designed and built a new way to do all the steps required to turn carbon dioxide into fuel, all in one plant, in a reproducible way. First of all, the first step they use is taking carbon dioxide from the air, mixing it with lye (which is mined) to purify it. This step doesn't seem particularly wasteful, as the lye is regenerated, and could certainly be improved by designing a better purification mechanism. The next step involves running water vapour collected by a dehumidifier through a process called electrolysis (which you probably remember from high school) to get pure hydrogen and oxygen. This, again, is absolutely not new, and is a very energy heavy process.

Next up comes combining the hydrogen and the pure carbon dioxide into methanol (methods developed in the 30s), and using processes developed by Mobil to further turn the methanol to gasoline. The small plant they have been working on for years and running full steam (pardon the pun) for three months has in fact produced real, viable fuel. However, the amount of fuel which has been produced couldn't get you more than an hour down the road, even in the most efficient gas-powered cars. They have managed to produce 5 litres, which you'll recognize as not a lot of fuel, in a very, very long time period. Regardless of how you slice up the math of this, regardless of the improvements that can be made to the process, this is the most backwards, oddball way of going about powering vehicles. The ONLY claim that seems to get them any sort of commendation is that they only used renewable energy for all of the wasteful, energy-intensive processes they used to turn carbon dioxide and water into fuel. At least they weren't also wasting power from the grid that could easily run electric cars to develop this waste of time.

I don't even know where to start with this one. First of all, the fact that I am unemployed right now and that there are people whose job it is is to produce 5 L of fuel every three months using 80 year old technology along with wind turbines and solar panels is absolutely terrifying. Second, we actually have ways to power cars that don't involve burning fuel, and could instead just use the electricity from this plant to run any number of factories, heat and power homes, or even just run an electric car for a lot longer than three months. If they had managed to put this fuel cell (because for the purposes of this discussion this is just a massive fuel cell) into a vehicle, and could collect water vapour and carbon dioxide using air intakes which could power turbines (this vehicle could also certainly have solar panel technology on it to harvest even more energy), this would be an idea worth investing in. (Actually on a side note that sounds like a really wonderful idea assuming the math works out, which it clearly doesn't considering the fact that it took them three months to produce 5 L of fuel). Each step in this chemical process which uses electricity to power it actually cannot be 100% efficient, and so all this company is effectively doing is wasting energy in a wasteful way, towards making a real energy problem even worse.

There are many innovative ways that people are finding to solve the impending fuel crisis, and they should be applauded for that effort. This company, Air Fuel Synthesis, has taken what seems like it would be a wonderful way to power the future, and has instead shown the absolute worst way to do it. At the very least, this technology could be used to capture and store carbon dioxide directly from factories that produce it and recycled into new chemical processes, but removing it from the atmosphere is almost as irresponsible as pumping it in, on an industrial scale.

Between renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric (dam and wave generators) and organic solutions like biofuel from algae and bacteria, we have many roads to solving the world's energy problems so that we don't have to burn coal or fossil fuels for power. Making more gas shouldn't be the solution to a gas shortage, especially when it is inefficient in such an obvious way.