Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Out of Africa: Goodbye Solar, Hello Nuclear Power

There is a curious, even strange and demented, technological trend underway in Ghana, a west African country which recently made a major oil discovery and boasts large hydro-electric resources.

Ghana wants to go nuclear.

The country may be bathed in sunshine. It may even have potential supplies of wind and thermal power. And Ghana can essentially "harvest" enormous amounts of electricity by vastly reducing "transmission losses" from its venerable Volta dam complex.

And yet despite all these energy supplies, real and forecasted, Ghana's government is training hundreds of people in order to staff a planned nuclear-power plant that would be the country's first.

The planned plant would open ten years from now.

But well before 2018, nuclear power could become a serious distraction in Ghana, consuming brains and funds that would better go towards grabbing the "low-hanging" fruit in the country's energy mix.

Ghana isn't the only African country talking up nuclear power. Recently, Nigeria stunned the world when its government announced a desire to install many nuclear-power plants around its densely-populated country. Nigeria went so far as to strike an accord with Iran last month over assistance in developing nuclear power.

The logic behind Nigeria's nuclear embrace is peculiar: The country's broken infrastructure means frequent electricity shortages. Even gasoline pumps often go dry because of the poor condition of the country's refineries.

If Nigeria can't run an oil-refinery, why is the government even contemplating the much more challenging task of running nuclear power plants?

Well, maybe Nigerians are simply jealous of nearby neighbor Ghana. The country has a better record of managing infrastructure than Nigeria. Yet Ghana hardly seems a candidate to join the list of nuclear power countries. Ghana has barely mastered the challenging "arts and crafts" of road-building. Internet communication remains very costly and afflicted by reliability problems. The country is home to perhaps 500 world-class engineers, not enough to meet current needs no less than demand caused by a new nuclear plant.

As it happens, I am in Accra, Ghana's capital, as I write. With a presidential election less than 90 days off in Ghana, the public isn't thinking about nuclear power. In the past, Accra's tiny environmental community has staunchly opposed an African nuclear delusion. From sizing up Accra over the past 10 days, my bet is the opponents will rise again.

Flying the Rails at 360 kph

Air France-KLM, Europe's leading air carrier, is going electric. Forget about visions of battery-electric airplanes. EV technology has its work cut out just commercializing battery-electric cars, let alone trying to catapult hundreds of passengers into the air. Instead, Air France is recognizing the energy-efficiency and convenience of commuter trains and hitting the rails.

Last week the Paris-based airline launched a joint venture with European bus and train operator Veolia to offer high-speed rail service between London, Paris and Amsterdam beginning in 2010 -- the year that EU laws will open international rail travel to competition. For technology they are eyeing a new generation of high-speed coaches that's nearing completion: the Automotrice à Grande Vitesse or AGV under development by France's Alstom.

The AGV is faster, more efficient and can haul more passengers than its predecessor, the TGV. In speed tests in 2007 the AGV hit 574.8 kilometers per hour -- within spitting distance of the speed record set by Japan's maglevs. Alstom expects the AGV to cruise at 360 kph in regular service -- about 40 kph above the TGV's limit.

Italy's NTV is building rails for the first AGV's, which are expected to begin rolling there in 2011.

The AGV setting the world speed record for travel on (as opposed to above) rails:


Being in three places at once through blogs and social networking


Be careful what you wish for. Havenâ''t we all thought how great it would be if we could somehow manage to be in three places at once? Well, thanks to a mostly decent internet connection, social networking tools, and the willingness of others, mostly journalists, to open up their trains of thought to the world, last Tuesday I sort of made it happen.

I was attending the TechCrunch50 conference on 8th Street in San Francisco, listening to product launches from startup after startup. Nearby, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Steve Jobs was getting ready to take the stage to tell members of the press and analysts about the next big thing coming from Apple. And down in San Diego, another group of startups were doing demonstrations of their never-seen-before high-tech products at DemoFall. I wanted to know what was happening everywhere, immediately. Actually, I wanted to be in all three places.

So I started opening up windows in my browser. I found two group Twitter feeds from the Demo conference; one a selected group put together by CNET, another anyone-can-join group set up by EventVue. Twitter is what blogs were last year, that is, the fastest way to get information from any event. People using twitter pop out 140-character descriptions of exactly what they are doing, hearing, or thinking at the moment; they can do this via computer, blackberry, or cell phone. Individually, these â''tweetsâ'' donâ''t mean much, but put a bunch of them together and you quickly get a sense of the buzz around an event. So by watching the Demo twitter feeds I could tell when I wasnâ''t missing much or when something really exciting was happening that I should check out by going to the demonstratorâ''s web site.

