Dan's Data letters #202Publication date: 14-Sep-2008.
Last modified 14-Jun-2013.
I've read the transcript of that lecture - but the point is that there isn't plenty of room to make things smaller any more, for chip fabrication at least.
Just the other day, a collaborative lab successfully manufactured the first 22nm-process SRAM cell. That feature size is now less than a hundred silicon atoms wide. There are all sorts of theoretical ways in which this barrier can be overcome - three-dimensional matrices of components, for instance, instead of the flat circuits that microchips have used so far - but as far as raw component size goes, we're now pretty darn close to the absolute bottom.
(Feynman gave that lecture in 1959, the same year IBM made their first transistorised computers!)
(After this page went up, a reader e-mailed me to point out that we can very easily reduce the minimum feature size for semiconductor technology, by the simple technique of switching from a silicon substrate to one made from metallic hydrogen. Our correspondence was, unfortunately, curtailed when he then shrank to the size of a sesame seed and went from living in a cave to inventing calculus in seven and a half minutes.)
I've come to enjoy a show on the Discovery Channel, here in the US. It's called Dirty Jobs, and is hosted by Mike Rowe.
An episode aired again recently that had been bothering me for some time. It detailed the production of astaxanthin pills.
Basically, these guys in Hawaii (their company is something like Mara Pharmaceuticals) grow green microalgae (I assume haematococcus pluvialis, if the Wikipedia article on Astaxanthin is true at all), then "piss it off" to get it to produce astaxanthin, then they essentially dry the algae, dissolve the astaxanthin in vegetable oil, and insert it into capsules.
I can't seem to find any info from any reputable sources that shows these astaxanthin pills help humans at all, or that they are a scam.
Surely you can inform me?
PS: The episode is called "Micro-Algae Man", and was the 15th episode in the 2nd season.
Yes, I am aware of Dirty Jobs.
I remember that episode, too. It only pressed my "quack" button lightly at the time.
(The early episode with the stylish Gothy exterminators was much worse. I recall the chief Goth spouting some utter nonsense, not that I can remember what any of it was right now.)
There are a lot of algae products in the quacky dietary-supplement market. It's usually spirulina or something, frequently marketed as a "perfect food". I think algae really is quite nutritious, as long as you don't need any protein, but it is ridiculous to pretend that you're really "feeding" yourself with something of which you only eat a few capsules per day.
The big deal about astaxanthin is that it's a powerful antioxidant, and as I wrote recently, it's common knowledge that antioxidants are very good for you.
That common knowledge does not actually have any significant empirical support. But common knowledge needs not such things.
Find more algae-info here.
Don't worry, Gordon's on it
I'm sure you're fully aware of the ruckus going on around the CERN Large Hadron Collider by now (and the fact that they pinned the doomsday date wrong - there's no actual colliding going on yet).
I was wandering what your thoughts are on the subject - and no, I'm not asking if you're reaching for your tin foil hat/key to the basement bunker/bag of microscopic white holes bought on eBay. I mean, even if the Higgs boson doesn't show up, they might still find something interesting - like the beer atom, right?
Speaking of eBay, I was wondering - shouldn't we start selling, say, a few neodymium magnets promising they'll trap stray micro black-holes, you know, for personal protection just in case the propellerheads got it all wrong? The more you buy, the safer you'll be! Also, everybody knows they're good for your health.
With my idea and your extensive expertise regarding scams we should be bulletproof... and hopefully rich. Or maybe market the idea as a franchise for others... Quick, before someone else steals it. Are you in...? ;)
Hasthelargehadroncolliderdestroyedtheworldyet.com says it better than I can.
(Check out that page's source, by the way, for extra laughs.)
I don't know enough about particle physics to have any firm opinions about the LHC's prospects. (Most other commentators appear to share my ignorance, though not my reticence.)
I'm surprised, though, that such a staggeringly expensive, yet completely incomprehensible to the average voter, device ever got built. I wonder how long it'll take before the United States of America can get back into the business of unsexy expensive science. Possibly never.
The only problem with your excellent money-making idea is that the money you can harvest by running a scam like this doesn't all come from people who're determined to give all of their money to scam artists and would cheerfully see you dead if you tried to protect them.
Those people, you might as well scam, since they desperately want you to and you're almost certainly of better moral character than the people who will otherwise scam them.
But then there are the blameless people, guided to idiotic beliefs by broken educational systems and an unfortunate choice of parents, whose lives you will also make even worse by selling them your nonsense.
Only if you can get over the hurdle of this latter piece of kitten-drowning can you get into the Woo-Woo Idiot Medicine business. I'm afraid I've not yet managed it.
I've been mulling over the claims on the "Thermogen" site for a while.
While they are not in the same league as the Lutec scammers, in that I don't see any laws of physics being directly violated, I think the financial projections are optimistic at best and delusional at worst.
My quick calculations suggest a daily electrical output between a tenth and a twentieth of the promise (and when I go into detail the real answer keeps getting lower). That is, if any electricity could be generated at all.
