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Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

Water Lessons Learned, Lost And Re-learned today?

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

I recently visited the exciting, ancient city of Rome, Italy with my family. Of course, we all know that this city by the Tiber River is basically an open-air museum, with stunning historic relics every where one looks. The Forum, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Borghese Gardens, Hadrians Arch, the catacombs, the Vatican and Sistine Chapel are only a few of the popular tourist destinations that all visitors feel compelled to visit.

We did visit these and many more beautiful, famously important spots. These antiquities are so completely inter-mingled with the modern metropolitan features of Rome that it seems as if the city of Romulus and Remus, Caesar and Nero, Mussolini and Berlusconi, is the result of some celestial urban planner’s mad genius. Streets, sewers, neighborhoods, electric grid and traffic swirl madly around ancient churches, villas, monuments and fountains. The result, especially at night, is an almost surreal, Felini-like aura.

In this maelstrom the city government is attempting to improve the transit infrastructure by building a subway. However, the effort is constantly being delayed. As digging progresses, the contractors are regularly running into more ancient artifacts and sites that have been built over many centuries ago. These places by law are excavated by the countries historic trust agency. Each site must be fully researched, cataloged, and blocked off from the subway construction. As a result the city has no idea when the system will be finished, or at what price.

This constant push/pull of the ancient versus the modern, of history versus contemporary society’s needs is a daily feature of life in all of Italy. However, one of ancient Rome’s greatest achievements, and there were many that still benefit Italy and much of Europe to this day, still works and is essential to contemporary daily Roman life: the aqueduct.

At the height of its power in the 1st century A.D., Rome supported a population of over one million people. Despite it’s setting on the banks of the Tiber River, the city was woefully dry. The Tiber is shallow, silted and often salty. The water is not potable. A growing, powerful city needs a dependable, constant source of water to support the population and the animals that such a society depended upon.

The Romans were the world’s greatest engineers at that time, and possibly of all time. Their success in war and conquest depended greatly on their ability to build roads, siege engines and extend supply lines by creatively engineering solutions to fit every situation they confronted. This craft is fully on display, still today, in the fully operational water Aqueduct that supplies fresh water to the metropolitan city of Rome in 2008.

For over 20 centuries the Roman Aqueduct has brought fresh water from the Appenine Mountains several hundred kilometers east to the city. The constant, uninterrupted flow of pure, fresh water enabled the city to prosper. The Romans were diligent bathers. They created a fully functional sewage system. Fountains, both public and privately built inside villas were a tribute to the creative might of the city. In the ancient world running water was considered miraculous.

Roman dedication to water and its hygienic importance can be seen in every conquered territory that they occupied and governed. North Africa, Gaul, Spain and England all benefited hugely from Roman water system engineering. The Roman Baths in Bath, England, over 2000 years old still function perfectly to this day. Millions of visitors annually marvel at the engineering that provided hot, tepid and cool running water to bathers in this ancient Roman market town in Southern England.

Nevertheless, despite the accumulated knowledge of Roman engineering and the acknowledged importance of fresh water to healthy living the world went dark. After the fall of Rome in the 5th century the world entered into a Dark Age. Plague, disease, famine and drought became regularly visitors to places that only generations earlier had been fertile, productive, and creative.

Hygiene became virtually non-existent. Human waste was simply thrown into streets and alleys. People lived in the same dwellings as farm animals. The world cooled slightly and this drove people and animals even closer together as they sought warmth and comfort. Of course, this became a perfect environment for rats to thrive. People died from the Black Death by the millions. Bodies were not properly disposed of, thus creating more opportunity for the grim reaper to plunder whole towns of their citizenry.

The loss of access to the most basic of commodities, fresh water, is one of history’s riddles. The Romans provided the wherewithal, aqueducts, pumps, wells and lead piping. And yet, for centuries, the civilized world lived without this most basic of elements.

Today we are fixated on a looming energy crisis. Energy powers our modern world in its many forms. Modern technology will be deployed to seek and perfect answers that satisfy the modern worlds thirst for energy in many new and old forms. The rewards for supplying abundant and cleaner energy are simply too huge for the marketplace of ideas not too respond.

The loss or lack of understanding, of the importance of water to life in the Dark Ages is a potentially sobering prospect for we moderns to consider. The Romans harvested water ingeniously 2000 years ago. Then, inexplicably, for many centuries this knowledge was lost. Along with energy, water availability is a real, intractable, worldwide problem. We need to apply modern technologies and Roman sensibilities to discovering, transporting and conserving the world’s most important resource.

