Tag Archives: electricity

How Tesla invented, I think, Tesla coils and wireless chargers.

I think I know how Tesla invented his high frequency devices, and thought I’d show you, while also explaining the operation of some devices that develop from in. Even if I’m wrong in historical terms, at least you should come to understand some of his devices, and something of the invention process. Either can be the start of a great science fair project.

physics drawing of a mass on a spring, left, and of a grounded capacitor and inception coil, right.

The start of Tesla’s invention process, I think, was a visual similarity– I’m guessing he noticed that the physics symbol for a spring was the same as for an electrical, induction coil, as shown at left. A normal person would notice the similarity, and perhaps think about it for a few seconds, get no where, and think of something else. If he or she had a math background — necessary to do most any science — they might look at the relevant equations and notice that they’re different. The equation describing the force of a spring is F = -k x  (I’ll define these letters in the bottom paragraph). The equation describing the voltage in an induction coil is not very similar-looking at first glance, V = L di/dt.  But there is a key similarity that could appeal to some math aficionados: both equations are linear. A linear equation is one where, if you double one side you double the other. Thus, if you double F, you double x, and if you double V, you double dI/dt, and that’s a significant behavior; the equation z= atis not linear, see the difference?

Another linear equation is the key equation for the motion for a mass, Newton’s second law, F = ma = m d2x/dt2. This equation is quite complicated looking, since the latter term is a second-derivative, but it is linear, and a mass is the likely thing for a spring to act upon. Yet another linear equation can be used to relate current to the voltage across a capacitor: V= -1/C ∫idt. At first glance, this equation looks quite different from the others since it involves an integral. But Nicola Tesla did more than a first glance. Perhaps he knew that linear systems tend to show resonance — vibrations at a fixed frequency. Or perhaps that insight came later. 

And Tesla saw something else, I imagine, something even less obvious, except in hindsight. If you take the derivative of the two electrical equations, you get dV/dt = L d2i/dt2, and dV/dt = -1/C i . These equations are the same as for the spring and mass, just replace F and x by dV/dt and i. That the derivative of the integral is the thing itself is something I demonstrate here. At this point it becomes clear that a capacitor-coil system will show the same sort of natural resonance effects as shown by a spring and mass system, or by a child’s swing, or by a bouncy bridge. Tesla would have known, like anyone who’s taken college-level physics, that a small input at the right, resonant frequency will excite such systems to great swings. For a mass and spring,

Basic Tesla coil. A switch set off by magnetization of the iron core insures resonant frequency operation.

Basic Tesla coil. A switch set off by magnetization of the iron core insures resonant frequency operation.

resonant frequency = (1/2π) √k/m,

Children can make a swing go quite high, just by pumping at the right frequency. Similarly, it should be possible to excite a coil-capacitor system to higher and higher voltages if you can find a way to excite long enough at the right frequency. Tesla would have looked for a way to do this with a coil capacitor system, and after a while of trying and thinking, he seems to have found the circuit shown at right, with a spark gap to impress visitors and keep the voltages from getting to far out of hand. The resonant frequency for this system is 1/(2π√LC), an equation form that is similar to the above. The voltage swings should grow until limited by resistance in the wires, or by the radiation of power into space. The fact that significant power is radiated into space will be used as the basis for wireless phone chargers, but more on that later. For now, you might wish to note that power radiation is proportional to dV/dt.

A version of the above excited by AC current. In this version, you achieve resonance by adjusting the coil, capacitor and resistance to match the forcing frequency.

A more -modern version of the above excited by AC current. In this version, you achieve resonance by adjusting the coil, capacitor and resistance to match the forcing frequency.

The device above provides an early, simple way to excite a coil -capacitor system. It’s designed for use with a battery or other DC power source. There’s an electromagnetic switch to provide resonance with any capacitor and coil pair. An alternative, more modern device is shown at left. It  achieves resonance too without the switch through the use of input AC power, but you have to match the AC frequency to the resonant frequency of the coil and capacitor. If wall current is used, 60 cps, the coil and capacitor must be chosen so that  1/(2π√LC) = 60 cps. Both versions are called Tesla coils and either can be set up to produce very large sparks (sparks make for a great science fair project — you need to put a spark gap across the capacitor, or better yet use the coil as the low-voltage part of a transformer.

power receiverAnother use of this circuit is as a transmitter of power into space. The coil becomes the transmission antenna, and you have to set up a similar device as a receiver, see picture at right. The black thing at left of the picture is the capacitor. One has to make sure that the coil-capacitor pair is tuned to the same frequency as the transmitter. One also needs to add a rectifier, the rectifier chosen here is designated 1N4007. This, fairly standard-size rectifier allows you to sip DC power to the battery, without fear that the battery will discharge on every cycle. That’s all the science you need to charge an iPhone without having to plug it in. Designing one of these is a good science fair project, especially if you can improve on the charging distance. Why should you have to put your iPhone right on top of the transmitter battery. Why not allow continuous charging anywhere in your home. Tesla was working on long-distance power transmission till the end of his life. What modifications would that require?

Symbols used above: a = acceleration = d2x/dt2, C= capacitance of the capacitor, dV/dt = the rate of change of voltage with time, F = force, i = current, k = stiffness of the spring, L= inductance of the coil, m = mass of the weight, t= time, V= voltage, x = distance of the mass from its rest point.

Robert Buxbaum, October 2, 2017.