I'd be keen to hear your views on the subject.
PS: Some of the (uncredited) diagrams on the Thermogen site include a FreePower 6 organic Rankine-cycle generator and a Rotartica absorption chiller. There are also some pictures of the wondrous workings inside the Assos boiler factory, which are arguably the least controversial components of the plan. I also suspect a company called "Green Frog Solar" may have been the lucky purchasers of a franchise, since many of the diagrams (with some evolution) appear on their Web site as well. I think I've been following this one a bit too long.
I agree that it looks very fishy. Even if you use outrageously generous estimates for outputs and efficiencies, it's still hard to make it to the claimed power numbers.
Out in the Australian desert, you can expect an annual average insolation of about 2200 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year. That's what there is to be harvested, maximum, no matter what technology you use to harvest it.
With fixed panels like the ones Thermogen appear to be selling, I think it's very unlikely that, even with magical nanotech, you'd be able to harvest even half of the full solar yield per unit area. People buying Thermogen systems are also probably not living in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain.
But let's be optimistic, and say that 1100 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year are on offer through the no-doubt-very-wonderful (though the mechanical generator for every house seems to be the least of its problems...) Thermogen system.
Thermogen, in the middle of their flurry of misuse of terms (they, as I'm sure you've noticed, have a hard time telling kilowatts from kilowatt-hours...) say that a "5kW" Thermogen system "will generate 120kW[/h] per day", which I presume includes getting power back from their big containers of superheated water (!) during the night.
120 kilowatt-hours per day for a year is 43830 kilowatt-hours, which given the very optimistic estimate of 1100 kilowatt-hours per square metre means you're going to need about forty square metres of panels.
(For comparison, a standard large two-panel Solahart hot-water system has a collector area of 3.5 square metres.)
I suppose you might be able to cram 40 square metres of panels onto the sunward roof of many houses.
The FAQ page says that "Each panel measures 2.4m wide and 2m up the roof" and "It is expected that you will need 7 of these panels", which is only 33.6 square metres - a bit less, actually, since the whole panel doesn't appear to be collector area.
And this is with the exceedingly charitable assumption that they'll actually manage to harvest 1100 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year with fixed panels in suburban Australia. Frankly, I'd be startled if they averaged an electrical - or even thermal - output of more than a few hundred kw/h/m^2/y. To get a constant five kilowatts out of that, you'd need panels as big as the great outdoors.
This is before we even start thinking about the thousand-litre tanks of water at 150 to 250 degrees C - which, of course, means pressures easily beating 200 pounds per square inch. Yeah, sign me up to have some of THOSE strapped to the side of my house by people who can't tell a unit of power from a unit of energy...
Scott replied to the above, and pointed out that when you take into account that the Thermogen system is supposed to be converting solar energy to thermal energy, then thermal energy to electrical energy, the numbers get radically worse.
The very best evacuated-tube solar collectors - like the ones Thermogen are promising - manage a gross panel efficiency only slightly above 60%. Real-world, again, probably won't be that good, but that's nothing compared with the next link in the chain, which I didn't even consider in my original analysis.
To get six kilowatts of electricity out of the FreePower 6 Rankine generator that Thermogen picture, you need seventy kilowatts of input heat. That's 8.6% efficiency. And the generator also needs to dump sixty left-over kilowatts of heat in order to keep running, so as Scott said, "it might be best if your house is located next to a small creek".
(That efficiency number may be horrifying, but it's actually better than 70% of the Carnot efficiency limit for the operating temperatures of the FreePower 6. Commercial electricity generators are almost all Rankine-cycle units, too; they run hotter and so manage rather better efficiency, but about two-thirds of the energy of their fuel is still lost. Commercial generators need to dump most of that spare heat energy, too; that's what cooling towers are for, and it's why "cogeneration" plants that use the heat for some other purpose achieve such spectacularly better overall efficiency.)
So, anyway, as Scott went on to say: Ignore running the pumps, heat loss from pipes, and the sun not hitting the collectors exactly right more than twice a year, and assume the best evacuated-tube collectors in the world, and you get 62% times 8.6%, or 5.3% end-to-end efficiency. Now presume you're living in the middle of the desert and getting 2200 kilowatt-hours of insolation per square metre per year, and the miserable efficiency leaves you with 116.7 kilowatt-hours per square metre of collectors per year.
To get the quoted 120 kilowatt-hours per day, or 43,830 kilowatt-hours per year, you now need 375.6 square metres of collectors. Or seventy-eight of the panels shown on the Thermogen FAQ page, not the seven they say you'd need. Which'd probably be a bit of a squeeze to fit on the average roof anyway.
(375.6 square metres is less than a tenth of an acre, if that makes you feel better.)
Note that neither I nor Scott are saying that Thermogen is actually a scam. If they were taking deposits or selling shares based on their current seemingly-impossible numbers then they certainly would appear to be rip-off artists, but as far as I know they're not. They're just, apparently, another hopeful "green" business that hasn't done its sums.
I presume they'll soon be winning an award.