Smart cities: The future of urban infrastructure

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Songdo in South Korea has been designed with sensors to monitor everything from temperature to energy use to traffic flow. By Timothy Carter

Technology is changing everyday city life, allowing us to instantly adapt to everything from storm threats to traffic jams.

Infrastructure is not exactly the sexiest word in architecture. There are no “starchitects” proudly boasting about their pipe designs or subsurface drainage systems. By its very definition – the underlying structures that support our systems – infrastructure is inherently hidden from us, and therefore often overlooked. But without it our current cities couldn’t possibly exist. Without finding ways to improve it, our future cities will struggle to survive.

Historically, our urban infrastructure has materialised as a response to some emergent or acute problem, like natural disasters. In 2010 it was estimated that over 40% of the global population lives in coastal areas, and much of the large-scale devastation in these areas is due to hurricanes and typhoons. Multi-billion-dollar estimates of infrastructure damage from Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, as well as the recent devastation in the Philippines, demonstrate the amount of damage and human cost these disasters create.

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How ships could produce an unlimited amount of their own fuel

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The key is this special catalyst.

A new study shows that a lower-cost catalyst could help turn seawater into fuel on ships.

  • High-performance molybdenum is combined with potassium and gamma alumina to make a scaleable catalyst.
  • The material costs less than previous versions that worked as efficiently.

Scientists have taken a major step by improving a process for turning seawater into hydrocarbons. The barebones of the technology has existed since a landmark 2014 paper, but scientists have worked since then to make the process energy-efficient and affordable enough to use at scale in the field. This work could be a step toward that threshold.

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Australia to start paying EV owners for transferring electricity back to the national grid

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Electric vehicles can help keep the air clean in our cities – as we’ve seen recently with the reduction of traffic through COVID-19 lockdowns – but they face two obstacles.

 In the short term they’re still expensive. In the long term charging millions of vehicles from the electricity grid presents challenges.

I’m part of a new project, launched today, that tackles both of these obstacles head-on, and it could mean owners earn more money than they’re likely to pay for charging their electric vehicles.

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Stanford research brings EVs one step closer to wirelessly charging on roads

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Imagine never having to plug in an electric car to recharge,but instead simply take the highway on-ramp to get a range boost.

Researchers from Stanford University have published a new demonstration of highly efficient wireless charging that could allow the technology to one day be scaled up to boost driving range of electric vehicles on highways of the future.

Wireless, or inductive, charging – the same technology that is nowadays often used for electric toothbrushes and some smartphones – is under development and being piloted by some car makers already.

But current electric car inductive technology has its limitations: it relies on charging pads that must be aligned perfectly with the oscillating magnetic field that transmits the current to optimally recharge the vehicle, and of course the subsequent downtime to recharge.

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Report: Hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles likely to reach price parity with gasoline by 2025

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Hydrogen fuel-cell cars face many roadblocks to mass adoption, but a new report claims they could achieve price parity with gasoline by 2025.

 Drafted by the California Energy Commission, the report lays out a plan for development of renewable hydrogen production plants in the state, predicting that future demand and costs will make this new infrastructure worthwhile.

“The key findings are that the dispensed price of hydrogen is likely to meet an interim target based on fuel economy-adjusted price parity with gasoline of $6.00 to $8.50 per kilogram by 2025,” the report said.

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Chargers are the final roadblock to America’s electric car future

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As long as there aren’t enough fast plugs in enough places, buyers and big automakers will stay away.

Rods and waders were already packed into the electric Jaguar I-Pace as it gorged a few more electrons from the wall of my New Jersey garage. A quick glance at a map of northeastern Pennsylvania revealed charging stations clinging to the Delaware River like so many spots on the brown trout I was hoping to catch.

A few days later, I pulled up to one of those chargers on the picturesque main street of Honesdale, only to realize it was a level 2 unit—one step above a standard outlet. It would take four hours before the car had enough juice to make the 100-mile trip home. Eleven miles down the road, it was the same story. And while that spot had a superfast Tesla charger, it was incompatible with the I-Pace. The nearest level 3 charger that would work was 58 miles away. So I gave up and settled in for a while.

Electric car-range anxiety revolves around a brutal equation: Remaining miles of battery life (as estimated by the car) minus miles to destination equals hope (or despair). Making matters worse, the answer varies from one minute to the next, depending on terrain and speed. Desperate battery-powered travelers can be easy to spot: They are often sweaty (no air conditioning), driving slowly and—when going uphill—instinctively leaning forward in their seats.

Failing to note the difference between a level 2 charger and a harder-to-find level 3 charger is often the mistake of an electric vehicle rookie. Had I realized the distinction, I would never have considered a car such as the I-Pace (it was a loaner), or any of the dozens of Tesla rivals set to debut in coming years. For the future of electric vehicles in America, that’s a really big problem.

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Hands-free wireless electric vehicle charging for the 21st Century

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In yet another sign that electric vehicles are a more sustainable solution for 21st century personal mobility than gas mobiles, researchers have propelled electricity through 11 inches of thin air, from an in-ground charging system all the way up into the waiting battery pack of a hybrid electric UPS truck, all without using their hands. What, they couldn’t try this on a Tesla?

“Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers demonstrated on Feb. 27 a 20-kilowatt, bi-directional wireless charging system on a medium-class hybrid electric delivery truck” by Brittany Cramer/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy.

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New solar panels suck water from air to cool themselves down

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Intense summer sun can spike temperatures of solar panels, causing their electrical production to plummet.

Like humans, solar panels don’t work well when overheated. Now, researchers have found a way to make them “sweat”—allowing them to cool themselves and increase their power output.

It’s “a simple, elegant, and effective [way] to retrofit existing solar cell panels for an instant efficiency boost,” says Liangbing Hu, a materials scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Today, more than 600 gigawatts of solar power capacity exists worldwide, providing 3% of global electricity demand. That capacity is expected to increase fivefold over the next decade. Most use silicon to convert sunlight to electricity. But typical silicon cells convert only 20% of the Sun’s energy that hits them into current. Much of the rest turns into heat, which can warm the panels by as much as 40°C. And with every degree of temperature above 25°C, the efficiency of the panel drops. In a field where engineers struggle for every 0.1% boost in power conversion efficiency, even a 1% gain would be an economic boon, says Jun Zhou, a materials scientist at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

Decades ago, researchers showed that cooling solar panels with water can provide that benefit. Today, some companies even sell water-cooled systems. But those setups require abundant available water and storage tanks, pipes, and pumps. That’s of little use in arid regions and in developing countries with little infrastructure.

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Peer-to-peer highway EV charging would use telescoping cables between moving cars

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Imagine a future where your EV was getting low on charge ­on a highway road trip – so you deploy a telescoping charging cable to another EV and borrow a few kilowatt-hours. An engineering professor at the University of Florida believes it’s not far-fetched.

We’ve seen a host of mobile EV charging van concepts. And there are proposed solutions for stationary robots to connect a vehicle to a charger, like what Kuka Robotics demonstrated last year (shown above).

The new idea is to merge the two so EVs on the move can connect with one another and with mobile charging stations. (Apple filed a patent for something similar in 2018.)

A few weeks ago, Swarup Bhunia and his colleagues at UoF’s electrical and computer engineering department posted a paper explaining how it would work. Here’s part of the Abstract:

We propose Peer-to-Peer Car Charging (P2C2), a highly scalable novel technique for charging EVs on the go with minimal cost overhead. We allow EVs to share charge among each other based on the instructions from a cloud-based control system.

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A no-brainer stimulus idea: Electrify USPS mail trucks

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Electric vehicles for the US Postal Service would reduce noise, air, and carbon pollution in every community.

With the US trapped in a historic lockdown, everyone agrees that enormous federal spending is necessary to keep the economy going over the next year and beyond — and everyone has their own ideas about how, exactly, that federal spending should be targeted. A whole genre of essays and white papers devoted to clever stimulus plans has developed almost overnight.

I’ve contributed to that genre: Go here for my ideal recovery/stimulus plan, here for what I think Democrats’ bottom-line demands should be in stimulus negotiations, here for my take on the wisdom of investing in clean energy, and here for why devoting stimulus money to fossil fuels is short-sighted.

Now I want to offer a much more modest idea — a fun idea, even. It’s a win-win-win proposal that would be worth doing even if the economy were at full employment, but a total no-brainer in an economy that needs a kickstart. The cost would be a tiny rounding error amid the trillions of dollars of stimulus being contemplated, and it would produce outsized social benefits in the form of improved public health, more efficient public services, and lower climate pollution.

I’m talking about electrifying mail trucks.

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Fusion energy gets ready to shine – finally

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Three decades and $23.7 billion later, the 25,000-ton International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is close to becoming something like the sun.

UNTIL 1920, HUMANS had no real sense of how the sun and stars create their vast amounts of energy. Then, in October of that year, Arthur Stanley Eddington, an English astrophysicist, penned an essay elegantly titled “ The Internal Constitution of the Stars.” “A star is drawing on some vast reservoir of energy by means unknown,” he wrote. “This reservoir can scarcely be other than the sub-atomic energy which, it is known, exists abundantly in all matter; we sometimes dream that man will one day learn how to release it and use it for his service.”

From that moment, scientists began the quest to harness unlimited, carbon-free power on earth. They’ve built more than 200 reactors that have tried to slam hydrogen atoms together and release fusion energy. It’s a dream perennially called delusional, impossible, and “always 20 years away.” In 1985, recognizing that no country had the will to solve the world’s most complicated puzzle alone, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev called for an international effort to give it a go.

In 1988, engineers began designing the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, now just ITER. Along the way, 35 nations have split the $23.7 billion price tag to construct its 10 million parts. Now, surrounded by vineyards in France’s Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, the 25,000-ton machine is set to be flipped on in 2025.

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The most important US energy chart of the year is out: 8 big takeaways

 

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The numbers represent “quads” or quadrillion BTUs, with the total consumption totalling 100.2. Conveniently, you can pretty much interpret the below numbers as a percentage of total US energy usage.

1. Overall energy usage declined by 1%

That’s significant. Compare to 2018 below and you can see: The biggest shock to most people is that over two-thirds of energy produced in the US is “rejected.” What does that mean?

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