If the wall with Mexico were covered in solar cells

As a good estimate, it will take about 130,000 acres of solar cells to deliver the power of a typical nuclear facility, 26 TWhr/year. Since Donald Trump has proposed covering his wall with Mexico with solar cells, I came to wonder how much power these cells would produce, and how much this wall might cost. Here goes.

Lets assume that Trump’s building a double wall on a strip of land one chain (66 feet) wide, with a 2 lane road between. Many US roads are designed in chain widths, and a typical, 2 lane road is 1/2 chain wide, 33 feet, including its shoulders. I imagine that each wall is slanted 50° as is typical with solar cells, and that each is 15 to 18 feet high for a good mix of power and security. Since there are 10 square chains to an acre, and 80 chains to a mile we find that it would take 16,250 miles of this to produce 26 TWhr/year. The proposed wall is only about 1/10 this long, 1,600 miles or so, so the output will be only about 1/10 as much, 2.6 TWhr/year, or 600 MW per average daylight hour. That’s not insignificant power — similar to a good-size coal plant. If we aim for an attractive wall, we might come to use Elon Musk’s silica-coated solar cells. These cost $5/Watt or $3 Billion total. Other cells are cheaper, but don’t look as nice or seem as durable. Obama’s, Ivanpah solar farm, a project with durability problems, covers half this area, is rated at 370 MW, and cost $2.2 Billion. It’s thus rated to produce slightly over half the power of the wall, at a somewhat higher price, $5.95/Watt.

Elon Musk with his silica solar panels.

Elon Musk with his, silica-coated, solar wall panels. They don’t look half bad and should be durable.

It’s possible that the space devoted to the wall will be wider than 66 feet, or that the length will be less than 1600 miles, or that we will use different cells that cost more or less, but the above provides a good estimate of design, price, and electric output. I see nothing here to object to, politically or scientifically. And, if we sell Mexico the electricity at 11¢/kWhr, we’ll be repaid $286 M/year, and after 12 years or so, Republicans will be able to say that Mexico paid for the wall. And the wall is likely to look better than the Ivanpah site, or a 20-year-old wind farm.

As a few more design thoughts, I imagine an 8 foot, chain-link fence on the Mexican side of the wall, and imagine that many of the lower solar shingles will be replaced by glass so drivers will be able to see the scenery. I’ve posited that secure borders make a country. Without them, you’re a tribal hoard. I’ve also argued that there is a pollution advantage to controlling imports, and an economic advantage as well, at least for some. For comparison, recent measurement of the Great Wall of China shows it to be 13,170 miles long, 8 times the length of Trump’s wall with China.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, June 14, 2017.

Future airplane catapults may not be electric

President Trump got into Hot Water with the Navy this week for his suggestion that they should go “back to god-damn steam” for their airplane catapults as a cure for cost over-runs and delays with the Navy’s aircraft carriers. The Navy had chosen to go to a more modern catapult called EMALS (electromagnetic, aircraft launch system) based on a traveling coil and electromagnetic pulses. This EMAL system has cost $5 Billion in cost over-runs, has added 3 years to the program, and still doesn’t work well. In response to the president’s suggestion (explosion), the Navy did what the rest of Washington has done: blame Trump’s ignorance, e.g. here, in the Navy Times. Still, for what it’s worth, I think Trump’s idea has merit, especially if I can modify it a bit to suggest high pressure air (pneumatics) instead of high pressure steam.

Tests of the navy EMALS, notice that some launches go further than others; the problem is electronics, supposedly.

If you want to launch a 50,000 lb jet fighter at 5 g acceleration, you need to apply 250,000 lbs of force uniformly throughout the launch. For pneumatics, all that takes is 250 psi steam or air, and a 1000 square inch piston, about 3 feet in diameter. This is a very modest pressure and a quite modest size piston. A 50,000 lb object accelerated this way, will reach launch speed (130 mph) in 1.2 seconds. It’s very hard to get such fast or uniform acceleration with an electromagnetic coil since the motion of the coil always produces a back voltage. The electromagnetic pulses can be adjusted to counter this, but it’s not all that easy, as the Navy tests show. You have to know the speed and position of the airplane precisely to get it right, and have to adjust the firing of the pushing coils accordingly. There is no guarantee of smooth acceleration like you get with a piston, and the EMALS control circuit will always be vulnerable to electromagnetic and cyber attack. As things stand, the control system is thought to be the problem.

A piston is invulnerable to EM and cyber attack since, if worse comes to worse, the valves can be operated manually, as was done with steam-catapults throughout WWII. And pistons are very robust — far more robust than solenoid coils — because they are far less complex. As much force as you put on the plane, has to be put on the coil or piston. Thus, for 5 g acceleration, the coil or piston has to experience 250,000 lbs of horizontal force. That’s 3 million Newtons for those who like SI units (here’s a joke about SI units). A solid piston will have no problem withstanding 250,000 lbs for years. Piston steamships from the 50s are still in operation. Coils are far more delicate, and the life-span is likely to be short, at least for current designs. 

