Harping on again?

May 30, 2008

It’s been a while since I mentioned the reality of the effects of our huge meat production line, but a story in this mornings papers has made me decide to bring it back into focus here.

The Guardians article “More Wealth, more meat.  How China’s rise spells trouble.”  highlights a very simple yet enlightening fact about our meat eating environmental economy.

To produce a kilogram of beef farmers need 8kg of feed; for pork about 6kg; for chicken 2kg. Worldwide, 700m tonnes of grain are needed to fatten animals each year.

When you think about that it raises many questions.  Food prices are rising, many people around the world are starving.  Now what would feed more people?  1kg of beef or 8kg of grain.  The answer is self explanatory in my opinion and although I am simplifying using the above quote the facts are not much more complicated.

Our meat industry is hugely inefficient when it comes to the amount of food we get out of it compared to the amount of energy put in and the environmental impact created is also hugely underestimated and misunderstood.

The impact of the global meat industry with regards to green house gasses is larger than the worlds car or automobile footprint.  Yes, that’s right.  The meat industry contributes more green house gasses to our atmosphere than the total impact of cars, motorbikes and lorries.

It’s definitely something to think about.

And as the worlds population rises at an unprecedented rate, so does the impact of the meat industry.

On average Americans eat 129% more meat than the Chinese; Europeans consume 83% more. But in China’s case the fear is not of individual consumption, but of the multiples of scale and speed of 1.3 billion people growing richer at a rate of more than 10% a year.

I haven’t even touched on world food prices and the treatment of said animals, but I believe, pardon the pun, that there is enough food for thought above.

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When I was 12

April 10, 2008

Large rocks, severed heads, and flaming pots of oil rained down on Baghdad, capital of the vast Islamic Empire, as its weary defenders scrambled to reinforce gates, ditches, and the massive stone walls surrounding the fortress city’s many brick and teak palaces. Giant wooden manjaniq catapults bombarded distant structures while the smaller, more precise arradah catapult guns pelted individuals with grapefruit-sized rocks. Arrows flew thickly and elite horsemen assaulted footmen with swords and spears. “The horses . . . trample the livers of courageous young men,” lamented the poet al-Khuraymi, “and their hooves split their skulls.” Outside the circular city’s main wall—100 feet high, 145 feet thick, and six miles in circumference—soldiers pressed forward with battering rams while other squads choked off supply lines of food and reinforcements. Amid sinking boats and burning rafts, bodies drifted down the Tigris River.

The impenetrable “City of Peace” was crumbling. In the fifty years since its creation in A.D. 762, young Baghdad had rivaled Constantinople and Rome in its prestige and influence. It was a wildly fertile axis of art, science, and religion, and a bustling commercial hub for trade routes reaching deep into Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. But by the late summer of A.D. 813, after nearly two years of civil war (between brothers, no less), the enlightened Islamic capital was a smoldering, starving, bloody heap.

In the face of disorder, any human being desperately needs order—some way to manage, if not the material world, at least one’s understanding of the world. In that light, perhaps it’s no real surprise that, as the stones and arrows and horses’ hooves thundered down on Baghdad, the protected core of the city hosted a different sort of battle. Within the round city’s imperial inner sanctum, secure behind three thick, circular walls and many layers of gate and guard, under the luminescent green dome of the Golden Gate Palace, Muhammad al-Amin, the sixth caliph of the Abbasid Empire, spiritual descendant of (and distant blood relation to) the Prophet Muhammad, sovereign of one of the largest dominions in the history of the world, was playing chess against his favorite eunuch Kauthar.

A trusted messenger burst into the royal apartment with urgently bad news. More inglorious defeats in and around the city were to be reported to the caliph. In fact, his own safety was now in jeopardy.

But al-Amin would not hear of it. He waved off his panicked emissary.

“O Commander of the faithful,” implored the messenger, according to the medieval Islamic historian Jirjis al-Makin. “This is not the time to play. Pray arise and attend to matters of more serious moment.”

It was no use. The caliph was absorbed in the board. A chess game in progress is—as every chess spouse quickly learns—a cosmos unto itself, fully insulated from an infant’s cry, an erotic invitation, or war. The board may have only thirty-two pieces and sixty-four squares, but within that confined space the game has near-infinite depth and possibility. An outsider looking on casually might find the intensity incomprehensible. But anyone who has played the game a few times understands how it can be engrossing in the extreme. Quite often, in the middle of an interesting game, it’s almost as if reality has been flipped inside out: the chess game in motion seems to be the only matter of substance, while any hint of the outside world feels like an annoying irrelevance.