Then I added two windows to watch live blogs from the Apple event. A lot of bloggers live blog, but I figured two was enough to make sure I was getting the straight story. I chose Gizmodo and Digital Daily.

I also opened up a Twitter feed of TechCrunch50 itself; Iâ''m not sure why, I was there in person, but it was available and itâ''s kind of fun to track what the person next to me is thinking.

Of course, with all this taking of information I was doing I thought I ought to be doing a little giving. I started twittering myself. (Spectrum editors do twitter, go here to follow us.)

This all set up, I turned my eyes to the live demos in front of me. Every time the demonstrator paused I updated one of my browser windows, during the reset time between demonstrators (about two minutes out of every nine), and whenever a demonstration was leaving me completely cold, I quickly scanned all my feeds and perhaps got out a tweet of my own. I pretty soon had a mental map of what was happening in all three places. I felt energized, unbelievably productive, enamored with all the technology at my fingertips.

At the end of the day I was completely, utterly, wiped out, but still operating in overdrive. Turns out that spending a couple of hours trying to be multiple places at the same time takes the same mental and physical toll as a Jolt-cola-fueled all nighter. This is a dangerous condition to be in, fortunately, the only victims were my bank account (I got a $30 parking ticket because I put my money in the wrong parking payment machine) and my teenâ''s newest shirt (I pulled it out of the washer in shreds, realizing belatedly that it should have been hand washed or drycleaned). I donâ''t think Iâ''ll be trying to be three places at once again anytime soon.

Is Balanced Reporting in Nanotech Possible?

If a major newspaper like the New York Times had to cover a story about the physical nature of the planet Earth, the headline might read â''Earth Could be Round; Opinions Differâ'', or so surmised one of the Grey Ladyâ''s columnists, Paul Krugman.

Thus is the state of journalism today; any argument, no matter how outlandish, no matter how unsubstantiated by facts or science, is given the same weight in the careful, but often ludicrous, balancing act that goes into today's news coverage.

I couldnâ''t help but think of this when I saw this Public Television segment on nanotechnology. The video came to my attention because it contains an interview with former NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, and for that reason it is worth a watch.

But what got me curious was that they decided to use Sheila Davis, executive director the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), who I blogged on here as the counterpoint to the â''Nanotechnology is Goodâ'' argument.

She did not disappoint. In her first sentence, she described the field of nanotechnology as a â''gold rushâ''. I am sure that all the struggling nanotech-focused companies out there wish that description were true. And she added, â''No one is thinking about what happens at the end of the life of those products.â''

Erâ'¿I think a lot of people are thinking about that issue. In fact, she is immediately contradicted in the segment as Nano-Tex, even though they are not producing nanoparticles, devotes a lot of its resources to determining the safety of its products.

But that aside, itâ''s interesting how Davis seems to be arguing here that the issue is not about the toxicity of nanoparticles, but about the safety of the products that are enabled by nanoparticles. Then argues later that the companies in the Silicon Valley are not obligated to meet any regulatory standards for these products.

There are a number of regulations for introducing any product into the US market. You can argue that the regulations do not address the use of nanoparticles, but you canâ''t say they are not subject to regulations.

So, this just goes to show, if you scream and yell, and write lots of material arguing that the â''world is flatâ'', you too will get coverage in an article describing Earth.

Energy Trade Magazine Scores Palin Mini-Coup

EnergyBiz, a nicely done and growing trade magazine founded several years ago, features an opinion column in its September-October issue by vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in which she makes the case for a big new natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48â''â''the biggest construction project in the history of the United States.â'' In particular, Palin explains the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which she got enacted immediately upon being elected governor. It established a competitive process for building the pipeline and limited the stateâ''s financial liability in the project to $500 million.

Palin may have blinked yesterday when ABCâ''s Charlie Gibson asked her whether she was really ready to be U.S. commander in chiefâ''actually she blinked several times even as she told Gibson the thought did not make her blinkâ''but her role in aggressively reorganizing the Alaska pipeline project arguably is the most substantial item in her resume and her finest moment so far. Though questions have been raised about some aspects of her role in the project, indisputably itâ''s an important projectâ''not merely of huge interest to Alaska, but of vital interest to the whole country.

Not to put a fine point on it, the Lower 48 need all the natural gas they can get. For every amount of electricity produced, natural gas generates half as much carbon as coal; this means that replacing any coal plant with a natural gas plant reduces carbon emissions from that plant by 50 percent. Natural gas also is a very attractive home heating fuel, superior to oil from most technical perspectives (cleaner, lower maintenance). Increasingly natural gas is used to fuel buses and fleet vehicles, from New York to Los Angeles, and as T. Boone Pickens has been pointing out, it can be a very attractive fuel for private cars as well. Not least, if dreams of a â''hydrogen economyâ'' ever comes to fruition, natural gas will be needed to feed the fuel cells.