The reason I suggest compressed air, pneumatics, instead of steam is that air is not as hot and corrosive as steam. Also an air compressor can be located close to the flight deck, connected to the power center by electric wires. Steam requires long runs of steam pipes, a more difficult proposition. As a possible design, one could use a multi-stage, inter-cooled air compressor connected to a ballast tank, perhaps 5 feet in diameter x 100 feet long to guarantee uniform pressure. The ballast tank would provide the uniform pressure while allowing the use of a relatively small compressor, drawing less power than the EMALS. Those who’ve had freshman physics will be able to show that 5 g acceleration will get the plane to 130 mph in only 125 feet of runway. This is far less runway than the EMALS requires. For lighter planes or greater efficiency, one could shut off the input air before 120 feet and allow the remainder of the air to expand for 200 feet of the piston.

The same pistons could be used for capturing an airplane. It could start at 250 psi, dead-ended to the cylinder top. The captured airplane would push air back into the ballast tank, or the valve could be closed allowing pressure to build. Operated that way, the cylinder could stop the plane in 60 feet. You can’t do that with an EMAL. I should also mention that the efficiency of the piston catapult can be near 100%, but the efficiency of the EMALS will be near zero at the beginning of acceleration. Low efficiency at low speed is a problem found in all electromagnetic actuators: lots of electromagnetic power is needed to get things moving, but the output work,  ∫F dx, is near zero at low velocity. With EM, efficiency is high at only at one speed determined by the size of the moving coil; with pistons it’s high at all speeds. I suggest the Navy keep their EMALS, but only as a secondary system, perhaps used to launch drones until they get sea experience and demonstrate a real advantage over pneumatics.

Robert Buxbaum, May 19, 2017. The USS Princeton was the fanciest ship in the US fleet, with super high-tech cannons. When they mis-fired, it killed most of the cabinet of President Tyler. Slow and steady wins the arms race.

Of horses, trucks, and horsepower

Horsepower is a unit of work production rate, about 3/4 of a kW, for those who like standard international units. It is also the pulling force of a work horse of the 1700s times its speed when pulling, perhaps 5 mph. A standard truck will develop 200 hp but only while accelerating at about 60 mph; to develop those same 200 horsepower at 1 mph it would have to pull with 200 times more force. That is impossible for a truck, both because of traction limitations and because of the nature of a gasoline engine when attached to typical gearing. At low speed, 1 mph, a truck will barely develop as much force as 4-5 horses, suggesting a work output about 1 hp. This is especially true for a truck pulling in the snow, as shown in the video below.

Here, a semi-truck (of milk) is being pulled out of the snow by a team of horses going perhaps 1 mph. The majority of work is done by the horse on the left — the others seem to be slipping. Assuming that the four horses manage to develop 1 hp each (4 hp total), the pull force is four times a truck at 1 mph, or as great as a 200 hp truck accelerating at 50 mph. That’s why the horse succeed where the truck does not.

You will find other videos on the internet showing that horses produce more force or hp than trucks or tractors. They always do so at low speeds. A horse will also beat a truck or car in acceleration to about the 1/4 mile mark. That’s because acceleration =force /mass: a = F/m.

I should mention that DC electric motors also, like horses, produce their highest force at very low speeds, but unlike horses, their efficiency is very low there. Electric engine efficiency is high only at speeds quite near the maximum and their horse-power output (force times speed) is at a maximum at about 1/2 the maximum speed.

Steam engines (I like steam engines) produce about the same force at all speeds, and more-or-less the same efficiency at all speeds. That efficiency is typically only about 20%, about that of a horse, but the feed cost and maintenance cost is far lower. A steam engine will eat coal, while a horse must eat oats.

March 4, 2016. Robert Buxbaum, an engineer, runs REB Research, and is running for water commissioner.

Advanced windmills + 20 years = field of junk

Everything wears out. This can be a comforting or a depressing thought, but it’s a truth. No old mistake, however egregious, lasts forever, and no bold advance avoids decay. At best, last year’s advance will pay for itself with interest, will wear out gracefully, and will be recalled fondly by aficionados after it’s replaced by something better. Water wheels, and early steamships are examples of this type of bold advance. Unfortunately, it is often the case that last years innovation turns out to be no advance at all: a technological dead end that never pays for itself, and becomes a dangerous, rotting eyesore or worse, a laughing-stock blot or a blot on the ecology. Our first two generations of advanced windmill farms seem to match this description; perhaps the next generation will be better, but here are some thoughts on lessons learned from the existing fields of rotting windmills.

The ancient design windmills of Don Quixote’s Spain (1300?) were boons. Farmers used them to grind grain or cut wood, and to to pump drinking water. Holland used similar early windmills to drain their land. So several American presidents came to believe advanced design windmills would be similar boons if used for continuous electric power generation. It didn’t work, and many of the problems could have been seen at the start. While the farmer didn’t care when his water was pumped, or when his wood is cut. When you’re generating electricity, there is a need to match the power demand exactly. Whenever the customer turns on the switch, electricity is expected to flow at the appropriate amount of Wattage; at other times any power generated is a waste or a nuisance. But electric generator-windmills do not produce power on demand, they produce power when the wind blows. The mismatch of wind and electric demand has bedeviled windmill reliability and economic return. It will likely continue to do so until we find a good way to store electric power cheaply. Until then windmills will not be able to produce electricity at competitive prices to compete with cheap coal and nuclear power.

