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Friday, January 27, 2006

Open standards, patents and society

Our constant endeavors to create luminary products bring us in contact with others in the space who constantly harp on patents, registered designs and IP accumulation as the key to building value. While we will do what we have to do to grow the company a deeper look at the IP regime and information revolution that make all this necessary is called for.

The structure of a free market economy is fundamentally geared toward demand side. The supply side exists to predict and position functional, economical, socially gratifying products to meet this demand. This implies a surplus economy (enough capital for multiple entities to work at different approaches to the same problem) high purchasing power in the catchment. It also implies the ability to identify or create a need, design, execute ,test and distribute the same choreographed with a marketing blitz and awareness campaign. To me this is sociology at its finest. I sometimes think Kavin Care (of sachet shampoo fame) has better practicing sociologists than the JNU !

In such an economic eco-system abundant and cheap sources of power are a given. So is depth of market and geographical spread. All these factors are more or less natural and could have been found in the Souks, Santhai, Bazaars world over for millennia. The modern twist, a child of the industrial revolution, is the patent or exclusivity right that was created to protect the investments of innovators from the assault of the me-too manufacturers. As mechanized manufacture destroyed the artisan system of manufacture, some other institution had to enter the economy to substitute for the trade secret mechanism provided by the Guild system and to induce capital into the system especially in expensive stuff like open ended domain R&D. The competitive advantage of nations and corporations can be measured in what they are willing to gamble on creating a 'better mouse trap'. As the better mouse trap kills off the current mouse trap (and destroys somebody's business and investment) the system is a race to the bottom unless some protection is granted to the innovator. Hence a patent is a very socialist tool invented to protect innovation from less encumbered capital and in the end social progress in the technological mode.

The key obviously is to protect only true innovation and not create a tool that can be exploited cynically to profit off the innovations of others. This seems to be the current state of affairs due to the complete undermining of the US patent system (and the others as well) by a professional IPR lobby. The recent fiasco with the blackberry demonstrates how the granting of patents for things like software concepts, business models, life forms is retrogade and represents the victory of cowboy capital over the conventional socially bound capital. The GNU movement was all about this. It was indeed prophetic of Richard Stallman to predict this logjam decades earlier. While capital is the engine of civilization, the social context is its foundation. All information cannot be treated as equally patentable and prior art should be well researched before the grant of a patent. The qualitative definition of innovation will continue to dog patents, but ridiculous stuff can easily be culled. Also it is important to have open standards to balance the effect of patents. But for Linux, Microsoft will be much stronger today. We will have more blackberry fiascos.

Fortunately the space that we work in does have a lot of room for patents but mostly in the semiconductor material area (think gallium nitrate level of innovation) and the packaging area. The good part is that the luminary space has enough prior art to keep all but the most sound patents out (though people have tried to patent even heat sinking of LED's in luminaries, which is incidentally a mandatory requirement as per the lamp manufacturers specs :) There will be some genuine innovations in the luminary categorization space as LED's allow new forms of lighting to be conceived by their special characteristics. So while a stable and fair patent regime can genuinely stroke innovation, it is a lot better to have none instead of a flawed system that does the opposite.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Solar telecom solutions

One of the silent revolutions that has been taking place is the penetration of solar PV solutions for the police force. All state police forces have their own wireless radio network that is supposed to work across the state. The same is true of the state owned transport corporations etc. These bodies typically have their own repeating stations to re-transmit the signals across the state. These repeater stations are typically on top of natural elevations (devarayanadurga is a good example near tumkur) where grid power may or may not be available. Further the unreliability of grid power in such locations forces autonomous power generation.
What all this is leading too is that the cops are switching to Solar/Diesel based systems to run the stations. From the information that we have it appears to be very successful and they have to use the DG only during the worst of the monsoons to augment the solar setup. Admirable given the red tape in the system.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Limiting factors: 2nd level factors that no one thinks of

The advent of evacuated glass tube technology in Solar thermal installations got me thinking on the factors that motivated this change from copper. The real reasons for this are actually quite simple. The cost of copper. Copper has become so expensive that companies are looking at any options that can replace it. This got me thinking of how vital copper is and how our entire electrical infrastructure is completely dependant on this element. It appears that most of the industrial processes as well as installations will come to a standstill without copper.
The scientific americal has the following to say
Copper is used in everything from automobiles to ordnance. Copper allows electricity to be generated, transported and conducted to the various outlets in a modern home. Copper is also relatively scarce compared to other metals like iron or aluminum that make up a good portion of the earth itself. So copper serves as an excellent metallic bellwether for potential future resource scarcity, according to a group of researchers who compiled data on its extraction, use, recycling and discard to estimate whether there is enough copper available to make a developed standard of living available to all the world's people. The short answer is: no.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

London Hospital gets LED floor & wall

A picture tells a thousand words. The tech specs can be found here.