The messier the external world, the more powerful this inverted dynamic can be. Perhaps that is why Caliph al-Amin, who sensed that his hours were numbered, preferred to soak in the details of his chess battlefield rather than reports of the calamitous siege of his city. On the board he could see the whole action. On the board he could neatly make sense of significant past events and carefully plan his future. On the board he still might win.

“Patience my friend,” the caliph calmly replied to his messenger standing only a few feet away and yet a world apart. “I see that in a few moves I shall give Kauthar checkmate.”

Not long after this, al-Amin and his men were captured. The sixth Abbasid caliph, victor in his final chess game, was swiftly beheaded.

Chess lived on. The game had been a prominent court fixture of Caliph al-Amin’s predecessor, and would voraciously consume the attention of his successor—and the caliph after that, and the caliph after that. Several centuries before it infected feudal Christian Europe, chess was already an indelible part of the landscape adjoining the Tigris and Euphrates. This simple game, imbued with a universe of complexity and character, demanded from peasants, soldiers, philosophers, and sovereigns an endless amount of time and energy. In return it offered unique insights into the human endeavor.

And so, against all odds, it lasted. Games, as a general rule, do not last. They come and go. In the eighth century, the Irish loved a board game called fidchell. Long before that, in the third millennium B.C., the Egyptians played a backgammonlike race game called senet. The Romans were drawn to duodecim scripta, played with three knucklebone dice and stacks of discs. The Vikings were obsessed with a game called hnefatafl in the tenth century, in which a protagonist King attempted to escape through a ring of enemies to any edge of the board. The ancient Greeks had petteia and kubeia. These and hundreds of other once popular games are all now long gone. They caught the public imagination of their time and place, and then for whatever reason lost steam. Generations died off, taking their habits with them; or conquering cultures imposed new ideas and pastimes; or people just got bored and wanted something new. Many of the games fell into such total oblivion that they couldn’t even make a coherent mark in the historical record. Try as they might, determined historians still cannot uncover the basic rules of play for a large graveyard of yesterday’s games.

Contrast this with chess, a game that could not be contained by religious edict, nor ocean, nor war, nor language barrier. Not even the merciless accumulation of time, which eventually washes over and dissolves most everything, could so much as tug lightly at chess’s ferocious momentum. “It has, for numberless ages,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1786, “been the amusement of all the civilized nations of Asia, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. Europe has had it above 1000 years; the Spaniards have spread it over their part of America, and it begins lately to make its appearance in these States.”

The game would eventually pass into every city in the world and along more than 1,500 years of continuous history—a common thread of Pawn chains, Knight forks, and humiliating checkmates that would run through the lives of Karl Marx, Pope Leo XIII, Arnold Schwarzenegger, King Edward I, George Bernard Shaw, Abraham Lincoln, Ivan the Terrible, Voltaire, King Montezuma, Rabbi Ibn Ezra, William the Conqueror, Jorge Luis Borges, Willie Nelson, Napoleon, Samuel Beckett, Woody Allen, and Norman Schwarzkopf. From Baghdad’s Golden Gate Palace to London’s Windsor Castle to today’s lakeside tables at Chicago’s North Avenue Beach, chess would tie history together in a surprising and compelling way.

How could a game last so long, and appeal so broadly across vast spans of time, geography, language, and culture? Endurance is not, of course, a magnificent accomplishment in itself, but a compelling sign that something profound is going on, a catalytic connection between this “game” and the human brain. Another sign is that chess was not just played but also integrated into the creative and professional lives of artists, linguists, psychologists, economists, mathematicians, politicians, theologians, computer scientists, and generals. It became a popular and pliable metaphor for abstract ideas and complex systems, and an effective tool through which scientists could better understand the human mind.