There is also the problem of repair. The old windmills of Holland still turn a century later because they were relatively robust, and relatively easy to maintain. The modern windmills of the US stand much taller and move much faster. They are often hit, and damaged by lightning strikes, and their fast-turning gears tend to wear out fast, Once damaged, modern windmills are not readily fix, They are made of advanced fiberglass materials spun on special molds. Worse yet, they are constructed in mountainous, remote locations. Such blades can not be replaces by amateurs, and even the gears are not readily accessed to repair. More than half of the great power-windmills built in the last 35 years have worn out and are unlikely to ever get repair. Driving past, you see fields of them sitting idle; the ones still turning look like they will wear out soon. The companies that made and installed these behemoth are mostly out of the business, so there is no-one there to take them down even if there were an economic incentive to do so. Even where a company is found to fix the old windmills, no one would as there is not sufficient economic return — the electricity is worth less than the repair.

Komoa Wind Farm in Kona, Hawaii June 2010; Friends of Grand Ronde Valley.

Komoa Wind Farm in Kona, Hawaii, June 2010; A field of modern design wind-turbines already ruined by wear, wind, and lightning. — Friends of Grand Ronde Valley.

A single rusting windmill would be bad enough, but modern wind turbines were put up as wind farms with nominal power production targeted to match the output of small coal-fired generators. These wind farms require a lot of area,  covering many square miles along some of the most beautiful mountain ranges and ridges — places chosen because the wind was strong

Putting up these massive farms of windmills lead to a situation where the government had pay for construction of the project, and often where the government provided the land. This, generous spending gives the taxpayer the risk, and often a political gain — generally to a contributor. But there is very little political gain in paying for the repair or removal of the windmills. And since the electricity value is less than the repair cost, the owners (friends of the politician) generally leave the broken hulks to sit and rot. Politicians don’t like to pay to fix their past mistakes as it undermines their next boondoggle, suggesting it will someday rust apart without ever paying for itself.

So what can be done. I wish I could suggest less arrogance and political corruption, but I see no way to achieve that, as the poet wrote about Ozymandias (Ramses II) and his disastrous building projects, the leader inevitably believes: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; look on my works ye mighty and despair.” So I’ll propose some other, less ambitious ideas. For one, smaller demonstration projects closer to the customer. First see if a single windmill pays for itself, and only then build a second. Also, electricity storage is absolutely key. I think it is worthwhile to store excess wind power as hydrogen (hydrogen storage is far cheaper than batteries), and the thermodynamics are not bad

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 3, 2016. These comments are not entirely altruistic. I own a company that makes hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers. If the government were to take my suggestions I would benefit.

My latest invention: improved fuel cell reformer

Last week, I submitted a provisional patent application for an improved fuel reformer system to allow a fuel cell to operate on ordinary, liquid fuels, e.g. alcohol, gasoline, and JP-8 (diesel). I’m attaching the complete text of the description, below, but since it is not particularly user-friendly, I’d like to add a small, explanatory preface. What I’m proposing is shown in the diagram, following. I send a hydrogen-rich stream plus ordinary fuel and steam to the fuel cell, perhaps with a pre-reformer. My expectation that the fuel cell will not completely convert this material to CO2 and water vapor, even with the pre-reformer. Following the fuel cell, I then use a water-gas shift reactor to convert product CO and H2O to H2 and CO2 to increase the hydrogen content of the stream. I then use a semi-permeable membrane to extract the waste CO2 and water. I recirculate the hydrogen and the rest of the water back to the fuel cell to generate extra power, prevent coking, and promote steam reforming. I calculate the design should be able to operate at, perhaps 0.9 Volt per cell, and should nearly double the energy per gallon of fuel compared to ordinary diesel. Though use of pure hydrogen fuel would give better mileage, this design seems better for some applications. Please find the text following.

Use of a Water-Gas shift reactor and a CO2 extraction membrane to improve fuel utilization in a solid oxide fuel cell system.

Inventor: Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, REB Research, 12851 Capital St, Oak Park, MI 48237; Patent Pending.

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) have improved over the last 10 years to the point that they are attractive options for electric power generation in automobiles, airplanes, and auxiliary power supplies. These cells operate at high temperatures and tolerate high concentrations of CO, hydrocarbons and limited concentrations of sulfur (H2S). SOFCs can operate on reformate gas and can perform limited degrees of hydrocarbon reforming too – something that is advantageous from the stand-point of fuel logistics: it’s far easier to transport a small volume of liquid fuel that it is a large volume of H2 gas. The main problem with in-situ reforming is the danger of coking the fuel cell, a problem that gets worse when reforming is attempted with the more–desirable, heavier fuels like gasoline and JP-8. To avoid coking the fuel cell, heavier fuels are typically reforming before hand in a separate reactor, typically by partial oxidation at auto-thermal conditions, a process that typically adds nitrogen and results in the inability to use the natural heat given off by the fuel cell. Steam reforming has been suggested as an option (Chick, 2011) but there is not enough heat released by the fuel cell alone to do it with the normal fuel cycles.

Another source of inefficiency in reformate-powered SOFC systems is basic to the use of carbon-containing fuels: the carbon tends to leave the fuel cell as CO instead of CO2. CO in the exhaust is undesirable from two perspectives: CO is toxic, and quite a bit of energy is wasted when the carbon leaves in this form. Normally, carbon can not leave as CO2 though, since CO is the more stable form at the high temperatures typical of SOFC operation. This patent provides solutions to all these problems through the use of a water-gas shift reactor and a CO2-extraction membrane. Find a drawing of a version of the process following.

