Thursday, February 25, 2010

FOX News:

At a press conference Wednesday, Silicon Valley startup Bloom Energy showed off its new, heavily hyped technology, which harnesses chemical reactions to create energy. The company’s mission: to revolutionize the world’s fuel sources.

Bloom’s main product is the Bloom Energy Server, a generator based around a smart new fuel cell technology. Fuel cells rely upon chemical reactions to generate energy rather than fossil fuels, and as such are considered cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable than the traditional energy sources.

Fuel cell technology has been under development for decades, primarily concentrating on chemical reactions using hydrogen — an element that can be volatile and difficult to store. Bloom’s fuel cell technology is fundamentally different, running on a wide range of renewable or traditional fuels.

The technology has roots in NASA’s Mars space program, where Dr. KR Sridhar, principal co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy, was charged with building technology to help sustain life on Mars. His mandate: Use solar energy and water to produce air to breath and fuel for transportation.

Sridhar’s invention converts air and nearly any fuel source — ranging from natural gas to a wide range of biogases — into electricity via a clean electrochemical process, rather than dirty combustion.

Even running on a fossil fuel, the systems are approximately 67% cleaner than a typical coal-fired power plant, explains Bloom. When powered by a renewable fuel, the company’s Energy Server can be 100% cleaner. Each Energy Server consists of thousands of Bloom’s fuel cells, flat, solid ceramic squares made from a common sand-like “powder.”

Bloom Energy states that to date, Bloom Energy Servers, currently in deployment for several Fortune 500 companies, have produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, with CO2 reductions estimated at 14 million pounds.

The technology industry breathlessly watched and waited for Wednesday’s unveiling. John Doerr, a partner at investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Bloom Energy board member, shared in the hype.

“For years, there have been promises of new energy solutions that are clean, distributed, affordable, and reliable; today we learn that Bloom, formerly in stealth, has actually delivered,” he said. “Americans want clean, affordable, energy, 24×7 — and all the jobs that go with it. Bloom’s boxes are a breakthrough, serving energy, serving demanding customers, and serving our country.”

The company’s customers seem to echo Doerr’s enthusiasm, many of which are leading businesses. Coca-Cola, Cox, eBay, FedEx, Google, Staples, and more have been running the Energy Servers.

Coke’s 500kW installation at its Odwalla plant in Dinuba, CA, will run on re-directed biogas and is expected to provide 30% of the plant’s power needs while reducing its carbon footprint by an estimated 35%.

“This new fuel cell technology has great promise and represents an important step for Coca-Cola in continuing to grow our business without growing the carbon footprint,” said Brian Kelley, President and General Manager, Coca-Cola North America. He noted that the Bloom Servers can help the company reduce carbon emissions while improving efficiency and using cleaner forms of energy.”

In a video shown at the event, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rogers, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others raved about the new innovation.

Mayor Bloomberg said he was excited from the first time he saw the technology in action: “My first reaction was this was a company guaranteed for greatness.”

“When we look at Bloom Energy,” he added, “we are looking at the future of business, at the future of the economy, at the future of America.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Humans are no strangers to ravaging the land, but the stars have proven a good deal more elusive. So far, our ethical concerns have remained limited to the contamination of extraterrestrial environments, but what will the future bring?

Last night I attended a lecture by Jesuit Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, a U.S. research astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory. He gave a very engaging talk about the ethics of exploration and planetary astronomy, touching on two particularly noteworthy items:

Asteroid Mining
Can you put a price tag on an asteroid? Sure you can. We know of roughly 750 S-class asteroids with a diameter of at least 1 kilometer. Many of these pass as near to the Earth as our own moon -- close enough to reach via spacecraft. As a typical asteroid is 10 percent metal, Brother Consolmango estimates that such an asteroid would contain 1 billion metric tons of iron. That's as much as we mine out of the globe every year, a supply worth trillions and trillions of dollars. Subtract the tens of billions it would cost to exploit such a rock, and you still have a serious profit on your hands.

But is this ethical? Brother Consolmango asked us to ponder whether such an asteroid harvest would drastically disrupt the economies of resource-exporting nations. What would happen to most of Africa? What would it do to the cost of iron ore? And what about refining and manufacturing? If we spend the money to harvest iron in space, why not outsource the other related processes as well? Imagine a future in which solar-powered robots toil in lunar or orbital factories.

