Sunday, November 9, 2008

Plasma Rockets, Magnetic Shields, Fuel Cells, Electric Cars, and Turning Garbage into Electricity

The first stage of a magnetoplasma rocket has passed a full power test. This is a step along the way to developing a rocket that can bridge the efficiency vs. thrust gap that exists between very efficient but low thrust ion rockets and high thrust, low efficiency chemical rockets. Rockets of this type could potentially reduce transit time for future Mars missions.

So we may soon be able to travel between worlds faster, but there is more to space travel than just distance. Radiation from solar flares and other sources can be very bad news for astronauts if they are unprotected. Carrying large amounts of metal (or even water) as shielding imposes a big weight penalty on spaceships. Cue the potential development of the very Star Trek sounding magnetic shields. The idea is to use a magnetic field to protect space craft the same way the Earth's magnetic field protects us. There are weight, size, and power consumption issues to work out, but there always are when you talk about space travel.

Speaking of power concerns, Toshiba has stated they will be delivering a commercial product powered by fuel cells by the end of March. Speculation says it's a cell phone. Should that be accurate, I will be very interested to see what people think about a cell phone powered by methanol. Given the continuing (so far unfounded) fears of electromagnetic radiation from phones, I can't imagine making their batteries flammable will go over well with everybody.

ArsTechnica reviews the Chevy's go at a plug-in electric car, the Volt. I don't really have an opinion on it, but it's nice to see them trying. (Well, I do wonder who in their right mind decided the interior console needed to be white, but that's hardly a comment on the engineering of the thing.) Hopefully development will survive the current financial situation.

Finally, up in New Jersey, they are starting to use landfills as a source of electricity. Methane released by decomposing waste is captured and used to generate power. It's not what I would call a final solution, but it is an elegant way of mitigating a couple of problems at the same time.

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