“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Another foolish "fuel saving" gadget

As I've mentioned previously, I frequently listen to SirisuXM RadioClassics. This particular channel has advertising on the half-hour. I was listening the other day and heard an ad for the "Platinum 22," which promised dramatic increases in gasoline mileage. The product comes from National Fuelsaver.

Upon checking, I found that this concept has been around for decades and its idea is that huge amounts of gasoline are not burned in the cylinders of an internal combustion engine. The spiel continues that the purpose of a catalytic converter is to utilize a platinum catalyst to burn this fuel after it leaves the engine. The Platinum 22 claims to inject microscopic amounts of platinum through the vacuum system into the cylinders, and thus to catalyze much more complete oxidation of fuel in the cylinders.

The "22" comes from a claim that, in a typical engine, only 68% of the hydrocarbon fuel is oxidized (!) and the Platinum 22 boosts this to 90%, a 22% increase. Never mind that this is actually a 32% increase. There is a huge variety of other specious claims of, for example, non-existant government agencies having run tests to verify that the product works as claimed, etc. A  look here at an EPA report debunks this claim (refer to No. 7, "Conclusion").

A complete debunking of the concept is available here, by a Tony (last name unknown), a UK "Chartered Engineer" who has worked in the automotive industry for Land Rover, BMW, Bosch, and others. His site should be your first stop when you hear about a miraculous fuel saving device. Suffice it to say that, rather than 22%, more like 2% of the fuel entering an engine is not oxidized. Evidence of this is presented in the linked page.

Among other things, Tony points out that if the catalytic converter in the exhaust (not using the Platinum 22) were to be burning 22% of the fuel from the tank, almost one third (22/68) as much heat would need to be dissipated from the converter as that from burning fuel in the engine. Note that the engine uses a complex system of water jackets, a water pump, and a large heat exchanger (the radiator) to dissipate the heat from fuel burned in the engine. That 32% as much heat could conceivably be dissipated by the catalytic converter, which is without any cooling system, is completely out of the question.

It's disappointing to me that SiriusXM allows such pixie dust to be advertised.

Update: I sent the following to SiriusXM, we'll see what happens.

YouTube - Was Extra Equipment Attached To Flight 175? (The plane that struck the south Twin Tower on 9/11)

YouTube - Was Extra Equipment Attached To Flight 175? (The plane that struck the south Twin Tower on 9/11)

OK, disclaimer up front. I am emphatically not a conspiracy theorist and I'm not claiming that the events of 9/11 were anything but the act of 19 hijackers. In fact, I'd downloaded the Tracker Video Analysis and Modeling Tool and was looking for video to utilize to familiarize myself with the software. I downloaded a high resolution video of the North Tower collapse to see if I could dispel the notion that the towers had fallen at a free fall velocity as claimed by the conspiracists, unimpeded by the piston effects of air in the buildings, structural and non-structural building elements, etc. In this, I was arguably successful:

This is the plot of the "y" position of an identifiable spot on the antenna atop the North Tower at the start of the collapse and followed for about 2.25 seconds. Fit to a parabola, the "a" parameter should be the 0.5*g in the term s=0.5gt^2, the equation for gravitational acceleration. For free fall, "a" should be 16 (this was done in feet and g=32 ft/s^2). The -12.2 would indicate an acceleration of 24.4 ft/s^2, implying that there is an upward vertical force acting against gravity, consistent with the factors mentioned above.

All well and good (though I'm certain that it's unconvincing to the conspiracy sector), but then I looked at the video linked above. My initial motivation was to chuckle at the silliness of some of the videos, and this I did. In the case of the linked video though, I have to concede that while I'm unwilling to agree that it is proof that the Towers were not hit by hijacked civil airliners, I also cannot explain its key elements to my complete satisfaction.

I'm certainly interested in any deeper analysis and possible explanations for what seem to me to be anomalies. The best I've seen in explaining the points raised is in this video, part of a series entitled "9/11 Debunked" and subtitled "Debunking every single 9/11 conspiracy theory, one at a time." But there's nagging doubt as to whether this is the explanation.

Regardless, the inability to explain every single detail in such a complex chain of events is certainly not sufficient to posit an inside job. 

