Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Someone Else’s Top Ten

oasys_x220 We know it’s getting to be top ten time of the year (and decade), but we’ve never really enjoyed these summary wrap-ups. After all, time like the tide is rather fluid and what seemed most important in the short term of a year fades before much more time has passed. Even the top ten movies or albums seem vagrant, the results of a passing fancy.

So, speaking for ourselves, we’ll probably bypass the mania for top ten and move right on to passing you along to someone else’s top ten list. It both confirms and spoils our potted formulation.

It is Greentechmedia’s Top Ten High Concepts of 2009. We actually like it because it focuses on items that may not come to fruition at all, but simply demonstrate the good work that goes on in industry and university labs all the time. The great thing about such projects is that they can be quite valuable even when not workable – the lessons learned can be quite instructive.

Take, for example, number 3:

Osmotic Pressure Gradients: In OPGs, fresh water passes through a membrane, drawn through by an inherent attraction to a vat of salty water on the other side. As the volume of water increases in the salty tank, pressure builds, which can be used to crank a turbine.

We’d have to read more about this to see how it decreases the pressure or what you do with the salinated fresh water – can’t put it back where you got it, presumably – but pretty neat.

But despite the interest in this and other entries like Instant Oil and a Solar Air Conditioner, we were interested in the first and second entries. Number 1:

Nuclear Goes Mod(ular): NuScale Power, Sandia National Labs, TerraPower and Babcock & Wilcox discussed plans to build and/or license small reactors that could produce 45 to 125 megawatts of power.

We’ve written about these a fair amount and they’ve picked up tremendous interest – both here, where a couple of bills encouraging their development are moving through Congress, and overseas, too, where their potential could be enormous.

If anything holds them back, it’s that no design has been approved by the NRC – none submitted, mind you, but still, such design licensing can take years and be a real business inhibitor. Hopefully, Congress can move on that, too, and provide resources so the NRC can review these units quickly.

And number 2:

Fusion: Livermore National Labs showed off a system in which 192 high powered lasers focused on tiny capsule of hydrogen could generate fusion power.

When we’ve written about fusion, it’s usually to make fun of it – not that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, even by us. But it’s been around long enough that it has inspired a fan base that has followed its travails for years and years (and inspires hobbyists to make their own fusion reactors). Maybe it’s that there’s a faint whiff of alchemy around fusion, as it takes the electricity generation of a small country to light a bulb. We joke, but getting the resource-to-result ratio right is a big stumbling block.

Here’s the next sentence in the entry on fusion: “Scientists hope to show it can work in 2010 or 2011.” As we always do (and have for years and years), we wish them luck.

Read the whole thing – lots of fun technology.

An osmotic pressure plant. Osmotic pressure works the other way, too, desalinating water.

[Oasys] is using what it calls engineered osmosis. Unlike conventional desalination systems, the Oasys system establishes an osmotic pressure gradient instead of using pressure or heat to force water through a purifying membrane. The approach exploits the fact that water naturally flows from a dilute region to one that's more concentrated when the two solutions are separated by a semipermeable material, thereby saving the energy normally needed to drive the process.

So, to answer our question above, we presume you can do a two way osmotic pressure exchange that both salinates and desalinates water. See here for more.

2 comments:

perdajz said...

Fusion has a huge stumbling: fission. When researchers first started looking at fusion decades ago, it seemed to offer advantages in safety and waste disposal. In the decades since, fission reactors (LWR in particular) have performed so well that it is not at all clear how fusion can ever become competitive. It will be impossible to beat the safetey record of the LWR, and waste disposal for current fuel cycles is a small, manageable issue. For the foreseeable future, uranium and/or thorium will stay cheap. There is no reason to think that a fusion reactor would be safer or more reliable than a LWR. With capacity factors well in the 90's for the current fleet, how could a fusion reactor be more reliable than a LWR?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps NEINN has already reviewed this, but Seife's "Sun in a Bottle" hammers fusion pretty hard. It's a good history book.