A Power Plant Joining the Grid in 2018 Burns Natural Gas with No Emissions

Trending Renewable

A welcome new energy trend has emerged in recent years: traditional fossil fuels appear to be on the way out, while renewable sources of energy are on the rise.

Popular opinion has shifted toward energy sources with a smaller carbon footprint, and renewable energy is becoming cheaper, more efficient, and more widespread. However, the transition away from fossil fuels is still far from complete. To help ease this transition period, one company has developed a way to burn a fossil fuel — natural gas — to generate electricity without producing any carbon emissions.

The company is NET Power, and their product is the Allam cycle.

Can We Come Back from Climate Change’s Brink?
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In a typical power plant, a fossil fuel such as coal is combusted with ambient air to create heat to boil water. The steam from that water then turns a turbine to produce electricity.

According to NET Power, this process is inefficient, with 30 to 40 percent of the system’s energy lost during the process. It’s also damaging to the environment, producing harmful nitrous oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and, in some cases, spewing sulfur dioxides, mercury, and fine particulate matter into the air as well.

NET Power’s plant is a bit different. It combusts natural gas with oxygen instead of ambient air, which is nearly 80 percent nitrogen. This allows the system to avoid the NOx emissions of traditional plants. The result of the combustion is nearly pure CO2.

This CO2 is heated until it reaches supercritical status, at which point it flows like a liquid but expands like a gas. This supercritical CO2 is then used to drive a turbine to produce electricity. After that, it’s cooled and de-pressurized back to a normal gas and returned to the front of the loop to keep the cycle going.

NET Power
NET Power’s prototype plant, under construction in Houston, Texas. Image Credit: NET Power

Using supercritical CO2 to run the turbine allows NET Power to avoid the energy loss that comes with converting water to steam. Any excess CO2 created by burning the natural gas can be stored underground or sold to the market. Others can use this CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a process that involves blasting CO2 underground to free up oil reserves.

“Anybody who says keep [fossil fuels] in the ground is asking the wrong question,” NET Power CEO Bill Brown told NPR. “The question is, are we putting CO2 into the atmosphere? And if the answer is no, then that should be sufficient.”

NET Power has already built a smokestack-free prototype power plant in a small lot in the oil hub and carbon-dioxide-emitting hotspot of Houston. The plant is expected to begin running in 2018 and produce 50 MW of electricity, enough to power more than 40,000 homes. It will produce this emission-free electricity at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is comparable to the cost of electricity from natural gas plants today.

If the prototype plant works the way NET Power thinks it will, the company plans to open a 300-megawatt power plant by 2021. That plant could produce emissions-free power for over 200,000 homes.

Carbon Capture, 2.0

Those who say we cannot solve climate change by a swap to renewables alone have long hoped for an alternative like NET Power’s. Rodney Allam, the engineer who pioneered the cycle, is himself a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I’m not knocking renewables, but they can’t meet future power demands by themselves,” Allam told Science.

As the oft-repeated adage goes, wind and solar only work when the Sun is shining and the wind is blowing. That problem will be alleviated by better energy storage technology, but until that storage is available, natural gas could be a solid interim solution. It produces much less CO2 than coal and can be ramped up or down as renewable contributions fluctuate.

NET Power’s plant takes it one step further by cleaning up the carbon at no added cost. Still, with the cost of renewable energy rapidly falling, some may be hesitant to invest in a technology that relies on fossil fuels and is currently more expensive than the renewables themselves.

However, if NET Power’s prototype plant works as hoped when it fires up in 2018, its success could be enough to motivate the world to give the Allam cycle a shot.

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Georgia Tech’s New Prosthetic Arm Enables Amputees to Control Each Individual Finger

Prosthetic Functionality Is No Longer Science Fiction

When Jason Barnes was electrocuted in 2012, doctors were forced to amputate his arm from the elbow down. As a musician, the loss of his right arm must have certainly traumatized and saddened beyond any simple repair.

Two years later, Gil Weinberg, a professor at the Georgia Tech College of Design, and his lab developed a new prosthetic for Barnes that enabled him to play one of his favorite instruments: the drums. The prosthetic arm was equipped with a pair of drumsticks — one controlled by Barnes himself, while the other moved on it’s own and improvised it’s movements based on the music it heard nearby.