"On the one hand, it's great," Brother Consolmango said. "You've now taken all of this dirty industry off the surface of the Earth. On the other hand, you've put a whole lot of people out of work. If you've got a robot doing the mining, why not another robot doing the manufacturing? And now you've just put all of China out of work. What are the ethical implications of this kind of major shift?"

Brother Consolmango also stressed that we have the technology to begin such a shift today; we'd just need the economic and political will to do it. Will our priorities change as Earth-bound resources become more and more scarce?

Most of our planetary colonization dreams revolve around changing the environments of other worlds to cater to our own astronomically particular needs. Seriously, imagine if the Smoking Gun posted humanity's tour rider for visiting other worlds. What utter divas we are! As the alternative of changing ourselves to inhabit other worlds is largely unexplored, we have to ponder the far-future ethics of terraforming another planet.

Specifically, Brother Consolmango mentioned the idea of taking material from a c-class asteroid or a Martian moon and spreading it over Mars' pole caps. In theory, this feat would create the sort of drastic global warming we're hoping to avoid on Earth. Coated with dust, the poles would then absorb even more solar radiation than before, causing them to heat up and release carbon dioxide. Atmospheric pressure would increase. The resulting greenhouse effect could possibly raise temperatures to facilitate stabilized liquid water. This could lead to lakes, oxygen and a successful seeding of plant life. Eventually, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be able to take his space helmet off without his eyeballs exploding.

But what are the ethics of this (the terraforming, not the eyeball thing)? What if Mars already contains hidden life? Might the origins of life on Earth trail back to the red planet as well? Thoroughly contaminate everything and we might erase all trace of what was. And the past isn't the only thing potentially at stake.

"Here's a deeper question," Brother Consolmango said. "What if there is no life on Mars or Titan or some other place we're going to go to, but all the ingredients are there, such that at some future time life could exist. The potentiality of life is there and, by terraforming it, we're aborting that possibility. Under what circumstances is that an ethical thing to do?"

What do you think?

In addition to covering these topics, Brother Consolmango also touched base on the issues of light pollution, meteorite collecting and the coexistence of science and religion. On the meteorite issue, I was pleased to hear him hit all the points I made in my recent post on the matter.

And you can read Robert Lamb's blog post
Can science and religion coexist?
for more on the religion/science issue.

Either way, feel free to spill your thoughts on the ethics of planetary exploration
and colonization.
Learn to exploit some space at
How Asteroid Mining Will Work
How Iron and Steel Work
How Mars Works
How Terraforming Mars Will Work
How Light Pollution Works

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Carl Sagan with a mock-up of a Viking Lander

A Short History of Life on Mars
February 15, 2010

The idea of “Men from Mars” has been with us for more than a century now, thanks to writers like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. And movies like “Mars Attacks” and “War of the Worlds” are good fun. But what’s the real story of the search for life on Mars? Today we tell the tale of the search for life on the Red Planet…

In the 17th and 18th centuries, early telescopic astronomers glimpsed polar caps– much like Earth’s– that grew and shrank with the Martian seasons. The Martian day turned out to be about the same length as Earth’s. The axial tilt was similar to Earth, too, which meant Mars has seasons much as we do. And those strange dark surface markings… were they water? Or vegetation?

Then in the mid-1800’s, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli claimed to see long, thin lines on the surface of Mars. He called them canals, and he mapped them meticulously.

American astronomer Percival Lowell saw the canals too and loudly claimed they were irrigation structures built by an advanced Martian civilization. Inspired by Lowell’s claim, H.G. Wells wrote “War of the Worlds”, which has been re-purposed into radio events and movies over the decades. The possibility of “Men from Mars” stoked the imagination of science fiction writers and readers through the first half of the 20th century.

But as telescopes improved, few other astronomers could see the canals which were– correctly– dismissed as an optical illusion. Some denounced Lowell as a crank. And the existence of life on Mars remained tantalizing, but unproven.

Then, in 1965, space probes were dispatched to Mars to get a better view.

In 1965, the Mariner 4 space probe flew past Mars and snapped 22 black-and-white images of a tiny part of the Martian surface. The images showed craters– big ones– which suggested Mars was more like our moon than the Earth. So no Martian forests, or canals, or cities. The New York Times wrote a feature article declaring Mars “a dead world”. Later, Mariners 6 and 7 showed more craters, and many planetary scientists gave up hope of finding life on Mars.

But one scientist thought this conclusion was premature. Carl Sagan, along with a few colleagues, suggested the coverage and resolution of the early Mariner images were too poor to confirm the absence of life.

Then NASA sent Mariner 9.