LED driven TV's make their debut

This is the wave of the future. The CRT is being consigned to history. The beauty of these devices is that they are direct digital sets that use micro-mirrors to render the image. Read more here.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Greetings Fellow bloggers. I has been several months since i started blogging my thoughts on Energy and Lighting. Would appreciate some feedback and comments on what your thoughts are and any suggestions on the content you would like to see on this blog.
i can be reached on shiv(at)alternate(dot)co(dot)in.

15 tech trends for 2006

Popular Mechanics has a feature article on 15 new concepts in science and technology which will see public action in 2006. Among those included are

Modular Pebble-Bed Reactor : Which will make nuclear reactors cheap to make and a lot safer as core meltdown is not possible.

Nanoparticle Batteries : Which will charge from 0 - 80 % charge in about a minute.

Micro Fuel Cells: That use methanol as fuel and have twice the energy density as Li ion.

Coal Gasification : Which will benefit countries like India and China apart from the US in cleaning up coal generation and make coal generation a environmentally viable technology for a while yet.

are technologies of interest to the energy community. The storage accumalator technologies are getting exciting and will give a tremendous boost to renewable generation in just being more efficient.
The whole article can be read here.

Ion Engine breakthrough reports The European Space Agency and the Australian National University have successfully tested a new design of spacecraft ion engine that dramatically improves performance over present thrusters and marks a major step forward in space propulsion capability. Read more here.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

China marching ahead in renewable energy

Rajesh Jain reports on Chinas plans on renewable generation here.

MNES trendsetter achievements

The march of research on renewable energy in India is slow but steady. This years list of achievements from the MNES site.

Coal powerplants to Plant power !

The term power plant may now have a new twist with a startup focused on generating usable electric power from living trees. This is i guess environmentally and ethically better than chopping them down to burn them for the energ content. While this technology is in its infancy and has many who scoff at it, it still remains a very interesting proposition. Read more here.

Power from green slime

A new end to end technology using Algae, yes the same slimy stuff you find in ponds, is the core of an effort to clean up carbon emissions from power plants, produce bio-diesel and ethanol. Read more here.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Power House: a domestic energy solution

The Deccan herald reports on a new experiment by KREDL in micro-hydel generation from your overhead tank. While this is a low returns solution, it is a bit like a turbo charger, in that it allows part of the energy associated in pumping water to the tank to be recovered from the gravity flow of the water. Should be very useful if the BWSSB and similar water supply corporations can fit this in their area distribution overhead tanks. The power generated should at least keep the tank installation lit. Read more here.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Annual Security FUD fest

A look at this year's CERT OS vulnarability list and the press rants about it. What is clear is that Windoze is as vlunarable as ever and M$ as usual is relying on slanted press coverage to 'creatively reinterepret' the CERT reports to its advantage. Newsforge reports
Everywhere you look in the trade press today, you'll find glowing misrepresentations of US-CERT's latest annual summary of vulnerabilities discovered in 2005. If you take the summary findings at face value, you would likely conclude that Windows -- with 812 reported vulnerabilities -- is a much safer operating system than something called "Unix/Linux," which totaled 2,328. The US-CERT summaries have become the fodder for a FUD festival, and many scribes sympathetic to the Microsoft cause go out of their way to make sure the real picture never emerges.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pumping electricity from the sea.

Slashdot reports that Sea Solar Power Inc., run by three generations of James Hilbert Andersons, has developed a solar power technology that does not fluctuate with the weather, but is available constantly. Their solution is to harness the solar energy stored in the sea by tapping the thermal gradient that exists naturally between the surface and deep waters, using a reverse refrigeration cycle. The modeling and testing done by the Anderson family over three generations since 1962 predicts that the cost of energy generation through this method will be within a price range comparable to nuclear, coal, natural gas, and other contemporary grid power plants. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, or OTEC, was invented in 1881 by a French scientist, Jacques Arsene D'Arsonval. Read more on this interesting technology here.

LED Lighting and disruptive innovations - 2

The core of modern industrialized civilization is the availability of reliable and affordable electrical power. The core difference between village and urban life is the availability of relatively reliable power to energize the devices that define modern living. For most urban residents in India even a 2 hour power cut is difficult to digest and come summer sales of UPS systems that allow uninterrupted power spurts. The scenario in rural areas is far different and power if available is of poor quality. Further power cuts are frequent and long in duration.

