Electric cars

November 24, 2008

I see Australia is the latest country to start the switch to electric cars and wean its population off dependence on oil.

It follows Denmark and Israel’s lead.

New Zealand has already clinched a deal with Mitsubishi for a fleet of electric cars to be introduced in 2009. And in Japan, Japan Post is replacing its vehicles with electric equivalents.

In England, London has already been at the forefront of electric car usage and Boris Johnston has given a grant for the scheme to be extended across the boroughs of the city.

Now Brighton and Hove are planning a similar system. They successfully secured a £2.2 million grant from the EU for their project. Their 10 charging points will cost £30 000 altogether or £3000 each, quite a bit cheaper than the London counterparts.

The Australian model will be powered by renewable energy. The recharging stations will be powered by wind turbines.

Project Better Place will raise $1 billion to provide 250 000 recharging stations in the east of the country.

This works out at $4000 per recharging station.

Thats a lot cheaper than the £7000 it takes to install a recharging station in London, but I guess the price difference is down to the sheer massive scale of the Australian project.

The similar Danish system is also run by wind turbines. Around 20% of Denmark’s electricity production comes from wind, but the fact that the car batteries are traded in to charge – and they store electricity from the grid – with a number of batteries charging at any one time means that wind power can provide base load even when the wind is not blowing.

In fact, 2 million electric cars in circulation would provide Denmark with a standby capacity of electricity over 5 times its needs.

Project Better Place are in discussion with another 30 countries keen to implement the system. The mayor of San Francisco wants electric cars there.

The same company has already done the same in Israel.

Norway has about 50 recharging stations, but plans to have 400 on the go by 2011. The Norwegian Car company Think currently makes around 10 000 electric cars a year and can’t up with demand but does plan to open new factories to increase production.

Not to be left behind the Swedish Government are planning to provide a network of recharging stations across the country. It plans to be oil-independent by 2020.

The Finns seem to have taken a different approach. They have started a scheme where they convert your existing car to electric using lithium ion batteries. They claim that the top speed of your car will be a little less but the acceleration of the car will be better.

Even the Icelanders – slated by new Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy as being in an ‘Arc of Insolvency’ – have just shook hands on a deal with Mitsubishi to fleet test their electric cars in the country in 2009, similar to the New Zealand deal.

Another country in Murphy’s ‘Arc of Insolvency’, Ireland, will shortly announce plans to have 10% of all its cars powered by electricity by 2020. Project Better Place are already in talks with the Irish Government. Its predicted around 50 000 jobs could be created in Ireland with the establishment of such eco-friendly policies.

So much for the environmentally aware Scandanavians and the forward thinking Irish in their Arc of Prosperity you might say. What about Scotland?

Until recently Scotland had only one electric car. That was a G-Wiz, the electric car much used in London, with a slightly dodgy safety record. It also had only one public recharging station, in the Braehead Shopping Centre.

Clydebank Housing Association has provided electric cars for its tenants at Radnor Park. They are recharged at the local power station that provides electricity for the flats.

Its been funded by a £37 000 Community Scotland grant.

The Department of Transport is also planning to pilot a ‘green van’ scheme in various locations in England from Newcastle, Gateshead, and Liverpool to Leeds and Coventry. In Scotland only Glasgow has been selected.

James May, of BBC’s Top Gear, is not a fan of the Westminster Government’s ‘green transport’ policy:

‘People think it’s about style or performance, but it’s down to the science. There has to be a hydrogen infrastructure in place to provide the energy to make electric vehicles work properly. We are nowhere near that point.’

Far from ‘kick-starting’ the revolution, May says the Government is simply ‘window-dressing’. ‘There’s a feeble bit of Congestion Charge relief if your drive an electric vehicle. This is no more a Green-vehicle strategy than my cat,’ he says.

Newer electric cars like the Smart Fortwo Electric can plug into a mains socket, has a top speed of 70 mph and can travel for 75 miles without a recharge.

The new Tesla Roadster is an electric sports car, assembled by Lotus. It can do 0 – 60 in 3.9 seconds and can travel 244 miles on a single charge of its battery. Of course it does cost 99 000 euros or around £84 000.

Tesla Roadster

75% of Scots in a recent survey said they would consider changing to an alternative powered car if they became readily available.

The Scottish Government has planned a consultation exercise on electric cars this Autumn. But there are already calls for the SNP Government to try and get Project Better Place’s network in Scotland.

But if it doesn’t act soon Scotland could be the poor relation of Europe in electric car takeup.

Spain has announced a target of 1 million electric cars on its roads by 2014.

Germany is launching its own network of electric car recharging stations.

Portugal is also announcing its own network of recharging stations. It will build 1300 stations by 2011.