RE. Buxbaum invention: A suggested fuel cycle to allow improved fuel reforming with a solid oxide fuel cell

RE. Buxbaum invention: A suggested fuel cycle to allow improved fuel reforming with a solid oxide fuel cell

As depicted in Figure 1, above, the fuel enters, is mixed with steam or partially boiled water, and heated in the rectifying heat exchanger. The hot steam + fuel mix then enters a steam reformer and perhaps a sulfur removal stage. This would be typical steam reforming except for a key difference: the heat for reforming comes (at least in part) from waste heat of the SOFC. Normally speaking there would not be enough heat, but in this system we add a recycle stream of H2-rich gas to the fuel cell. This stream, produced from waste CO in a water-gas shift reactor (the WGS) shown in Figure 1. This additional H2 adds to the heat generated by the SOFC and also adds to the amount of water in the SOFC. The net effect should be to reduce coking in the fuel cell while increasing the output voltage and providing enough heat for steam reforming. At least, that is the thought.

SOFCs differ from proton conducting FCS, e.g. PEM FCs, in that the ion that moves is oxygen, not hydrogen. As a result, water produced in the fuel cell ends up in the hydrogen-rich stream and not in the oxygen stream. Having this additional water in the fuel stream of the SOFC can promote fuel reforming within the FC. This presents a difficulty in exhausting the waste water vapor in that a means must be found to separate it from un-combusted fuel. This is unlike the case with PEM FCs, where the waste water leaves with the exhaust air. Our main solution to exhausting the water is the use of a membrane and perhaps a knockout drum to extract it from un-combusted fuel gases.

Our solution to the problem of carbon leaving the SOFC as CO is to react this CO with waste H2O to convert it to CO2 and additional H2. This is done in a water gas shift reactor, the WGS above. We then extract the CO2 and remaining, unused water through a CO2- specific membrane and we recycle the H2 and unconverted CO back to the SOFC using a low temperature recycle blower. The design above was modified from one in a paper by PNNL; that paper had neither a WGS reactor nor a membrane. As a result it got much worse fuel conversion, and required a high temperature recycle blower.

Heat must be removed from the SOFC output to cool it to a temperature suitable for the WGS reactor. In the design shown, the heat is used to heat the fuel before feeding it to the SOFC – this is done in the Rectifying HX. More heat must be removed before the gas can go to the CO2 extractor membrane; this heat is used to boil water for the steam reforming reaction. Additional heat inputs and exhausts will be needed for startup and load tracking. A solution to temporary heat imbalances is to adjust the voltage at the SOFC. The lower the voltage the more heat will be available to radiate to the steam reformer. At steady state operation, a heat balance suggests we will be able to provide sufficient heat to the steam reformer if we produce electricity at between 0.9 and 1.0 Volts per cell. The WGS reactor allows us to convert virtually all the fuel to water and CO2, with hardly any CO output. This was not possible for any design in the PNNL study cited above.

The drawing above shows water recycle. This is not a necessary part of the cycle. What is necessary is some degree of cooling of the WGS output. Boiling recycle water is shown because it can be a logistic benefit in certain situations, e.g. where you can not remove the necessary CO2 without removing too much of the water in the membrane module, and in mobile military situations, where it’s a benefit to reduce the amount of material that must be carried. If water or fuel must be boiled, it is worthwhile to do so by cooling the output from the WGS reactor. Using this heat saves energy and helps protect the high-selectivity membranes. Cooling also extends the life of the recycle blower and allows the lower-temperature recycle blowers. Ideally the temperature is not lowered so much that water begins to condense. Condensed water tends to disturb gas flow through a membrane module. The gas temperatures necessary to keep water from condensing in the module is about 180°C given typical, expected operating pressures of about 10 atm. The alternative is the use of a water knockout and a pressure reducer to prevent water condensation in membranes operated at lower temperatures, about 50°C.

Extracting the water in a knockout drum separate from the CO2 extraction has the secondary advantage of making it easier to adjust the water content in the fuel-gas stream. The temperature of condensation can then be used to control the water content; alternately, a separate membrane can extract water ahead of the CO2, with water content controlled by adjusting the pressure of the liquid water in the exit stream.

Some description of the membrane is worthwhile at this point since a key aspect of this patent – perhaps the key aspect — is the use of a CO2-extraction membrane. It is this addition to the fuel cycle that allows us to use the WGS reactor effectively to reduce coking and increase efficiency. The first reasonably effective CO2 extraction membranes appeared only about 5 years ago. These are made of silicone polymers like dimethylsiloxane, e.g. the Polaris membrane from MTR Inc. We can hope that better membranes will be developed in the following years, but the Polaris membrane is a reasonably acceptable option and available today, its only major shortcoming being its low operating temperature, about 50°C. Current Polaris membranes show H2-CO2 selectivity about 30 and a CO2 permeance about 1000 Barrers; these permeances suggest that high operating pressures would be desirable, and the preferred operation pressure could be 300 psi (20 atm) or higher. To operate the membrane with a humid gas stream at high pressure and 50°C will require the removal of most of the water upstream of the membrane module. For this, I’ve included a water knockout, or steam trap, shown in Figure 1. I also include a pressure reduction valve before the membrane (shown as an X in Figure 1). The pressure reduction helps prevent water condensation in the membrane modules. Better membranes may be able to operate at higher temperatures where this type of water knockout is not needed.

