Change is on the horizon

Battery 413x289Wind is currently the cheapest way for suppliers to produce electricity, with solar catching rapidly. Rooftop PV is the cheapest way for homeowners to meet their household energy needs. But although over 1.3 million Aussie homes have solar panels on their roofs our nation still produces a LOT of emission from electricity generation. In my humble opinion the only thing holding the electrical revolution back (other than vested interests) is storage.

The variable nature of the renewables means that our society’s current energy habits can’t be fully satisfied without a much greater investment in renewables at a scale that is not achievable by the individual and seemingly undesirable by our government. If only there was a way that the excess energy being produced by renewables during peak times, especially rooftop solar during the day, could be stored and used at night.

Another area where energy storage has been holding the electric revolution back is cars. There have been many excuses the motor industry has given for not producing electric cars: cost, performance, long recharge times, range anxiety, battery lifetime. Tesla Motors has pretty much single-highhandedly addressed everyone of these excuses. Tesla’s latest car, the Model S, is incredibly quick, can go up to 500km on a single charge and is competitively priced with rivals. However, the naysayers out there will still complain that Model S isn’t a car for everyday people (as it is a luxury car with a $100,000 price tag) and that the recharge time, which is a few hours,  is too long as it only takes a few minutes to fill a car with petrol. However, it looks like all the remaining hurdles on the path to the electric revolution (households storing energy from rooftop solar, electric cars being too expensive and the recharge time of electric vehicles being too long) are about to be jumped.

Tesla Motors is creating the world’s largest battery factory, which it calls a Gigafactory. Once the Gigafactory is fully operational by 2020 it expected to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries, and bring prices down 30%. The massive increase in battery numbers will allow Tesla, and other car manufactures, to greatly increase the number of electric cars being built, and greatly reduce costs. This extra supply will also help increase availability and affordability of energy storage options for homes, the impact which is best described by this article; here are my highlights:

Just as the precipitous decline in the cost of solar cells and wind turbines over the past 10 or 15 years has made it possible for people to easily make their own power, these batteries will make it possible to easily and cost-effectively store it, freeing consumers from the tyranny of the big power companies.

And it will happen fast, according to Jemma Green, a researcher at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.

“We’re talking about grid parity in 24 to 36 months,” she says.

“And what that means is it will make more sense to put batteries in and store excess energy during the day than it will to buy power from the grid at night.”

In as little as 2 to 3 years households world-wide may be in a position to disconnect from the grid (although in practice probably wouldn’t want to) and consume nothing but clean energy and zero on-going cost. Although the Tesla Gigafactory will address energy storage, it won’t help with improving recharge times for electric cars, but don’t worry, someone else has.

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have figured out how to make lithium-ion batteries with a new architecture, which speeds up the charging time and increases the battery life by a factor of 10 or more. Thus allowing cars to be recharged in as little as 5 minutes. The best news is that the team believe the technology is only 2 years away from being on the market.

It appears that the next few years are going to see a lot of changes in world of energy storage, which should hopefully cause event bigger changes in global energy generation and usage.

The world’s best ever electric car just got better

Tesla Model SToday Tesla Motors announced the Model D, which is the all wheel drive version of the Model S sedan.

The Model D has two electric motors – one per axle – and due to efficiencies designed into the new AWD system the car will have a slightly longer range (around 15 km).

What impresses me most is due to the car’s increased ability to put power to the ground, the car is capable from accelerating from 0 – 100 km/hr in 3.2 seconds, which has got to make it close to the fastest four-door car ever made.

The car also has a range of new features, including driverless lane changing.


365 1/4 Days of Science – The Science of 2014

365 14 Days of Science 500x200

For the past five and a half years I have been organising a public science series called BrisScience. In two weeks (13th of October) BrisScience is holding a very special event: a science-based comedy panel show (think along the lines of Good News Week or Spicks and Specks). Usually I MC BrisScience events, but this time I will actually be a part of the fun as I’m one of the panelists competing for scientific glory.

If you’re worried that it’s going to be a train wreck because you think I’m as funny as a door stop, don’t be; professional comedians on both teams to ensure you have plenty of laughs. If you’re concerned that the scientific competency will be quite low, don’t be; world-leading scientists will be each team.

The event is on the 13th of October from 7:30-9pm (doors open at 7pm) at The EdgeState Library of Queensland, South Brisbane. Tickets are $15 and available online here. More info, including a list of everyone participating, can be found at

Australia’s universities surge in world rankings

Australia’s universities have made a surge in QS Top Universities world university rankings,  with the entire with the entire Group of Eight making the top 100. Here are the rankings of Australia’s top universities:

Although the rankings show the success of Australia’s top universities, it also highlights the wide gap between the Group of Eight and the rest of Australia’s universities. After The University of Adelaide the next highest ranked Australian universities are Macquaire University and The University of Newcastle at #254 and #257 respectively.

After The University of Queensland at #43, Queensland’s next best universities are:

Humans need not apply

A couple of years ago a magazine cover caught my eye with the title Technological Singularity. Being not familiar with the term I decided to read the article to find out what on earth it could be. In short the technological singularity is some time in the future when technology – specifically artificial intelligence – overtakes the ability of humans and lead to human beings being replaced in the workplace by robots and other technological marvels. The magazine then went on to say that once this happens society will experience a rapid acceleration in wealth, technology and living standards. The article used history to back up its claims.

