Monday, September 25, 2006

A Higher Stream of Consciousness

Ahh... the cold water running down my parched throat satisfies my thirst. When I look at the empty glass, I picture the drops of water reacting to my body. I see how the liquid nourishes the cells of my body to keep them multiplying and performing their necessary role. Without this water, my body would start to collapse and the cells would try to find nourishment from other cells, practically killing each other in a desperate fight for survival.

I wake up from the daydream and put the crystal glass down. I contemplate how scientist dream of using water, not only as a life-giving product, but as an infinite source of energy. I believe it was Julius Verne who first wrote a tale where water was a source of energy. With water so abundant on our earth and our thirst for energy continuously increasing, it seems like a perfect pipe dream. This particular dream, though, has many dreamers all who are acting to make it reality.

Water contains two vital elements, one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. The hydrogen is the key to a driving force where the world can enjoy clean combustion and infinite electricity. We burn trillions of hydrogen atoms everyday since it is also a vital component in fossil fuels. The more hydrogen, the cleaner the burn and higher quality flame. A pure hydrogen flame can be used to boil a pot of water or drive the relentless piston engine with an end resulting in only water emissions. Ahh... an environmentalist dream too.

The US space program developed an important technology to convert hydrogen into electricity and water, the fuel cell. A fuel cell chemically burns hydrogen by adding oxygen to it, but first by re-routing the joining electrons to follow an electrical path. Ideally, any electrical gizmo can tap into these electrons to do useful work. A current application is the electric car. By removing the automobile’s engine and replacing it with a fuel cell engine a new industrial model evolves, the electrification of transportation.

Electricity as we all know is a wonderful energy source. It keeps our beers cold and our playstations hot. Important human services are powered by electricity, thus putting electricity to the top of most important energy types. Though once our transportation sector is pumped full of electrons, then electricity hits a higher plane. Environmentally, economically, socially, and technically. How can this be feasible? If we draw upon our earths two greatest resources, water and the sun, then the dream can become a reality. The dreamers are certainly betting their money into it, so perhaps it is closer than we imagine.

I fill the glass with water again and peer inside. The water catches sparks of light and reflects an array of brilliant colours. Yes, the possibility is there and I can see it. It is a huge undertaking, but the individual pieces are coming together and the end result looks magnificent.

to be continued...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Making Contact and More

“Hej, Jag heter David”. These first important words are useful to introduce yourself to someone in Sweden. As long as you do not get a puzzled look, you are answered by the usual “Hej”. Meeting Swedes this week was quite a unique experience. I am happy to have met a bunch and able to chat with them. Of course, all spoke good english and I learned a lot from them.

Probably the most unique experience this past week was the Diego Maradona show I attended. The godly number 10 graced Stockholm with his presence to a crowd of 5000 people. Approximately 90% of the crowd was of latino origin wanting to touch and see the football star. Latino-Swedes everywhere, speaking swedish/spanish and screaming, “Diego, Diego, aqui estoy Diego”. The crowd was quite ruly, as Maradona ducked underneath his 4 bodyguards, inches away from the stretched out hands and screams of blue/white clothed fans. By the way, Diego looks a hell of a lot better than a few years ago and he still has his magic feet too.

My school gave me an opportunity to meet some Swedish classmates when they hosted a dinner for us last Thursday. Two 4th year students studying engineering sat at my table and we had a great conversation about Swedish sports. In Scandinavia, they created a variation of the worlds most popular game. A frozen ice field, with 11 players per side, holding a hockey stick and skating after a small ball. The rules are exactly like football, but you play with hockey equipment. Very unusual. Only Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia play this game called bandy. My two classmates have never played, but state it is quite popular.

Of the international students, a few have lived in Sweden for some time. One classmate in particular married a Swedish girl and has lived for 2 years in Sweden. He is a Sikh, but does not wear his turban due to Swedish cultural integration problems. His wife stresses that Swedes would never accept him and confuse the turban as Arabic descent. This was something that shocked me to think that such a progressive state would have such ignorant people, but culturally this is the way it works around here. The couple is amazing and they took me out for drinks and we chatted about their organic designer clothing line. They sell their designs all over Sweden, but insist they are small and do not want to get too big yet.

I always thought getting picked up by a record label was big. Well, on the Friday night, I met a popular stone rock band who say otherwise. These Swedish guys have toured all over Europe and even performed in Hamilton, Ont. In my liquid state, I forgot the name of the band, but it was quite fun hanging out with this crowd. Late in the night we all headed to a famous lounge called Pet Sounds, the drinking hole for Stockholm’s musical elite. Several times that night, a pointing finger would guide me to a person and they would be described as some band member or musician. Since I am musically ignorant, I just nodded with appreciation. Like most party nights, it ended with a complaint that the bar was closed (1pm!!) and that we needed to find an open club. Of course, the search became futile and we all headed in our separate directions.


Well Sweden has chosen a new direction. This one points Right. After a gruelling campaign the polls closed today and revealed that Sweden will join the many other Western countries in right-wing governments. Check out this link to get an analysis of the situation. Things should get really interesting in the next few years!!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Hold on to your hat

You can feel it every time you step outside. It rustles the leaves across the street, or sifts through your hair. It can even create electricity by capturing its potential force with rotating blades. The wind is a natural event that occurs when masses of air at different temperatures move up or down. Hot air masses move up and cool air moves down. Zones where the temperature changes a lot are usually more windy, like coastal areas or mountainous regions. These places are ideal for wind power generators.