A 21st century India requires universal and affordable electric power to enhance the life of rural folk and allow them to express their potential. There are however serious caveats in realizing this mission. The generation capacity of the Indian Grid has to go up dramatically if power is to be supplied to every village in India. Even if the generation were stepped up it will still be impossible to provide grid infrastructure everywhere and the money required to do this will be in the lakhs of crores year after year.

This century has already seen the rapid industrialization of developing countries led by China, India, Brazil and South Africa. It is a fact that if the combined populations of these and other developing countries aspires for a developed country level of energy use, we will need two more earth’s to supply the required fossil energy resources. The constantly rising prices of petroleum is an indication of this trend and will soon reach such alarming proportions that our current economic structures can be upset. The way forward is obviously provide the functionality at a lower energy consumption to help a larger population enjoy the fruits of technology without damaging the environment or fighting wars over resources.

A two pronged approach using modern technologies can combat these problems and reduce theunservedd areas . The first of these will be to dramatically increase the generation of power from renewable sources that have minimum impact on the environment. While sources like conventional giant hydroelectric projects are renewable, the impact that they have on the environment and human populations living in thesubmergee areas make them controversial and decidedly nonecoo-friendly. The key sources of renewable power in this century will be Solar power (Photo-voltaic, thermal and direct solar), wind (on shore, off shore, micro) , Micro and Mini Hydel and efficient bio mass based power sources. India has the fortune of being located in the best zone for solar generation and has aa potential for thousands of MW of power.

The second key approach will be to innovate and create standards for more efficient electrical devices like lights, fans, refrigerators, industrial equipment etc to better utilize the energy generated. After all a watt saved is a watt earned.

The power generation, transmission and consumption patterns in India are antiquated and a lot of savings can be realized by using better technology equipment in all cases. Some revealing statistics below show the potential for savings.

Lighting consumes about 15 % of the total energy generated in India. In developed countries this number is 7-10 % made possible by the use of more efficient luminaries and control gear. This 5-8% savings will amount to a nett savings of about 5603 MW ( India’s current generation is about 112058 MW according to Central Electricity authority 2004) per annum. This is a huge amount of power by any standards and will allow the existing generation to take care of a lot more demand. The actual savings by individual offices and homes can be much more as lighting consumes almost 30-50 % in such settings.
There are similar examples is all fields where electric energy is consumed.

The lighting sector is a all pervasive presence in modern human habitations and as demonstrated above has a huge potential for energy savings and one of the most important technologies that is emerging is the use of high efficiency, high brightness LED (Light Emitting Diodes) lamps for luminaries. LEDÂ’s are electronic devices and are currently advanced enough to provide usable light in all visible colours of the spectrum at very low wattages. Internationally, experts have endorsed the use if LED lighting as the future of electric lighting. An additional benefit of LED lighting is that it is very solar and wind energy friendly as it can operate off the generated low voltage DC directly without any conversions. This ability and the resultant solutions have the capability of revolutionizing both urban grid driven lighting and providing innovative solutions for autonomous and distributed rural lighting.

The efficiencies of LED’s are a factor higher than incandescents and better than most fluorescents. This is however only the beginning as Led technology is advancing rapidly and an average increase of 20% in light output is being achieved annually. As with all other electronics, the cost of the items is falling annually with volumes rising. LEDÂ’s present us with a unique opportunity to make sure that every home in India is lit and the overall productivity of the country is raised while consuming less power. This trend has already begun in the west where LED based lighting is entering more and more areas of lighting. A further advantage of LEDÂ’s is that they dont contain any Mercury or Lead and are relatively benign environmentally. Mercury and Lead pollution are major issues with conventional fluorescents and are inadequately addressed in countries like India where disposal is not scientific. In fact most people just throw it out with the garbage and cause widespread mercury pollution.
Like all other electronic components LED’s are physically rugged, have a long life and do not fail by fusing like conventional lamps. An average LED has a rated lifespan of about 100,000 hours of usage and this practically means that the luminary will last between 8 & 11 years before it needs to be replaced. Overall the long duty cycle and low power consumption of LED’s make them a very attractive solution for many lighting applications.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

LED Lighting and disruptive innovations - 1

People often ask me why I quit a cushy software job and am struggling to bring LED lighting into India. The reasons are actually quite simple and not that altruistic. There is a huge market out there for lighting that is currently being met by fossil fuel based energy sources. This is unsustainable and will have to move to modern electric lighting. The problem is that no Indian provider (public or private) is going to wire up hamlets and villages as it does not make economic sense to get these people on the grid for the $10 worth of electricity they will consume per month. Not maintain expensive grid infrastructure in inhospitable terrain. What we are trying to do with LED lighting is what mobile phones did to telecom in India. Leapfrog the tough bits and provide light using sustainable energy sources. This is where LED's step in. When most urban consumers come to us for LED solutions they tend to compare the output to flourescents if not metal halide lamps. The same guys come running back to us when they have a longish grid disruption and their UPS runs out of juice ;-)