It seems likely that, no matter what improvements in membrane technology, the membrane will have to operate at pressures above about 6 atm, and likely above about 10 atm (upstream pressure) exhausting CO2 and water vapor to atmosphere. These high pressures are needed because the CO2 partial pressure in the fuel gas leaving the membrane module will have to be significantly higher than the CO2 exhaust pressure. Assuming a CO2 exhaust pressure of 0.7 atm or above and a desired 15% CO2 mol fraction in the fuel gas recycle, we can expect to need a minimum operating pressure of 4.7 atm at the membrane. Higher pressures, like 10 or 20 atm could be even more attractive.

In order to reform a carbon-based fuel, I expect the fuel cell to have to operate at 800°C or higher (Chick, 2011). Most fuels require high temperatures like this for reforming –methanol being a notable exception requiring only modest temperatures. If methanol is the fuel we will still want a rectifying heat exchanger, but it will be possible to put it after the Water-Gas Shift reactor, and it may be desirable for the reformer of this fuel to follow the fuel cell. When reforming sulfur-containing fuels, it is likely that a sulfur removal reactor will be needed. Several designs are available for this; I provide references to two below.

The overall system design I suggest should produce significantly more power per gm of carbon-based feed than the PNNL system (Chick, 2011). The combination of a rectifying heat exchange, a water gas reactor and CO2 extraction membrane recovers chemical energy that would otherwise be lost with the CO and H2 bleed steam. Further, the cooling stage allows the use of a lower temperature recycle pump with a fairly low compression ratio, likely 2 or less. The net result is to lower the pump cost and power drain. The fuel stream, shown in orange, is reheated without the use of a combustion pre-heater, another big advantage. While PNNL (Chick, 2011) has suggested an alternative route to recover most of the chemical energy through the use of a turbine power generator following the fuel cell, this design should have several advantages including greater reliability, and less noise.


1.   A power-producing, fuel cell system including a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) where a fuel-containing output stream from the fuel cell goes to a regenerative heat exchanger followed by a water gas shift reactor followed by a membrane means to extract waste gases including carbon dioxide (CO2) formed in said reactor. Said reactor operating a temperatures between 200 and 450°C and the extracted carbon dioxide leaving at near ambient pressure; the non-extracted gases being recycled to the fuel cell.

Main References:

The most relevant reference here is “Solid Oxide Fuel Cell and Power System Development at PNNL” by Larry Chick, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory March 29, 2011: http://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/03/f10/apu2011_9_chick.pdf. Also see US patent  8394544. it’s from the same authors and somewhat similar, though not as good and only for methane, a high-hydrogen fuel.

Robert E. Buxbaum, REB Research, May 11, 2015.

The future of steamships: steam

Most large ships and virtually all locomotives currently run on diesel power. But the diesel  engine does not drive the wheels or propeller directly; the transmission would be too big and complex. Instead, the diesel engine is used to generate electric power, and the electric power drives the ship or train via an electric motor, generally with a battery bank to provide a buffer. Current diesel generators operate at 75-300 rpm and about 40-50% efficiency (not bad), but diesel fuel is expensive. It strikes me, therefore that the next step is to switch to a cheaper fuel like coal or compressed natural gas, and convert these fuels to electricity by a partial or full steam cycle as used in land-based electric power plants

Ship-board diesel engine, 100 MW for a large container ship

Diesel engine, 100 MW for a large container ship

Steam powers all nuclear ships, and conventionally boiled steam provided the power for thousands of Liberty ships and hundreds of aircraft carriers during World War 2. Advanced steam turbine cycles are somewhat more efficient, pushing 60% efficiency for high pressure, condensed-turbine cycles that consume vaporized fuel in a gas turbine and recover the waste heat with a steam boiler exhausting to vacuum. The higher efficiency of these gas/steam turbine engines means that, even for ships that burn ship-diesel fuel (so-called bunker oil) or natural gas, there can be a cost advantage to having a degree of steam power. There are a dozen or so steam-powered ships operating on the great lakes currently. These are mostly 700-800 feet long, and operate with 1950s era steam turbines, burning bunker oil or asphalt. US Steel runs the “Arthur M Anderson”, Carson J Callaway” , “John G Munson” and “Philip R Clarke”, all built-in 1951/2. The “Upper Lakes Group” runs the “Canadian Leader”, “Canadian Provider”, “Quebecois”, and “Montrealais.” And then there is the coal-fired “Badger”. Built in 1952, the Badger is powered by two, “Skinner UniFlow” double-acting, piston engines operating at 450 psi. The Badger is cost-effective, with the low-cost of the fuel making up for the low efficiency of the 50’s technology. With larger ships, more modern boilers and turbines, and with higher pressure boilers and turbines, the economics of steam power would be far better, even for ships with modern pollution abatement.

Nuclear steam boilers can be very compact

Nuclear steam boilers can be very compact

Steam powered ships can burn fuels that diesel engines can’t: coal, asphalts, or even dry wood because fuel combustion can be external to the high pressure region. Steam engines can cost more than diesel engines do, but lower fuel cost can make up for that, and the cost differences get smaller as the outputs get larger. Currently, coal costs 1/10 as much as bunker oil on a per-energy basis, and natural gas costs about 1/5 as much as bunker oil. One can burn coal cleanly and safely if the coal is dried before being loaded on the ship. Before burning, the coal would be powdered and gassified to town-gas (CO + H2O) before being burnt. The drying process removes much of the toxic impact of the coal by removing much of the mercury and toxic oxides. Gasification before combustion further reduces these problems, and reduces the tendency to form adhesions on boiler pipes — a bane of old-fashioned steam power. Natural gas requires no pretreatment, but costs twice as much as coal and requires a gas-turbine, boiler system for efficient energy use.