The remarkable scope of this game began to infect my own brain after a visit from an old family ghost in the fall of 2002. My mother had sent on some faded newspaper clippings about her great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, a diminutive Polish Jew named Samuel Rosenthal who immigrated to France in 1864 and became one of its legendary chess masters. Family lore had it that Rosenthal had impressed and/or somehow secured the gratitude of one of the Napoleons, and had been awarded a magnificent, jewel-encrusted pocket watch. No one in the family seemed to have actually seen this watch, but they’d all heard about it. Four generations down the line, this story, retold to a boy from the Ohio suburbs, was just exotic enough, and just hazy enough, to set the mind racing. I had begged Mom for years to tell me more about the great S. Rosenthal and his lost watch.

As I combed through the records on my mother’s mother’s father’s father’s achievements, wondering what spectacular (if still hidden) intelligences had filtered down through the generations, I also became reacquainted with the game itself, which I had not played since high school (and then only a handful of times). Stumbling through a few dozen games with friends at home and with strangers over the Internet, I found that I was just as ambivalent about chess as I’d been twenty years earlier—charmed by its elegance and intrigued by its depth, but also put off by the high gates of entry to even moderately serious play. Graduating from patzer to mere competence would require untold hundreds of hours of not just playing but studying volumes of opening theory, endgame problems, and strategy. Years of obsessive attention to the game might—might—eventually gain me entry into reasonably serious tournaments, where I would no doubt be quickly dispatched by an acid-tongued, self-assured ten-year-old. Chess is an ultimately indomitable peak that gets steeper and steeper with every step.

I was also repelled, frankly, by the forbidding atmosphere of unforgiving rules, insider jargon, and the general aggressiveness and unpleasantness that seemed to accompany even reasonably casual play. I recalled one of Bobby Fischer’s declarations: “Chess is war over the board,” he proclaimed. “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” Fischer was not alone in his lusty embrace of chess’s brutality. The game is often as much about demolishing your opponent’s will and self-esteem as it is about implementing a superior strategy. No blood is drawn (ordinarily), but the injury can be real. The historical link between top chess play and mental instability stands as yet another intriguing feature about the game and its power. “Here is nothing less,” writes recovering chess master Alfred Kreymborg, “than a silent duel between two human engines using and abusing all the faculties of the mind. . . . It is warfare in the most mysterious jungles of the human character.”

Still, much to my wife’s dismay, I got hooked. It is an intoxicating game that, though often grueling, never grows tiresome. The exquisite interplay of the simple and the complex is hypnotic: the pieces and moves are elementary enough for any five-year-old to quickly soak up, but the board combinations are so vast that all the possible chess games could never be played—or even known—by a single person. Other parlor games sufficiently amuse, entertain, challenge, distract; chess seizes. It does not merely engage the mind; it takes hold of the mind in a way that suggests a primal, hardwired connection.

Even more powerfully, though, I became transported by chess’s rich history. It seemed to have been present in every place and time, and to have been utilized in every sort of activity. Kings cajoled and threatened with it; philosophers told stories with it; poets analogized with it; moralists preached with it. Its origins are wrapped up in some of the earliest discussions of fate versus free will. It sparked and settled feuds, facilitated and sabotaged romances, and fertilized literature from Dante to Nabokov. A thirteenth-century book using chess as a guide to social morality may have been the second-most popular text in the Middle Ages, after the Bible. In the twentieth century, chess enabled computer scientists to create intelligent machines. Chess has also, in modern times, been used to study memory, language, math, and logic, and has recently emerged as a powerful learning tool in elementary and secondary schools.

The more I learned about chess’s peculiarly strong cultural relevance in century after century, the more it seemed that chess’s endurance was no historical accident. As with the Bible and Shakespeare, there was something particular about the game that made it continually accessible to generation after generation. It served a genuine function—perhaps not vital, but often far more than merely useful. I often found myself wondering how particular events or lives would have unfolded in chess’s absence—a condition, I learned, that many chess haters had ardently sought. Perhaps the most vivid measure of chess’s potency, in fact, is the determination of its orthodox enemies to stamp it out—as long ago as a ruling in 655 by Caliph Ali Ben Abu-Talib (the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law), and as recently as decrees by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1981, the Taliban in 1996, and the Iraqi clergy in post-Saddam Iraq. In between, chess was tamped down:

in 780 by Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi ibn al-Mansur
in 1005 by Egypt’s al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah
in 1061 by Cardinal Damiani of Ostia
in 1093 by the Eastern Orthodox Church
in 1128 by St. Bernard
in 1195 by Rabbi Maimonides
in 1197 by the Abbot of Persigny
in 1208 by the Bishop of Paris
in 1240 by religious leaders of Worcester, England
in 1254 by King Louis IX of France (St. Louis)
in 1291 by the Archbishop of Canterbury
in 1310 by the Council of Trier (Germany)
in 1322 by Rabbi Kalonymos Ben Kalonymos
in 1375 by France’s Charles V
in 1380 by Oxford University’s founder William of Wickham
in 1549 by the Protohierarch Sylvester of Russia
and in 1649 by Tsar Alexei