Barnes used to also play the piano, but a majority of prosthetic arms available are as of yet unable to provide the level of dexterity required to play such a complex instrument. So after creating the drumstick prosthetic, Weinberg set out to create another device that would enable Barnes to play the piano once again, and he took some inspiration from Luke Skywalker’s own robotic limb. A source the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was inspired by as well.

Despite the amputation of his arm, Barnes still had the muscles required to control his fingers. The problem was the electromyogram (EMG) sensors used in most prosthetic limbs are inaccurate, meaning Weinberg and his team had to find another approach.

“We tried to improve the pattern detection from EMG for Jason but couldn’t get finger-by-finger control,” explained Weinberg. That’s when the team incorporated an ultrasound machine. Working together with other Georgia Tech professors – Minoru Shinohara, Chris Fink, and Levent Degertekin — they attached an ultrasound probe to Barnes’ everyday prosthetic arm.

As explained by Georgia Tech, the muscles movements seen when Barnes tries to move his amputated ring finger are different from those seen when he tries to move any other finger. Using this information, Weinberg and his team fed the unique muscle movements for each finger into an algorithm that’s able to determine which finger Barnes wants to move. Used in combination, the ultrasound signals and machine learning can detect the movements of each finger, as well as how much force he wants to use.

Now, 5 years later, he’s able to play the piano again.

“It’s completely mind-blowing,” said Barnes. “This new arm allows me to do whatever grip I want, on the fly, without changing modes or pressing a button. I never thought we’d be able to do this.”

Practical Applications

Incredibly, Weinberg believes the technology used for Barnes’ new arm can also be used for more than music. One day, according to the professor, it could be used to help people with tasks “such as bathing, grooming and feeding.” Considering how it was successful enough to provide enough dexterity for individual fingers to hold a melody on the piano, there’s no reason why it couldn’t enable someone to type on a keyboard as well. Or use a smartphone, play video games, et al.

The potential doesn’t stop there, as Weinberg imagines a time in which even able-bodied people can remotely control robotic limbs by moving their fingers. This is starting to sound like the cyborg character Molly Millions from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.”

The First Cyborg Olympics [INFOGRAPHIC]
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However, given the current concerns about automation displacing millions of workers, creating jobs that allow people to still be “hands-on,” but from a distance and out of harm’s way, may ease the transition, if only a little. It could also give birth to an emergent harmony, wherein humans, artificial intelligence, and robotics work together for the betterment of all, instead of the artificial replacing the biological.

One thing is certain: robotics and AI are going to enhance our own capabilities in a multitude of ways, and we’re on the verge of embracing them completely. As Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert put it: “When we have robots that can do what people and animals do, they will be incredibly useful.”

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Your Future Coffee Could Be Bought Using Amazon Stock

Having Money Doesn’t Mean You Can Use it

How we store value and pay for things has evolved over time. Today, cash represents the most liquid form of value and is, thus, the mode of transacting with the lowest fees. Case in point, if you have a five-dollar bill in your pocket and are trying to pay for coffee that cost five dollars, you can just hand the person across the counter your five-dollar bill and go about your day. No transaction fee, no future obligations, just a clean transaction between two people.

However, if you pulled out your debit card to pay, the situation changes. You would swipe your card and something new would happen — along with the transfer of value from your checking account i.e., along with the money that is withdrawn from the account, the merchant will need to pay a transaction fee.

What is the difference between the five dollars in your pocket and the five dollars in your checking account?  They are both yours, and they are both worth exactly five dollars, right? Well, not exactly.

The difference is that there is a cost to accessing the five dollars in your checking account that does not exist with the five dollars in your pocket. There are other ways you could pay for this coffee, personal check, certified check, barter, credit card, but the primary point here is that ownership of value and the ability to use that value to pay for things is different. Just because I have access to value does not mean I can pay for anything.

Let’s expand this example to stocks. Stocks represent equity in companies, and by holding stocks individuals share in the growth or losses of a company. Stocks are traded every day on exchanges across the world and are viewed as liquid assets. In fact, stocks are considered the second most liquid asset a person can have outside of cash.

Now, what does it mean to be the second most liquid? Could you pay for that five-dollar coffee with your stock? You could, it would just take a long time…and you would need to find a very patient 24-hour coffee shop, which you might actually be able to find in NYC where I am currently residing.