When humans realised it was easier to plant crops and raise herds than it was to hunt and gather they did so. As man was no longer nomadic, settlements were formed and there was an a sudden and sharp increase in the global population, which had been fairly constant during hunter-gatherer times. This discontinuity happened around 10,000 BC and is referred to as the Neolithic or Agrarian revolution.

The next significant revolution (in my humble opinion) is the Industrial Revolution. With the introduction of machines the days of mankind producing everything by hand were gone. The rate at which technology progresses increased sharply, and as a result living standards over the past 200 years improved far more than any time in history.

With both the agricultural and industrial revolutions the need for workers was never replaced, the roles humans had in the workforce simply changed. However, what do humans do once we make machines and computers that can do any job better than ourselves? Some might say that there will always be a job for humans to do, even if it’s just to build better robots and computers. But what happens when machines can make themselves better than we can. If you’re still not convinced, watch this:

This video was created by CGP Grey.

An exploding volcano

This is a short post about a video I just had to share. It’s footage of a volcano in Papua New Guinea exploding!

Something that really caught my eye were clouds being formed by the shock wave visible from 0:13 – 0:18. It’s also pretty impressive when the shock wave reaches the camera.

The world’s biggest carbon market coming soon

China green eco flagA few weeks ago a I wrote a piece about the city of Beijing banning coal-fired electricity by the year 2020. Although this is a great step for a single city, it was only a very small step of marathon journey China would have to take to clean up its act as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The good news it hasn’t taken long for China’s next step – which is mammoth in comparison – to become global news. For those interested I highly recommend reading this article by Reuters. Here are the opening paragraphs to wet your appetite:

China plans to roll out its national market for carbon permit trading in 2016, an official said Sunday, adding that the government is close to finalising rules for what will be the world’s biggest emissions trading scheme.

The world’s biggest-emitting nation, accounting for nearly 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, plans to use the market to slow its rapid growth in climate-changing emissions.

China has pledged to reduce the amount of carbon it emits per unit of GDP to 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Who resurrected the electric car?

A passion of mine is cars. I absolutely love them. However I am keenly aware that they are a major contributor to the problem of global warming. If only there was a car I could buy that had zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In the 1990s General Motors was the first company to start seriously investigating the possibility of purely electric vehicles. The result of GM’s efforts was the EV1 – the first mass-produced electric car. Between 1996 – 1999 over 1000 EV1s were made and leased out to customers. However after a loosening of regulations in California, which had been GM’s primary motivator for investigating zero emission vehicles, and a collective effort by the major US automakers to prevent further regulations GM killed off its electric car programme and crushed every single EV1 it had made. With the exception of Toyota’s hybrid Prius, the world’s car makers weren’t making headway towards electric vehicles.

Teslta RoadsterFlash forward to 2008 and a new car company, Tesla Motors, releases it’s very first car, the Tesla Roadster – a purely electric, two-seat sports car that was quick! For the first time ever a car company was mass-producing electric cars for people to buy. In all, 2,450 Tesla Roadsters were built and sold between 2008 – 2012 for a sticker price of US$109,000.

With the Roadster’s success other car companies started developing mass-produced electric vehicles. Mitsubishi released the i-MiEv in 2009, Nissan released the Leaf in 2010 and General Motors released the Volt in 2011. Although these cars cost less than a Tesla Roadster, none of them could come close to matching the Roadster’s (almost) 400 km range from a single charge.

Tesla Model STesla then move the goal posts further in 2012 when it released its second car, the Tesla Model S – a luxury sedan, with amazing performance and a range of up to 350/450 km depending on the model, for a price of US$70,000/US$80,000. But although Tesla makes truly great electric cars, they aren’t exactly affordable.

The good news is that Tesla hopes it’s third car will be something suitable for the average person, with a 320 km (200 mi) range for US$35,000. The better news is that Tesla hopes to begin selling the car as soon as 2017. However, the great news is that General Motors hopes to beat them. The race is on!

News that is good, not great.

Coal power plantIf your Facebook and Twitter accounts are anything like mine, you will have jumped for joy in recent weeks after seeing headlines announcing that Beijing has banned coal-fired power plants by 2020.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration China consumes and produces roughly half the world’s coal. China’s hunger for coal is driven by it’s massive manufacturing industry which requires vast amounts of energy. It’s not surprising that China produces more greenhouse gasses than any other country on Earth.

Given China’s enormous use of coal the news of Beijing’s decision was welcomed by me, and I celebrated that the world’s use of coal was about to plummet. However, I should have done my due diligence and read past the headlines – it is Beijing that is banning the use of coal, not China. Beijing will close down coal-fired power plants in its 6 main districts, which produce 0.5% of China’s energy needs.

Although this is no where near as great as I first assumed, it is still good news. As the proverb says “a waterfall begins with just one drop”, and Beijing is the capital of China so hopefully this just the first step of many that China makes to decarbonising its society.

The importance of sunscreen

The body’s defense to the harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun is a pigment called melanin. This wonderful molecule absorbs over 99.9% of UV light’s energy. After UV exposure our body produces more melanin, which causes our skin colour to darken (tan).

Freckles are concentrated clusters of melanin, and are very good at absorbing UV light. Here is a video that highlights the effectiveness of melanin, glasses, and – most impressively – sunscreen at absorbing UV light.