But like the Talmud, like the theory of natural selection, like any organized thought paradigm that humans have found irresistibly compelling, chess refused to go away. Why were sixty-four squares and a handful of generic war figurines so hard to erase from the human imagination? What was it about chess that drew simultaneous devotion and disgust, and sparked so many powerful ideas and observations over many centuries?

This is what I set out to understand, through a close survey of chess’s history and a fresh look at the game.

Excerpted from The Immortal Game by David Shenk Copyright © 2006 by David Shenk.

Well it starts earlier than aged 12 for me really.

When I was in Primary School I had a fascination with Chess, I was indeed Chess champion back then.

Then I went off to Secondary School where peer pressure and trying to fit in made me lose my love of the game.  However I found out soon after starting there that my skills had not been totally lost.

I went to Germany with school as part of my German class and stayed with a family there for a week.  During that time the father of the household asked me if I would play with him.  The best of three as it turns out.  I lost the first, but won both of the next, much to the fathers displeasure I might add, proving to myself, as most kids that age think, that I was master of the universe.

I have lost any proper knowledge I had of the game from back then, even to the point of being afraid to really sit and think about playing someone who knows a little of the game. But being settled and content as I am with my life now, I think it is time to renew the love affair with the game.  So here I am writing this blog having placed a book about the history of Chess next to me and I am about to delve back into my childhood and much further into the human mind apparently.


Games consoles reveal the supercomputer within

February 16, 2008

WHEN Todd Martínez broke his son’s Sony PlayStation he didn’t realise this would change the course of his career as a theoretical chemist. Having dutifully bought a PlayStation 2 as a replacement, he was browsing through the games console’s technical specification when he realised it might have another use. “I noticed that the architecture looked a lot like high-performance supercomputers I had seen before,” he says. “That’s when I thought about getting one for myself.”

Six years on and Martínez has persuaded the supercomputing centre at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to buy eight computers each driven by two of the specialised chips that are at the heart of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. Together with his student Benjamin Levine he is using them to simulate the interactions between the electrons in atoms. Scaled up over entire molecules, the results could pave the way to predicting how a protein will interact with a drug.

Martínez and Levine are not the only researchers who have turned to gaming hardware to do their number crunching. That’s because the kinds of calculations required to produce the mouth-wateringly realistic graphics now seen in high-end video games are similar to those used by chemists and physicists as they simulate the interactions between particles in systems ranging in scale from the molecular to the astronomical. Rotating, enlarging or reflecting an object from one frame to the next in a game, for example, requires a technique called matrix multiplication. Modelling the interactions between thousands of electrons in a molecule calls for similar techniques.

Such simulations are usually carried out on a supercomputer, but time on these machines is expensive and in short supply. By comparison, games consoles are cheap and easily available, and they come with the added bonus of some innovative hardware. For example, the Wii, made by Nintendo, has a motion-tracking remote control unit that is far cheaper than a comparable device would be if researchers had to build it from scratch.

One key advance is the ease with which scientists can now program games consoles for their own purposes. Although consoles do a great job of rendering images, games programs don’t require software to save data once it has been used to render the image. Scientists, by contrast, need to be able to store the results of the calculations they have fed into their machines.

Things started to get easier in 2002, when demand from computer enthusiasts who wanted to use their PlayStations as fully fledged desktop machines prompted Sony to release software that allowed the PlayStation 2 to run the Linux operating system. That allowed scientists to reprogram the consoles to run their calculations. Then in 2006 came the big breakthrough, with the launch by IBM, Sony and Toshiba of the Cell chip that now drives Sony’s PlayStation 3 (see Timeline). With one central processor and eight “servant” processors (New Scientist, 19 February 2005, p 23), it is vastly more powerful than the PS2 chip, and was designed from day 1 to run Linux.