France has recently announced a $549 million investment in electric and hybrid cars.

With the SNP Government’s commitment to renewal energy surely the Danish model based on wind turbines is the way forward? The combination of providing much more base load than we need and have the rest exported, the reduction of carbon emissions and the prospect of being oil independent when the oil finally runs out must be the favourite way ahead.

Back to James May:

‘The wind blows, the waves roll, the sun shines. The moon in the sky plucks at the sea to makes the tides, and Tennyson’s wild cataract leaps in glory. And he wasn’t talking about an eye infection. All of this will go on for as long as there is a world, and we need convert only a very tiny amount of it to electricity to keep driving until the sun goes out.’

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The tide is turning

September 29, 2008

Its been announced today that major new tidal energy projects will be launched in the Pentland Firth, the Sound of Islay and the Antrim coast.

The Pentland Firth in particular has been described as ‘the Saudi Arabia of tidal power’ and could provide Scotland with half its electricity [Robert Gordon University estimate] (Over 15 TWHrs per annum).

Tidal farms around Orkney and Shetland may produce 25 000 MW (73 TWHrs per annum).

Although the annual needs are measured in TWHrs, the actual plant machinery is measured in MW or GW. It is then factored into how much electricity it can provide in a year, taking a third as a load factor.

For instance,

A 6 GW plant provides 6 x 365 (days in a year) x 24 (hours in a day) x 0.33 (load factor)

i.e. 17.2 TWHrs.

Installed nuclear plant has 2.09 GW, (July 08). [6.1 TWHr]

Installed renewables plant have 2.96 GW (Sept 08 figure). [8.64 TWHr]

In total, Scottish electrical plant from all fuel sources has 10.3 GW [30 TWHr]. As you can work out from the Robert Gordon figure, this pretty much equates to what Scotland uses in electrical requirement.

But, as you can see with the figures talked about regarding the Pentland Firth and the Northern Isles alone, Scotland has far more energy potential than it needs, it has the capability to export vast amounts of electrical power.

Just using tidal energy alone. And tidal energy is ‘always on’ unlike wind power (36.5 GW estimated plant). And I haven’t mentioned Wave Power (14 GW estimated plant) either.

The nuclear argument is a red herring. As long as we build over 2 GW of renewable plant by the time the last Scottish nuclear plant Torness is decommisioned (expected in 2023), we should replace the nuclear output with ease.

Scotland doesn’t need it.

The tide is turning.

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The search for the Higgs boson

September 7, 2008

The world could be a different place after Wednesday.

The world is waiting for the results of the particle acceleration experiment in CERN near Geneva. Its when the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be used for the first time. It cost £4.4 billion to build it and its so big it straddles Switzerland and France.

According to some the experiment could create black holes that could destroy the planet, though the odds on that are highly unlikely. If you’re feeling particularly unlucky don’t book your holidays – unless its on the space shuttle!

The idea is to photograph two protons – a proton is a type of hadron, hence the machine’s name – that are smashing into one another at high speed, and get a picture of the resulting particle fragments – made up of various building blocks that scientists call bosons, quarks and leptons – that fly off in all directions.

Physicists have already identified 16 such particles. They call this the standard model.

But there is a problem with this model. Some particles have mass, others don’t. Its not neat and science likes things that are neat. Neatness generally implies they’ve got it right.

Peter Higgs at CERN

One physicist, Peter Higgs, from Edinburgh University, thought of a solution to the problem whilst trudging through the Cairngorms in 1964.

I’ll give an explanation as I understand it. Apologies to any real physicists! Feel free to correct me in the comments.

Think of Higgs walking through the Cairngorms, Summer 1964. Its Scotland so it’ll be raining or just stopped. Anywhere off the paths would be a field of mud.

Could it be that the sub-atomic particles are also in a field? And just like Higgs’ clothes, some of the sub-atomic particles – depending on where they ‘walked’ – got covered in mud, giving them mass?

If that was the case, then the Higgs field – as physicists now call it – itself must have a corresponding particle (the dirt particle in the field – its now called the Higgs boson) that provides the mass.

So this Wednesday when the particle accelerator is switched on, scientists hope that they can photograph the Higgs boson – or rather see the traces of it,  in theory it should disappear too quickly for the cameras – for the first time.

Peter Higgs’ work was based on other scientists work on the predicted Goldstone boson. But his ideas have already earned him the 1997 Dirac medal, the 1997 High Energy and Particle Physics Prize, and the 2004 Wolf Prize in Physics and his portrait proudly hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

If the LHC experiment finds evidence of a Higgs boson, Peter Higgs would almost certainly receive a Nobel Prize.