But how would this work, practically speaking? Well, imagine you are standing in a coffee shop and all you have to your name is $ 100,000 in Amazon stock. On paper, you are doing pretty well. But not so in this store:

    1. You tell the barista, “one second, while I get some of my money.” First, you would need to wait until markets were open and then put in a sell order for some of your stock using your brokerage account. Since you are trying to buy a $ 5 coffee, just to be safe, you sell $ 15 worth of stock because you know there are some fees coming your way.
    2. Once the trade goes through, it will take 3 days for you to have access to that money on your brokerage account.
    3. After the money is in your brokerage account, you will need to send that money to your checking account. This can take another 3 days via ACH transfer and might involve another fee. Fees are killer.
    4. Now, after potentially six days of waiting around in this coffee shop, you should be able to swipe your card and pay for your coffee.

As the above demonstrates, in this case, you are wealthy in Amazon stock but you aren’t liquid.

This sounds like a terrible experience. However, my hope is that, while it sounds terrible, you can see that all the issues here have solvable problems. If markets were open 24/7, the settling of trades could happen faster. And if the transferring of assets could cost less and happen instantaneously, one could, in theory, pay for coffee with Amazon stock.

And the truth is, we are headed for a new economy. In fact, we are already creating this new economy — one where value ownership and liquidity disappear. We are seeing this, to some extent, with tokens.

Tomorrow’s Solutions to Today’s Problems

The important thing to note is that bitcoin was just the first in a new category of assets. A friend of mine recently wrote a post titled “Bitcoin is a Platypus,” which I highly recommend. It outlines how blockchain does not fit into any of our traditional systems or categories. Rather, it is a “category creator.”  However, people are trying to force blockchain and other similar technologies into existing buckets and, long term, I think this will look ridiculous.

2017 will be the year that blockchain became main steam, but it will also be the year of misunderstanding and mistakes. I think people will laugh when they look back at the ICO craze and the various regulations that have attempted to put this new technology into a familiar box when, in fact, this technology is going to completely change the box.

Things to Come: A Timeline of Future Technology [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Need an example? Imagine a world where you could have your value stored in a number of different tokens based on your own preferences, and then use that value to pay for anything else. Here’s how this would work.

  1. I have a future payment platform called Y-Not Payments. On this platform, I have Amazon tokens, Tesla tokens, Bitcoin, USD, LTC, and ETH. I go out to dinner with my friend Alex, and he covers the bill. I now owe him $ 50 USD. Instead of sending him USD, I feel like I would like to own less BTC, and so I send him $ 50 worth of BTC.
  2. Alex also uses Y-Not Payments, and he has his preferences set to convert all incoming payments into ETH. My $ 50 BTC is automatically traded for $ 50 ETH.
  3. That $ 50 ETH hits Alex’s wallet, he thanks me for my expeditious payment, and we both go about our day.  

This future is coming, and there is no reason why, in this future, we would even need to use the same payment interface.

Again, the separation of value and liquidity is going to largely disappear and that cryptographic tokens and smart contracts will fundamentally change the way we all operate; however, there are some critical steps between then and now.

As of right now, this future as I have described is not possible. One of the primary barriers to that future is that transaction speeds are too slow for it to work. Another is that transaction costs are too high.  Ethereum, one of the most prominent blockchains, is currently experiencing both of these major issues as a result of a single apps popularity, crypto kitties.

We are still in the early chapters of the blockchain story, and there are many innovations still to come. Almost certainly, what we think we know today will be different from what we know in the future.

A New Economy?

With this in mind, I have spent a lot of time exploring new projects, particularly ones that might solve some of these problems. One of those projects is a technology called Hashgraph. Hashgraph is a distributed consensus technology that might eliminate some of the key issues with current blockchains, such as transaction speeds and costs, through its innovative gossip about gossip network involving digital voting. That said, this is a pretty deep rabbit hole, so if you want to go down it, feel free to follow the links. But in short, it is important to highlight them because they extend the conversation beyond blockchain and demonstrate that the future may involve other forms of consensus algorithms.

Right now, a lot of the conversation circles around how to improve existing blockchains and, as is often the case when you are too close to a problem, it is hard to see solutions that exist elsewhere. This reminds me of a familiar (but most likely false) historical account from the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford said that if he had asked people what they wanted, the response would have been faster horses. Instead, he built the car. Right now people are asking for faster blockchains.

The TL:DR of all this is the following: In the future, the separation of value and liquidity will disappear with cryptographic tokens and smart contracts. While blockchain will certainly play a role in that future, it is almost certainly not the whole story. Given existing problems with how it operates alongside today’s systems, it can’t be.