The release of the Cell has accelerated  research into black holes by Gaurav Khanna, an astrophysicist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He has strung together 16 PS3 consoles to calculate the properties of the gravity waves that are expected to be produced when two black holes merge. Meanwhile, a collaboration between IBM and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is using the Cell’s ability to render high-resolution video graphics to do the same with data gathered by MRI and other medical scanning techniques. The aim is to make diagnosis easier and faster – by using the images to determine whether a tumour has grown or shrunk, for example.

Other researchers are pushing for even more speed. One of Martínez’s students, Ivan Ufimtsev, is experimenting with the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX graphical processing unit (GPU) for PCs, which was released in November 2006. The GPU has 128 processors – compared to the Cell’s eight – and when slotted into a PC, helps turn it into a high-quality gaming engine. To start with, these cards were hard to program, just like the PS2 without the Linux add-on, but NVIDIA soon cottoned on to the sales opportunities that scientists like Martínez could offer for its product. In February 2007 it released the Compute Unified Device Architecture, a software package that allows the C programming language to be used to program the GPUs.

The results were staggering. When Martínez used it to simulate the repulsion between two electrons in an atom, he found that the calculation ran 130 times faster than it did on an ordinary desktop computer (Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, DOI: 10.1021/ct700268q). He is now calculating the energy of the electrons in 1000 atoms, which add up to the size of a small protein. “We can now do the things we were killing ourselves to do,” he says.

Martínez predicts that it will soon be possible to use the GPU to predict more accurately which drug molecules will most strongly interact with a protein and how they will react, which could revolutionise pharmaceutical research. Similarly, Koji Yasuda at Nagoya University in Japan reported in a paper published this month (Journal of Computational Chemistry, vol 29, p 334) that he used the same GPU to map the electron energies in two molecules: the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel and the cyclic peptide valinomycin.

Games hardware still isn’t perfect for science. The Cell’s eight processors and the NVIDIA GPUs are forced to round decimal numbers to seven decimal places. As numbers are repeatedly multiplied together, this small error becomes magnified. In a game, the result might be nothing more serious than a car appearing slightly closer to a wall than it should, but in research such inaccuracies can be show-stoppers.

It’s not just the chips that researchers can usefully borrow from gaming hardware. Take the Wii’s hand-held remote control, which contains an accelerometer that can sense in which direction it is being moved, and how vigorously. It transmits this information via a Bluetooth link to the console, where it is used to adjust the graphics to respond to the player’s movements in real time.
Monitoring Parkinson’s

The device recently grabbed attention as a tool for surgeons to improve their technique (New Scientist, 19 January, p 24). Meanwhile, neurologist Thomas Davis at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is using it to measure movement deficiencies in Parkinson’s patients. By attaching up to four Wii remotes to different limbs, Davis captures data for tremor, speed and smoothness of movement, and gait. This data is then sent via the Bluetooth link to a laptop running software that allows Davis to assess quantitatively how well a patient can move. Davis hopes this can be used in clinical trials for Parkinson’s drugs to replace the scoring scales now used, which are based on a doctor observing a patient’s condition.

Others are using the console to assess the progress of patients who have had a stroke or a head injury by monitoring their performance as they play Wii games. Johnny Chung Lee at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is using the Wii remote as a virtual reality research tool. As the wearer’s head moves, the Wii tracks it and displays images dependent on where the wearer is looking. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Valladolid in Spain hopes to use the Wii remote to rotate and manipulate ultrasound images more intuitively.

Computer gamers have always hankered after the latest console or PC hardware to run ever more realistic-looking games. Now scientists are lining up right beside them.

From issue 2643 of New Scientist magazine, 16 February 2008, page 26-27

And not an xbox360 in sight….


Some Science

December 12, 2007

The best of science, the worst of creationism

In 2000, a popular school textbook called Biology reluctantly dropped it’s prime example of evolution in action – industrial melanism in the peppered moth. Nothing in evolutionary biology had forced the change. The decision was entirely political,made in response to creationist attacks.

The loss of the peppered moth was a blow to science education in the US, as it is one of the easiest to understand examples of evolution by natural selection. So it is heartening to hear that biologists are fighting back. Thanks to their efforts, evidence that the moth is an example of evolution in action is more robust than ever.