Its still all ‘ifs’ right now though. The LHC has not been tested; the experiment on Wednesday will be its first run. Its so large and costly that any tests would take months and cost more! Might as well run it and see if it works – if it doesn’t, well that’s a test! And its not at all clear how long it will need to run before the colliding protons create a Higgs boson that can be detected.

Most scientists think there will be a Higgs boson.

If there isn’t then all those physicists need to think of another explanation for the mass of sub-atomic particles.

Peter Higgs is almost eighty now. He thinks it might take a year to find his Higgs boson. Stephen Hawking has bet him £100 it will never be found. Still Higgs is confident and intends to be still alive when its found!: “There’s a conference next year in Glasgow to discuss the first results from the LHC, and I’ve been invited – dead or alive.”

This experiment may finally give physicists a true picture of how matter is composed, and a glimpse of what actually happened at the time of the Big Bang. It may even open more doors to string theory.

Its the most important scientific experiment of the 21st century. And depending on its answers, it could be one of the most important experiments of all time.

Olympic successes and Google Earth

August 28, 2008

It seems that Chris Hoy was upset by The Scotsman’s reports that he said a Scottish Olympic team would be ridiculous.

He is quoted in the Daily Record (Its something when even the Daily Record shows up how anti-SNP The Scotsman has become!):

“I feel a bit upset that I have been quoted as saying the idea of a Scottish Olympic team is ridiculous.

“If and when a Scottish team was put together, I would be delighted to represent Scotland in the Olympic Games.

“But before that happens, so much needs to be done for the athletes to be able to compete at the highest level.

“As a cyclist, there isn’t a facility in Scotland where I can train throughout the year and that’s why I have to base myself outside Scotland.

“I am proud to be Scottish, but at the same time it’s not feasible to think we can compete as a nation without the right facilities.”

So he’s just calling for an improvement in facilities, and seems to have clarified his past comments.

I’m sure he would much rather train in Scotland if the facilities matched those of Manchester.

And that’s the rub. Athletes can train anywhere that have the right facilities. Many of the successful Jamaican Olympic team trained in the United States, for instance.

The 2014 Commonwealth Games should provide a legacy of facilities for our athletes for years to come.

Some athletes don’t need much in the way of facilities:

Kristin Armstrong, an American Olympic cyclist in Beijing, won the Gold in the Women’s Individual Time Trial in Road Cycling.

Kristin Armstrong winning the Gold with help from Google Earth

It seems all she needed was her bike, her husband’s GPS and a PC running Google Earth.

She took the GPS when she trialled the Olympic route in 2007. She then went home, imported the data into Google Earth, and then matched the elevations of the Chinese Olympic route to a similar route at her home in Boise, Idaho for her training.

Now that is smart thinking.

And in Beijing she cruised to a Gold Medal.

You can just bet Google Earth will be playing this up for years!

Incidentally, Emma Pooley from England won the Silver, one of the medallists in Team GB. She is based and trains in Zurich, Switzerland. I’ll bet she wishes she thought of that idea! Or indeed, Nicole Cooke from Wales – based in Lugano, Switzerland, who finished fifteenth. But she did win the Gold in the Road Race.

Finally a hat-tip to Daibhi Anseo who pointed out in the comments to my post on Home Nations Olympic teams in history that a cycling team represented Scotland in the 1912 Olympics in Sweden.

I’ve not found a picture yet but I have found the names of the Scotland cycling squad:

John Wilson
Robert Thompson
John Miller
David Stevenson
Charles Hill
James Stevenson
George Corsar
Arthur Griffiths

They finished fourth and just missed out on a medal. The hosts Sweden came first and took the gold, obviously having the advantage of regularly training on the Olympic route.

If only Google Earth was around in 1912!

Plausible denial

August 15, 2008

As the Russian army is still in Georgian territory, south of South Ossetia, causing havoc, it seems a bad day for Boeing to announce their successful testing of their new laser gunship.

In the latest test, Boeing fitted their laser technology to an existing C-310 Hercules to try out its new laser technology.

Boeing Laser Gunship

Instead of carrying bombs and missiles, planes are fitted with a laser turret that can destroy any targets expertly. The technology could be utilised on a range of planes.

In fact, this technology has people searching for Star Wars comparisons.

A pity for science fiction buffs that the current stand off over Georgia between America and Russia jeopardises both their space programs and NASA’s involvement with the International Space Station. Star Wars type battles remain in the future.

X-wing fighter

But the thing that is getting most military analysts excited is the possibility of ‘plausible denial of air strikes’.

In other words, because there is no sign of a bomb where the target has been hit, it may be possible to deny that your aircraft – which may be a distance away – had any involvement in destroying the target site.

Absolutely scary.

I’m just glad that the Americans are supposed to be on our side.

Imagine if the Russians had this technology, would there be anything of Georgia left standing?