Why greenhouse gas warming doesn’t break the second law of thermodynamics « JoNova

Why greenhouse gas warming doesn’t break the second law of thermodynamics « JoNova

Joanne Nova is an Australian skeptical climate blogger whose blog is quite a popular link from the vast universe of such blogs. The link above takes you to a post that I'd never expected to see there. A guest blogger explains that the the Greenhouse Effect, or downward longwave radiation makes the Earth's surface warmer than it would otherwise be and, in so doing, does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

One statement (though far from the most general) of this most fundamental of physical principles is the Clausius formulation: No process is possible whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a body of lower temperature to a body of higher temperature. Many skeptics simply state that a cooler atmosphere warming a warmer Earth is in violation of this law and thus the Greenhouse Effect is falsified and no further discussion is necessary.

Of course, this is incorrect. The wonderful site Science of Doom has a series of articles that explain this thoroughly, but the naysayers will not be dissuaded. I'm somewhat amazed that there's a glimmer of acknowledgement of reality at Joanne's site.

And, in the intervening few days since I started this post, Joanne received so many comments to her post above that she started another thread where she sensibly replies to Joseph Postma's paper and comments. This development actually seems to me, in some small way, to be hopeful.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gasoline tax thoughts

The U.S. faces a variety of problems, some of which fall into the topic space of my blog. Among these are:

  • Use of primary energy at an unsustainable rate
  • Emission of greenhouse gasses at an unsustainable rate
  • Massive trade deficits
  • Reliance on unreliable, at best or hostile, at worst sovereign nations to supply much of our primary energy
  • Massive and unsustainable deficits at nearly all levels and units of government
And all of these problems are beset by "sub problems."

What could immediately be done that would have a significant effect on all of these problems? I offer a $1/gallon gasoline tax. It's quite a thorny problem to calculate precisely what effect this would have on consumption and on tax receipts, given the difficulties of capturing an accurate number for the price elasticity of demand of gasoline, particularly since such a tax would be (at least for the moment) over 25% of the pre-tax price. But it would surely either reduce consumption of primary energy or increase government income, or both.

It would unquestionably reduce consumption, particularly over an extended period as people adjusted where they live, their vehicle choices, their decisions with respect to public transportation, etc.

Such a tax is, to an extent, Pigovian in that it would work toward building the externalities of gasoline usage into its price. But it's not strictly such a tax, in that I haven't made any attempt to actually calculate what those externalities may be. The obvious one is pollution of all kinds. But, of course, there are others. One would be the military expenditures necessary to ensure that the Straits of Hormuz remain open, etc.

So, were such a tax to be implemented, what would the immediate effects be? In the very short term, the price elasticity of demand for gasoline (a measure of the effect that an increase in price has on consumption) is low, that is, large price changes produce relatively small changes in demand. Here it's estimated that the elasticity figure in the short term is 0.2, i.e., a 1% increase in price will produce a 0.2% decrease in consumption. Using some numbers quickly gleaned from the EIA web site I suspect it's lower - as I mentioned above, firm numbers are difficult to determine.

But if 0.2 is the number and a ballpark figure for gasoline prices is about $3.85/gallon, then a $1/gallon, that is, a 26% increase would produce a 0.2*26% or a 5.2% decrease in consumption. In the long run, the site listed above gives the number 0.7, implying a long-term 18% decrease as people make the adjustments above. This tax would then produce somewhere in the vicinity of $130B in annual revenue.

Now, other than staple foods and necessary medical supplies, it would be hard to think of a more regressive tax so some of the proceeds would need to go to those who are hurt most severely by such a tax, possibly in the form of an adjustment in the earned income tax credit
But it is clear to me, based on the problems listed above, that we need to convert less primary energy. Thus, a tax that directly impacts that activity and, and least in part, recognizes the externalities of gasoline consumption would be a step in the right direction.

One possible effect of such a tax would be to cause many more people to adopt some of the driving habits I've been refining over the last five years.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A hectowatt or a kilowatt?