This tawdry tale reveals much of what is good about science – and rotten about creationism. Creationists went gunning for the moth after a scientific disagreement over the fine detail of a seminal experiment done in the 1950s. They used the debate to portray the science behind industrial melanism as hopelessly flawed, if not fraudulent.

In response, one scientist patiently redid the experiment – it took him seven years. It is hard to think of another system of thought that is so stringently self-critical and self-correcting.

In science, everything is provisional . There are no preordained answers and fresh ideas are always welcome, so long as their proponents are happy for them to be tested.

That is not how creationists work. They already know the answer. They seek only evidence that confirms their conclusion, and distort or ignore the rest. Such an unreasoned approach is worthless. Creationists will keep trying to undermine the theory of evolution.

All science can do is continue, with dignity, to stick to it’s guns. As with the peppered moth, the best testable explanation will win out.

Conspiracy? Not in China

There’s no stopping a good conspiracy theory. For over 30 years, NASA has faced allegations that it faked the moon landings, and now it is the turn of the Chinese.

In October, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 1 entered lunar orbit, and last week the country released its first image of the lunar surface. Within hours of the picture’s release the internet rumour mill leapt into action on various Chinese blogs and forums, casting doubt on it’s validity and saying it bore an uncanny resemblance to a picture released by NASA in 2005.

The Chinese space agency replied that the pictures are similar because they are of the same part of the moon. NASA’s experience with conspiracy theories suggests that denying the rumour will only serve to keep it running. Ouying Ziyuan, chief scientist for the lunar probe, more or less guaranteed this by adding: “There is absolutely no forgery.”

 

Our solar future

In theory, solving the world’s energy problems should be pretty straightforward. Locate a piece of sun-drenched land about half the size of Texas, find a way to capture just 20 per cent of the solar energy that falls there and bingo – problem solved. You have enough power to replace the world’s entire energy needs using the cleanest, most renewable resource there is.

Can it really be that easy? For years, supporters of solar power have heralded every new technological breakthrough as a revolution in the making. Yet time and again it has failed to materialise, largely because the technology was too expensive and inefficient and, unlike alternatives such as nuclear and wind power, no substantial subsidies were available to kick-start a mass transition to solar energy. This time things are different. Aconfluence of political will, economic pressure and technological advances suggests that we are on the brink of an era of solar power.

The prospect of relying on the sun for all our power demands – conservatively estimated at 15 terawatts in 2005 – is finally becoming realistic thanks to the rising price of fossil fuels, an almost universal acceptance of the damage they cause, plus mushrooming investment in the development of solar cells and steady advances in their efficiency. The tried-and-tested method of using the heat of the sun to generate electricity is already hitting the big time but the really big breakthroughs are happening to photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Ever since the first PV cell was created by Bell Labs in 1954, the efficiency with which a cell can convert light into electricity has been the technology’s Achilles’ heel. The problem is rooted in the way PV cells work. At the heart of every PV cell is a semiconducting material, which when struck by a photon liberates an electron. This can be guided by a conductor into a circuit, leaving behind a “hole” which is filled by another electron from the other end of the circuit, creating an electric current.

Photons from the sun arrive at the semiconductor sporting many different energies, not all of which will liberate an electron. Each semiconducting material material has a characteristic “band gap” – an energy value which photons must exceed if they are to dislodge the semiconductor’s electrons. If the photons are too weak they pass through the material, and if they are too energetic then only part of their energy is converted to electricity, the rest into heat. Some are just right, and the closer the photons are to matching the band gap, the greater the efficiency of the PV cell.

Bell Labs discovered that silicon, which is cheap and easy to produce, has one of the best band gaps for the spectrum of photon energies in sunlight. Even so, their first cell had an efficiency of only 6 per cent. For a long time improvements were piecemeal, inching up to the mid-teens at best, and at a cost only military and space exploration programmes could afford. The past decade has seen a sea change as inexpensive cells with an efficiency of 20 per cent have become a commercial reality, while in the lab efficiencies are leaping forward still further.

Last year, Allen Barnett and colleagues at the university of Delaware, Newark, set a new record with a design that achieved 42.8 per cent energy conversion efficiency. Barnett says 50 per cent efficiency on a commercial scale is now within reach. Such designs, married to modern manufacturing techniques, mean costs are falling fast too.

