Deep Space

Now for something different…

I’ve always been an avid astronomy hobbyist, ever since I spent my teen years at Siding Spring Observatory — Australia’s largest professional site for optical observations. My Dad worked (and we lived) onsite, as an electronics technician keeping the critical equipment running. As a consequence, I got to live on a mountain, in a national park, and be exposed to real science from an early age!

Anyway, I’ve recently had a chance to take up my amateur astronomy pursuits again, and this time to try my hand at some astrophotography. I own good-quality but relatively inexpensive equipment right now (most of my imaging to date has been done through an 80mm ED refractor and either a Sony NEX-3 DSLR camera or an Orion StarShoot G3 monochrome CCD). Apparently astrophotography is a bottomless money pit — there is always the next upgrade to look to! But one step at a time.

Anyway, here are a few of my recent images that I thought you might enjoy — or want to critique. They were taken in the relatively light-polluted skies of suburban Adelaide, but I’ll soon (in one month, in fact) be moving to a much darker site in southern Tasmania. Did I tell you all that I’ve taken a new job at the University of Tasmania?

Here is the selected gallery, with full capture details and higher-rez versions in the link to the Astrobin AP hosting website.

NGC 253, the ‘Silver Coin’ galaxy in Sculptor (http://www.astrobin.com/118924)

NGC253_ED80TCF_SSG3_Sept14

M42, the Orion Nebula (details here: http://www.astrobin.com/117345)

M42_ED80T_SSG3

Continue reading

The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?


Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorganFirst published in Chemistry in Australia.


Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power.  Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al.1 in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it.  It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on.  The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even.  A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1.  But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.

There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society.  An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded.

For countries like the US and Germany, Weißbach et al. estimate this minimum viable EROEI to be about 7.  An energy source with lower EROEI cannot sustain a society at those levels of complexity, structured along similar lines.  If we are to transform our energy system, in particular to one without climate impacts, we need to pay close attention to the EROEI of the end result.

Continue reading

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

Continue reading

Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Regular BNC commenter and my friend Geoff Russell (@csiroperfidy) has published a new book. It’s called “Greenjacked!: The derailing of environmental action on climate change“. The blurb:

Today’s anti-nuclear movement began as the anti-atomic weapons movement in the late 1950s. At this time, DNA repair mechanisms were unknown and there was only one known cause of cancer … radiation. Then, during the next half century, DNA repair mechanisms of immense power were discovered along with many more causes of cancer. We now know radiation is a minor player compared to cigarettes, alcohol, red meat, processed meat and obesity; to name a few. We now know why Japanese people moving permanently from Tokyo to either Paris, New York or Sydney would experience a much bigger rise in cancer risk than if they moved into the area currently evacuated around the Fukushima reactors.

Nevertheless, despite growing and increasingly sophisticated knowledge about cancer causes, the anti-nuclear movement kept nuclear power hamstrung using obsolete notions of the risks posed to DNA by radiation. This paved the way for our fossil fuelled world and kept our cleanest most potent energy source off the table as a response to climate change. GreenJacked explains, in lay language, the progress in our knowledge about cancer and shows that nuclear power is our best hope in the battle against a deteriorating climate and why we have to overturn long held but obsolete fears.

Nobel Prize winning biologist Peter Doherty has endorsed GreenJacked, along with climate scientists and activists. If you are an anti-nuclear environmentalist concerned about our planet, then you need to open your mind, prepare to be amazed and read this book.

You can buy it as a Kindle book (which is readable on Kindle devices, iPads, PCs, Android readers, etc. all with free software, so no excuses) and it less then the cost of a couple of cups of coffee. Get it! (Australians must buy it on the Amazon AU electronic store, here).

I have to say, Geoff has come a long way on the issue of sustainable nuclear energy since I first persuaded him to look at the issue seriously back in 2009! The next post on BNC is a new critique by Geoff of a recent Catalyst TV program on the Fukushima aftermath, so read on…

 

Nuclear energy: the debate Australia has to have

On July 28, I (Barry Brook) was an invited participant in a public discussion and Q&A session on the future of nuclear energy for electricity generation in Australia. It was organised and hosted by the Inspiring Australia initiative, and ran at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. The moderator (who did an excellent job) was ABC radio 666 presenter Genevieve Jacobs. The two other panel members were Prof. Ken Baldwin (ANU) and Ian Hore-Lacy from the World Nuclear Association (who writes and maintains their excellent information archive).

Below is the video of the event — a high-quality professional recording.

The session starts with about 30 minutes of direct discussion among the panellists, led by the moderator. This is followed by an hour of Q&A with the audience — over a dozen questions covered overall I think, typically with in-depth answers by multiple participants.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you have feedback or further questions, please comment below! (I know that quite a few regular commenters from BNC were in the audience, because they either asked questions or came and spoke to me after the event).