I'm not an expert on radiative physics, but I've had a bit of physics here and there. There's a long-running debate on whether or not so-called "downward longwave radiation," that is, infrared radiation emitted by the Earth's surface after absorbing the Sun's shortwave (centered in the visible light band) radiation and subsequently absorbed and re-emitted by greenhouse gases can cause the Earth to be at a higher temperature than it would otherwise be. In fact, there's even debate as to whether it exists, this despite the fact that it's been accurately and repeatedly measured. That's the 324 W/m^2 (watts per meter squared) in the graphic above. And Science of Doom has a thorough explanation extending over several posts.

I thought I'd see how it works for my body (as usual, making a bunch of assumptions and estimates).  I have figured that my rest metabolic daily calorie requirement is 1900 kilocalories. 1900 kilocalories in 24 hours is 92.0 watts. This is very straightforward. Since I'm in thermal equilibrium (for practical purposes), this heat mut be dissipated.

On the other hand, I also used a thermometer to measure my skin temperature to be 93.3 degrees F or 307.2K (Kelvins). I looked here to get a figure of 0.97 for the emissivity (the ratio of the energy radiated by a material to that emitted by a "black body" at the same temperature) of human skin. Finally, I went here to get an estimate of 2.00 m^2 for my body's surface area. This gives me sufficient information to determine the power I'm radiating using the Stefan Boltzmann Law (erroneously ignoring evaporation, conduction and convection):


Here, P is power in watts, sigma is Boltzmann's constant, 5.67*10^(-8) watts/K^4, A is surface area in m^2, and e is emissivity. Plugging in the numbers, I get P=980 watts. This is certainly a considerably higher number than 92 watts, the rate at which my resting body is converting food energy to thermal energy, what gives?

Let's look at this the other way: supposing that all heat dissipation in my body is by radiation, what temperature would my skin need to be at for me to radiate at 92 watts? Rearranging the Stefan-Boltzmann law:

This gives me T=170K or -154 degrees Fahrenheit. Wow, quite chilly. Have I discovered a flaw in the Stefan Boltzmann Law? Should the Nobel committee be called? Probably not. What is happening is that both my internal thermal energy and the radiative energy I'm absorbing from my surroundings are contributing to my outgoing radiation.

But the walls, the monitor, etc. are BELOW the temperature of my skin, at about 70 degrees F. Do these incoming (980-92) 888 watts warm me? Let's think about how we might get a grip on this question. First, a thought experiment: suppose that, somehow, the environment suddenly stopped supplying radiative energy to me (never mind how this could happen). What then?

I could continue to radiate at 980 watts, but that energy would need to come from somewhere. Assuming I didn't want to burn my flesh, food would supply it. My caloric intake would need to increase by a factor of greater than 10 (980/92) to keep the fires stoked. Failing this, I'd begin to chill to the 170K above (never mind that I'd soon perish), while my internal regulating processes attempted to maintain a normal temperature by burning whatever was available. I think it's safe to say that the radiation from my surroundings, which are at a measurably lower temperature than my skin, keep me warmer than I'd otherwise be. Now, substitute the Sun for my metabolism, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for my surroundings, and the Earth's surface for my skin and the analogy is complete.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A wealth of data and analytics

While I certainly don't minimize the human, economic, and ecological consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I must tip my hat to British Petroleum for the depth and availability of the data they gather with respect to energy use.

Likely I should have found it before, but I've just stumbled upon US Energy in Context: Data & Analysis of US Energy Supply, Production & Consumption, a freely available 360 page pdf compendium whose richness of information I've only barely begun to evaluate.

The document was published in October, 2008 so the data is a couple of years old and, of course, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not included.

But if you're interested in any aspect of energy production, delivery, or consumption (keeping in mind that energy is never produced or consumed, but y'all know what I and they mean) this is a "must download." It even includes a lengthy chapter on the technology of oil and gas extraction, concentrating at length on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically enough, it includes much data on oil spills.

Another must for the energy analyst is bp's Statistical Review of World Energy 2010. Here, you'll find links to a comprehensive library of pdfs, Excel spreadsheets, and a java "Energy charting tool" that I've only just started to play with.

If energy is your passion, these are invaluable sources. I hope that the loss of stock value and public credibility doesn't have the same effect on BP as the U.S. budget cuts had on the Energy Information Agency.