This past week has been dominated by wind power information. A consulting expert from Germany lectured on all that is wind power. His knowledge was vast and experience deep. It truly was a gift to have him speak about something he is so intimately involved in. Dr. Thomas Ackermann has travelled all over the world consulting governments, corporations and small business owners with all aspects of wind power. His treks to the north of Sweden to set-up wind site testing equipment and designing fields of turbines in New Zealand provided a unique learning experience. His lectures were interesting and very engaging, answering insightful and ridiculous questions.

What was it he said? The wind industry is in need of people, so go out there and make some money with the wind. In Europe alone, the need is reaching the 100,000 people level. Interesting to note the similar number for workers needed in the Alberta Oil Sands development. I guess you can make money digging sticky dirt or cruising high with the birds. Mmm...what would you choose?

The best lesson of the week though was the discussion of offshore wind power. Offshore developments are still in their infancy. Every project in Europe (leaders) has been designed differently and new technologies are continually breaking through the problems. First, it was materials to withstand the corrosion, next, the foundations in the water, after , the boats to install them and so on. The list of problems is still very long, but an interesting player has joined the team of high flying engineers. Offshore oil companies are using their expertise in platforms and drilling to lend a hand. Their experience will be valuable, which to me creates an interesting dichotomy between the two types of businesses. The black gold versus the invisible gold. Really it just comes down to the lure of the shiny glint, irrelevant to where its scooped.

Next time the wind is blowing your hair back or in your face, remember to take notice on the force it applies. This energy is free, as long as temperature differences exist, but to capture this free energy, sophisticated ingenuity needed to develop methods to convert it to something very useful, electricity. Even so, the Wind cannot be completely tamed. Theoretical physics proves that a max of 60% of the potential energy can only be captured, freeing the Wind to continue its reckless cruise over the earth.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The School Bell Rang

Since I am here for school I guess I should write a little about it. My first week was interesting. Orientation day was a long day of learning about Swedish academic procedures. The Swedes love computers and internet technology. All my classes include some internet program which I need to use to communicate to my profs and to hand in all assignments. It sometimes gets very complicated. Even in class the computer crashes once and awhile and interrupts the class.

Another interesting computer program is the online textbooks. I have not had to buy a textbook yet, but a login access to gain permission to use the electronic textbook. It costs around 40 bucks and gives you a large reference section which includes textbooks from other engineering courses. By the way, the campus bookstore is student run and they sell at the usual high price. The place is somewhat disordered and easy to slip a textbook in your bag.

Classes are suppose to begin on the top of the hour, but KTH has a interesting tradition. Academic quarter. This is a grace period where students are given 15 mins before class to show up, meaning the professor will officially start class at quarter after the hour. Why this tradition? I do not know. Perhaps it is the way their computers handle schedules.

In the four classes I have this semester, there are about 50 students from 30 different countries. Five of them are Canadian. The rest are from all over; Venezuela, Mexico, Iran, Germany, Australia, France, China, Pakistan, etc. It is quite a group. Everyday, I speak french, spanish and english to someone. This will definitely help me keep up my other languages. Swedish will come soon, as I am slowly meeting some Swedish people which will help with the immersion. So far the best teacher is the transit system. A wonderful voice in each bus and train tells us the name of the next stop and I learn how to pronounce certain letters properly. What a country!

On Friday, a guest lecturer from the Swedish Energy Agency spoke to us about sustainability in the world. She was not a Believer of Peak Oil, but nevertheless she had some very interesting facts and statistics to present. Hopefully I will get her lecture notes soon and post some of the more interesting graphs. Her talk focused on where the world was and how the world can change when it comes to energy. She had some experience travelling to developing nations and setting up co-operative electricity companies. She strongly believes that energy is the number one solution to lift the yoke of poverty in the developing world. Her numbers and facts surely pointed to this, which I tend to agree.

Energy provides time and employment. When people are employed, they can lift themselves out of desperate poverty. There are probably exceptions to this, but life is generally better when people have good work. Affordable and accessible energy is difficult to achieve. Converting energy is expensive, this is why renewables are seen as a solution because they eliminate the fuel part of the economic equation. I know all of you that have played Power Grid understand this idea!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Lidingo Speakers Corner

An extra entry to empty my brain of thoughts.....

The afternoon sun covered the red bricks of the buildings and pathways. People walked around with shopping bags, nodding to each other in greeting or stopping to glance in a shop window. Lidingo centre was busy. A man in a suit picked up the microphone perviously set-up by his campaign workers and began to speak. His voice echoed off the shop/apartment buildings making people turn their heads.

As a candidate for the Social Democrats, he reassured the afternoon crowd that his party will continue doing the right thing for the country (the Social Democrats are in power and currently their lead is growing smaller). When he finished his speech, he invited the bystanders to ask questions. During the time I was observing, about 4 people accepted the invitation and drilled the man with their questions. Thus the public debate began.

Lidingo centre is a mixed use area with everything a small town needs. If you can picture three long 4 story buildings with apartments on the top two floors and shops on the bottom . The three buildings snake around a bus stop and public park with a square in the middle adorned by a fountain. A public library, grocery stores, computer stores and the famous System Bolaget (liquor store). Around the outside is a cinema showing the latest Hollywood and Swedish flicks. All of this and more only a 15 minute walk away or a 5 min bus ride! Oh sweet suburban life!

Usually in large cities an extensive public transportation system covers the ground for mobil citizens. Stockholm does well when it comes to transporting its people. A 3 line metro system with transport nodes connecting local buses and intercity train stations complete the people-mover system. Each metro station has its own flair and theme, richly decorated with modern, abstract and local art. It is quite a site and worth a visit to each station. My school is located on one of these stations, but it is mostly decorated by billboards.