Antiquities and transport seem to be colliding in modern Rome. Similarly, the form and function of the Roman Aqueduct would seem to offer perspective today as we seek to more fully hydrate a world that requires vast new sources of water.

Energy Independence? Yes We Can!

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

My Company routinely reviews more than 600 new product ideas, concepts, prototypes and models during most years. During a soft economy, such as today’s, we see even more as people become more desperate to chase a dream. Pursuit of the “American Dream” almost always involves entrepreneurial activity.

During this business cycle we have been inundated with a slew of energy related offerings. Fuel enhancement products, internal combustion engine accessories, a replacement for the catalytic converter, a device that guarantees 50 miles per gallon fuel efficiency for any size car, and many more equally sure to succeed products are being shopped. Of course, these types of technology enhancements are rarely successful. They are usually only reality in the mind of the beholder. The required demonstration of product performance is always near perfection, just a bit more time, money or research is required to make the contraption commercially viable.

While most of these “inventions” are of the goofy sort, we do take a good bit of satisfaction that so much creativity and effort are being thrown at what is obviously one of the world’s key issues: the future availability of energy. Despite a raft of political types whining that we can never be energy independent, the amount of industry being deployed by the average American inventor to address the problem is quite encouraging. The native optimism of Americans that any problem can be solved puts a lie to the negativity being sold by a wide swath of the political left, the environmental activists and the always present “Luddites” seeking to return us to hunter/gatherer ways.

One of our presidential aspirants loves to chant the mantra “Yes We Can!”

I agree, “Yes We Can!” We can be energy independent if the sorghum sipping, brie munching, sandal wearing, tree house living dreamers and schemers for a world without industry get out of the way. That a vocal minority of zealots, with fanatical religious zeal have bottled up the pursuit of American energy independence is amazing. Why have we allowed this to happen?

The world is full of tens of millions of cars, trucks, locomotives, boats and airplanes that ALL operate on fossil fuels. That we will simply toss all of these assets overnight and replace them with twig sipping jungle juice green machinery is ridiculous. We need all forms of energy to be developed and commercially made viable. Solar, wind, flora and fauna of all types offer great potential. However, despite years of research and subsidies they are not currently feasible for more than a tiny fraction of our energy requirements. Even then, there are unwanted by-products to their implementation (Ethanol is exhibit 1).

We need, and we have, vast stores of fossil fuels. Oil, coal, nuclear, tar shale and natural gas are known to exist in huge quantities in our offshore waters and inside our borders. Hopefully the entrepreneurial class that we work with will produce a 21st Century Thomas Edison and an alternative, clean, cheap, unlimited energy source will be discovered and exploited for the benefit of all. Until that occurs, we need to use every resource we have and be open to current geo-political realities that make energy independence so important.

We absolutely need to become more fuel-efficient. And yet, even if all cars got 60 miles per gallon of fuel, we would still need access to sources of fossil fuel. Batteries might, and almost surely will become perfected that provide the mobility, endurance and cost effectiveness that is required for modern transport. But they are not yet available! These batteries, when market ready, will require huge amounts of added supplies of electricity. This will entail more power plants. These plants run on coal—or nuclear power. They will need to be built and fueled by these sources of energy.

I live in an area of the country where wind is highly irregular and sun even more so. Wind and sun are free, but if not available on a regular basis they are not to be counted on for more that a fraction of our energy needs. In areas of the country where wind and solar are more viable they are NIMBY’ed (Not in My Back Yard), often by the same people so vocal about “living green”.

Major energy producing companies are spending billions of dollars seeking answers, alternative and enhanced reclamation techniques, to access more sources of energy. They have a vested interest to do so. That is great news. Their profit motive insures that the every stone will be overturned as they seek to solve this crucial dilemma that faces all of us.

They believe they can, that is why they put their capital and corporate resources at risk. Inventors and entrepreneurs of all stripes believe they can solve the problem as well. Many members of the public, based on readily available data, believe that we can be energy independent. They want us to pursue every avenue available to insure future generations enjoy prosperity, freedom and mobility as we have.

It is only the glass half-empty crowd, bureaucrats and politicians that never solve problems, that say we can’t become free of imported energy. It will take a coming together, a new Manhattan Project, with all sides freshly open to all sources of supply and sources that might be deemed less preferable than a utopian “Nirvana-esque” solution. Green is good. Fossil fuels are essential. New technologies are desirable and being researched. We must aggressively seek answers from all of these options, even the ones that some might deem less than desirable.