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The Sarmatian Protopope

his desires inscrutable but surely base

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Solar Roadways, etc
I've been thinking about solar panels a lot lately, not sure why. (Probably because I've been reading a lot of apocalyptica, and thinking about energy and technology trends).

A coworker sent me a link to the Solar FREAKIN' Roadways! youtube video. Which is an exuberant info video about the Solar Roadways Indiegogo project.

So the video is awesome. But I was immediately thinking, wait, so, what's the downside here. Cause it seems way too interesting and promising.

And the first question that popped into my mind was -- the manufacture process is key here. I wasn't quite sure about what was involved in the process of solar cell manufacturing, but I vaguely remembered various doom-prophecying analysts saying that solar tech at the moment involves too many rare metals, so is not scalable, etc.

Taking a look at the project's FAQ page did not fill me with confidence.

Q: Are you using rare earth metals in your Solar Road Panels? Will there be enough? Will it be toxic?

A: "Neither of us have expertise in this area, but we plan to hire a materials engineer who does to help us. [...]"

Yeah, see, that did NOT sound promising to me. "A materials engineer"? If the fundamental limitation to manufacture is rare elements, that aint gonna cut it.

So I shrugged and moved on.

But kept thinking about it, in the back of my mind. And eventually, pulled up some Wikipedia.

First, I looked at solar panels and their manufacture. Huh! Well, that's not so bad. There's a ton of different methods, and many of them involve just silicon crystals. And there's a virtuous cycle there, the more panels are manufactured, the more research and optimization is done, the cheaper each one becomes. Well, ok.

My next thought was - copper. Are we not facing a 'Peak Copper' sort of scenario (again, vaguely remembering some analyst or other)? Pulled up that page.
Fascinating! So, the US is actually the second largest producer of copper in the world. Another factoid that caught my eye was - copper is ridiculously highly recyclable. And that more copper goes onto the market (in the US) from recycling previously made copper, than is mined. Neat! And that some unlikely high percentage of all the copper ever mined in the history of humanity, is still in circulation. So, promising..

And lastly, I was thinking about lithium, and batteries. (This was relevant and amusing since I was riding in a Prius hybrid at the time). Even if we get the solar panels thing down, how are we going to build enough high capacity batteries to power enough transport, to matter? Pulled up a page on lithium and mining. And again! Not too bad. I had no idea that much of it is extracted from brine. And that there's plenty of evidence that we'll have enough lithium, as a planet, to build a ridiculous amount of Prius-sized batteries.

I figured I'd share my thoughts and findings. Since, while not a cure-all for our energy problems, the situation was at least slightly better than I thought.

(Also, I pulled up the Indiegogo page for the 'Roadways, today. And it surprised me -- just a few days ago, they were at like 20% of their goal. And now, it's fully funded and then some.)

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My issue with the solar roadways is that the bumpy surface seemed like it would be extremely painful and dangerous to ride a road bicycle on. Lumps the size of split golfballs? No thanks. And it didn't seem like the glass surface was textured with anything -but- giant bumps. I bet in the rain it's very slick. And in places with no rain, it would get very dusty and become inefficient, if not inoperable. Not sold on the idea.

Ew, golfballs huh? I missed that part. I assumed they'd be much smaller bumps. (Something like these things, which I find at the end of most sidewalks here: textured_sidewalk.jpg

Honestly, the texture of the glass surface is the easiest part, in this whole endeavour. I don't know about our capacity for mass solar panels, as a civilization, but I do think we can texture glass correctly (to be nonslip).

I'm extremely skeptical of this working in all but the most dense, carefully coordinated urban environments.

Roadbuilding has been a discipline under active development for thousands of years, and the materials science that goes into running a standard US highway up a hill and down it again is quite complicated. There are around ten different layers of material that go into building a road that doesn't fall completely apart in a few seasonal cycles, and those materials vary with such rarely considered factors as "what's the nearest to-hand source of asphalt, relative to this chunk of terrain we're on?"

A casual drive around Chicago in the spring, after the rains and snow and salt have chewed the crap out of the highways, will be instructive to these guys think. :D

Edited at 2014-05-30 04:23 am (UTC)

Oh, interesting! (I'm kind of intrigued now, to check out more about US highway construction, especially hills, like you say).

I completely agree, though, that highways (especially sloped ones) aren't really the ideal use case here. I could see it much more valuable as people's driveways, and suburban sidewalks, first and foremost. Maybe parking lots and some city sidewalks.

As far as the salt goes - I think the idea here is that since they're self-heating, they won't need salting.

Hold the phone. I must have missed that in the presentation ... the author actually claims that these things will absorb enough energy during the winter to melt the seasonal snow?

Here, take a quick gander at this. http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/climate-weather/atmospheric/road-salt.htm Thanks to the magic of chemistry, salt lowers the freezing temperature of water significantly, meaning that for the cost of transporting and dumping the salt, you can prevent a road from icing over for days or weeks at a time - depending on the drainage - with no additional energy input. That is pretty darned handy, and salt is ... well, there's a lot of it around. :D

Heh heh, yes, that was one of the claims there. I just assumed they meant that since the road will be connected to the main electrical grid, it'll be able to heat up the road mostly on external power (since I agree, no chance of absorbing enough in winter. And what would it do at night, etc).

Also, this thread came up in conversation over dinner last night, and Kerry asked something that kind of stumped me:

"Why would we want to go tearing up perfectly good roads? It's not like we're low on space for solar panels. Besides, in any urban environment, street level is just about the worst place to put solar panels. For at least half the day, most of the streets will be in the shadows of buildings. That's why we put them on rooftops. Why would we change that practice?"

Yeah, I agree about the shadows part.

(As far as tearing up roads -- that's what we do every year, anyways. You know how it is in the midwest and new england, winter and construction season.)

Well, the idea of using the roadways seems a bit off to me, but there are some other concepts described there that I am very intrigued by.

Consider a box of circuitry that can be attached to any solar panel. The box draws a miniscule amount of power directly from the panel itself to run the logic inside. It's got three ports with standard interconnects - two with sockets that happen to match the shape of a USB port, so if the user has USB cables sitting around, they can use those to construct the network, or if they have a USB device that needs charging, they can plug that in to any node on the network and the box will charge it.

By stringing the boxes together and attaching them to solar panels of varying size, shape, make, model, etc, an end user can create a solar array of their own design. For outdoor use they'd use waterproof cables that match the USB socket standard.

They could set something up that works in their back garden, on their roof, on their porch. Hang it out the window of an apartment. Something that folds up. Something that hangs off a bicycle. Something they can deploy on a camping trip, to charge their crap and their car battery in an emergency, then roll up. Spend a hundred bucks on a panel, then next month or next year spend a few hundred more.

The key is, the boxes can be daisy-chained from one panel to the next in as long a sequence as needed, or in a tree pattern using the one upstream socket and the two downstream sockets. Attach a battery anywhere on a node and it will charge the battery when it can, then draw from it if it needs to. It's an ad-hoc power grid that any reasonably intelligent ten-year-old could assemble.

The trunk node snakes inside the house and goes to a box not unlike a UPS that spits out normal household 110. The big power spikes get handled by the normal power line, but everything is assisted by the battery-backed input of your trunk node. Give it an 802.11 chip and some clever firmware and you could monitor the whole tree from your phone.

So basically, a little at a time, I could casually construct my own household solar power solution, tailored to my budget and my terrain, and scale it from "let's charge my phone" all the way up to "let's dry my clothes and charge my electric car" without interruption.

Who is working on this?

Edited at 2014-05-31 01:48 am (UTC)

Huh! That setup does sound pretty rad!

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