In 1971, this probe became the first to orbit Mars. At first, the images showed only the white polar caps and a featureless surface. That’s because the probe arrived during a planet-wide dust storm which lasted weeks. As the dust cleared, the images revealed a startling display of surface features including immense volcanoes, canyons, and river beds that suggested the one-time presence of liquid water. The atmospheric pressure on Mars is too low to sustain liquid water now. But where did the water go? Underground? Frozen in the polar caps? If so, maybe there was still hope to find life elsewhere on the planet. The chase for life on Mars was on again.

Five years later, NASA landed the two Viking probes on the surface of Mars. They sent back thousands of pictures of a dry, rusty, rocky surface. And they grabbed samples of the Martian soil and conducted on-site chemistry experiments to look for the telltale signs of life.

The results?

At first, they looked promising. But after a little thought, most scientists concluded there was no definitive evidence for life on the surface of Mars.

Sadly, other surface probes since Viking, right up to the current Phoenix Lander, have found no evidence for life. No palm trees or hubcaps, no bacteria or organic molecules. More missions are planned in the coming years, including the European ExoMars mission which will dig two meters into the surface to look for signatures of life.

One more strange thing…

In 1984, a meteorite was found in Antarctica. Scientists were certain the meteorite came from Mars. It was likely knocked of by a volcanic eruption or asteroid impact, and its chemical composition was the same as the surface of Mars. In 1996, a group of scientists suggested they found fossilized evidence of bacteria in this Martian meteorite. But these results have been in dispute on and off ever since; no strong conclusions one way or the other have been declared. Though late last year, the same scientists concluded once again that this meteorite contains evidence of life on Mars.

So no one’s found clear-cut evidence of life on Mars, but we’ve only examined a tiny part of the surface. Upcoming missions may yet lead to the most startling scientific conclusion ever made… that life exists somewhere other than Earth.

Stay tuned…

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Space: The Final Frontier of Profit?
A debate on the pros and cons of commercializing the cosmos; valuing asteroids at $20 trillion each. Peter Diamandis makes a case for private space.


Government agencies have dominated space exploration for three decades. But in a new plan unveiled in President Barack Obama's 2011 budget earlier this month, a new player has taken center stage: American capitalism and entrepreneurship. The plan lays the foundation for the future Google, Cisco and Apple of space to be born, drive job creation and open the cosmos for the rest of us.

Two fundamental realities now exist that will drive space exploration forward. First, private capital is seeing space as a good investment, willing to fund individuals who are passionate about exploring space, for adventure as well as profit. What was once affordable only by nations can now be lucrative, public-private partnerships.

Second, companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as "Seward's Folly" (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

The same will hold true for space. For example, there are millions of asteroids of different sizes and composition flying throughout space. One category, known as S-type, is composed of iron, magnesium silicates and a variety of other metals, including cobalt and platinum. An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion.

Technology is reaching a critical point. Moore's Law has given us exponential growth in computing technology, which has led to exponential growth in nearly every other technological industry. Breakthroughs in rocket propulsion will allow us to go farther, faster and more safely into space.

View Interactive
See a timeline of American space exploration.
Perhaps the most important factor is the empowerment of youth over the graybeards now running the show. The average age of the engineers who built Apollo was 28; the average age in the aerospace workforce is now over 50. Young doers have less to risk when proposing bold solutions.

This is not to say that the government will have no role in the next 50 years in space. Governments will retain the critical work of pure science, and of answering some of the biggest unknowns: Is there life on Mars, or around other stars? Governments will play the important role of big customer as they get out of the operations business. Private industry routinely takes technologies pioneered by the government—like air mail, computers and the Internet—and turns them into affordable, reliable and robust industries.

The challenge faced by all space-related ventures is the high cost of launching into orbit. When the U.S. space shuttle stands down later this year, NASA will need to send American astronauts to launch aboard the Russian Soyuz at a price of more than $50 million per person. The space shuttle, on the other hand, costs between $750 million to $2 billion per flight (for up to seven astronauts) depending on the number of launches each year. Most people don't realize that the major cost of a launch is labor. Fuel is less than 2%, while the standing army of people and infrastructure is well over 80%. The annual expense NASA bears for the shuttle is roughly $4 billion, whatever the number of launches.

The government's new vision will mean the development of multiple operators, providing the U.S. redundancy as well as a competitive market that will drive down the cost of getting you and me to orbit. One of the companies I co-founded, Space Adventures, has already brokered the flight of eight private citizens to orbit, at a cost of roughly $50 million per person. In the next five years we hope to drive the price below $20 million, and eventually below $5 million.