In addition to pitching the pipelineâ''in an article she obviously wrote well before she had any inkling she might be on the Republican presidential ticketyâ''Palin argues for Congress to â''help Americans and Alaskans by streamlining access to [oil and gas] offshore resources.â'' She says that while ANWR may contain 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 10 billion barrels of oil, there are probably 24 billion barrels of oil offshore and perhaps 104 trillion cubic feet of gas. Thatâ''s enough gas she says to meet the entire U.S. demand for four and a half years.

SmartGrid Leader's Preemptive Strike At Patent Gamesters

U.S. patent law provides no shortage of pitfalls for innovators -- a story Spectrum has tracked closely over the years (for a recent roundup see Keeping Score in the IP Game). Electric power utility Southern California Edison (SCE) -- one of the leaders in the development of smart metering -- isn't waiting for trouble. To ensure that IP shenanigans can't freeze innovation in smart metering, SCE decided to file a sort of defensive patent claim on behalf of the entire industry.

Paul De Martini, SCE's VP for Advanced Technologies and one of the 'inventors' on the claim, explained the move in an interview yesterday with industry newsletter Smart Grid News. The filing broadly covers the business practice of using Advanced Metering Infrastructure or AMI to communicate between a utility and its customers -- a bidirectional exchange that is widely expected to boost the quality and efficiency of electric power systems. De Martini says that SCE and other utilities have been held hostage by patent infringement claims for pre-AMI technology and wanted to ensure the same would not occur with AMI. Should SCE's patent be granted, he says the company will extend a worldwide nonexclusive royalty-free license to anyone interested.

SCE is also supporting an effort by IEEE, EPRI, and others to develop a SmartGrid Open Source Repository to push new AMI concepts into the open domain.

If you want it from the horse's mouth, read SCE's presentation on Open Innovation. SCE is also soliciting comments via, and will be presenting a web-based news conference on the move on September 19th.

More on China-Pakistan Nuclear Cooperation

This one is for the geeks. Last week I reported on an article in the latest issue of Physics Today magazine, written by a former senior defense official in close collaboration with a former director of technical intelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, reporting that China gave Pakistan the blueprints of the first atomic bomb China had tested in 1966 and helped Pakistan test its own first atomic bomb at the Chinese nuclear test site on May 26, 1990â¿¿eight years before Pakistan openly â¿¿went nuclear.â¿¿ The article also contained a number of other startling assertions, including the claim that China operated a so-called fast-burst reactor to test bomb radiation effects.

Today, over lunch at the Union Club in New York City, the author of the article, Thomas C. Reed, stood by those allegations and filled in background. Reed, a nuclear physicist who started his career at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1950s, served as Secretary of the Air Force in the mid-1970s, straddling the Ford and Carter administrations. He also held a number of other high-level national security positions in the Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations. He was closely allied politically and personally with Reagan.


Reed confirmed that China provided Pakistan bomb information starting in 1982, having itself obtained valuable assistance from the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs during the 1950s, that it let Pakistan do its first test at Lop Nur in 1990, and that it also let France do hydro-nuclear experiments at its test site during the 1990s.


In a hydronuclear test, a bomb containing less than a critical mass of fissile material is detonated, to evaluate the performance of non-nuclear components. Reed says that France conducted such tests in Algeria in the 1950s, in the open, as did the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan; more responsibly, the United States and China did hydronuclear tests in steel containers, to prevent dispersal of radioactive material.


According to Reedâ¿¿s article, Danny Stillman of Los Alamos initially got the attention of the Chinese when he asked them whether they had a fast burst reactor, which they did. The question clearly implied that the United States had such a reactor, which I had not known, even though Iâ¿¿ve covered nuclear matters for thirty-plus years. I was not even aware that reactors had been designed deliberately to simulate the impact of nuclear explosions on nuclear weapons (although seventeen years ago I published an article in MITâ¿¿s Technology Review reporting an expert consensus that the basic cause of the Chernobyl catastrophe was a superprompt criticalityâ¿¿in plain English, a nuclear explosion).


How could a reactor be designed to go superprompt critical without actually exploding like a bomb? After all, as the great physicist Hans Bethe observed after Chernobyl, once a reactor goes superprompt critical, no control rod system can react fast enough to prevent an explosion.


Stillman says the general idea was to build a reactor with medium-enriched uranium (say 20 percent), with a void in the middle in which a nuclear weapon could be placed, and a configuration that enabled controllers to literally disassemble the reactor by having parts of it drop down. That way, a runaway criticality could be brought under control--not merely by removing control rods, which would not by itself sufficeâ¿¿but by actually inducing the reactor to fall apart. Even so, when a nuclear weapon was placed in the void and the reactor started to go supercritical, a â¿¿pre-scramâ¿¿ would be initiated, so that at just that point control rods already would be dropping and the reactor would be already disassembling. The experiments were very hazardous and had to be timed at a scale of tens of microseconds.