Todays ships and locomotives are far bigger than in the 1950s. The current standard is an engine output about 50 MW, or 170 MM Btu/hr of motive energy. Assuming a 50% efficient engine, the fuel use for a 50 MW ship or locomotive is 340 MM Btu/hr; locomotives only use this much when going up hill with a heavy load. Illinois coal costs, currently, about $60/ton, or $2.31/MM Btu. A 50 MW engine would consume about 13 tons of dry coal per hour costing $785/hr. By comparison, bunker oil costs about $3 /gallon, or $21/MM Btu. This is nearly ten times more than coal, or $ 7,140/hr for the same 50 MW output. Over 30 years of operation, the difference in fuel cost adds up to 1.5 billion dollars — about the cost of a modern container ship.

Robert E. Buxbaum, May 16, 2014. I possess a long-term interest in economics, thermodynamics, history, and the technology of the 1800s. See my steam-pump, and this page dedicated to Peter Cooper: Engineer, citizen of New York. Wood power isn’t all that bad, by the way, but as with coal, you must dry the wood, or (ideally) convert it to charcoal. You can improve the power and efficiency of diesel and automobile engines and reduce the pollution by adding hydrogen. Normal cars do not use steam because there is more start-stop, and because it takes too long to fire up the engine before one can drive. For cars, and drone airplanes, I suggest hydrogen/ fuel cells.

Ivanpah’s solar electric worse than trees

Recently the DoE committed 1.6 billion dollars to the completion of the last two of three solar-natural gas-electric plants on a 10 mi2 site at Lake Ivanpah in California. The site is rated to produce 370 MW of power, in a facility that uses far more land than nuclear power, at a cost significantly higher than nuclear. The 3900 MW Drax plant (UK) cost 1.1 Billion dollars, and produces 10 times more power on a much smaller site. Ivanpah needs a lot of land because its generators require 173,500 billboard-size, sun-tracking mirrors to heat boilers atop three 750 foot towers (2 1/2 times the statue of liberty). The boilers feed steam to low pressure, low efficiency (28% efficiency) Siemens turbines. At night, natural gas provides heat to make the steam, but only at the same, low efficiency. Siemens makes higher efficiency turbine plants (59% efficiency) but these can not be used here because the solar oven temperature is only 900°F (500°C), while normal Siemens plants operate at 3650°F (2000°C).

The Ivanpau thermal solar-natural gas project will look like The Crescent Dunes Thermal-solar project shown here, but will be bigger.

The first construction of the Ivanpah thermal solar-natural-gas project; Each circle mirrors extend out to cover about 2 square miles of the 10mi2 site.

So far, the first of the three towers is operational, but it has been producing at only 30% of rated low-efficiency output. These are described as “growing pains.” There are also problems with cooked birds, blinded pilots, and the occasional fire from the misaligned death ray — more pains, I guess. There is also the problem of lightning. When hit by lightning the mirrors shatter into millions of shards of glass over a 30 foot radius, according to Argus, the mirror cleaning company. This presents a less-than attractive environmental impact.

As an exercise, I thought I’d compare this site’s electric output to the amount one could generate using a wood-burning boiler fed by trees growing on a similar sized (10 sq. miles) site. Trees are cheap, but only about 10% efficient at converting solar power to chemical energy, thus you might imagine that trees could not match the power of the Ivanpah plant, but dry wood burns hot, at 1100 -1500°C, so the efficiency of a wood-powered steam turbine will be higher, about 45%. 

About 820 MW of sunlight falls on every 1 mi2 plot, or 8200 MW for the Ivanpah site. If trees convert 10% of this to chemical energy, and we convert 45% of that to electricity, we find the site will generate 369 MW of electric power, or exactly the output that Ivanpah is rated for. The cost of trees is far cheaper than mirrors, and electricity from wood burning is typically cost 4¢/kWh, and the environmental impact of tree farming is likely to be less than that of the solar mirrors mentioned above. 

There is another advantage to the high temperature of the wood fire. The use of high temperature turbines means that any power made at night with natural gas will be produced at higher efficiency. The Ivanpah turbines output at low temperature and low efficiency when burning natural gas (at night) and thus output half the half the power of a normal Siemens plant for every BTU of gas. Because of this, it seems that the Ivanpah plant may use as much natural gas to make its 370 MW during a 12 hour night as would a higher efficiency system operating 24 hours, day and night. The additional generation by solar thus, might be zero. 

If you think the problems here are with the particular design, I should also note that the Ivanpah solar project is just one of several our Obama-government is funding, and none are doing particularly well. As another example, the $1.45 B solar project on farmland near Gila Bend Arizona is rated to produce 35 MW, about 1/10 of the Ivanpah project at 2/3 the cost. It was built in 2010 and so far has not produced any power.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 12, 2014. I’ve tried using wood to make green gasoline. No luck so far. And I’ve come to doubt the likelihood that we can stop global warming.