As a result, in parts of Japan, California and Italy, where the retail price of electricity is among the world’s highest, the cost of solar-generated electricity is now close to, and in some cases matches, that of electricity generated from natural gas and nuclear power, says Michael Rogol, a solar industry analyst with Photon Consulting, based in Aachen, Germany. For example, in the US the average price of conventionally generated electricity is around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of solar-generated electricity has fallen to roughly double that. This has created a booming market for PV cells – now growing by around 35 per cent annually – and private investors are starting to take a serious interest. The value of stocks in companies whose business focuses primarily on solar power has grown from $40 billion in January 2006 to more than $140 billion today, making solar power the fastest-growing sector in the global marketplace.

George W. Bush has acknowledged this new dawn, setting aside $168 million of federal funds for the Solar America Initiative, a research programme that aims to make the cost of PV technology competitive with other energy technologies in the US by 2015. Rogol thinks Bush’s target is achievable. He says the cost of manufacturing PV equipment has fallen to the point where, in some places, PV-generated electricity could already be produced for less than conventional electricity. Manufacturing PV cells at $1 per watt of generating capacity and the cost should be competitive everywhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its less than cloudless skies, one of the countries leading the solar revolution is Germany. In November 2003, amid rising oil and gas prices and growing concern over global warming, its parliament agreed a “feed-in-tariff” programme, which guarantees a market for solar power. Anyone who produces electricity from solar power can sell it to the national grid for between €0.45 and €0.57 per kilowatt-hour, which is almost three times what consumers pay for their electricity, roughly €0.19 per kilowatt-hour. Germany’s power-generating companies are required by law to pay this premium which is guaranteed until 2024. This guarantee has spurred enterprising individuals to invest in solar panels, confident of earning back the cost of their systems.

Source:  New Scientist


Germany Commits to Steep CO2 Cuts

December 7, 2007

The plan is forecast to cost Germany, Europe’s top polluter, $45.5 billion (that’s about what the U.S. spends on the Iraq war every seven months).

Germany yesterday sent a strong message to the 10,000 delegates discussing global warming in Bali: Change is possible, and we’re going to get started.

The German cabinet agreed to a 36% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, below 1990 levels, by 2020 through improvements in energy efficiency, better building insulation and investments in new renewable energy sources. (A report released last week found the U.S. could make a similar, or even steeper reduction, mostly by investing in energy efficiency; the report was produced by both environmentalists and leaders of industry, including major utilities and energy companies.)

Other notable news out of Bali, where the United Nations is convening an important meeting designed to produce a roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions past 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires:

  • Because 16 of the 36 nations that ratified the Kyoto Protocol have failed to meet the targets set out for them, many are looking to buy carbon offsets, according to Reuters. That is drawing ire, even as most nations are focused on the future.
  • China is pushing for a new world fund that rich nations would contribute to, and developing nations would draw from, according to Reuters. It would pay for renewable and clean energy technology projects.
  • Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, urged nations to boost spending on so-called “adaptation,” according to China’s state-run media, because long-lived carbon in the atmosphere makes many effects from global warming inevitable.
  • After ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called on the United States — now, the only industrialized nation that is holding out — to follow suit, according to Asia Pulse. De Boer said Australia’s action sends a powerful message.
  • The United States, Canada and Japan are throwing up repeated roadblocks to even small steps on global warming, like setting up a working group to discuss the transfer of technology from rich to poor nations, Friends of Earth has said, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
  • Harlan Watson, a U.S. envoy, was quoted in Asia Pulse, however, as saying that the United States wants to support adaptation, mitigation, transfer of technology and funding, and possibly a mechanism for preserving forests in Indonesia and other developing countries. One roadblock to transferring technology from rich to poor nations is that the technology isn’t owned by the government, but the private sector, according to Watson.
  • The leaders of Pacific Islands warned the delegates that their nations would be swamped if nothing is done to stop sea-level rise due to global warming, according to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation. The Global Governance Project will recommend creating an international fund to resettle “climate refugees,” according to the New Zealand Herald.
  • Japan pledged to give $10 million to preserve forests through a World Bank program designed to combat global warming, according to Asia Pulse.
  • China is warming to the idea of binding emissions reductions, according to The Australian Financial Review.