Within the next several decades, privately financed research outposts will be a common sight in the night sky. The first one-way missions to Mars will be launched. Mining operations will spring up on the moon. More opportunities we have yet to even comprehend will come out of the frontier. One thing is certain: The next 50 years will be the period when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization.

As the generation that has never known a world without "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" matures, it will not be content to watch only government astronauts walk and work on the moon. A "let's just go do it" mentality is emerging, and it is that attitude that will bring the human race off this planet and open the final frontier.

—Peter Diamandis is chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts incentivized competitions. He is also CEO of Zero Gravity, which offers weightless flights; and chairman of the Rocket Racing League, an interactive entertainment company.

=== CON ===
The Other Argument
The Case Against Private Space

President Barack Obama's proposed plan for NASA bets that the private sector—small, entrepreneurial firms as well as traditional aerospace companies—can safely carry the burden of flying U.S. astronauts into space at a fraction of the former price. The main idea: to spend $6 billion over the next five years to help develop new commercial spacecraft capable of carrying humans.

The private sector simply is not up for the job. For one, NASA will have to establish a system to certify commercial orbital vehicles as safe for human transport, and with government bureaucracy, that will take years. Never mind the challenges of obtaining insurance.

Entrepreneurial companies have consistently overpromised and under-delivered. Over the past 30 years, over a dozen start-ups have tried to break into the launch business. The only one to make the transition into a respectably sized space company is Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va. Building vehicles capable of going into orbit is not for the fainthearted or the undercapitalized.

The companies that have survived have done so mostly by relying on U.S. government Small Business Innovation Research contracts, one or more angel investors, or both. Big aerospace firms tempted to join NASA's new projects will remember the public-private partnership fiasco when Lockheed Martin's X-33 design was chosen to replace the space shuttle in 1996. Before it was canceled in 2001 this program cost the government $912 million and Lockheed Martin $357 million.

Of the smaller failures, there was Rotary Rocket in California, which promised to revolutionize space travel with a combination helicopter and rocket and closed down in 2001. In 1997, Texas banker Andrew Beal announced that his firm, Beal Aerospace, was going to build a new large rocket. He shut it down in 2000.

In the 1990s, Kistler Aerospace designed a reusable launcher using reconditioned Russian engines. In 2006, reorganized as Rocketplane Kistler, it won a share in a NASA program designed to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. When the company did not meet a financial milestone the following year, NASA withdrew financing.

View Interactive

See a timeline of American space exploration.
.Blue Origin, a secretive spacecraft development firm owned by Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, is interesting because it uses concepts and technology for reusable vehicles originally developed by the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. In the early 1990s, the organization set up the DC-X program, and its suborbital test vehicle flew 12 times before it was destroyed in a landing accident.

The Clinton administration saw the DC-X as a Reagan/Bush legacy program, and was happy to cancel it after the accident. The sad lesson of the DC-X is that some politicians won't keep their predecessors' programs going, no matter how promising. To turn the DC-X into a space launch vehicle would have taken at least a couple of decades and a few billion in investments. Yet the total cost might not have been much more than the amount the government has spent on other failed launch vehicle development programs over the past 20 years.

Recent history shows that development programs take a long time to mature, but when they do they can produce excellent results. Since it was given the go-ahead in 1984, the space station has faced delays, cost overruns and an unceasing barrage of criticism. Yet NASA kept at it. With the full-time six-person crew now operational, the range of technological and scientific work being done has increased dramatically, from fluid physics experiments to tests on the effects of microgravity on human physiology.

George W. Bush's promising Constellation human spaceflight program—which would be killed under Mr. Obama's plan—has already cost $9 billion since 2004. It is hard to imagine how the private sector can build a replacement for the spacecraft and booster rockets of Constellation, let alone a program to get America back to the moon, with the relatively paltry sum of $6 billion and the scattershot funding approach that NASA's leaders are proposing.

The Augustine Commission's recent report to the White House was entitled "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation." The space entrepreneurs may claim that they can send people into space for a fraction of the previous cost, but they have not yet proved it. NASA's policy is neither bold nor new; it is yet another exercise in budget-driven program cancellation. Until the American government can bring itself to choose a path and stick to it for more than a single administration, its claim to be worthy of a great nation will be in doubt.

—Taylor Dinerman writes a regular column for and is a member of the board of advisers of Space Energy, a company working on space-solar-power concepts

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W3