Land use nuclear vs wind and solar

An advantage of nuclear power over solar and wind is that it uses a lot less land, see graphic below. While I am doubtful that industrial gas causes global warming, I am not a fan of pollution, and that’s why I like nuclear power. Nuclear power adds no water or air pollution when it runs right, and removes a lot less land than wind and solar. Consider the newly approved Hinkley Point C (England), see graphic below. The site covers 430 acres, 1.74 km2, and is currently the home of Hinkley Point B, a nuclear plant slated for retirement. When Hinkley Point C is built on the same site, it will add 26 trillion Watt-hr/ year (3200 MW, 93% up time), about 7% of the total UK demand. Yet more power would be provided from these 430 acres if Hinkley B is not shut down.

Nuclear land use vs solar and wind; British Gov't. regarding their latest plant

Nuclear land use vs solar and wind; British Gov’t. regarding their latest plant

A solar farm to produce 26 trillion W-hr/year would require 130,000 acres, 526 km2. This area would suggest they get the equivalent of 1.36 hours per day of full sun on every m2, not unreasonable given the space for roads and energy storage, and how cloudy England is. Solar power requires a lot energy-storage since you only get full power in the daytime, when there are no clouds.

A wind farm requires even more land than solar, 250,000 acres, or somewhat more than 1000 km2. Wind farms require less storage but that the turbines be spaced at a distance. Storage options could include hydrogen, batteries, and pumped hydro.; I make the case that hydrogen is better. While wind-farm space can be dual use — allowing farming for example, 1000 square km, is still a lot of space to carve up with roads and turbines. It’s nearly the size of greater London; the tourist area, London city is only 2.9 km2.

All these power sources produce pollution during construction and decommissioning. But nuclear produces somewhat less as the plants are less massive in total, and work for more years without the need for major rebuilds. Hinkley C will generate about 30,000 kg/year of waste assuming 35 MW-days/kg, but the cost to bury it in salt domes should not be excessive. Salt domes are needed because Hinkley waste will generate 100 kW of after-heat, even 16 years out. Nuclear fusion, when it comes, should produce 1/10,000 as much after-heat, 100W, 1 year out, but fusion isn’t here yet.

There is also the problem of accidents. In the worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, only 31 people died as a direct result, and now (strange to say) the people downwind are healthier than the average up wind; it seems that small amounts of radiation may be good for you. By comparison, in Iowa alone there were 317 driving fatalities in 2013. And even wind and solar have accidents, e.g. people falling from wind-turbines.

Robert Buxbaum, January 22, 2014. I’m president of REB Research, a manufacturer of hydrogen generators and purifiers — mostly membrane reactor based. I also do contract research, mostly on hydrogen, and I write this blog. My PhD research was on nuclear fusion power. I’ve also written about conservation, e.g. curtainsinsulation; paint your roof white.

Simple electroplating of noble metals

Electro-coating gold onto a Pd tube by dissolving an iron wire.

Electro-coating gold onto at Pd-coated tube by dissolving an iron wire at REB Research.

Here’s a simple trick for electroplating noble metals: gold, silver, copper, platinum. I learned this trick at Brooklyn Technical High School some years ago, and I still use it at REB Research as part of our process to make hydrogen permeation barriers, and sulfur tolerant permeation membranes.  It’s best used to coat reasonably inactive, small objects,  e.g. to coat copper on a nickel or silver on a penny for a science fair.

As a first step, you make a dilute acidic solution of the desired noble metal. Dissolve a gram or so of copper sulphate, silver nitrate, or gold chloride per 250 ml of water. Make sure the solution is acidic using pH paper, add acid if needed aiming for a pH of 3 to 4. Place some solution into a test tube or beaker of a size that will hold the object you want to coat. As a next step, attach an iron or steel wire to the object, I typically use bailing wire from the hardware store wrapped several times about the top of the object, and run the length of the object; see figure. Place the object into your solution and wait for 5 to 30 minutes. Coating works without the need for any other electric source or any current control.

The iron wire creates the electricity used in electroplating the noble metal. Iron has a higher electro-motive potential than hydrogen and hydrogen has a higher potential than the noble metals. In acid solution, the iron wire dissolves but (it’s hoped) the substrate does not. Each iron atom gives up two electrons, becoming Fe++. Some of these electrons go on to reduce hydrogen ions making H2 (2H+ 2e –> H2), but most should go to reduce the noble metal ions in the solution to form a coat of metallic gold, silver, or copper on both the wire and the object. See an example of how I do calculations regarding voltage, electron number, and Gibbs free energy.

Transferring electrons requires you have good electrical contact between the wire and the object. Most of the noble metal coats the object, not the wire since the object is bigger, typically. Thanks to my teachers at Brooklyn Technical High School for teaching me. For a uniform coat, it helps to run the wire down parallel to the entire length of tube; I think this is a capacitance, field effect. For a larger object, you may want several wires if you are plating a larger object. For a thicker coat, I found you are best off making many thin coats and heating them. This reduces tension forces in the coat, I think.

The picture shows a step in the process we use making our sulfur-resistant hydrogen permeation membranes (buy them here), used, e.g. to concentrate impurities in a hydrogen stream for improved gas chromatography. The next step is to dissolve the gold or copper into the palladium.

Go here for a great periodic table cup from REB Research, or for the rest of our REB Research products. I occasionally make silver-coated pennies for schoolchildren, but otherwise use this technology only for in-house production.

R.E. Buxbaum, July 20, 2013.