World Energy Revolution Needed For Climate, Says Condoleezza Rice

September 26, 2007

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday the world needs a revolution on energy that transcends oil, gas and coal to prevent problems from climate change.

“Ultimately, we must develop and bring to market new energy technologies that transcend the current system of fossil fuels, carbon emissions and economic activity. Put simply, the world needs a technological revolution,” Rice told delegates at a special U.N. conference on climate change.

A landmark report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year said human activities such as burning fossil fuels and forests are very likely causing climate change that will lead to more deadly storms, heat waves, droughts and floods.

The Bush administration’s position on climate change has evolved from skepticism to agreeing to work with other large emitters to forge international goals to reduce greenhouse gases. Rice will host a two-day meeting this week for the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.

President George W. Bush opposes mandatory caps on greenhouse emissions, preferring voluntary goals.

He believes the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases unfairly exempted rapidly developing countries and that ratifying it would have hurt the economy of the United States, the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases.

Addressing climate change requires an integrated response that encompasses environmental stewardship, energy security and economic growth and development, Rice said.

“How we forge this integrated response has major consequences, not only for our future, but also for our present and especially for the millions of men, women and children in the developing world whose efforts to escape poverty require broad and sustained economic growth and the energy to fuel it,” she said.

BEYOND KYOTO

Since 2001, the U.S. government has invested nearly $18 billion to develop cleaner sources of energy, Rice said. Those include technologies that run on hydrogen, permanently burying emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, advanced nuclear energy, renewable fuels and greater energy efficiency.

As the world looks to form a new emissions-cutting agreement to succeed the first phase of Kyoto, which expires in 2012, many countries say only mandatory caps on emissions can effectively prod the private sector to cut emissions.

British Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said earlier on Monday the United States and other large emitters must take on binding reduction targets on greenhouse gases.

“It is inconceivable that dangerous climate change can be avoided without this happening,” he told reporters at a meeting at the British mission.

Backers of mandatory emission caps say they promote low- carbon technology by, in effect, making polluters pay for emitting greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Rice did not mention greenhouse gas-cutting goals, but said one of the biggest challenges is encouraging private sector investments to bring about a low-carbon energy future while ensuring continued economic growth.

“President George W. Bush opposes mandatory caps on greenhouse emissions, preferring voluntary goals.”

Without any caps and targets that are mandatory I feel that we will see what is happening most of the time now.  Companies putting out TV advertisments showing how ‘green’ they are but no real substance or change.  The worlds largest producer of the gases that are changing the face of our world forever really need to do more.  Saying ‘please’ to offenders isn’t really strong enough.

On a personal note, now that my daughter is in the world I feel the need more than ever to make a difference for the future of our small planet.  We don’t have another one.


Carbon Off Setting Makes Us Carbon Neutral

September 19, 2007

Well, I’ve been looking at how we in this household can become carbon neutral and it’s about to happen.

I have found out our average KWh for both sources of energy we use, gas and electricity. Then calculated it into a yearly amount rounding up generously, (I don’t want to say that we are carbon neutral and not actually be there for whatever reason).

No one in the household drives and flights will be calculated and added and offset if and when we take them.

So what happens next? Well, with the total figures I can use an online calculator to convert the KWh into an actual CO2 output number. Then we offset by investing in a place or a couple of places that will do the offsetting. Some of the schemes include:

human energy

bioenergy

wind energy

rainforest restoration

efficient stoves

efficient lighting

 

The way this works is the money we pay in a yearly lump sum is used in these example schemes to ‘offset’ what our house produces in the way of CO2.

 

This along with me being vegan, Olly my partner will be going vegan after our baby is born, as it isn’t the right time now for a major diet change obvious reasons (hurry up CJ!), our recycling schemes and also the switch to ‘green’ energy, (a little bit more expensive than normal but well worth it), should mean we are really doing our bit as a household for the environment. There is always more to be done though and I’ll be doing it….

 How does our ‘green’ energy work?  Well simply put all the money we pay for our bills is put into the production of energy from wind farms.  Although obviously we don’t get all that what it means is the amount of energy we use is produced by a wind farm and  distributed through the energy grid.  So in theory this household’s power is all from wind power if you can look at it like that.

 

If you live in the UK and would like details of where and how we are offsetting feel free to contact me, a google search does just as well at turning up offsetting schemes for UK and non-UK residents.