During the 1960s, Stillman says the United States built three such reactors, Kukla, Fran and Super-Kukla, named after a television series (they never got to Ollie). The point of this? To study how an intense radiation burst from enemy weapons would affect the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. In other words, these tests were conducted in the context of nuclear and missile defense efforts.

They weren't all dogs in the TechCrunch50 demo pit


The demo pit at TechCrunch is the territory of the also-rans (Iâ''m intentionally not calling them losers) and the pay-to-plays. That is, a subset of the 1030 applicants that werenâ''t picked to go on the main stage, got the use of a spot in the demo pit for one day, as long as they paid to send two representatives to the conference. Other companies paid for tables directly; conference sponsors got the biggest tables.

Still, I found a fair number of companies in the demo pit that were more interesting and potentially useful to me than their more fortunate brethren presenting on the main stage.

Some snapshots from the demo pit, in no particular order: This company out of Australia has made a tool for spellchecking websites. Given what I see daily online, websites definitely need spellchecking. I tested it on the IEEE Spectrum website, and it blasted through 100 pages in about 90 seconds, easily separating real errors from odd spellings that were potential errors but more likely tech jargon. The bad news is that once it identifies the errors, you need to actually go into the web site and fix them manually, which takes a lot longer than 90 seconds. Still, itâ''s a great start.

Cards Off. This technique for preventing internet shopping fraud is probably too complicated to catch on, but itâ''s a clever combination of web applications and hardware, in this case an RFID keyfob. As I understand it, the idea is that you give your personal credit information to just one company, Cards Off, and they handle billing for multiple merchants, who now donâ''t have to worry about the security of their own web sites. When the package is delivered, you confirm that you ordered it by allowing the delivery guy to scan your little RFID keychain. Putting RFID in the loop does make it more secure, but it seems unlikely that UPS and Fedex drivers are going to take this extra step for a third party. Maybe instead the company should market the service straight to the package delivery companies.

Twonq. This online reservation service for small businesses is a simple idea, and I canâ''t wait for it to catch on. While big businesses can afford to run their own online reservation service, Iâ''m still spending way too much time playing telephone tag with my haircutter, dentist, manicurist, etc; Iâ''m actually going to evangelize this service to them, it could make my life so much easier.

NutshellMail. This web-based service helps you keep track of multiple email accounts by way of summary messages, that is, on a regular schedule it sends a list of new messages on your secondary email accounts to your primary account; you can click on links in that email to retrieve the original message. I love this idea, because I donâ''t necessarily want to consolidate my secondary accounts by feeding them all directly into one place, some of them get a lot of junk, but I do need to check them occasionally. NutshellMail promises to make that process easier; Iâ''m getting in on the beta as soon as I can.

Apprema. So for some reason I have quite a few friends that regularly gift me with virtual plants on Facebook. I havenâ''t set up my virtual garden on the site (Iâ''m barely keeping up the watering on my real-world garden off site), so I reject these gifts, feeling as if perhaps Iâ''m violating some kind of etiquette. Fortunately, these virtual plants are free, but there are virtual gifts on Facebook that cost real money, a concept I donâ''t understand at all. Appremaâ''s approach is to let people on social networks pay small amounts of real money for real gifts, like Starbucks lattes, that can be easily regifted or redeemed offline. And groups can easily join together with micropayments towards a group gift; I can definitely see highschoolers chipping in 5 cents each towards a happy birthday ice cream at Cold Stone. I did try the Apprema website, and itâ''s a little buggy, but itâ''s early days.

Caption: TechCrunch50 organizer Jason Calcanis walks his dog through the demo pit, followed by actor Ashton Kutcher.

Remote Back Up for Consumers

When my 500 GB Seagate Free Agent drive bit the dust yesterday, I just shrugged my shoulders. Another piece of hardware brought low by my bad electro mojo. Or is it the oil in my skin? Then I panicked. My life is on my laptop and now I've got no back up of my documents, financials, photos, movies, anything. After calming down, and perusing the Times, I found today's entry in the Bits blog about Carbonite, a start-up back up company. Perfect, except that they don't support Macs yet. But Mozy, an EMC company, does. So I downloaded the Mozy software, paid $4.95 for one month's worth of storage (unlimited capacity), and started uploading the precious contents of my hard drive to some data warehouse somewhere in...somewhere. Only drawback: the initial upload of 70 GB of data will take approximately 9 days. Thereafter, the automatic updates should take mere minutes or hours. It's no Time Capsule, but it's not $500 either.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More