Pipe Dreams

This morning I’ve been reading about electric velomobiles, driverless cars, and limitless nuclear energy.

I looked into velomobiles five or six years ago. A velomobile is essentially a recumbent bike with a wraparound shell and a small windscreen to see where you are going. I really liked the lines of the Versatile (above), but I decided that pedaling a low-profile vehicle on American streets was way too dangerous for me. I do commute by bicycle, but I’m up high enough that I can see and be seen. A velo would disappear in city streets. Maybe when cars and trucks disappear from paved streets, velos will take over, but I suspect paved streets will disappear before trucks.

Anyway, Low-Tech magazine has an article worth reading, Electric velomobiles: as fast and comfortable as automobiles, but 80 times more efficient.

Meanwhile, in the The Driverless Road Ahead, The Economist expects driverless full-size cars will appeal to young urbanites that would rather text than drive. The mag predicts that people will commute further because they don’t have to pay attention while they drive. That they will no longer have pay insurance. That they will no longer speed, hence not get tickets, hence no need for traffic cops. Etc, etc.

I’m wondering if anyone at the Economist has actually used an automated machine lately. I had to drive to work today, and used an automated parking meter, which worked fine the first time. A few hours later it refused the same credit card I had used the first time. When I go to the grocery store or drug store, I have learned to avoid the self-checkout lanes because something always requires a store employee to step in and clear the machine. It might be that I am holding something that I already own, but the machine keeps telling me to scan it anyway.

Do I really want to travel through high speed traffic under the control of some chip, mass-produced in Shenzen? Will driverless cars be smart enough to avoid children, bikes and velomobiles? And where will we get the energy to run big, comfortable driverless cars?

On Resilience — the new incarnation of Energy Bulletin — Tom Whipple is again telling us that Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) is our only hope for the future. He sort of slipped it in at the end of his latest peak oil piece. As far as I can tell, Andrea Rossi (above) is still promoting the E-Cat, Jed Rothwell is still trolling anyone that disagrees and Discover Magazine and Popular Science have posted LENR articles.

In Bring Back the “Cold Fusion” Dream, Discover discusses a new theory that isn’t that new:

A growing cadre of scientists now suspect that Pons and Fleischmann’s observations were the result not of fusion but of more plausible physical processes. Some are even cautiously optimistic that those processes could be exploited to generate abundant amounts of clean energy. … [The Widom-Larsen] theory showed how a film of negatively charged electrons covering the palladium could combine with positively charged protons from the water’s hydrogen atoms to form neutrons. Those neutrons could then be gobbled up by nearby lithium nuclei, disturbing the delicate balance of protons and neutrons that keep the nuclei stable. The lithium nuclei would rapidly decay, first into beryllium and then into helium, and emit radiation. Finally, the film of electrons would absorb the radiation and reemit it as heat. … So far, Larsen still has only a theory and some circumstantial evidence.

In Can Andrea Rossi’s Infinite-Energy Black Box Power The World–Or Just Scam It?, Steve Featherstone of Pop Sci tries really hard to keep an open mind:

Rossi isn’t the best ambassador for a field with credibility problems, though. In the ’80s, he invented a machine that magically transformed household garbage and industrial waste into oil—only it didn’t create a drop. Leaky storage tanks at Rossi’s “poison factory,” as one Italian newspaper called it, contained 77,000 tons of toxic sludge that cost $50 million to clean up. While under investigation for environmental crimes, Rossi was also charged with gold trafficking; he went to jail for six months and was later acquitted. As it happens, his engineering degree is from Kensington University, a notorious diploma mill shut down in 1996 by the state of California. … To my astonishment, after three days of asking every cold-fusion researcher in the house, I couldn’t find a single person willing to call Rossi a con man. The consensus was that he had something, even if he didn’t understand why it worked or how to control it. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Could Rossi actually have something real? The only way to know for sure was to go to Italy.

So he did, and he writes an interesting study of characters, but doesn’t provide any proof of LENR’s validity.


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