I have been touring small villages and up country locations, one net lesson that I learned is that rural folk are very keen on sustainable light sources that give them adequate backup to cook, clean, study without having to give it a second thought. The reception we get for our products is phenomenal and even entry cost is often not a consideration. As my friend Atul Vora (a hard core bean counter and CFO if there ever was one) points out, people are not going to adopt eco-friendly technologies in urban settings till they pay true costs. The true cost of grid power is hell of a lot more if the costs of environmental damage caused by hydro and thermal generation are levied on the consumer. What we are seeing is a gradual privatisation of distribution networks where consumers are being billed with greater accuracy.

A case in point is the entry of private players into Delhi for power distribution. The first thing that they did was to replace the mechanical watt/hour meters with digital ones of lower least count. Instantly the home owners saw a huge rise in the billing as even the resistive load of wiring showed up as consumption. Net effect was the jump to save power. No one in this country is going to save an erg of energy till all this subsidy business is stopped and the government imposes a green tax on energy in-efficient electrical products. If farming at the current scale is not possible without subsidies in power, then we should change the methods of farming, not provide free power. All we are doing in this model is postponing the inevitable and creating an unsustainable population on fossil-fuel based agriculture. Think of what would happen when (not if) power tariff shot up 300 %. Famine is the word for it. Our entire 'green revolution' is based on hybrid seeds that need oil derived fertilizers and pesticides and coal derived power to pump water. The politicos who allegedly support the rural masses are driving them into a deeper hole.

to be continued...

Breakthrough in solar PV generation using Nanotech

Nanotechnology dramatically increases the efficiency with which photons are converted to electricity, driving down manufacturing costs while increasing efficiency.NanoHorizons, Inc., an emerging leader in applied nanoscale materials and solutions, announced today that it has received a notice of allowance from the US Patent Office for its innovative nanoscale photovoltaic cell design. NanoHorizons' design enables dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency and breakthrough reductions in fabrication costs. Brighter, more efficient Organic LEDs (OLEDs) are also made possible. Read more here.

Look ma, no PV solar light

Fibre optics coupled with some innovative collecter design allows sunlight direct to carry the light of the sun indoors. The hybrid device allows sunlight (IR filtered) to be 'piped' to the destination required inside a building. This is a great thechnology and will augment PV based and grid based electric lights using opto-electronic sensors to balance the load. Fact of the matter is that bulk of the energy consumed for indoor lighting is used during daylight hours especially in office complexes. This device is a great example of clear thinking and use of modern materials. While factories and industrial sheds typically have some daylight harvesting mechanism's in place this should make it easier for line of sight constrained locations to enjoy the same benefits.

Urine powered battery for health industry

When i thought i had seen it all, this pops up ! Scientists in Singapore have come up with a urine powered battery that produces 1.5V potential difference on .2ml of urine. This new battery will be the perfect power source for cheap, disposable healthcare test-kits for diseases such as diabetes. This research was published Aug. 15 in the Institute of Physics' Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.Led by Dr Ki Bang Lee, a research team at Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) have developed a paper battery that is small, cheap to fabricate, and which ingeniously uses the fluid being tested (urine) as the power source for the device doing the testing.

Wow !

Energy issues with instant water heaters

A number of 'instant' water heaters are in the market and are usually picked up by those who are space constrained or budget constrained. The problems with this technology are complex. The key is that it is probably more energy efficient than storage water heaters as there is no storage thermal leakage (even thought the tanks are insulated). The instant heaters however load the grid during a very specific time frame and add to the total peak grid power that is to be generated. From the indian perspective one can say that the peak water heating load is between 7 AM to about 9 AM. As the penetration of electric heating of water is rather low compared to other industralized nations this is OK. With increasing adoption of storage heating technology, this problem will result in the all so familiar 'load shedding'. As ever energy costs are the only way to tackle this problem. The way i see it, preheating of water using solar thermal storage technology augmented with instant electrical heating is probably a great way of addressing this as the preheating will reduce the overall load on the grid.

Milestones and Trends in Renewable Energy -- 2005 and 2006

Sterling D. Allan of Pure Energy Systems News has a review article on the trends in renewable energy for the year past and the year to come. The good news is that Wind and solar are catching up with grid supplied energy in terms of cost/KWh. The gap is narrowing partly due to advances in renewable generation technology as well as the rising cost of conventional generation. Read more here.