Saturday, April 16, 2011

Solar Magnets: How do they Work?

Time for a short post on a new breakthrough to brighten up your Saturday morning: Today I'm talking about magnets!

Most modern solar power systems use sunlight to trigger electrical reactions within semiconductors, also known as a photovoltaic reaction, which in turn produces electricity. These systems are often cost-heavy as many of the materials require high-precision manufacturing with semi-rare minerals such as Cadmium Telluride and Copper Indium alloys. These drive up the costs of solar panels to hundreds of dollars per square meter, or upwards of $5-10,000 for a household installation. These are prohibitive costs to investors, as a gallon of gas still costs about $3.75, and the same goes for the equivalent amount of natural gas. However, a recent breakthrough in physics is pointing researchers towards a new form of energy that can be harnessed from the sun: Magnetism.
I'm not saying we use magnets to harness the sun, and as the oft-quoted Insane Clown Posse cavalierly states in one of their songs, many people don't understand how magnets work, but all you need to know is that when sunlight hits the Earth's surface, it produces a weak magnetic field, much like the pull of a weak magnet thats meant for your kitchen refrigerator. For years, scientists have ignored the magnetic field within sunlight for it was too weak. However, recently, a team of physicists have discovered that focusing the sunlight to 10 million times its normal strength produces a massive amount of energy in the magnetic field that can be turned into electricity. It seems like a tall order, but it can be accomplished using inexpensive glass lenses and fiber optic wires that can focus light into intense beams of energy. What this means for the future is that solar power plants no longer need massive fields of blue panels, but may only need a bunch of lenses focusing light into high-capacity fiber optic cables to be harnessed as energy using magnetism. Its complicated, very scientific, but may herald an era of cheap solar power in the decades to come.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Our Food Supply is in Trouble, but You can Help

Its time for another post, and sadly schoolwork has gotten the better of me and i haven't been able to post since this past weekend. Nonetheless, today I'm delving into the current drought and state of the nation's agricultural landscape. Thanks to the active La Nina winter, most of the northern U.S. experienced much above normal rain and snowfall, building up plenty of groundwater and filling rivers to their banks coming into this year's growing season. however, the southern half of the country has been suffering. From Arizona to North Carolina, an extensive and severe drought continues, and will only get worse as we move into summer, when once again the storm tracks edge north and the hot and heavy summer sun bats down on the landscape. Heres the current drought map and forecast, courtesy of the Climate Prediction Center
As you can see, the widest extent of the drought is across the great plains and high country of the lower Rockies Mountains. This is bad news for our wheat, cattle, and corn crops, which rely on warm thunderstorms and plenty of grass and groundwater for growing, but all this is in danger. With no rainfall, the water table drops, and irrigation becomes more costly. Aquifer levels which are already dropping at unsustainable rates will only deplete faster, and less net crop output will come out of the lower plains if this drought indeed continues. 

This problem is also running into another issue: Oil Prices. With a barrel of crude oil sitting between $105 and $115 as i write this, it has become very expensive to work the land, especially with the size of industrial equipment and petrochemical inputs to our modern form of agriculture. This is all bad news, but with hardship comes opportunity...

This could be our chance to localize our food sources. If we keep putting pressure on the great expanses of the plains to produce our food for us all the way out on the coastline, we will only do more damage to the land. We whould rely on farms and pastures closer to home, and let the residents of the plains grow their food for themselves first, lowering demand for their land and thus helping reduce some of the adverse effects of the drought. In turn, this can also lower food prices, which are rising globally. Theres different ways of taking action: 

Participate in CSA: Community-Supported Agriculture. For a yearly or seasonal fee, you can ensure fresh produce and meats get delivered or provided for you from your local farms, while you help support them. That way, the distance your food has to travel from field to your fridge is much less, cutting back on the use of fossil fuels (which lowers oil prices) as well as reducing carbon emissions into the environment.

Ask your local grocer for local or organic foods: often organic foods are sourced much closer to your supermarket due to their shorter shelf lives, and they use less petrochemical fertilizer and inputs than typical industrially-grown crops. Many large supermarkets have their own organic in-house brands which are comparable in price to brand name non-organic foods

Eat In-Season foods: Keep a list of what produce are in season and where they come from. That way, you dont have to waste all of the fossil fuels shipping strawberries up from chile in january. Lowering food miles (miles traveled between the field and your fridge), helps lower oil demand and food prices overall. 

It's worth the minor sacrifices to do your small part to help ensure that you get low-cost healthy food without doing damage to the environment.