Disclaimer: This article has been updated to summarize the content found in the article “Bitcoin Is A Platypus.” Addittionally, Futurism Agency is exploring a financial relationship with Hashgraph. Hasgraph had no editorial review privileges on this article. 

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Prepare Yourself for the “Tsunami of Data” Expected to Hit by 2025

Data Tsunami

Our internet-connected devices could be impeding climate change efforts, according to an update to a 2016 peer-reviewed study on power consumption, as reported by Climate Home News. The billions of devices many of us use every day could produce 3.5 percent of global emissions within 10 years and 14 percent by 2040. This would result in the industry using approximately 20 percent of all of the world’s electricity by 2025. This growing problem threatens to disrupt progress toward climate change goals and exacerbate increasingly-stressed power grids.

These severe consequences are caused by one, major, underlying trend: the rapidly growing power needs of server farms which store data from billions of smart devices. As we acquire more devices and use data and these technologies more and more, these servers require significantly more power. And, as it turns out, we are asking a lot of these server farms, and current predictions say it’s only going to get worse.

Swedish researcher Anders Andrae, who worked on the study update, thinks that industry power demands will increase from 200-300 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year to 1,200 or even 3,000 TWh by 2025. Andrae comments: “The situation is alarming. We have a tsunami of data approaching. Everything which can be is being digitalised. It is a perfect storm. 5G [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated, and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalised, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centres.”

Digital Universe

We have known for years that things like driving, leaving lights on, and letting the water run too long wastes energy and resources, and we should take some personal responsibility for our impact on the planet. But as technology has progressed, the ways in which we affect the environment and contribute to climate change have also changed. The data that we use and the number of devices we own are also now major elements to consider when we think how we use resources. We can even take into consideration our financial investments, as it was recently revealed that the cryptocurrency giant Bitcoin, through mining, consumes more energy than 159 entire countries combined.

Renewable Energy Sources Of The Future [Infographic]
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But does this energy responsibility rest solely on us? The companies whose technologies use this increasing energy could also make changes in order to reduce energy usage or transition to better renewable energy sources. What these companies do, the technologies that they create, and the way we use them each have relative and specific impact on the environment. And, as many experts have agreed, we need to make every effort if we are to meet the climate goals that will prevent further life-threatening consequences of climate change.

So no, this does not exactly mean that we need to stop using our devices. The availability and easy access to information that the internet provides is not only a precious resource, it is a human right, according to the UN. The education that the internet can provide is an essential part of modern life. But as companies continue to advance technologies, and we carry on consuming them, it’s paramount for both sides to take into consideration what impact these devices will have on the future.

 

Disclosure: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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Electric Car Range May Soon Triple, Thanks to New Research

Battery Breakthroughs

As increasingly more companies and governments move to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, it is becoming apparent that electric car ranges must be further increased. We must expand battery life and output in order to both contend with and surpass gas-powered vehicles. To contend with this necessity, companies like TeslaToshibaPanasonic, and Samsung are making great strides in improving range and battery capacity, but all have yet to fully surpass significant hurdles.

However, a new paper by researchers at the University of Waterloo claims that the use of negative electrodes made of lithium metal could  “dramatically increase battery storage capacity,” which could in turn drastically improve capabilities of electric-powered vehicles.

Electric vehicles could become a lot more common if their range can be tripled with this new battery development. Image Credit: geralt / pixabay

The paper, published in the journal Joule, details how scientists added a compound made up of phosphorus and sulfur elements to the electrolyte liquid, which carries charge within batteries. The team claims that this compound reacts with the lithium metal electrode in a battery to “spontaneously coat it with an extremely thin protective layer.” This protection, supposedly, allows for the use of lithium metal electrodes within batteries, which adds greater storage capacity, without risks or degradation. This improvement could triple the range of these nascent vehicles.

Electric Revolution

On a small scale, this breakthrough may increase capacity of batteries and battery systems. But, if these are implemented in electric vehicles, it wouldn’t just be a slight improvement to the technology. Battery capacity and range are currently the Achilles’ heel of the energy revolution that are keeping electric cars in second place to fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

So, not only could this development give a major boost to electric vehicle technology, it could ultimately have a definitive impact on the environment and the continued efforts against the progression of climate change. If, or when, electric cars become the primary vehicles on the road, emissions could be drastically reduced, bettering our chances of continued survival on planet Earth.

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